Conventional Beauty, and Other Sucker’s Bets

As people who oppose beautyism, I think it is useful to us to separate out two concepts which are usually bundled up into the words “attractiveness” or “beauty”. The first is conventional attractiveness or beauty, defined by the extent to which one possesses the set of qualities portrayed as desirable in our culture and society. The more of these traits one has, the better one fits into the pre-defined (but ever changing) sociocultural mould. This is one idea bound up in the concept of “attractiveness”.

The second is, for me, the more useful meaning of the word beauty. It is the property of being found to be, or experienced as, attractive or beautiful by oneself and/or by others. This consists of yourself or others experiencing positive feelings about your appearance, and I think it could be broadened to encompass other aspects of your person. Despite what most of us think, this concept and the sociocultural checklist concept are not the same things at all. I think the checklist definition should rightly be called “conventionally attractive” and should never be confused with real attractiveness.

Clearly, not everyone is conventionally attractive. Not everyone ticks most or even half of the ticky boxes required. However, it’s no contradiction to say that someone who is not conventionally beautiful is still actually beautiful. Even if you don’t consider yourself beautiful (this can take time if you grow up being told you’re not), the odds are someone else out there does. In fact, the number of people who are not considered attractive by anyone on the planet is vanishingly small and asymptotically approaches zero. If you are not conventionally attractive, then by definition (in the limit) you are unconventionally attractive. Thus, everyone is attractive. QED.

Now maybe more humans are attracted to humans that fall within the bounds of conventional attractiveness. Nobody knows for sure because there’s no control group of people who haven’t been exposed to any beauty ideals at all. But maybe. We unconventionally attractive people might therefore have fewer suitors. But that doesn’t make much of a difference: how many people can you really be romantically involved with at once? Like, 4 or 5 at the absolute maximum, am I right?

So, if you (like me) are not conventionally attractive: congratulations! Being unconventionally attractive can be very liberating! It has pushed me to learn to find myself attractive on my own terms, rather than on my culture’s terms. Some conventionally attractive people have also had this epiphany, of course, but I think it would have taken me longer to learn this if I were conventionally hot. I find it freeing to feel that I am attractive if I decide I am, rather than relying on the extent to which I fit into a sociocultural ideal. This means that no matter if I wake up tomorrow with a blemish or if I put on weight, I’m still mentally considering myself attractive, and that’s really what matters.

Of course, being unconventionally attractive has serious downsides in a culture obsessed with conventional beauty and prone to beautyism. This is especially true for women: we are consistently told by our media and many around us that we are only worthwhile if people (usually cis-het-male people) find us beautiful or want to have sex with us – and that if we fail to tick even one box on the cultural attractiveness list, then nobody wants us.

Obviously this is bullshit, but it’s hard to shake. It’s everywhere, not least because it’s profitable for the cosmetic and fashion and diet industries. And if we move in social circles filled with people who believe this message, the message can become self-fulfilling: the people who do find us attractive will be deterred from voicing their feelings for fear of being judged by their peers. In addition, recent studies show that all genders rate women wearing makeup as consistently more competent and smarter than those not. There is no point denying that people who are not conventionally attractive are discriminated against.

Clearly, conventionally hot people have it easier in the sense that the world will treat them better. The same way white people, male-presenting people, thin people, able-bodied people, cis-gendered people, straight people, neurotypical people, and rich people are treated better. Clearly, it is the unequal treatment that needs to be changed, not the existence of “unattractive”, queer, poor, disabled, non-white, and other “other” people. But as people, and especially as women, we are repeatedly told that we have to be hot to be worth anything.

So, like other marginalised groups, “unattractive” people can too often find themselves in the awful trap of looking around at a world that treats them badly and concluding that this is the treatment they deserve. They may feel that they have to change if they want to be treated better, and if they can’t change, they have to excel at literally everything else to the exclusion of any personal desires or individuality. This isn’t just about unconventional beauty – almost all marginalised groups are sold the idea that conforming to dominant culture will lead to some kind of undefined happiness from which they are currently excluded. Of course it’s a lie. That’s not how oppression works or how happiness works – and on some level we might even suspect we’re taking a sucker’s bet, desperate as we are. Faced with a system that erases us for being different, we want so badly to be accepted that we participate in our own erasure. That’s part of how kyriarchy works.

As a result, it is my experience that the hardest part about being outside of the socially approved mould is not how other people treat me but the way I treat myself – though I want to be clear, this starts off largely as a result of their treatment. The worst part about not living up to that golden ideal is that you believe that the suffering you experience as a human being is caused, or at least exacerbated, by how you look. You begin to believe that if only you were conventionally beautiful, you would not be lonely. You would be affirmed and wanted and validated. You would like yourself. You would feel loved.

The reality is, however, that while you would be treated (perhaps) a little better by strangers, the things that cause us the most pain as human beings would remain unchanged. If you do not like yourself “ugly”, you will not like yourself when you are “attractive” – indeed, you will probably keep moving the goalposts out, demanding more and more conformity to the ideal before you believe you can be happy. If you don’t feel worthy now, it won’t help you achieve lasting self worth if everyone on earth woke up tomorrow in agreement that you were the new social beauty ideal. Yes, it would probably be exciting and fun. But ultimately it’s not something that can radically alter who you are. Who you are is more about you than about other people. The bottom line is that if your life is not fulfilling you now it will not fulfill you when you look like a movie star.

As far as I know, based on my experience, the only way to like yourself is to put in the hard emotional and psychological work of dismantling the cultural and personal psychological bullshit that tells you you’re not worth anything. In my experience, you can get rid of those awful thoughts and feelings – not all the time, but much of the time. And you can go from being absolutely obsessed with attaining conventional attractiveness to being able to build a core of self worth completely free from it, a core that can survive almost anything. (I know. I did it.)

But you don’t do it by being conventionally beautiful. That’s an external quality that changes based on the whims of those around you, and that’s not the horse you want to back. People who buy into the idea that being conventionally hot can protect them from pain, from rejection, from fear and loss are taking a gamble with extremely bad odds. The wealth of human experience strongly suggests that nothing can protect you from that. That is the human condition, and conventional hotness is nothing but one more Faustian bargain.

The Princess Bride, whatever its faults as a movie, got this right: “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.” This doesn’t just apply literally, and in this case, I’m not just talking about the industries that make money from beauty products. I’m talking about a culture that gets you to do things by promising you happiness and self worth. This is really no different – in fact, it might even be more insidious. Don’t let your culture sell you the idea that if you can just conform hard enough, you’ll be happy. Your culture is not just asking for your money when it makes you this offer. It is asking for your life.

Yes You Can! Why Enthusiastic Consent Is Easier Than You Think

Maybe you’ve heard about this totally revolutionary brand new idea called enthusiastic consent. It’s all very theoretical and complicated but the basic idea is that you should ask someone whether they would like to do something with you before you do it together, and you should not proceed unless you get an enthusiastic yes.

