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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

Musings on the judgements teachers make about their female students (and a sneaky Taylor Swift reference)

I am a teacher. Which to me seems a faintly ridiculous statement to make because it conjures up someone with far greater knowledge and teacherly-attitude than I could ever hope to have. The other day a student asked how to spell liquorice, and I couldn’t remember. Would that happen to a Real Teacher? (My investigations suggest you can spell it two ways).

That caveat aside I am, for all intents and purposes, a teacher. Just like the ones that you used to have, who would say things like “students if you’re not quiet now we can do this at lunchtime” (sometimes I say this!). One of the discoveries of being on the other side of the staffroom door is that teachers are, despite teacherly-attitude to the contrary, exactly like everyone else. This means that we don’t really want to stay in at lunchtime in order to instill some discipline in our uncaring students. Sadly it also means that teachers are beset with the usual prejudices. Just as within the rest of the world in our schools young women are repeatedly judged by their looks.

This week I was waiting for a student to join one of my classes. Every time I talked to another staff member about her they said some variety of the following “You’ll love her, she works so hard. Also she is very pretty.” Sometimes the fact that she was pretty came first! This made me feel increasingly uncomfortable. Her prettiness is clearly unimportant in her academic abilities but still it was remarked upon. It seemed the other teachers were unable to stop themselves from mentioning it.

In the above example the other teachers seemed to be suggesting that this student was worthy of greater attention from her teachers because of how she looked. Attention is a keyword when talking about beautyism in the classroom because a whole lot of teaching is based on getting and keeping the attention of your students. Furthermore, being the idealistic teacher that I am, I believe students who get more of my attention are more likely to succeed at school.

It is wrong that we grant greater attention to female students who are good looking. However, pretty girls who distract male students attention in class are also quickly judged unworthy of teacher attention. As with everywhere, it is desirable to be “pretty” but only if you’re pretty in certain ways.

Attention seeking behaviours of boys are deemed cheeky. Boys who act the class clown are maybe reprimanded and sometimes punished with detention, but invariably teachers will make an ongoing effort to get them engaged in class work. If you are a pretty girl who distracts the attention of the male students in your class, in my experience you are not so lucky. Teachers in the staffroom will talk about the length of your skirt and the colour of your makeup, they will even explicitly call you out for being a slut. And guess what? They won’t help you catch up in class.

Disclaimer, disclaimer: Of course, the plural of anecdote is not data. These are just my (limited) experiences of teaching and talking to other teachers. In fact, on the macro level the data is against me, everything I have seen in the last twenty years of education research suggests that girls out-perform boys in almost all subject areas. Furthermore, maybe I am putting too much stock in the importance of having the attention of a teacher. There are also issues around class that intersect with gender in this area (there is at least another blogpost in that, probably a book).

However, my experience has been that school systems often work to reinforce and perpetuate the societal norm that women and girls should be judged on their looks, and that there success is dependent upon them. It is so easy to fall into the trap of reinforcing this. Difficult teenage girls are fairly terrifying. Plus, they can totally remind you of when you were in high school when you were the one with the sneakers and she is clearly the kind of girl that had the high heels and the shorts skirts. So, one promise I’m going to make as a young teacher is not to reinforce this idea, not to support the pretty girl just because she is pretty and not to stop helping the difficult girl. If anything we should all be working not to confirm the ridiculous distinctions made by Taylor Swift songs, surely?

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.

Some Things Are Not Meant to Be Understood By the Gender Essentialists

Oh XOJane, advise me on how to be selfish and how to stop feeling like I have to please others!

A wise woman I know once told me that there are two types of women: those who dress for men, and those who dress for other women.

How you dress and present to the world is definitely not a personal, creative expression of yourself. It’s a lot healthier to dress to win the approval and acceptance of your peers. In fact, women should feel like their appearance is being constantly scrutinised and judged by everyone and then dress accordingly. But the difficulty is that men and women don’t like the same things! You can’t please both genders at once! Because men and women are so different.

I actually think I do both depending on the day, but I will admit that there are two very different kinds of outfits. The below, which I imagineered up while working from home this morning, was never meant to be understood by the penised of the species.

Penises have magical powers that will dictate your sense of style and aesthetics, didn’tchaknow? Penises also have magical powers that will dictate your gender identity! (Hint: this is sarcasm, your gender identity is completely independent of your genitalia.)

 To test my theory, I emailed my boyfriend a picture of this concoction,

A sample size of ONE is highly scientific PROOF. PROOF I TELL YOU.

Then my (male) therapist said he thought it was very “creative,” which may have been code for “time to catatonically make some rainbow lanyards down at the mental hospey.”

Further proof of how men and women are Different (TM) because even your therapist hates it! (That’s a sample size of TWO for those of you still playing.) Whenever I describe something as “creative” I definitely mean it to have negative and ableist connotations. I definitely wouldn’t say what I actually meant.

But maybe some commenters will have picked up the errors in her post? The gender essentialism, the trans erasure, the dressing-for-validation…

You could amend those categories slightly.

Wait, a commenter with some sense? A lone voice of reason?

I think the two camps are actually MEN, and THOSE WHO LIKE PENIS (which includes us males of the homosexual persuasion, who also understand that sometimes a hairdo is just begging for the addition of an oversized butterfly, feather, or some such fabricated flora or fauna to make it complete).

Oh, my mistake, it’s just someone making broad generalisations and stereotypes about sexual orientations.

Carry on then, XOJane.