We Expect More

In the wake of the most recent ‘sexist atheists on reddit’ scandal, which you can read more about here, I think it’s time that we had a talk. Not about the event itself, because we can all agree that a girl posting her face online is not “inviting” sexual harassment and frankly Rebecca Watson (see previous link) and Kate Harding said it better already. I’m more concerned with the rejoinder of the moderates, those who try to calm the angry feminists with some variation on the theme “It’s the internet/it’s reddit/it’s humans! This is the way things are. What did you expect?”

Well, since it is so often asked, I want to answer that question.

We expect more. We expect that men relate to women as people, and afford them the same respect and dignity they afford to other men. Not sometimes, not just when they are offline, not just when they can be held accountable, not just when they’re not attracted to the woman in question, but always. We expect to be able to present ourselves in public as women without being told that in so doing we should be prepared to receive constant, invasive sexual overtures and lewd suggestions.

We expect that people understand that it is never okay to joke about raping someone.

We expect those of you who have done any of this not to be so utterly callous as to ask women to “indulge” you. We expect that you stop pretending you are too foolish to know what is right and in any case too spineless to do it. We know you are vertebrates and we expect you to act like it.

We expect you not to pretend that we hold the power and that you are our victims when it has been otherwise for millennia. We expect that we do not have to explain this to you. And when we do have to explain, and complain, and make you aware, we expect that you will take us seriously. These are things we expect from everyone. I hope that clears things up a little.

We also expect more from the moderates, from those of you who would never harass women but who ask women to accept and expect harrassment from men as a matter of course. We expect you to be smarter than this, and take a bit of a longer view. You say this is the way things are on the internet or in human society, thereby implying that things can never change. But it should be obvious that this is just the way things are now. Just like Europe in the Middle Ages, where feudalism was the way things were, and just like in the USA in the 19th century where women not not being allowed to vote was the way things were. So I guess you’d be “that guy” back in 1880 being all “Women not voting is just the way things are!” Meanwhile, other people (not you) were then, and are now, demanding change and/or going out and changing things.

Humans changed those things about their societies then, and today we can change things too. Looking around, I really don’t think we’re reaching peak enlightenment right now. If we think we’re the pinnacle of human society and culture, it is only because of our geographical and temporal narcissism. There is simply no reason to assume you’re living at the very peak of excellence, the greatest level of tolerance and enlightenment that human society can ever attain. Think outside your timezone, man.

But more immediately than that, we expect you to think about the effect your words will have now. Have you ever thought about what the flip side of “what did you expect” and “this is inherent in reddit/the internet/the world” is? Think about those men whose first response to any woman or girl, in any context, is to inform her of how much sexual pleasure her appearance provides them: what do they hear when you trot out this line? What about those men who talk about raping a 15 year old girl “as a joke”? When they hear you say women should expect it, what do they hear? Acceptance. They see that their behaviour is tacitly approved – by you.

Your call for acceptance gives any man who does these things the clear message that what he is doing is acceptable, indeed, expected behaviour on his part. So why should he stop? Not only does he have his buddies up-voting his vile comments, he has all the “moderates” telling the angry feminists to ignore him and calm down! That is the effect you have when you ask women to accept that harassment is “the way life is”.

When it comes to treating women as human beings equal in rights and dignity, there is no middle ground. There is no “let’s stop here, near enough is good enough” (and for the record this is not actually near enough). There is no compromise. I believe the probability of making good progress is substantial, but it wouldn’t matter if this probability were virtually zero. As long as the probability of change is not zero, that is enough, because success is hugely valuable and failure is enormously damaging. The situation is not acceptable, and we have to do whatever we can to change it.

One more thing for those who want women to calm down about harassment: would you ever accept this treatment as “the way life is” for you? Would you ever accept a situation where, once you let people on the internet know you are a 15 year old boy, hoards of older men descend upon your thread to make lewd comments about having sex with you? No. If someone told you to expect people to joke extensively about their desire to rape a teenage boy under any circumstances – let alone because that boy had posted a picture of himself online to show everyone his new book – you would be horrified. You would be sickened. You would ask yourself how this came to be and wonder how it could be stopped. That is the right reaction.

So stop trying to tell us that this treatment is what we should expect as women. It’s not good enough. Heck, it’s not even good. It’s an improvement relative to the time when women were chattel, but that’s about as much as can be said for this behaviour – both the harassment and the calls for acceptance of harassment. When that’s all that can be said for you, it’s time for you to change. Please, come and join us here in the future. We’ve been expecting you.

Girls are not like apples and other hard facts about the world.

Oh fuck off!