I understand that in the olden days – which is where some people still live in their minds – it was considered perfectly fine to proceed with any old thing without any explicit consent. Then we started saying “no means no” to make everyone understand that you have to stop if someone says no to having sex with you at any point. Yes, at any point! Like, halfway through sex! Even then! Shocking, I know.

Most people in our culture now understand this, at least in principle. Some people like to derail conversations about this by bringing up this one time they heard about when someone said no, but they really did want to have sex (Hi John Marsden! I see you there making it easier for young men to accidentally rape young women! I SEE YOU.). Frankly I don’t care about the 1% of cases in which adhering to the rule “no means no” causes people to miss out on eventually-consensual sex. A rule that works 99% of the time is a good rule. And when it works, it prevents rape! We’re gonna err on the side of preventing rape here!

Unfortunately, accepting this principle is not really enough. The first problem is that some people don’t understand (and perhaps don’t care) that consent is so crucial, and so if it is easier to make it look like they had consent than it is to actually get consent, those people will opt for the former. They make it their goal to avoid getting told no. If they never ask, maybe the other person will never say anything! Boy, that sounds like fun. What could be more fun than having sex with someone who may or may not be enjoying themselves? It just adds that extra level of excitement: “Does this person actually hate being in bed with me? Ooooh it’s turning me on just wondering about it.”

Okay, I’m obviously joking, but some people apparently don’t mind whether their partner is secretly hating it and would say no if asked. Or perhaps these people are so terrified of being told no – so convinced that they will be utterly destroyed by rejection – that they simply cannot bear to ask. The second story sounds more tragic, but the effect is the same. As long as they don’t hear the no, things are fine for these people, and that means they’re willing to risk committing rape.

The second problem is that if all the focus is on the no, then the person whose consent is being solicited is the person saddled with the responsibility. If we’re dealing with people who don’t want to ask or don’t think to ask, the problem gets worse, because then that person has to say no of their own volition, without prompting, with no idea whether it is even safe to say no or not. That is much harder even than saying no when your partner/s ask for your consent. It is clear now that “no means no”, while a good starting point, puts too much onus on the person who wants to say no. It’s not good enough.

By contrast, the “yes means yes” principle, coupled with an understanding that we want our sexual partners to be happy, enthusiastic, and honest about their desires, is a solid foundation on which to build good practice around consent. If you are committed to this paradigm, you will ask, offer and discuss sex activities with your partner/s often. You don’t get yes once and then assume you have a free pass on that thing forever: your partner/s might be into something one day, but not the next. They may be into one thing, but not into another thing that seems similar to you. Ask them what they want and encourage them to be honest with you. Similarly, don’t expect your partner/s to read your damn mind: tell them what you feel like doing or having done to you right at that moment. Does this sound like a recipe for great sex? It is!

So, I hope the merits of enthusiastic consent are clear. Unfortunately, some people find it really hard. Like, really, really hard. Twin prime conjecture hard (okay maybe not that hard). Even just trying it once appears to be too difficult. But here’s the truth: enthusiastic consent is not hard. If you can communicate with adult humans (heck, you only really need to be able to talk to one adult human), you can do enthusiastic consent.

But suppose you do find it hard. How can you make it easier? First, you need to get used to talking to your partner/s in bed – I mean, have an actual conversation. Ditch those hollywood ideas about perfectly synced-up effortlessly sexy uber-romantic simultaneous orgasms, and throw out those literary-fiction tragic-wah-wah deep and serious silent sex tropes. (I assume you already know that pornography in general is also an appalling model for your sex life.) You’re not in a movie and you’re not characters in a book. You’re just people! Talk to each other!

You can start small: during sexual activities, say things like “That feels great” or “I really like this” or “Does that feel good?” or “That’s really hot” or “A little to the left please!”. If you are really uncomfortable speaking during sex, you can even start by only saying positive things – then you can be virtually certain that you will always get a good reaction from your partner/s. Start saying positive things often, and you will normalise the practice of speaking to each other in bed. Once talking in bed becomes normal, it then becomes easier to speak up when you would prefer something be done a little differently, or you dislike an act altogether.

Once you can express both positive and negative sentiments about your activities in bed, you can quite easily level up to asking what your partner would like before you engage in any acts. When it feels normal to talk and to openly express your feelings in that environment, engaging in a dialogue with your partner is a natural next step. It becomes easy to ask your partner if there is anything they would like or offer a suggestion of an activity you would like to try – while giving them ample opportunity to express their feelings and preferences.

Second, things will be a lot easier if you do the mental work to demystify sex in general for yourself. Sex is not any more magical than anything else in the universe, nor is it even particularly mysterious. Sex will not validate you as a person if you do it well enough – nor can it invalidate you as a person if you need lots of guidance and gentle instruction from your partner/s. In fact, nothing in life can validate or invalidate you as a person because the concept of validation itself is nothing but a dangerous illusion. The sex you have is not part of some grander narrative about your life – indeed, there is no grand narrative about your life! It rarely works well to approach sex as though it is something you have to get right. Even worse, treating sex as though it is a mystical grail quest that will imbue your life with wonder and specialness if only you can do it perfectly is a recipe for disaster.

Sex is an activity that you do with other adults by mutual agreement because you enjoy it. There is no higher aim. Your partners are not complicated puzzles that you have to decode – they are people, and if you want to know what is up with them, you can just ask them. If you’re not looking to get pregnant, then sex literally has no function other than to be enjoyable for the people doing it. Talking about ways to make a fun shared activity work best for everyone involved is sensible and emotionally healthy behaviour. How has it become strange to discuss sex with our partners? How could this be silly or bad? It makes no sense!

Keep reminding yourself of that. Keep dismissing negative thoughts that tell you to be ashamed or embarrassed of speaking about what you want. Again and again, your brain will throw these cultural messages up at you, and every time you must decide to reject them. Reject the idea that good sex means nobody talks about what they want. Reject the idea that your partner/s “shouldn’t have to ask”. I had to do a lot of work around this one, but remember: your partner is well aware that they are in bed with you and not Charles Xavier. Reject the fear that you sound silly when you talk about sex or during sex. You don’t sound silly: to anyone who is worth your time, you sound great. Good, giving partner/s want their partners to enjoy sex, and if you tell them what you like, that makes it a lot easier.

Finally, the practice of enthusiastic consent should be coupled with the understanding that saying no (or “not today” or whatever) is allowed, and that receiving a no in response to a request will not destroy you or doom your relationship. Make sure that the no goes well for all parties, and in so doing, you will prove to yourselves that you will all survive it. The person giving the no should never shame the other person for their request. The person receiving the no should never pressure the other person or make a dramatic show of being disappointed.

When handled with respect, honesty and caring, this situation really isn’t a big deal. We don’t always all want the same things all the time, but with a little communication, we can usually work something out. You have a much better chance of resolving things productively if you can speak openly about your feelings to the people who matter to you. This applies to life in general. Welcome to enthusiastic consent!

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Slave Leia?

