Separatism and Intersectionality

One of the broadest areas of disagreement within the social justice community is the extent to which we should distance ourselves from individuals in the groups oppressing us. The argument often devolves into a fight between simpering pacifism of the “Let’s all just get along and be happy together!” flavour, and violent militarism of the “I spit in the face of group Z” flavour.

Now, on a personal level, both of these positions are completely valid. If that’s how you feel is appropriate for you personally to proceed, then that’s fine. But we have a problem when either of these positions is evangelised, and presented as though it is the only acceptable way to live with yourself as the member of an oppressed group. In particular, pushing separatism as the ideal mode of resistance from oppression is a tactic that erases intersectionality.

In the past, I’ve been a card-carrying member of the “Let’s try to all live together because peace and love are better than fighting!” group. But I now realise there are some very deep problems with that position.

The first is that trying to always and everywhere get along and live together with individuals who are actively a threat to your mental and emotional well-being is not a sustainable position. There is often very real tension involved when individuals in oppressed groups befriend, become involved with, or interact with individuals from the groups oppressing them. Regardless of the intentions of the privileged individual, the social power dynamic between the groups creates additional risks for the person who is a member of the marginalised group. It’s important for us to recognise this, on two levels. As members of marginalised groups, we owe it to ourselves to preserve our emotional health, and manage these risks to the best of our abilities. That may mean limiting our interactions or choosing them carefully or many other options. As members of privileged groups, we owe it to everyone to make sure we never abuse the awful, misbegotten social power we have. (And if we fuck up on this point, we have to own it and say sorry.)

For example, in a society infused with sexism, androcentrism and rape culture, there are things that many women feel they must take into consideration when interacting with men, that they do not often feel they must consider when interacting with other women. Melissa McEwan’s excellent essay “The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck” explain this very well (McEwan and I often disagree, but that essay is phenomenal). I imagine that the situation is comparable – though with its own complexities, of course – for POC when they interact with white people. I know from experience as a queer woman with various mental health issues, the tensions can also arise when someone with a disability interacts with an able-bodied-and-minded person, and when queers interact with straight people.

The second issue is that marginalised people do not owe it to their oppressors to make nice with them. Sure, there may well be benefits to cultivating empathy and forgiveness towards those who hurt us (I find anger exhausting, so I try to do this). But people are not obligated to do this! There should never be any expectation that oppressed people should have a big Nelson Mandela moment and forgive everyone. The reason why Nelson Mandela is so famous is because what he did is fucking incredible. It is simply not right to ask all oppressed people to morph into a cross between Buddha and Jesus in order to live in this world. Often this request presents itself insidiously, in the form of fake concern, “I just think you’d feel better if you forgave Whitey…”. No. If people want to be angry, let them be angry. If they never want to forgive the people responsible for the harm done to CeCe McDonald or Jamie Hubley, that is their goddamn right. The fact that individuals in privileged groups feel entitled to preach the benefits of forgiveness and then brand all who do not forgive and forget as “part of the problem” is…well, part of the problem.

However, there are equally serious problems with the rallying cry for separatism as the only form of true activism. Well actually, I’m only going to talk about the one massive problem I see with separatism. Its name is intersectionality.

Aiming for separatism completely ignores intersectionality, and in so doing, recreates kyriarchical power structures within the social justice movement itself. I am going to demonstrate the issues using feminism and women, but the principles apply the same to other movements like fat acceptance, anti-racism, the queer movement, etc. I do not mean to imply that feminism is the only guilty party here. I do not mean to imply that, for example, asking queer women to choose womanhood over all other facets of their identity is any worse than asking them to choose queerness.

Also, when I talk about separatism I’m not only talking about the idea that we should be literally separated and not interact with individuals from privileged groups. I’m also talking broadly about the philosophy that declares that Group X and Group Not-X can never get along, that they are fundamentally too different to ever understand each other. The problem of course is that Group Y Separatists also feel that way about Group Y and Not-Y. So now what happens when you’re in group X and group Y? You probably have friends and allies who are X and Not-Y, or Y and Not-X. It’s not a fun time. Ask any woman who is not straight and/or white.

So: Separatist feminism declares that no peace can ever be made between men and women, so women should at least limit or eliminate any emotional ties or interaction with men, and at most commit social or physical violence against them. But to demand this of all women is to ask women to deny other, equally important aspects of themselves besides their womanhood. It is asking them to deny the ways in which they may feel more comfortable and more at peace with some men than with some women. For example, some women of colour, who have been marginalised by white women in the feminist movement for centuries, may feel they actually have as much or more in common with men of colour than with white women. Of course, asking for racial separatism has the same problem: it asks women of colour to cast aside all commonalities white women in favour of men of colour. Asking women of colour to declare an unbridgeable gap either with white women or men of colour is ridiculous and harmful.