The above quote keeps doing  the rounds on Tumblr (by which I mean, keeps appearing on my Pete Wentz tracked tag. Um…). From my attempt at investigation (otherwise known as “googling it”) it seems that Pete Wentz never actually said it. I hope Pete didn’t say it, because I think he’s kind of awesome and he named his kid BRONX MOWGLI, come on (which is to say he and Ashlee Simpson named THEIR kid that and I’m sure she’s also awesome). ANYWAY, the point is that while an idle google search will not throw up the authorship of the quote it does present enough hits to suggest that this is a popular sentiment (even just searching for “girl apples” gets you this quote). Not to mention every time someone updates their facebook status to something about how unfair it is that guys always like the slutty, easy girls and not them – there is currently no search capability for this but I confidently state it’s probably happened a bajillion times.

Let’s get out of the way how heterosexist this quote is, it is hopefully pretty obvious, but I’m going to say it anyway. Not all girls are interested in boys. Boys aren’t the only ones who get to do the “apple picking” (urgh, gross). A girl’s role is not to sit around being awesome and complicated/hard (the antonyms of easy) waiting for a big brave boy to like her. Most importantly: male attention is not a gauge of anyone’s worth. This is slut-shaming. Slut shaming aims perpetuate the control of the patriarchy over female sexuality. This quote isn’t even being coy about the slut shaming, I mean, easy?! FFS I wish we were past this bullshit.

I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that the quotes references “girls” and not women. Beyond annoying paternalism, I think that quotes like this have particular resonance for teenage girls. High school (for many people) is all about hierarchy, hierarchy decided by some pretty arbitratry criteria. So of course it’s comforting to get told that not only is the hierarchy sorted all wrong but that you’re actually at the top. That’s a pretty easy sell, whether Pete Wentz said it or not.

Let’s not forget that it IS shit being a teenage girl (of course, your mileage may vary). If you desperately want a boyfriend and no one is interested and society is telling you that teenage school girls look like this, and you have to take fucking French even though you don’t want to, and that guy you thought liked you was only talking to you because he likes your hotter friend and HORMONES. Yeah, globally, statistically speaking if those are your big problems, you are pretty damn lucky, but that doesn’t stop it feeling pretty shitty. It’s also difficult to have a whole heap of perspective, because being in school limits your exposure to other people who don’t buy into hierarchical bullshit. So I do get why this quote is totally appealing.

The only message I would salvage from this quote is that if boys don’t like you it’s not because there is something wrong with you — I am totally with you on that, Pete (allegedly). Although it is worth noting that no one owes you their affections, so let’s just try and remove all guilt/blame/value judgement from the equation. It is true that lots of people are kind of a mess in high school and there is a whole lot of macro and peer pressure on guys (and girls) to be attracted to prescribed beauty norms. That’s shit, but metaphors about apples aren’t the answer.

The thing is, internalizing that rubbish about “good girls” and “bad girls” is only going to make you feel better in the short term. That kind of message is in no way elevating, it doesn’t make you genuinely feel better about yourself, all it does is give you a whole lot of bitterness and hate directed at those girls, the easy apples, you know (just typing that makes me feel gross).

This quote really does “objectify”, in a very literal sense. Girls are not apples or anything else (I welcome further examples of objectifying metaphors in the comments!). Inverting the stereotype doesn’t make it go away. In fact you are really just enforcing the idea that there is some kind of hierarchy of worth, and that it applies just to women. Just as with the “those thin models aren’t even attractive to MEN” argument you are enforcing men as the arbiters of what makes a “good” girl and at the same time separating women from each other.

And now for a real world example and a demonstration of why my friends are awesome: The other day I was hanging out with my friends and a male friend, let’s call him Tom, made a comment about the kind of girls who have one night stands. I quickly got on my Social Justice League leotard (it has sparkles!) and spoke up. Obviously what I said was awesome, but what my friend did was even better. She said, looking around at the two girls in the room, “you know, at various points, we have been the kind of girls who have one night stands. Do you mean us?” and it was a kind of beautiful moment because Tom didn’t know what to say. It was also just the kind of thing I would never would have had the guts or awareness to do in high school (and that’s the first step, evicting the patriarchal police in your brain that reinforce these ideas).

I encourage you to pull this “I am Spartacus” shit the next time someone talks to you about “kinds” of girls. I’m sorry to sound preachy, but we have to stop letting the patriarchy divide and conquer us on this issue. So I encourage you to put on your sparkly Feminist Activist leotard, pump some Bikini Kill (or other music of your choosing) and stand up for all women: sluts, skanks, virgins, frigid girls and the ones in-between. Because we are all fucking awesome and none of us can be contained by RIDICULOUS METAPHORS ABOUT APPLES!