I am a dyed-in-the-Tauntaun-hide Star Wars fangirl, and I have a confession to make. Slave Leia, by which I mean the geek culture meme that resulted from the original scene, makes me uncomfortable. For a long time, it has made me uncomfortable in a way I couldn’t articulate. But I think I’ve distilled out what is lurking beneath the surface of the Slave Leia cultural phenomenon, and unfortunately I think it’s problematic.

I want to make it clear that my problem is with the cultural trope only, not the individuals who dress up as Leia in this costume or the individuals who find it attractive. There is simply no way for us on the outside to know how those individuals are framing the situation. I believe that it is possible for individuals to choose to wear a Slave Leia costume with full awareness of the issues of sex slavery and with healthy reasons behind their decision to don the costume. Only each individual really knows whether their behaviour has healthy or unhealthy motivations, or whether they are being mindful of the context of their actions. Since I can’t know that, I’m not concerned with that. What concerns me is how this trope plays out in the aggregate, in geek culture as a whole. That’s what I think is problematic.

First, the meme makes me uncomfortable because the in-narrative context of Slave Leia is the humiliation of a female political leader. I’m not suggesting that wearing a bikini is humiliating – there’s nothing microproblematic about wearing a bikini. I am suggesting that being forced into slavery, forced to wear a bikini and shackled to a chain is supposed to be humiliating. It is, by the way, clearly sub-textually coded to be sexual slavery – as evidenced by the damn bikini.

Now, in the narrative Leia actually strangles Jabba with the very chain he uses to imprison her, which makes this – in the text – actually a bit of a triumph for Leia over those who seek to dominate and subjugate her! Go Leia! Cast off the shackles of oppression! I believe therefore that an argument can be made for the integrity of the scene itself, although I have seen no evidence that George Lucas really thought about it.

However, this triumph is not what the subsequent Slave Leia meme is about. The Slave Leia meme is about those glorious 150 seconds of bikini-clad stateswoman on a leash. Nobody draws sexy pictures of Leia strangling Jabba. Nobody makes anatomically-creative statues of Leia vanquishing her captor. Regardless of what Fangirl Blog says, when you see women in Slave Leia costume, you don’t see them strangling their oppressors (in fact, you see this instead). People make statues and fanart of Leia sitting in shackles. Virtually no references are ever made in media or in geek culture to the empowering part of the scene.

The focus is always on the gold bikini and the manacles and the chain – the tools of Leia’s forced submission. The focus is on how sexy Leia looks in the garb she was forced to wear as part of her subjugation. If this bikini were Leia’s personal choice for a pool party or a beach holiday, it would not be problematic for geek culture as a whole to collectively salivate over it and elevate it to a trope. But it isn’t her choice. This bikini is the outfit chosen for Leia by the males who forced her into slavery.

I also want to note that the real-life context of the original scene with Carrie Fisher is also all kinds of skeevy. From the Star Wars wiki: “Fisher herself also found the costume to be difficult to endure and referred to it as “what supermodels will eventually wear in the seventh ring of hell.”[11] Fisher also said it was particularly revealing to the cast and crew around her.[6][12] In particular Jeremy Bulloch, the actor who played Boba Fett, could see more of the actress than she was comfortable with.[12] In an interview years later, she said, “if you stood behind me you could see straight to Florida. You’ll have to ask Boba Fett about that.”[6]”

The meme of Slave Leia pretends to be coyly ignorant of its origins. We as a community like to pretend it’s just popular because it’s a “girl in a bikini” moment. But it if you stop and think about it for half a minute, you should see that it is way more problematic than that (as I just outlined above). So either we have a fanbase full of people who have a strong aversion to any form of introspection, or we collectively have an alarming willingness to gloss over the fact that the costume is a reference to sexual slavery.

I say the meme “pretends” to be ignorant of the origins of Slave Leia because it seems to me that everyone knows the slavery aspect of the whole thing is not a neutral force here. Some of the cosplay doesn’t bother to pretend Leia is in control in the meme version of Slave Leia. Indeed, again from the Star Wars wiki: “During a broadcast from Celebration IV, Spike television personality Nicole Malgarini (wearing the Slave Leia costume herself) referred to Fite [webmaster of Leia’s Metal Bikini] as the “slavemaster”[19] and “the pimp ofStar Wars.[19]” Oh great, that’s not harmful at all. Nothing problematic about that. Let’s trivialise slavery by flippantly referring to it as though it’s sexy rather than one of the worst things a human being can experience. Oh and while we’re at it, let’s flippantly refer to “pimps” as though that’s a big damn joke too. Good job everyone.

Let’s be honest with ourselves: the Slave Leia meme is macroproblematic. We have a situation on our hands where one of the biggest nerd fantasies apparently involves at the very least a reference to forced sex slavery. It is concerning that the geek community doesn’t appear to give this two seconds of thought, and when we do, we find it appropriate to joke about slavemasters and pimps. If Slave Leia is seen as the hottest female geek cosplay costume, this literally means that the community recognises as the hottest girls those dressed up like sex slaves.

Leia may have strangled her oppressor in the movie and emerged victorious, but geek culture couldn’t care less about that. In our world, Leia never got out of the damn bikini at all.

Fauxgress Watch: “Born This Way”

My fellow queers and assorted allies: we have got to stop using arguments like “We were born this way!” and “Being queer is not a choice!” as our first line of defense against heterosexists. It might sound like a neat little trick to pull on these people: if we can’t help being queer, then it’s not fair to punish us for something we didn’t do. But in reality, every time we use this argument we are actually weakening our own position. Shouting “Born this way” from the rooftops is the opposite of progress.

The first problem with relying so heavily on this idea is that we don’t actually know for sure if we are born this way. Yes, there does seem to be a growing body of evidence for the idea that sexuality is partially – perhaps largely – genetically determined. But this evidence is very recent and we should not overstate the level of understanding we currently have of how human sexuality works. It is not at all out of the question that our understanding of how human sexuality develops will be radically altered in the future. (Some people clearly do experience their sexuality as fluid, in any case). Relying on the idea that we are “born” queer as the major pillar of our defense is too risky: if one day we get strong evidence that queer sexuality is heavily influenced by easily-alterable environmental factors we are fucking screwed.

The second issue with this argument is that it’s a version of the naturalistic fallacy. The fact of some or all people being genetically coded to do something doesn’t make that thing right or wrong! After all, there is some evidence that serial killers and paedophiles are born that way. To claim that being born with a genetic propensity for something means that thing is good is simply fallacious. It doesn’t fucking matter where a trait comes from, what matters is whether the trait is net good or bad! Argue for or against something based on its merits, not based on its origins.

But I think the most serious problem with this argument is that it reinforces the idea that we need an excuse to be queer. As a result, using this line subtly supports the idea that being queer requires excusing in some way. Don’t use it. Don’t allow straight people to generate an understanding of queer sexuality that sounds like: “Well, of course Bob wouldn’t wish to be queer, but he was born this way. I guess we better give him equal rights – poor Bob, he just can’t help it. We shouldn’t punish him for something he didn’t choose!”

