A Letter to Cobra Starship

Disclaimer: If you think pop music isn’t worth analyzing… well, you’re wrong. Pop music reflects and reinforces our cultural norms. Therefore it’s a completely valid form to examine when we discuss social justice issues. If you don’t wanna analyze the feminist credentials of pop music you probably don’t want to read this post. Definitely don’t comment saying “it’s just pop music, it doesn’t mean anything.” Seriously. An Arts student dies every time you do that and no one wants to be responsible for that, do they? (This is a rhetorical question, just to be clear).

Cobra Starship – Good Girls Go Bad 

Dear Cobra Starship,

Firstly I’d like to compliment you on making awesome boppy pop music for people who still want to feel indie. I explained your music to a friend as Fair Trade Pop Music, an analogy which you don’t want to over-think, but it made me laugh. Vicky T, I’d particularly like to commend you on being totally kick-ass and also hot (call me!).

So, Cobra Starship, what I really want to talk to you about is Good Girls(TM) and Bad Girls(TM).  You know that song where you mostly just say “I make them good girls go bad” over and over again accompanied by loud noises and the video clip has Leighton Meester in it for some reason? That song? It’s a problem. Don’t feel too bad! If I didn’t enjoy the repetition and the loud noises and the inexplicable!Leighton I wouldn’t even have to write to you. It’s really a compliment. (You wont be getting any nasty letters from me, Katy Perry, take that!)

I hate to be the one to break this to you Cobra Starship, but, the thing is… Good Girls and Bad Girls don’t exist. Turns out that girls are just a lot more complicated than that. You say “I know your type, You’re daddy’s little girl” Which is just kind of… creepy? Sadly, Gabe Saporta (I assume he is to praise/blame for this song), offers no further commentary about what indicates this type. I really tried to do a close reading of the music clip for clues but I always get distracted and bored before that clip ends so I never really get the Narrative Arc. So let’s just wildly speculate instead!

If we were going to divide all women up into these two arbitrary categories, we have to decide how to do it. Should we use skirt length? Number of dudes banged? What do we do about those girls who kiss girls, and not just for fun? It gets real complicated real quick. There are girls who wear “revealing” clothes, bright red lipstick and insert other “trashy” marker here who aren’t interested in sleeping with anyone. There are nerdy girls in the corner with thick glasses, unshaven body hair and no interest in sexy lingerie who will fuck your brains out. Girls, they contain multitudes, man. Multitudes of fashion decisions and desires and interests and it’s not your job (or anyone else’s, regardless of gender) to categorize them as good or bad.

Now let’s get onto the whole, sex makes you bad business. Your song implies that a man is able to change this good/bad girl distinction, presumably with his penis, or tongue or whatever? To quote: “Let me shake up your world/’Cause just one night couldn’t be so wrong” I don’t like that because a man being in control of whether a girl is “good” or “bad” is a pretty blatantly misogynist idea. It’s not difficult to see the power over women’s sexuality that this gives men.The contention that we can divide half the world’s population into the good and the bad is pretty fucked.

You know that saying about dividing and conquering? Yeah, the patriarchy is totally on top of that shit. So why are you making music that reinforces they idea that such a dichotomy exists? People who believe this shit use it to decide how seriously a woman should be taken as an individual. I’m into this hot new thing where the worth of women isn’t determined by their personal sexual appetites. It’s pretty new, you’ve probably never heard of it.

(Now that I’ve finally paid attention to the end of that video clip, I find myself with more questions than answers; what the fuck is happening?? Why are there undercover police….? Oh I get it, it’s a “douchey white framed glasses” raid, right?)

In practice I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt that you mean “bad” in the fun sexy way and not the slut shaming way. But would it have been too hard to get someone to switch that chorus up to “I make the good boys go bad” at least a few times? It would have made me so happy!!! On that note, and in a vague attempt to add some kind of binding theme to this post, let me end by pointing to this cover for its fucking with the something something male gaze something patriarchy qualities. After all, I love you really Cobra Starship.