Leave Kim Kardashian Alone

I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but we need to lay off Kim Kardashian. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Well, actually, I don’t know what you’re thinking, but let me make a guess: you think Kim Kardashian is a bad role model for girls because she does what the patriarchy tells girls to do. Her activities reinforce dominant tropes about how to be a woman, and she actively supports dieting and sizeism by hawking her QuickTrim pseudo-science of weight loss pills.

Well, I agree with you, and I think those criticisms are valid. I’m not saying you have to like Kim Kardashian. But though that may be our objection to Kim’s activities, that is not the main message of the current backlash against her. That backlash is sexist, and as people who care about social justice, we must debunk it whenever we can – whether we like Kim or not.

The major criticisms we hear about Kim are thus: she’s vapid and shallow, a “slut”, “famous for doing nothing”, and makes a mockery of marriage – either because her marriage was too short, or because her marriage was a sham concocted to make money. Let’s go through these one by one.

Vapid? Kim’s life does seem to revolve around fashion, makeup, conventional beauty, and finding love in a heteronormative manner. Are these activities vapid? No. There’s no sense in which fashion and makeup are any less important than, say, videogames or surfboards. Would you call someone who dedicated her life to making surfboards, using surfboards, and being a surfboard enthusiast vapid? Shallow? You wouldn’t, and that’s because we associate surfboards with social codes around masculinity and fashion and makeup with social codes around femininity. Our patriarchal culture considers masculine-coded interests as somehow less shallow and vapid than feminine-coded interests. They aren’t. And as for heteronormative love? There’s nothing especially wrong with that on a personal level (though the macro tropes surrounding it are harmful). In fact, the people making this criticism usually want that too, they just think it’s vapid when women are explicit about it.

It’s also important to note that punishing women for complying with cultural demands for performative femininity is a key component of women’s oppression. Our culture insists that women conform to a certain conventional beauty standards, and concern themselves with “girl things” like fashion and hair and makeup, in order to be acceptable as women. Yet when women like Kim do this, they are derided – called stupid, shallow, and vapid. As feminists, we must never stand by while women are called derogatory names for engaging in socially coded feminine activities. Even if we don’t like those women.

Well, is Kim Kardashian a “slut”? Answer: It’s none of your business! And this particular complaint against Kim is obviously the worst form of slutshaming and misogyny. I have no idea what Kim’s sex life is like but I don’t need to know anything about it to defend her from this charge. Frankly, anyone who thinks the word “slut” in its dominant cultural use is a coherent, sensible concept – let alone a legitimate insult with which to slur a woman – is flat out wrong. I don’t see anyone calling the men Kim sleeps with sluts, I don’t see anyone haranguing the man Kim made the sex tape with and asking him how he expects us to respect him. As feminists, our reply to those who slutshame Kim must be unequivocal: you will respect Kim no matter how “slutty” she is according to your feverish imaginings.

Okay, now what about “famous for doing nothing”? Kim is famous for making a sex tape and then doing lots of modelling and reality television. I admit, this does not seem like a huge contribution to humanity when you compare it to the life’s work of Rosalind Franklin or Morgan Tsvangirai or Elizabeth Blackburn or Alvin Roth or Aung San Suu Kyi or Norman Borlaug or Christina Romer. But is that the right comparison? No. Because I bet you had to google at least one of those people, all of whom have contributed “more” to humanity than virtually any Hollywood celebrity ever will. (I admit I’m invoking a hierarchy, and I acknowledge the issues inherent in that, but I think it’s reasonable to argue that these people contribute to human society more than TV stars do.)

Fame is arbitrary. The vast majority of fame in our culture is bestowed on one group: entertainers. I do not wish to belittle the entertainment industry; it provides people with a lot of enjoyment, relaxation, excitement and fun, as well as the occasional transformative experience. But there’s no real philosophical reason why these people should be famous while doctors and teachers are not. Some people claim that it’s totally legitimate to make actors and singers famous, it’s just reality TV stars that are “doing nothing”. But really, they are entertaining people just as much as actors who memorise scripts. Is Kim Kardashian’s fame that much less deserved than the fame of Jessica Alba or Reese Witherspoon or Vin Diesel or Robert Pattinson? Maybe she is “doing less”, but last time I looked, your product is what matters in the entertainment industry – not how hard you had to work. Face it, very few famous people “deserve” their fame in any concrete sense.