Meanwhile the real reason that you shouldn’t punish Bob for queerness is because there’s nothing wrong with it! It’s the same reason you shouldn’t punish Bob for liking begonias or wanting to become a lawyer. Not because Bob can’t help his desires but because his desires are fine. That is what we should be stressing. The strongest arrows in our quiver here are not our genetic coding, but the fact that a person’s sexuality is nobody else’s business, and that there is nothing wrong with being queer. Focus on the impact that queers embracing their queerness has on ourselves (usually positive!) and on others (none) rather than where it comes from (we don’t know for sure).

There is no serious ethical framework in which consensual same-sex romantic or sexual relationships between adults qualify as moral wrongs. (Obviously I am not counting Abrahamic religions as serious ethical frameworks: any moral code that has a rule against working on the sabbath in the Top 10 Naughty Things list but no rule against slavery or rape in that same list cannot be taken seriously.) Utilitarianism in all its forms finds no fault with any romantic or sexual relationships between mutually consenting adults, and finds fault instead with the bigots who harass these adults. Deontological Ethics and Virtue Ethics – when divorced from Abrahamic religious dogma – cannot find any problem with queer sexuality and can find substantial problem with heterosexism.

Another strong dimension to the argument – much stronger than the “born this way” defense – is the idea that people’s sexualities are not the business of the state or of civil society (when expressed between consenting adults). We would do well to focus on the substantial danger societies are courting when they decide that individuals’ private, consensual arrangements are the business of society or the government. That danger is real and affects everyone: it wasn’t that long ago in some nations that all oral sex was a criminal act. But when you offer an excuse for your sexuality, you are subconsciously caving to the idea that it is other people’s business. After all, if your sexuality is not their business, then where it does or does not come from is also not their business.

Queer people do not need to offer excuses or defend their own existence. If one could become queer by simply waking up one morning and deciding to become queer, for a day, for an hour, it wouldn’t change the fact that being queer is just as good, as valid, as worthy, as being straight. Providing straight people with reasons or excuses for our queerness simply confirms their suspicions that our sexuality really is their business and that we need to justify our existence to them. This allows heterosexists to continue to believe there is something superior about heterosexuality, and that being queer is a deviation from some kind of normal or default sexuality. There isn’t and it’s not.

We don’t need to justify ourselves to anyone. We don’t need a reason to be queer. Maybe we were born this way, maybe we weren’t. Maybe sexuality is fluid for some people and not for others. It’s totally irrelevant either way. The message we need to send to heterosexists is not that our sexuality was foisted upon us and that they should be “tolerant” and “understanding”. The message is: our sexuality is perfectly valid and none of your business, we offer you no excuses, and we are never going away.

Catherine Deveny Is Not Our Ally

A lot of Australian feminists, atheists and social justice people seem to think that Catherine Deveney is our ally. Somehow she has convinced them that she cares about social justice, and is in some way passionate about changing sexist cultural narratives around women and minorities. Well, she’s not. Frankly I have no idea what her motivations are or how she really feels about anything. But anyone who really cared about altering cultural narratives around women would never post this tweet:

I think I’m going to vomit. I see the quotation marks, so perhaps Catherine didn’t say this herself, but rather overheard it…and thought it so witty, so relevant, so erudite, that it just had to be shared with the people of twitter. That’s right, the whole “woman as semen receptacle” trope is apparently something Catherine Deveny finds worth repeating. If one were especially charitable one might hope that she was tweeting this comment to “call it out”…alas that she didn’t, you know, call it out. She appears to endorse it or think it’s funny or who knows what.

But, just in case you still thought Catherine Deveny might be your ally, check this out:

Nobody – let alone someone who appears to believe themselves a feminist – makes a goddamn rape joke on my watch without getting called the fuck out. Oh did you think this rape joke was okay because it references a MAN getting raped? Well it’s not fucking okay. The rape of men in prison is a serious issue, not the punchline in a joke.

Let me say this again, since it bears repeating: It’s never okay to make a rape joke. I don’t care who you think you are. I don’t care if you’re Gloria goddamn Steinem, anyone who makes a rape joke and appears unbothered by subsequent complaints about it is not our ally. In the social justice community, we do not take other people’s horrific experiences and turn them into one-liners for our own amusement. That’s what the other guys do. We stand against those who co-opt of the pain of marginalised groups, such as the victims of sexual assault and rape, for cheap laughs. Remember? Remember that, everyone?

Did I mention that Catherine Deveny is extremely sizeist and perpetuates negative, inaccurate and harmful stereotypes about fat people? Well she is and she does! Here’s an old tweet from April:

Shall we play fat hatred bingo with this? I think so. Let’s see now: Ignorant and incorrect assumptions about a person’s eating habits based on their body size? Check! Dismissing a person’s opinion because of their body size? Check! Treating fat people as the butt of a joke rather than actual human beings? Check! Pure, unprovoked, needless mean-spiritedness against a socioculturally marginalised group? BINGO.

This is bullying. Oh yes, pseudo-intellectual lefty atheists, I know you hate to think of yourselves as bullies. But if you pull shit like this, you’re a fucking bully and you know it. If this is your idea of a funny joke, you don’t have your sense of humor correctly installed. “Jokes” like this hurt real people – I’m one of the people this tweet hurt (in fact I am in recovery for an ED and when I saw this tweet I freaked out) and there are likely countless others. Jokes that ridicule marginalised groups and reinforce stigma-laden stereotypes and assumptions are tools of oppression. Furthermore, if you don’t understand the intersectionality between misogyny and fat hatred, you have some homework to do.

Catherine Deveny is actively dragging the social justice community down.  Heck, she could be the poster girl for how to pay lip service to feminism while actually undermining the damn movement. She needs to be called out for her behaviour. It’s already starting to happen on twitter, and not a moment too soon. We can’t let her get away with pretending to speak for us any longer.

Catherine Deveny is not our ally.

J’accuse? On women who “collaborate” with the patriarchy

Being highly aware of sexism can be a tough gig. I sometimes wish I could turn off that nerve-jangle I get whenever someone says “he throws like a girl” or “don’t be such a pussy” or “she looks like a whore”. It’s tiring to go through every day constantly weighing up how we want to react. More specifically, for women who wish to actively resist the patriarchy, making everyday decisions becomes complicated: do I shave my body hair or not? Do I wear makeup to cover my pimple? If I want to wear socially-coded “sexy” clothes, am I actually subconsciously wishing to gain heteromale approval? Once you’re aware of sexism, you can’t easily switch that awareness off.

It can become very tempting, as a result, for feminist women to resent other women who seem oblivious to these concerns. It is dangerously easy to feel that women who happily wax all their body hair off and diet themselves into the smallest size in the shop and pout at us from the cover of Sports Illustrated and flip their hair in L’Oreal advertisements are our enemies. If we aren’t careful, we start to think of them as collaborators. But it is absolutely crucial that we resist this temptation.