XOXO

 

The Case of Polly Courtney: How the media attempts to dismiss women

The DailyMail website published an article titled ‘Novelist who left banking because of sexism fires publisher for putting ‘fluffy and degrading’ covers on her books’. It’s an interesting example of the changes that are currently occurring in publishing, where a writer—particularly one like Polly Courtney, who appears to have an established readership base—can choose self-publishing in order to have greater control over the outcome of the final product. In this instance, she is particularly concerned with the book cover, which for her novel ‘It’s a Man’s World’ is an image of a woman looking overwhelmed, on a mobile phone with folders in both hands. She appears to be shrugging, overwhelmed by her work, and the focus is on the woman’s bare legs.

Overall it’s a fairly typical ‘chick lit’ kind of cover, which isn’t my issue.The complaints of the author seem to me to be relevant—she sees it as demeaning, both to herself and the book she wrote, which, according to the summary given, is about the ways in which women are forced to compromise themselves in order to “get ahead” in a male dominated workplace. According to the article, Courtney left her job in the financial sector as a result of sexism in the workplace so this would be something that she has personal experience with and considers important.

None of that is really the issue either: the article sums up her arguments, the arguments of her publisher and then goes on to say that Courtney once took a pole dancing class and talked about it on her blog and, the article seems to say, as a result we shouldn’t consider her complaints genuine.

No. Really. The article says: “Courtney, who has previously posted photographs of herself pole dancing on the internet, said the image was too racy” and, later in the article, “In 2006, Courtney’s website carried photographs of her pole dancing – which she said she had done ‘for a laugh’.”

Why the author of the article felt the need to include this I don’t know. It’s entirely irrelevant and the idea that she should not be taken seriously if she once took a pole dancing class and posted pictures of it is downright insulting to women everywhere (and sex workers in particular). God forbid if she’d been an actual stripper or enjoy her sexuality or do anything fun ever.

This is how women are told to shut up and sit down rather than have their complaints taken seriously. It’s how sexism is dismissed and women’s stories are demeaned. It plays into the virgin/whore dynamic, where if a woman ever does anything overtly sexual she should never be taken seriously ever again but if she doesn’t she is a prude. However you feel personally about the cover—racy and demeaning or inoffensive—the insinuation that Courtney’s complaints should be ignored or dismissed outright because she once took a pole dancing class is hugely offensive.

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.

Nudity and the heterosexual male gaze in Game of Thrones

Note: Contains spoilers for all aired episodes of the TV series but none for the books.

 

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a show that contained as much nudity as Game of Thrones (something not unusual for a show produced by HBO and something which also featured heavily in the books), a great deal of discussion has addressed the use of “sexposition” on the show. Though in many ways I feel this goes unsaid, I’m going to say it anyway: nudity, whether male or female, is not inherently exploitative. It can be used in order to make significant character or thematic points, a process which Game of Thrones uses very effectively in many cases.

For instance, in the case of the character Daenerys in the episode “Winter is Coming”, nudity is used to indicate vulnerability and her own lack of agency—she has nothing that protects from the world and, perhaps more importantly, it is used to show that those who you would expect to protect her (first her brother and then husband) are in fact the people she has the most to fear from. Her discovering her sexual agency—in taking charge of her sex life with her husband—is used to indicate her increasing overall agency in her own life. At the very end of the first season, in the episode “Fire and Blood”, Daenerys’ nudity is meant to indicate emancipation and rebirth. There is certainly nothing exploitative about any of that nor do any of the scenes seem to me to pander to the heterosexual male gaze.

Ros, a sex worker who worked in both Winterfell and Kings Landing, is a wonderful character, liberated and funny and comfortable in both her own skin and in her profession. (In case it isn’t clear: no, there isn’t anything inherently exploitative in sex work.)* In a scene between her and Theon in the episode “The Wolf and the Lion”, they have had sex and are discussing Theon’s position in the household. She is funny and confident and deals with Theon’s ridiculousness very effectively. This is certainly a case of “sexposition” and it works fine. The camera does not pan over Ros’ body or linger on her nakedness in any obvious way and her sexuality is her own.