It’s also worth remembering that Kim Kardashian didn’t get famous on her own: fame requires the attention of the masses. Now, clearly, Kim is pretty dedicated to getting our attention. And we give it to her – if we cut her off, there wouldn’t be anything she could do about it. We are the lynchpin of who gets famous. So if anyone is responsible for the sorry state of affairs in which the Kardashians are more well known than the Curies, it is us, not Kim Kardashian. Most celebrities are famous for their skills at entertainment: if you think Kim is famous for nothing, then you must admit that most celebrities are famous for next-to-nothing. Criticise the whole culture of fame, not one girl who is working the system.

Now we come to Kim’s apparent crimes against marriage. I have seen a lot of gay-rights activists decrying Kim’s quick-as-a-flash marriage and divorce as if it is personally injurious to them. I think the core of the complaint is that she is “misusing” an institution that is denied to us queers. First of all, let’s be honest about the situation: Kim’s marriage has no effect on us. She has not altered our chances at making gay marriage a reality. Sure, it can be galling to see how straight people are allowed to marry and divorce someone they barely know with ease while we are denied the right to marry a committed partner of 20 years. But it wouldn’t help our cause if marriage got more restrictive, so that only straight people in supercommited relationships could get married and they were never allowed to divorce. In fact that’s a giant step back. The fact that queers don’t have equal rights is not Kim Kardashian’s fault and she doesn’t deserve our hatred.

From a feminist perspective, there’s something interesting about accusing anyone of making a “mockery” of marriage. Really? What’s left to mock? I’m not implying that love and commitment are not important – they are important, but they are not the exclusive domain of married people, and they are directly counter to the historical legacy of marriage. Marriage started off as a morally bankrupt, sexist institution used by men – and families run by men – to signal possession of women. In most parts of the world it was in essence a financial contract, intended to enhance the wealth, power and prestige of families, and it had nothing to do with love. It’s pretty hilarious to say Kim is making a mockery of marriage by using it for financial gain when that was the explicit purpose of marriage for most of human history. The only difference? It was usually for the financial gain of men, since women were chattel. Now we get the faint whiff of a rumour that a woman used the institution of marriage for her own financial gain – and her husband did not even become her chattel! – and suddenly it’s off with her head? We can’t let this go unquestioned. Not on our watch.

If we want to criticise Kim Kardashian, we have plenty of legitimate concerns (and Quicktrim should be our leading issue in my opinion). But the vast majority of the complaints made against Kim are straight up sexist bullshit, and the rest use her as a scapegoat for institutional inequality. Kim Kardashian is hardly a feminist hero. But women don’t have to be feminist heroes before they deserve to be defended from sexism, slutshaming and hatred. All women should be defended against sexist attacks, not just the women we like. That’s kind of how feminism is supposed to work. Leave Kim Kardashian alone.

The 500 Days of Summer Dilemma and How to Manage Your Unreliable Narrator

Spoilers for 500 Days of Summer. Obviously.


I’ve read an amazing amount of feminist critique about this film for something that’s a bit of a guilty pleasure. I like it, but I don’t like it as much as say, Bruce Willis action films. The story is about an emotionally manipulative man, the Nice Guy (TM) even, who subsequently unleashes his misogyny and feelings of entitlement on an ex-girlfriend after she breaks up with him. I think all feminists agree on this point. But people seem to divide into two camps when analysing the underlying message of the film:

1. The film (and audience) sympathises with the plight of the protagonist and the purpose is to reinforce the dominant sexist narrative that women are emotionally manipulative and “play games” with men, while men get their hearts broken.


2. The protagonist is an unreliable narrator who is selfish and unable to consider anyone else’s emotional needs but his own. As he embodies many of the negative traits commonly given to women in romantic comedies, the film is in fact a subversion of sexist gender stereotypes.

Surprisingly, the latter was the intention and the belief of the writers, the producers and the actors of the film, and they expected the film would be viewed with interpretation #2.* Unsurprisingly, a great deal of people not acquainted with feminism leave Youtube comments about how Tom was too good for Summer and how Summer is a “bitch”.

Thanks to the Death of the Author both of these interpretations are equally correct. But what’s so striking about this case is the divergence of opinion, even amongst feminists who would usually agree (and within SJL for that matter). More importantly, how did interpretation #1 become so popular when it was the exact opposite of what everyone involved in the creation of the film intended?

Some people have pointed out that our post about liking problematic things did not address narratives where bigoted characters were condemned. That analysis is beyond the scope of the post, because the existence of bigotry and bigoted characters do not necessarily make media problematic. This seems like an obvious point to make in say, oh, Harry Potter for example. Voldemort and the Death Eaters are clearly bigoted and racist by any mainstream measure of the word. But they are the villains of the narrative and the plot is a complete condemnation of their beliefs and actions. (I realise Harry Potter is macro-problematic in a lot of other ways though.)