Too often, hyperfemme women are unfairly accused of collaborating with the patriarchy. Yes, it’s true that the more people adhere to social gender norms, the harder it is to destroy these norms. There is no denying that some women are doing it explicitly to get heteromale attention, thereby buying into social power structures – and reinforcing them. But a lot of women just genuinely like presenting in a socially-coded feminine way. And if that is so, then presenting in that way is not collaboration at all. It is ridiculous to demand that women curtail their self-expression to further the feminist cause, when the aims of feminism include making it safe and acceptable for women to express themselves however they like.

Worse, a lot of the denigration of hyperfemininity is actually sexist. We associate lipstick and pink with women (this century, anyway) and then associate women with “weak” or “inferior”; when feminism tells us to destroy that second link, we just leap to “lipstick and pink must be inferior”. A lot of social opposition to traits or clothing or activities that are socially-coded-feminine is actually unexamined misogyny.

So hyperfemme women are not “collaborators”. But there are women explicitly propping up sexist social structures. First, women who overtly push androcentrism as their chosen replacement for “traditional” sexism are actually reinforcing sexism. Androcentrism is the glorification of socially-coded male attributes, which is the thing that causes women to say “I can’t be friends with other women, they’re all backstabbing, catty bitches”. Or “Women are so boring, they’re obsessed with shoes and lipstick! I like to play Halo and watch football!” Or “Why do women care about their appearances? They’re so shallow! I get on so much better with men, because they care about real issues.” Or “Why do you have a problem with women being seen as sex objects? You sound like you just need a good fuck.” (Thanks, Olivia Munn). These ideas do prop up sexist social norms. They buy into ideas that socially-coded male things are great and socially-coded female things are pathetic.

Of course, this is not the only way for women to collaborate with the patriarchy. There is good old fashioned sexism being espoused by plenty of women. Sexist views do not magically become feminist when espoused by women. Women who say that we all need to return to traditional gender roles, and get women back to the kitchen, are being sexist. Women who slutshame are being sexist. Women who say that women should never appear in public with pubic hair, or leg hair, or armpit hair, or fat bodies, or masculine features are sexist. Women who insist that women should never go out in public without makeup? Sexist. The minute you start policing other women’s behaviour to enforce sexist social norms, you cross a line – then you really are a collaborator, no matter your gender. Women who endorse genderised tropes as mandatory behaviour are engaging in social control for the patriarchy. They are policing other women’s behaviour to ensure those women toe the line.

They are also policing themselves. So even though we recognise that sexist and androcentrist women can and sometimes do collaborate with patriarchy, we shouldn’t condemn individual women for their actions. To the extent that we can accurately identify genuine cases of collaboration, which is difficult, we should see it for what it really is for those individuals: a survival response in a sexist society. That doesn’t make the behaviour any less problematic. That doesn’t mean it’s a good outcome. But it does mean that the individual is not the core problem. She is stuck in a system that makes certain demands on her, and this is how she’s going to play it.

That sucks, but clearly on some level that’s what she feels she has to do. It’s not anyone’s place to tell individual women how to respond to their situations. Of course we can call out hurtful and policing behaviour when we encounter it. Indeed, if we are able to do so, we must do that. But we must also criticise social norms that demand these behaviours from women, and in so doing, we shouldn’t let individual women become collateral damage. Our sexist opponents hate the idea of allowing women to make their own decisions, free from social norms, free from community pressure, free from judgement. We need to be absolutely sure that we never collaborate with them on that.

How to be a fan of problematic things

I like things, and some of those things are problematic. I like Lord of the Rings even though it’s pretty fucked up with regard to women and race (any narrative that says “this whole race is evil” is fucked up, okay). I like A Song of Ice and Fire even though its portrayal of people of colour is problematic, and often I find that its in-text condemnation of patriarchy isn’t obvious enough to justify the sexism displayed. I like the movie Scott Pilgrim vs The World even though it is racist in its portrayal of Matthew Patel, panders to stereotypes in its portrayal of Wallace, and trivialises queer female sexuality in its portrayal of Ramona and Roxy’s relationship. For fuck’s sake, Ramona even says “It was a phase”! How much more cliche and offensive could this movie be? Oh wait, remember how Scott defeats Roxy, his only female adversary, by making her orgasm? Excuse me while I vomit…and then keep watching because I still like the rest of the movie.

Liking problematic things doesn’t make you an asshole. In fact, you can like really problematic things and still be not only a good person, but a good social justice activist (TM)! After all, most texts have some problematic elements in them, because they’re produced by humans, who are well-known to be imperfect. But it can be surprisingly difficult to own up to the problematic things in the media you like, particularly when you feel strongly about it, as many fans do. We need to find a way to enjoy the media we like without hurting other people and marginalised groups. So with that in mind, here are my suggestions for things we should try our darnedest to do as self-confessed fans of problematic stuff.

Firstly, acknowledge that the thing you like is problematic and do not attempt to make excuses for it. It is a unique irritation to encounter a person who point blank refuses to admit that something they like is problematic. Infuriatingly, people will often actually articulate some version of the argument “It can’t be problematic because I like it, and I’m nice”. Alternatively, some fans may find it tempting to argue “Well this media is a realistic portrayal of societies like X, Y, Z”. But when you say that sexism and racism and heterosexism and cissexism have to be in the narrative or the story won’t be realistic, what you are saying is that we humans literally cannot recognise ourselves without systemic prejudice, nor can we connect to characters who are not unrepentant bigots. Um, yikes. YIKES, you guys.

And even if you think that’s true (which scares the hell out of me), I don’t see you arguing for an accurate portrayal of everything in your fiction all the time. For example, most people seem fine without accurate portrayal of what personal hygiene was really like in 1300 CE in their medieval fantasy media. (Newsflash: realistically, Robb Stark and Jon Snow rarely bathed or brushed their teeth or hair). In real life, people have to go to the bathroom. In movies and books, they don’t show that very much, because it’s boring and gross. Well, guess what: bigotry is also boring and gross. But everyone is just dying to keep that in the script.

Especially do not ever suggest that people not take media “so seriously”, or argue that it’s “just” a tv show. The narratives that we surround ourselves with can subtly, subconsciously influence how we think about ourselves and others. That’s why creating imaginary fantasy and sci fi worlds that have more equal societies can be a powerful thing for marginalised people, who mainstream media rarely acknowledges as heroes. But even if you don’t think that media matters, there is still no reason to focus exclusively on unequal or problematic fictional worlds and narratives. If it doesn’t matter, why don’t YOU stop taking your media so seriously and stop fighting us on this? You with your constant demands for your narrow idea of “realism” (which by the way often sounds a lot like “show me naked skinny ciswomen, and gore”). If in your framework tv shows aren’t serious business, why does realism matter? Why can’t you accept that it would be totally cool to have AT LEAST ONE BIG MEDIEVAL FANTASY EPIC WHERE WOMEN AND POC WERE LIKE, EQUAL TO WHITE MEN AND STUFF. STOP TAKING IT SO SERIOUSLY.