There are many other instances in which nudity is used in a way that is neither exploitative nor offensive, such as in the scene in “Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things” between Viserys and Doreth in which they are in a bath, relating information while having sex. The scene ends jarringly, knocking the viewer (and Doreth) out of the sexy way the scene had gone those far and nailing home the difference between the situation of Doreth (a slave) and Ros (who isn’t a slave). The scene also emphasizes how horrific a person Viserys is, as later in the episode he drags Doreth violently into a scene by her hair.

The instances in which the heterosexual male gaze is used strongly—unavoidably—is in the two lesbian scenes in the series. One is between Daenerys and Doreth, who is teaching Daenerys about the best ways to have sex. The scene is heavily charged with sexual tension, as one would expect such scene to be. However, the scene does not appear to be between two women with same-sex attraction. These are not queer women or, at the very least, they do not appear to be to this queer woman. They are straight women, one teaching and the other learning, not how to please another woman but how to please a man.

This scene is relatively mild, especially in comparison with the lesbian scene that follows in  the episode “You Win or You Die”. This scene has a very strong connection with lesbian porn aimed at straight men. Like the scene between Daenerys and Doreth, these are not queer women. No doubt this time, these are straight women (when the other woman in the scene is going down on Ros, and Ros is moaning, it is implied that she is faking it for her imagined audience) who are performing for a literal male audience, in this case Petyr/Littlefinger. There are many problems with this scene and I’m going to start with the least egregious: Aidan Gillan, who plays Littlefinger, isn’t great in this scene. I wouldn’t go as far as saying he’s terrible but he can’t carry what is basically a monologue.

This, however, is hardly the worst thing about the scene.  As mentioned above, it has a very strong connection with lesbian porn aimed at straight men. Unlike in the previous “sexposition” scenes, one of the participants—Littlefinger—remains fully clothed. He instructs the women in what they’re doing and, in an aggravating show of heterosexism, declares Ros should this time “be the man”. The majority of the scene is designed to mimic sex between a cisgendered man and a cisgendered woman. In the other scenes described the camera lingers on faces and eyes and you certainly don’t get the types of shots you get in the scene with Littlefinger, which occasionally lingers on bodies without heads and the camera panning down the woman’s bodies.

Game of Thrones actually manages to be quite progressive in general in terms of how it deals with nudity—female nudity in particular—and the use of the male gaze. However, in the way it deals with nominally lesbian scenes and sexuality is extremely problematic. I would love more queer ladies on my television. Funnily enough though, I actually want them to be queer, not there for the enjoyment of men who happen to like girl-on-girl.

 


* Though as she is the only sex worker mentioned in relation to Winterfell it could lead one to believe that it is a town with only the one person employed in sex work or, as a friend of mine assumed while watching, that “Ros” was just the standard name given out by sex workers in Winterfell.

 

Disclaimer: The treatment of queer sexuality is not the only problem Game of Thrones has, merely the one I wanted to discuss right now. In particular, the treatment of race and people of colour in the narrative is extremely problematic, and I hope future posts can deal with this. 

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.

A Duty to Justice

I am currently completing a post-Law-degree course that will let me become a qualified lawyer in Australia. All of our instructors have been practicing in their fields of expertise for many years, so frankly, I shouldn’t have been surprised when some of those barristers and advocates supported slut-shaming and victim-blaming as ways of conducting rape and sexual assault cases. And then justified that attitude as a duty to their defendant client.

In Australia, about 1 in 5 women experience sexual assault and violence. Of those one in five, only 1 in 3 of those assaults are reported to police. Of those assaults reported, only 1 in 3 proceed to trial based on the likelihood of prosecution and wishes of the victim (PDF link).