Media is not problematic where bigotry is condemned or punished by the narrative. A character may undertake a bigoted action and it’s not problematic as long as that action is somehow condemned. Ron, who is positioned as one of the good guys, at one point says sexist and slut-shaming things about his sister Ginny. The important thing is that Ginny, another hero of the story, calls him on his prejudices and the audience is alerted to the fact that there is a problem with what Ron has said.

Alternatively, bigotry can be condemned by the position of the character in the text (ie. the actions of the Death Eaters are generally condemned because they’re positioned as villains). While not every narrative will have the more clear-cut good and evil divide of Harry Potter, many characters will often have particular areas in which character flaws consistently manifest. Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly is consistently misogynistic and expresses whorephobic, slut-shaming and anti-sex worker sentiments throughout the show, despite being a “good” guy  – an anti-hero really. However, I believe the Firefly text is generally supportive of sex work over all, and presents Inara as a strong, relatable woman who has a lot of agency in her profession (although the show arguably sometimes lapses into positive stereotyping). The audience therefore learns that Mal is unreliable when it comes to views about sex work and perhaps women more generally.

The Unreliable Narrator

Moving back to 500 Days of Summer. The main problem is that the story is told from the privileged person’s point of view. In this case, the point of view of a man who feels entitled to not only a woman’s time, but also entitled to a relationship with her. I believe the intention was to use the unreliable narrator as a literary technique to subvert gender roles in traditional romantic comedies. But, as we all should know, intentions are not magical and do not mitigate marginalisation when it happens. In the context of patriarchy, male experiences are valued over female experiences so this subversion doesn’t work well. No matter where the men are positioned in the text your typical audience will likely sympathise with the men more, because that’s the voice we’re told is more authoritatative and objective.

As a feminist, I read many of Tom’s actions as inherently manipulative and misogynistic. But in the kyriarchy, microaggressions and forms of subtle bigotry aren’t recognised as bigotry at all and people are often told to just “get over it”. While this film might have had some self-awareness in its production, sadly unexamined bigotry from a privileged protagonist is an all too common story played out in Western film. If you want to convey a message or “moral” to a story then subtle bigotry isn’t going to cut it when signalling “THIS IS BAD BEHAVIOUR” to your audience. You’re going to have to unequivocally show how terrible the behaviour is – either by having another “good” character condemning it loudly or by having the bigoted character meet a series of terrible accidents as a consequence of their bigotry.

The narrative in fact relapses into the very tropes it sought to avoid. Summer is at first the antithesis of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl to some extent because she is not interested in a long-term relationship and is not particularly bothered with romance. However, near the end she helps Tom come to grips with his (privileged) (asshat) emotional baggage and idealism, reinforcing the narrative that women are only valuable insofar if they help men realise their true potential or something equally stomach-turning.

While Summer calls out some of Tom’s douche behaviour it’s not strong enough to over-power Tom’s unreliable point of view. More problematically, Tom’s character never really suffers for his bigoted behaviour. (Parts of the film where he is sad and misogynistic about Summer breaking off the relationship is not “suffering for it” in my book.) In fact, he has a “happy ending” where he winks at the camera with the suggestion that he’s moved on to “Autumn” now. At no point does Tom acknowledge how much emotional pain he puts Summer through. At no point does Tom recognise his actions tie into his male privilege (this is all attributed to the fact that he is a romantic and idealist).

I really enjoy the unreliable narrator as a literary device when it’s executed well. I think it’s possible to write an unreliable narrator with deeply problematic views and for the text itself to be unproblematic. But because we’re only getting the narrator’s point of view, the text needs to shout louder and flag more frequently that the narrator is not only deeply biased, but also quite bigoted in action at the very least, if not also in intent.

*All I’ve found is this interview with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but if any one of our new Tumblr fans wants to help me out with additional links I’d much appreciate it.

Psychological Hazards of Being Sexy While Female

Human sexuality can be as confusing as it is wonderful – especially in the context of a culture that is reasonably screwed up with respect to sex. But for women, there is an additional layer of difficulty: it can be very hard to reconcile ourselves as sexual subjects with our “social role” as sexual objects. In a culture that rarely portrays female sexuality as having interior agency completely separate from the desires of heteromales, one can be made to feel like a stranger in one’s own sexuality.