Secondly, do not gloss over the issues or derail conversations about the problematic elements. Okay, so you can admit that Dune is problematic. But wait, you’re not done! You need to be willing to engage with people about it! It’s not enough to be like “Ok, I admit that it’s problematic that the major villain is a fat homosexual rapist, but come on, let’s focus on the giant sandworms!”. Shutting people down, ignoring or giving minimal treatment to their concerns, and refusing to fully engage with their issues is a form of oppression. Implicitly, you’re giving the message that this person’s feelings are less important than your own. In fact, in this case you’re saying that their pain is less important than your enjoyment of a book, movie or tv show. So when people raise these concerns, listen respectfully and try to understand the views. Do not change the topic.

Thirdly you must acknowledge other, even less favourable, interpretations of the media you like. Sometimes you still enjoy a movie or book because you read a certain, potentially problematic scene in a certain way – but others read it entirely differently, and found it more problematic. For example, consider the scene in Game of Thrones where Drogo rapes Dany (which he does not do in the books). One of my friends feels that it was portrayed like rape fetish porn, sexualising the act and Dany’s pain. But I feel that the scene focuses on Dany’s pain and tears in a manner that is not fetishising them (though even so the narrative is still totally fucked up because Dany and her rapist then go on to have a good, sexyfuntimes relationship…uh, no, HBO). I don’t agree with my friend’s interpretation but I recognise it as a totally valid reading of the scene.

Also, as a fan of problematic media, you need to respect the fact that others may be so upset or angered by media you love that they don’t want to engage with it at all. In fact, one of my best friends won’t watch HBO’s Game of Thrones because of the racism and misogyny. That’s a completely legitimate and valid response to that tv show, and me trying to convince her to give it another shot would be disrespectful and hurtful. If you badger others to see what you see in something when they are telling you it’s not enjoyable for them, you’re being an entitled jerk. You’re showing yourself to be willing to hurt a real person over a television show. That really is a sign you’re taking things too seriously.

As fans, sometimes we need to remember that the things we like don’t define our worth as people. So there’s no need to defend them from every single criticism or pretend they are perfect. Really loving something means seeing it as it really is, not as you wish it were. You can still be a good fan while acknowledging the problematic elements of the things you love. In fact, that’s the only way to be a good fan of problematic things.

Is Thor a feminist movie? (Yes)

There’s no easy way for me to break this to you, so make sure you’re sitting down: Kenneth Branagh’s Thor (2011) is a feminist movie. Okay, I admit that on the surface a movie about an uber-masculine hammer-wielding thunder god doesn’t exactly seem like fertile ground for a feminist reading. But it’s surprisingly subversive of the genre of action movies and an extremely sensitive portrayal of a group of human beings who are dealing with their own crap and other people’s crap and not doing very well with either.

Now, Thor is still vulnerable to the critique that applies to most movies in our culture: it focuses too much on the men’s stories and not enough on the women’s stories. I don’t deny that this is a problem. But where it does focus on women, the film portrays them as real, whole people with internal motivations, emotions and agency. This portrayal is virtually unique in the genre. Consider Jane, the physicist who, er, “stumbles” across Thor in the first scene and becomes his major love interest. Already, this is a departure from mainstream portrayals of women: she is a physicist, a profession that is socially-coded male, and she seems to be dedicated, passionate, and good at her job.

Not only that, but Jane is not your typical leading lady, who might mention her job once and then focus entirely on the leading man for the rest of the movie. No, Jane is obsessed with research and very focused on her career. Several times, she literally risks her own life and the lives of others to get data (I didn’t say she had her priorities straight!). In fact, she repeatedly says that her work is her “whole life”.

Basically, Jane is a highly intelligent workaholic – a kind of female character that is rarely portrayed at all, let alone as a person with emotions and agency. Even better than that, when she meets Thor, this doesn’t change. Jane is never punished in the narrative for being a workaholic – she never has the cliched epiphany that her career-obsessed ways were or are making her miserable, and she does not need to compromise on her workaholism to keep Thor’s interest (indeed, Thor even helps her get her data back).

Yes, Jane is Thor’s love interest, but even in that context she is portrayed as a whole, interesting person, to whom Thor is attracted because she is curious, bright, compassionate, and self-possessed. She is not just a McGuffin to make Thor want to defend Earth. We, the audience, see all of Jane and this implies that Thor sees all of Jane, not just her beauty. Consider by contrast the portrayal of Rachel Dawes in Nolan’s otherwise excellent Batman films, who exists mainly to look pretty, deliver moral lessons to Bruce, and get threatened by bad guys. Superman Returns even butchered Lois “ambition is my middle name” Lane, turning her into a character entirely defined by her relationships with the men in the narrative.

Jane’s assistant Darcy also deserves a mention here, because this kind of wise-cracking, jokester bit-role is rarely given to women in big budget films. The dynamic between Jane and Darcy feels very real, and again, the two play off one another and interact in almost a buddy-comedy-esque manner (ambitious career-girl and sarcastic sidekick have adventures!).  It is their interaction that ensures Thor even passes the freaking Bechdel test in the first scene, which I’m not sure any other superhero movie has ever done (please comment if you can think of another).

Sif is another prime example of how to do female characters right. A super competent female warrior, who is neither hypersexualised nor the butt of jokes? Fuck yes! Even better, Sif refuses to let jerkwad!Thor take any credit for her achievements – he wants kudos for supporting her in her career as a badass warrior, but she shuts him down, and so she should. Believing that women can reach goals that society says are for men only, and supporting women’s right to agency and self-determination, is literally the minimum standard of human decency. No cookies for you, Thor. But refreshingly, Thor’s comment is supposed to be read as arrogant and egocentric – the narrative supports Sif, not Thor, who shortly afterwards gets himself banished from Asgard for being arrogant and egocentric in general.

Not only does the narrative treat Jane, Darcy and Sif with the respect they deserve, but so does the cinematography. In most mainstream action films, the camera often pans up women’s bodies or lingers on their most “attractive” features – not only when a male character is looking at them, but just generally, by way of presentation of these characters to the audience. This may also be accompanied by ridiculously context-inappropriate wardrobe choices such as high heels, tight shirts and short skirts worn regardless of what the female character has to do in a scene (see: every James Bond film ever). Thor does neither of these things! Sif, Jane and Darcy are never panned over by male characters, nor presented for the audience’s visual consumption.

In fact, it is Thor’s body that is panned over to show to the audience that Darcy and Jane are very attracted to him. For the first time in a mainstream superhero movie, ladies and gentlemen, I give you: the heterosexual female gaze! This is a huge deal! Of course it was terribly confusing for some straight men, who apparently began to feel, well, a little bit “gay” (their words). This is a really wonderful subversion of the heteromale gaze, and it shows straight men what it’s like to go to the movies and see bodies not exclusively packaged for their consumption. Now, we can disagree on the extent to which people should ever be sexualised like that, but clearly when this is virtually always done to women and almost never to men, we have at the very least an inequality problem. Correcting this imbalance is one way to start making our culture better for women. And in this context, it is downright subversive. Bra-fucking-vo.