Criminal proceedings are notoriously bad when treating victim giving witness testimony. Not only must they relive the crime in a courtroom under the scrutiny of lawyers, judges and jurors, but they are often asked highly invasive questions during cross-examination. (I should note here that now a lot of cross-examination is filmed privately on video and played to the court as evidence instead of live testimony.) Of course, any witness testimony will inevitably be difficult for a victim, and witness testimonies will always be necessary to satisfy the criminal burden of proof in an adversarial, common law jurisdiction. But there is never a justification for using arguments or questions grounded in victim-blaming as part of a defence. There is never an excuse to quiz the witness on what they were wearing, how many people they’ve slept with in the past and whether they were inebriated. There is never an excuse to reinforce rape culture.

The argument I most commonly run against is: that, in absence of evidence beyond conflicting testimonies, lawyers need to use whatever favourable “evidence” they can find, because they have a duty to do their best to win the case for their client.

Call me old fashioned or just a fresh-faced graduate from law school, but I thought lawyers were supposed to be officers of the court first.

Jurors aren’t rational and objective beings beamed down from the planet Vulcan to sit in judgement on our legal cases. Living in a rape culture, it should surprise no one that jurors will often hold prejudiced, misogynistic and anti-victim views. Using arguments and reasoning that appeal solely to a person’s prejudice only reinforces that prejudice and in cases of sexual assault and rape, only reinforces rape culture.

People trot out the evidence argument as if it is an unsavoury yet necessary practical component of sexual violence prosecutions. But anti-victim arguments aren’t “evidence” of anything, and they definitely aren’t evidence of consent. Whether a victim was wearing sexy lingerie has no bearing on their consent, just like a person’s skin colour and ethnicity has no bearing on whether they’d commit a theft. Suggesting victims who don’t initially report assaults are liars reinforces misinformation about “correct” victim behaviours and completely ignores statistical realities – that contextually, a reluctance to officially report sexual crimes is probably evidence that the victim was being truthful. Relying on misogyny and rape culture to acquit a defendant is a lazy and dishonest way of conducting a case, and no different from relying on racism or classism or any other prejudice. Such overt prejudices are impossible to find in the courtroom nowadays, yet victim-blaming sadly remains rampant and acceptable.

Yes, rape and sexual assault are difficult areas of law because consent is often one person’s word against the other. However, judges and juries often make findings of fact on little or no evidence beyond witness testimonies, and often rely on how credible they found a witness to determine those facts. While jurors may still be influenced by internalised prejudice to determine issues of credibility, at least this isn’t something they’ve explicitly turned their mind to. Credibility may still place unreasonable expectations on victim behaviour, but at least some of those expectations can be prepared for and managed after the crime.

An adversarial legal system does require the defence to act as a check on the prosecution. The defence ensures there is procedural fairness, and that the prosecution has proved their case on the evidence. The burden of proof in criminal cases is much higher than in civil cases – the prosecution must prove the defendant is guilty beyond reasonable doubt. That’s a high enough burden without the defence needing to rely on victim-blaming to make the prosecution work that bit harder for our taxpayer money.

Nor are lawyers required to do everything possible to win a case. In fact many things are explicitly forbidden because they conflict with a lawyer’s duty to the court. For example, lawyers cannot knowingly allow someone to present false evidence or delay proceedings as a tactic. Lawyers should cease acting for clients who insist on presenting false evidence. From there, even if it isn’t explicitly stated in the Professional Conduct rules, I’d say that it’s necessary to imply a “Don’t reinforce the prejudices of the jurors” in the interests of justice.

DID YOU KNOW?

Under the Evidence Act 2008 (Vic), evidence that relies on stereotypes is considered improper. Evidence about tendency (ie. they’ve had sex with X before so they would have X with again in this instance!) is generally only allowed in very limited circumstances.

Of course the law is not always applied perfectly (stereotypes to a judge is likely to be more limited than someone from a social justice framework) and these laws only apply to the state of Victoria in Australia. There are plenty of places around the world where slut-shaming is a valid and legal defence.