As a result, it can become extremely difficult to express our sexuality without anxiety about what it says about us as women and as feminists. It can be especially challenging if our natural sexual desires and self expression take forms that we might associate with macroproblematic tropes. Another difficulty arises when expressing one’s sexual self through clothing or other appearance markers that are socially coded as “sexy”. Dressing in a sexy way to please yourself can become complicated because you know that you may attract unwanted attention. Misogynistic people (or, er, some anti-sex feminists) may respond as though you have invited objectification and dismissal of anything else you have to contribute, when obviously you haven’t.

It can also be difficult to deal with the reality that as a person presenting sexily out in the world, other people may get sexual gratification from seeing you, and you can’t control who does it. This can be as subtle as someone giving you a sleazy look or as obvious as someone catcalling you in the middle of the street. It can often be demoralising to realise that while you are carrying out your own self-determined sexual expression, others may objectify you, and you can’t stop them.

This group of people can include misogynists and people who support your oppression in some other way, and it can feel a lot like you’ve “given” them something by appearing in public in a socially-coded sexy manner – something you didn’t want to give. These problems may well be magnified for women who engage in consensual sex work, who are almost certainly bringing sexual satisfaction to some sexist people out there who see women as objects. But more broadly, it’s a problem that arises simply from existing while female. You definitely do not have to be conventionally attractive to have this problem. It can affect all women.

We have to find ways to immunise ourselves against these situations. We can’t let the problematic macro tropes around women’s sexuality stop us from our own sexual self expression. First, we have to develop a deep understanding that what other people do is almost always about them, and not about us. If sexist people find you attractive and/or objectify you, it doesn’t say anything about you. In fact, if you have any of their attention – positive or negative – you can use it to showcase that you are a self-possessed, fully formed human being. In this way, and only if you feel comfortable and safe, you can actually turn a situation you dislike into an opportunity to advance the cause of feminism and advocate for yourself.

Other people objectifying you is an act that is especially not about you. There are people out there who will always see you as a person first, no matter how short your skirt is and how much cleavage you are showing. We like to call them “decent human beings”. And there are people who will always see all women as sex objects even when they are wearing a hessian sack while simultaneously doing algebraic topology and open heart surgery. (I don’t mean to imply these things are not feminine and sexy, they certainly can be and I personally find algebraic topology very feminine and sexy, I mean to say they are not socially coded as sexy activities.)

You can’t control who you meet in the street but you can control who you let into your life, as friends or as lovers. Do as much as you possibly can to surround yourself with this first kind of person, and eliminate the second kind of person from your life. It’s not always possible due to work or family situations, so everyone has to make a call about where their boundaries are based on their situation and their psychological and financial needs. But it helps a lot if you can be firm on your boundaries, whatever they are.

The issue can be much more complex for people who do sex work, be it prostitution or pornography or anything else you can dream of. I don’t have experience in this area but I do want to point out that, as long as you are personally comfortable with it, there’s nothing wrong with taking a sexist douchebag’s money! Most people have to transact in markets with people they might not like to have as friends. Is it really likely that everyone involved in the production of your sandwich at lunchtime is a “good person” by your standards? No. But you buy the sandwich anyway because it benefits you and your focus has to be you, not them.

That’s not an issue facing sex workers only – this is an issue that faces us all! Don’t stop living because you might have to interact with people you profoundly disagree with, even people who might be complete assholes. Interact with them on your terms as much as humanly possible, and don’t blame yourself when you can’t make it work.

I think it is possible to slowly weed out judgmental thoughts about how our sexuality should be or who will get gratification from seeing us, if we do the mental grunt work of interrupting and rejecting these thoughts when they arise. Women are used to having heteropatriarchal social norms dictate how they ought to live every aspect of their lives, and these norms are strong around romantic and sexual connections. The ideal is to be able to ignore them as much as possible. I want to be clear that this is certainly not something you have to do to be considered a good feminist, and it should always be recognised that this is very difficult. But I think the personal rewards are immense.

It is your right to experience your sexuality exactly the way you want to (within the boundaries of ethical conduct, of course). Don’t worry about what other people will do or think in response. That’s on them. That reflects their issues. And don’t you judge yourself either. Just make sure you are living on your terms, organising your life the way you want it to the best of your ability, and doing what you feel to be the right thing for your emotional, psychosexual and mental health.

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.

Adventures in the Lipstick Jungle

I never got the hang of most makeup. Eyeliner remains largely a mystery to me. I can’t put on eyeshadow without looking like I have suffered severe bruising. I don’t get my eyebrows waxed or plucked or whatever it is other people do (I’ve heard threading is a thing?). I don’t wear or own perfume. The most makeup I ever wear is tinted moisturiser, mascara when I’m feeling particularly fancy and lipstick.