The female characters also wear clothing that is realistic and appropriate! Jane is shown as having very basic personal style, wearing jeans, t-shirts, and baggy checked shirts over the top. Darcy has a more funky style, which expresses her wise-cracking, off-beat charm – again her wardrobe meshes coherently with her characterisation. Sif’s outfit is perhaps the biggest achievement in this department: her armor looks both functional and fucking awesome! Her hair is up and out of the way for fighting! She looks badass, intimidating and strong, in the same manner that Thor, Loki, and the Warriors Three do.  A+, costume department. Even her movie poster is in the exact same style as the men’s posters!

Another way in which Thor breaks down sexist narratives is by challenging the traditional hypermasculinity of the superhero. Thor is built like a tank and possesses strength, courage and supernatural power. But his character is achingly vulnerable: he tears up when Loki visits him on Earth, asking plaintively if he may please return home (it broke my fucking heart, you guys, you don’t even know). And his vulnerability does not make him weak! Indeed, it is Thor’s transition from arrogance and bravado to humility and vulnerability that permits him to regain his powers and wield Mjolnir again. Loki, too, is presented as emotional and vulnerable – but again his expressions of anguish make him no less dangerous, intelligent, devious, and threatening. Indeed, it seems to me that Loki is perhaps the first truly convincing and serious supervillain who has cried on screen.

Branagh’s Thor is more feminist than I thought a movie about a male superhero could ever be. Of course, it occurs to me that most of the things I am praising here are things that all films should be doing. They aren’t doing them, though. Thor is. Still, maybe I shouldn’t be giving Kenneth Branagh kudos for not being as outright misogynistic as Michael Bay or as obliviously sexist as Chris Nolan.

Nevertheless, Thor is one superhero movie that I can watch without wanting to reach into the screen and throttle someone. In fact, it is the first superhero movie that has made the social justice part of me very happy. As a fan of the superhero genre and as someone who cares about geek culture, that means something to me.

Magic: The Blathering (Or, the high ground is dead and we killed it)

The nerdy corners of the internet have been all atwitter this week with the news that somewhere on earth, a woman harshly prejudged a man for being nerdy. I refer of course to Alyssa Bereznak’s Gizmodo article where she tells the sordid tale of how she went on two dates with a man named Jon Finkel without being adequately forewarned that he was a nerd. A big nerd. A nerd to the tune of being a previous Magic: The Gathering World Champion. Oh, the horror. THE HORROR.

Now I don’t play Magic and did not know who Finkel was until this week. But thanks to Wikipedia, I now know that he is also a professional poker player and the managing partner at Landscape Capital Management. Also, he seems like an absolutely stand-up guy from the article! That’s right, the article in which Bereznak attempted to mock and deride him actually makes him sound like a total catch to me. But don’t let those details which make Finkel seem like a well-rounded and interesting person distract you from the point. It’s all about the Magic.

“Maybe I’m shallow for not being able to see past Jon’s world title,” she writes in mock apologia, but that’s not the real problem with this article. Bereznak doesn’t have to like nerds, okay, that is fine. If Magic is a dealbreaker for her or for you, so be it, you are entitled to your feelings and choices. But why assume that your preferences are of any relevance to the rest of us? Why did Bereznak feel the need to write this snarky, stupid article, piling scorn on nerds for being nerdy, referring to nerds who date normal people as “infiltrating” their lives, and demanding that nerds put their terrible nerd-related character flaws on their profiles? Either this woman is an epic, top-of-the-line troll or she is just astoundingly judgmental. Who seriously looks at the world and says “you know, what this place needs is more judgement, scorn and mockery of anyone who deviates slightly from established social norms”?

However, none of this justifies the unexamined sexism that has characterised the response of many in the nerd community. Sadly, the reaction of some of our fellow nerds has been to completely lose their shit and immediately jettison whatever shred of decency they had concerning women in general. Many an angry commenter has called Bereznak a “wench”, a “bitch”, a “cunt” and so on. Then Elly Hart on Kotaku tried to take down Bereznak’s prejudice and ended up exposing her own prejudice.

First, Hart suggests that Bereznak, as a woman, should not get drunk because “Any guy will tell you that there’s nothing more unattractive than a drunk girl falling all over the place and having no idea how stupid she looks”. This is sexist because it suggests that men’s opinions about how women conduct themselves are the relevant metric by which women should decide how to behave. Hart is suggesting that Bereznak’s behaviour is worthy of criticism not because it is harmful to others or anything like that, but because men will disapprove of it. In this framework it is implied that it is very important for women to ensure men approve of them. Obviously this is sexist crap.

Hart then suggests that becauase Bereznak admitted to getting drunk, it makes her less “credible”. I KID YOU NOT. That’s right, kids, getting drunk at any point in your life means you’re not a reliable source of information ever again. Not only is this ridiculous but it veers dangerously close to accusations that women who were drunk at any point in an evening have no credibility and therefore what they say doesn’t matter and therefore nobody has to take them seriously and I think you all know where this argument goes. Nowhere good.

Hart also suggests that Bereznak, in judging and mocking Finkel, is a “predator”. To use this term in this context is to implicitly refer to sexual predation: and if it wasn’t clear, the accusation is preceded by a reference Bereznak made to online dating sites being like “date-rapey” bars (which is itself a pretty disgusting comment from Bereznak). But rather than excoriating Bereznak for making light of date rape, Hart claims that it is ironic that Bereznak would ever say that, because she claims Bereznak is “the predator” in this case. Hart is comparing Bereznak’s mean, judgemental article to sexual predation. The comparison is extremely harmful. Nobody who is not a sexual predator or rapist should ever be compared to a sexual predator or rapist, because rape and sexual assault are uniquely horrific events. Do not trivialise sexual predation by suggesting it is in the same ballpark as writing nasty blog posts.

Finally, Hart claims Bereznak is bringing all women down. “It’s no wonder men always complain about women playing mind games. You managed to reinforce a stereotype that some of us have worked so hard to disassociate ourselves with.” Again, Hart doesn’t seem to realise that her own argument is sexist. First, she is giving men a free pass to invoke this sexist trope by saying it’s totally understandable to hold this stereotype! Second, by using the trope against Bereznak she shows that she is fine with it being applied to any women who aren’t herself: she is invoking and reinforcing the trope by placing Bereznak’s behaviour in that context! She is making one individual woman’s behaviour into a reflection on women as a group. In case it is not clear: making any harmful behaviour perpetrated by a member of a group into a reflection of the worth of that group as a whole is a tool of oppression. It means that members of systematically oppressed groups (like women) are held to an impossibly high standard where their behaviour must be perfect or they risk “compounding the stereotype” or “letting the gender/race/sexual-orientation down”.

Members of socially privileged groups are almost never treated in this way. It is rare that the reaction in society to a man being judgemental and mocking of nerds is  “That guy is a bad reflection on all men!” or “He’s bringing all men down”. It is rare that the reaction to seeing a white person committing a crime is to say “‘that white person is a bad reflection on white people!” No, this happens to marginalised groups only, because their presence in social spaces is a constant audition. To make women responsible for eliminating sexist stereotypes is to punish them for being the subjects of sexist stereotypes. Bereznak is surely guilty of being judgemental, but to then claim that her crimes are all the greater because of pre-existing sexist stereotypes is to punish Bereznak for being a woman. Doing that makes you sexist.