Lipstick I love. I love the nice little shiny tube it comes in and the way it smells. I like the greasy feel of it on your lips (something which sounds terrible). I like getting the colouring in just right and then smacking my lips at myself in the mirror. I put a little bit on my finger and use it as makeshift blush and any leftovers I use to slick back flyaway hairs (this was not a technique I learned in any women’s magazine but it works).

Sometimes when I am at home by myself I put lipstick on just for fun. Putting on lipstick before a job interview, or a first date or even just on one of those days where I feel like just leaving the house might be impossible, makes me feel like I can do anything! (I feel, just a little, like those American footballers who smear black paint under their eyes before the game, ready to win!)

I realise that for many people, being “femme” is complicated by very serious issues, that it and its gatekeepers are mentally and physically dangerous. Many trans people are confronted by violence from (formally recognised or self-appointed) gatekeepers when they perform or embody their gender identity. For me, a straight, cis gendered, white girl growing up in Australia, it was just insecurity – assisted by high school bullies – that complicated my relationship with being femme, with what being a girl or a woman meant. As a teenager I strongly believed that you only got to wear short skirts, low tops and “girly” shoes if you were hot and popular. I was neither.

My boobs weren’t big enough, my hips weren’t curvy enough, my hair wasn’t straight enough. I talked too much in class and not enough the rest of the time. In general I wasn’t enough. Boys at my school firmly believed that the worst thing you could call a girl was a lesbian and it was clear that that was the opposite of feminine. Gender lines were very fiercely guarded. In grade 9 I bought a backpack for school, it was grey and purple. One of the popular boys recognized that it came from the “boys” side of the overpriced surf shop in town. I remember being deeply mortified by this knowledge, blushing furiously with embarrassment.

So when my mum taught me about makeup it was a little bit scary, because I kind of felt like I wasn’t really allowed to wear it. I remember that every time she helped me with my makeup I would blot most of the lipstick off. When I think about makeup I always think about my mother. She still hasn’t given me the advanced lessons (eyeshadow, how does it work!?) but she taught me about lipstick.

I have a very strong memory (not just one either, memory on top of memory) of what my mother would smell like as she kissed me goodbye, leaving me with a babysitter when I was a child. There would be a quick whiff of perfume and then smacking lipsticked lips against my cheek, a jangle of jewelry. It is at least partly because of her that I have never bought a tube of lipstick. My mother would (and still does, when I go home) invariably have some lying around that she had deemed “not a colour that really does anything for me” and which she will happily pass along. (My mother does this with other things, tshirts and belts and scarfs, to such a degree that I suspect she is just covertly buying me stuff, but I see no reason to object).

These days most of my skirts are short, I still don’t wear high heels, but only because they hurt my feet when I do, I think my hair is pretty great (and my boobs too!) and as I said at the start I love a good coat of lippy, but I still can’t bring myself to buy my own fucking lipstick. The reason for this? To me there is probably nothing as terrifying as the makeup counters in department stores. Do you know what I mean? They always seem overly warm so that your face will immediately go pink and your fingers clammy upon entering their white and pungent depths. I think they put something in the air that makes your hair messy. And EVERYTHING is reflective, so you bet you are going to see your pink, sweaty face and flyaway hair.

The floors are always slippery, to give an extra hint of danger. And the people, the people who work there! The women always seem perfectly perfect. They don’t just have hair (like me) they have hairSTYLES, and God do they know how to use eyeliner. I know, it is completely unproductive to judge myself against other women. The world is not divided into girls who like reading and those who like makeup (for a few years in high school I was pretty sure it was, but it turns out I didn’t know everything then).

But the cosmetics section of David Jones makes me forget that. I posses everything I need to march up to that counter and buy that tube of “Burning Sunset” Loreal lipstick, but I suddenly feel like the money in my pocket is useless here, I don’t know the right words, I am probably not even WALKING right… Am I alone in feeling this way? Should I just give up and buy lipstick online? Won’t you hold my hand while I buy lipstick at a department store? (To be sung to the tune of this)

Iron Man and the problem of Pepper Potts

Note: this post will discuss the first Iron Man movie but contains spoilers for both this and the sequel. The sequel will be discussed in a post coming to an SJL blog near you very soon.

Iron Man is, without a doubt, an immensely entertaining movie. RDJ gives a very charming and entertaining portrayal of a man who is basically unlikeable. He coasts along on genius and family money and seems to avoid anything even vaguely like hard work and responsibility and is basically a man at the beginning of his very own redemption arc. (Not, I would argue, a traditional heroic narrative, as seen in the more recent Captain America movie.)

Marvel has, generally, done a very good job with their adaptations (for an analysis of Thor as a feminist movie, click here!). Iron Man, unfortunately, falls on its face with regard to its main female character, Pepper Potts. Not assisted by an unremarkable performance by Gwyneth Paltrow, the narrative has nothing positive to offer us with regards to Pepper that is not directly connected to Tony Stark. She is Tony Stark’s assistant, a job that she seems to be quite good at, but unfortunately reinforces the distinct impression given to the audience that Pepper has no life and no personhood at all outside of her job and her job itself is all about Tony. Her only role in the movie, and it seems, in her life, is to help Tony be Tony.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with being an assistant, in life or on screen. Many assistants in many films and tv shows are amazing characters, filled with agency and interiority and power all their own. For instance, Donna from Suits, Mrs. Landingham from The West Wing, Patti from Eli Stone, Leonardo from Fairly Legal. However, considering the lack of overall agency and interiority that Pepper is afforded within the narrative it would be nice if they would have at least indulged in the pretense of having given her half a thought when developing the movie.

Early on in the movie, not long after he returns from captivity in Afghanistan, Tony tells Pepper than she is ‘all [he] has’. This is a rather bizarre statement, considering what else the movie has shown about him—for one, he has Rhodes (in a wonderful, layered performance by Terrance Howard, who was bafflingly and insultingly recast in Iron Man 2) and his work, which he seems to find fulfilling. For another, at least some members of the audience are going to be aware of the friendship that develops between Tony and Steve Rogers (Captain America) and that he ultimately joins the Avengers. She is most assuredly not all he has. She is, potentially, all the (created, non-related) family that he has, though this is never outright stated in the text.

Later in the movie, Pepper tells Tony that he too is all she has, a statement that, sadly, seems far more literal than Tony’s. At the Tony Stark Benefit for Firefighters Family Fund* she appears not to have a date (which is, without context, fine) and no friends or family are mentioned throughout the movie, except for some non-specific plans that she has on her birthday. Not only does Tony not remember her birthday but he actually states that he ‘doesn’t like it’ when she has plans. These aforementioned plans could be anything. Is she going out for dinner? If so, with who? By herself? (Also fine! I do this!) Does she have a date with takeout food and her television? I don’t care what she’s doing; I would just like to have some idea of what it is.

There is no indication that when she isn’t on screen, that she’s doing anything, which is the death knell of any character. Her job is Tony. She is not really his assistant, in my opinion. She is his nanny. Literally, her entire life as presented by the film is Tony Stark. More than that, it seems to be presented that she has worked for Tony for years and the question of why she hasn’t quit is never explained, beyond her being in love with Tony. There is nothing wrong with any of these things in isolation. There isn’t anything wrong with any of these things even not in isolation. If she did all these things and they made sense because of the way in which she, as a character, was constructed that would be fine. But they don’t, because she isn’t presented as a character; she is presented as an object to be desired.

This perhaps can be best summed up as the fate of so many women in film and television, that of the Love Interest. She has no life or existence beyond that. Every choice that she makes ultimately comes back to her being in love with Tony, which is pretty sad considering that Tony is a pretty terrible human being.** Not only that, but she doesn’t function into his choices at all. Even if Tony himself hadn’t noticed that she was in love with him, somebody, sometime, surely would have pointed it out. Yet he still leaves her to dry clean his one night stands clothes and escort them out in the morning.

Last, but surely not least, is the scene in which she literally refers to a woman that Tony has casual sex with as ‘trash’. It’s rather ironic, that the text and Leslie Bibb’s performance do not at all support this rather horrific instance of slut shaming. The woman is a reporter named Christine Everhart, a woman who is portrayed as being driven, smart, funny and has all the agency and interiority that Pepper lacked. We unfortunately don’t get a reaction shot from her after Pepper’s  ‘trash’ comment. (When a character who has about four scenes^ and five minutes of screen time—tops—has more interiority and agency than your female lead, you have a problem.)

There were some truly great things about the first Iron Man movie—RDJ and Terrance Howard’s performances, the display of Tony’s wit, the rather interesting story of a fairly terrible person who chooses to use an horrific experience to work towards his own redemption—but, unfortunately, Pepper is not one of them.

Coming soon: A discussion of the mess that was Iron Man 2, in which Rhodes was the only person recast, Tony is accidentally George W Bush, Pepper has a brief brush with agency and I ended up rooting for the villain.^^

*I don’t know it’s something like that okay?
**Yes, yes, beyond being rich, charming and handsome. She’s spent years with him. Those three things would have gotten old by the time the movie starts.
^One of them the most awkward sex scene I have ever seen on screen.
^^Not actually relevant. True nonetheless!

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.