My fellow nerds, this behaviour is simply not acceptable. You don’t get a free pass to be sexist, not ever. Not even if a woman is really mean to you and the people you love for really stupid reasons. Not even if you yourself are a woman or are oppressed for who you are. You simply cannot expect to hold the moral high ground if you invoke sexist tropes to attack someone  –  regardless of your own gender or situation.

The nerd community has responded with a prejudice that goes WAY BEYOND the prejudice displayed in the original article, because systematic oppression of women is much more serious than the social prejudice against nerds. When our community responds to our critics with sexist vitriol, we show everyone exactly what’s underneath the veneer of nerdy counter-culture: the same old shit you get in mainstream culture. We nerds might think our community more enlightened and progressive than mainstream culture, but that makes us as deluded as George Lucas when he thinks it’s a good idea to tinker with Star Wars.

The high ground is dead, and we killed it.

Burqas and Bikinis: Introducing the Concepts Macroproblematic and Microproblematic

I want to introduce two concepts in this post that I think are missing from the social justice conversation.  My labeling for them is a little tongue in cheek, but my suggestion that we adopt these concepts in the discourse is serious. First, let me define the somewhat clunky term “microproblematic”. If an action or attitude is “microproblematic”, it means that it is problematic for any individual to hold or to do regardless of the cultural context that this individual finds themselves in. For example, even if our culture were a paragon of gender equality and diversity in every single way, it would still be problematic for an individual heterosexual man to say that “No doesn’t always mean no” because it’s rapey. Pressuring anyone for sex, no matter how subtly you (mistakenly) think you are doing it, is microproblematic. Another example: even if our culture celebrated and respected all body sizes and shapes, it would still be problematic for an individual to suggest that another individual change their body shape or size. Most of the basic issues that any 101-level activist would call out are microproblematic (whether or not broader society thinks so).

By contrast, an attitude or action is “macroproblematic” if it is not problematic for an individual to choose to hold or to do, but on a broad, sociocultural level it is problematic or at least symptomatic of wider problems, especially if it is an enforced social norm.This second definition, the idea of something being problematic in the aggregate only, is I think the key concept missing from our discourse around social justice. Let me give you the examples that lead me to this concept: the conversation around the burqa, and the conversation around the bikini/skimpy clothing worn by women.

First, consider an individual woman’s choice to wear a burqa (of course this applies to the niqab, the hijab etc but I am using the burqa because I think it receives more scrutiny). Clearly, there is absolutely nothing microproblematic about this choice – it is a perfectly valid choice, whether it is based on religious, cultural or purely personal reasons. There is no coherent case against any individual woman’s free choice to wear one. It is her right to choose how she dresses, and frankly, the “security risk” argument is such total crap that I’m not even addressing it (come back when you want to ban masquerade balls for similar “security concerns”). No woman’s individual choice to don a burqa should ever, ever be up for debate or scrutiny from anyone.

However, I think there is something macroproblematic about a sociocultural situation that demands women be totally covered up, but does not demand the same from men. Any norm that considers women’s clothing to be associated with moral rectitude is inherently misogynistic and masks an attempt to control women by dictating how they may present themselves. Also, some of the justifications for the burqa as a social norm reflect a fundamental lack of respect for both men and women, often reinforcing rape culture, painting men as base creatures with no self control, and calling on women to do everything they can to avoid exciting men and thus causing their own rapes. Clearly, to the extent that it remains a moralised sociocultural norm that applies only to women, the burqa is highly macroproblematic. However, it is not at all microproblematic, and nobody has the right to interrogate or judge any woman who chooses to wear it.

Interestingly, the exact same situation arises when women appear in the public sphere wearing very revealing, highly “sexy” clothing and presenting themselves in an overtly sexual manner. It should be perfectly obvious that there is absolutely nothing wrong with any individual woman choosing to do this. It is every woman’s right to dress in the way she chooses, and if she wants to go out with her breasts or thighs or any other “socially-coded sexual” part of her body uncovered, that is a valid choice. It certainly does not reflect any personal issues or “deep seated insecurities” or any other armchair psychologist bullshit. Some women feel comfortable dressing up really sexily in public, and there is nothing microproblematic about this choice. No woman’s individual choice to wear a bikini or sexy lingerie out in public at any time of day in any location should ever, ever be up for debate or scrutiny from anyone.

Yet again, on a sociocultural level, it clearly is problematic that women are consistently presented in all forms of media in an overtly heterosexy way, wearing very revealing clothing and posed in such a manner as to bring pleasure to heterosexual men. Men are almost never presented posing sexily to gratify heterosexual women (and when they are, panic and confusion ensue!). Consider this: there is no male equivalent of lingerie in mainstream culture. Furthermore, merely in observing the dearth of so-called “unattractive” or “unsexy” women in media, women are implicitly taught that their primary value is their capacity to provide a pleasing image and/or sexual gratification to heterosexual men whether they like it or not. They are of course also slutshamed if they provide sexual gratification to men and/or like it! (In misogynistic societies, women can never win.) The depiction of women as being heteromale lust objects before they are people is a symptom of deep misogyny in our culture. It is one reason why many American girls self-report that they would rather win ANTM than a Nobel Prize and nobody even asked American boys that question. It is highly macroproblematic. However, sexy women are not at all microproblematic, and nobody has the right to interrogate or judge any woman who chooses to present sexily.

I think the fact that we don’t have terms for these two separate things is at the root of many confusing arguments – especially between second and third wave feminists, many of whom fail to grasp the difference. Many second wave feminists, noting that the dominant sociocultural representation of women in heterosexy poses and outfits for heteromale viewing is macroproblematic, then claim that NO WOMEN ANYWHERE should ever choose to behave or dress in this way, because even if it makes her happy, SHE’S A DELUDED TOOL OF THE PATRIARCHY. Meanwhile third wave feminists, noting that there is absolutely nothing microproblematic about women wearing sexy clothes and presenting in an overtly sexual manner, go on to claim that there is NO MACROPROBLEM AT ALL, EMBRACE IT LADIES, WHAT IS WRONG WITH BEING PRIMARILY CONSIDERED A LUST OBJECT?

If we employ these concepts, it can be coherently argued that women presenting overtly sexually is not microproblematic in any way, but the broader social norms that treat women as sex objects for heteromale consumption is indeed macroproblematic. A lack of clarity around what it means for something to be “problematic” and the extent to which people’s personal decisions should be scrutinised causes real harm, especially to people who find themselves personally bearing the brunt of someone else’s genuine complaint about broader culture. We must attack macroproblematic practices on a sociocultural level without hurting individuals who may, intentionally or unintentionally, conform to these ideas and practices. When we seek to destroy the kyriarchy, we have to be careful we don’t create collateral damage. I think these concepts can help us achieve that.