That is the essence of separatism. When you call for female separatism you are asking queer women to cut off their ties to non-women queers and declare undying allegiance to all women – including straight women, who may in the past have bullied them, who may today be passing laws that hurt them. You are asking fat women to declare they have more in common with thin women than with fat men – when thin women might well have been the primary enforcers of their marginalisation as fat people for years. What is more, you are erasing genderqueers and other nonbinary folk. And frankly given that some so-called feminists don’t consider transwomen women, you’re probably making all the transwomen very fucking nervous indeed.

Any form of separatism has these problems. Ask anyone with more than one area of marginalisation, and they have stories about how their “Group X” identity is marginalised within the much-vaunted “Group Y Safe Space”. This doesn’t just happen in big, populous movements like feminism. There are people who are marginalised in the trans community because of sizeism. There are people who are marginalised in the fat acceptance community, and in the movement against ableism, because of their race.

I don’t deny that cultivating an “us versus them” mentality is tempting, given the horrors of oppression. But it is actively bad for our communities. It erases the most vulnerable members of oppressed communities, that is, those who have more than one area in which they are marginalised. Even if you say “Well okay then, we’re going to have ‘queer women of colour’ separatism!” you’re still asking disabled and fat people to make allegiance choices… and you’re potentially ignoring the ways different ethnic groups are treated in the caucasian-centric racial heirarchy. It doesn’t end there either because virtually everyone is in a unique situation. We can’t escape the problem by implementing a finer granulation. It doesn’t work like that.

Thus, separatism inherently demands that some members of your group choose between their various “competing” and complex identities. That’s just not okay. This shit is hard enough to reconcile even without all the white feminists or male queers or thin or able-bodied people breathing down your neck and urging you to “pick a side”. There is no picking sides. Yes, we are different, and we have different experiences in this world because of the traits we have and the groups we belong to. But there is no unbridgeable gap between these groups – there are actual human beings where the gap is supposed to be.

On a societal level, we do all have to live together. Not out of some misplaced, wide-eyed, soppy utopianism, but because any attempt to balkanize humanity is an attempt to erase and deny intersectionality completely. Yes, any individual is free to arrange their life to preserve their mental and emotional well-being, and whatever level of interaction they choose for themselves is to be respected. Yes, it is abhorrent to expect members of marginalised groups to forgive and forget, and make nice all the time. But it is equally abhorrent to ask them to cut out a part of themselves and disavow it – to end their emotional investment in all communities except the one being championed right at that moment. That is not the way to end marginalisation. That is a recipe for re-creating it within our own communities.


Accepting Help from Homophobes

I wrote a post on Tumblr about the Salvos a few months back, but the issue of homophobia in the Salvation Army has recently become headline-worthy in Australia since singer Darren Hayes’ called to boycott the organisation.

I’m the last person who is going to defend rampant homophobia, and let’s be clear, that’s certainly the institutionalised belief system within that organisation. All of us on SJL are strong proponents of secularism and exist somewhere on the agnostic to atheist scale (okay, I’m probably the only person closer to that agnostic point). The problem is that no one else is really providing the same services as the Salvation Army – at least not where I live.

In my work I am regularly in contact with people from low socioeconomic backgrounds, newly-arrived migrants with little or no English, women in or who have come from violent relationships, people with severe mental illnesses, people who are homeless, people who are barely getting by financially. And when those clients need access to free financial counselling, food vouchers, public transport tickets and general community support I usually refer them to the Salvation Army or another religious-based organisation that probably doesn’t have more progressive views on being queer.

There’s a couple of reasons why this is the case. First, these organisations need to be based in the local area where the clients are living. Yes, there may be a secular organisation doing the same work in the city, but considering clients may need to be regular contact with caseworkers, it’s not practical to be making referrals to places with more than 30 minutes travel time one-way. The additional issue is that clients may not have access to a car, live near public transport, or even necessarily have the money to access public transport.

Second, these non-secular organisations are often a one-stop shop for a disadvantaged person. If someone can pick up food vouchers and book an appointment with a caseworker to find emergency housing, have another appointment with a financial counsellor about their managing their finances all at the same place then that’s going to be the easiest and most convenient way for them to seek help.

Third, while I don’t have too much experience in this, my understanding is that those organisations will provide support to queer people if they meet their merits criteria (which will be an assessment of assets and income) despite their homophobic doctrine. I have heard stories about queer people being turned away from the Salvation Army in the USA, but so far I’ve not heard any similar stories about the organisation in Australia. And while it would be best if queer people were not being provided support by a homophobic organisation, if someone is severely marginalised then the important thing is that they are getting that support in the first place. Unfortunately neither I, nor my clients can be particular about my referrals because simply, there’s often no choice to be had.

From an activism point of view, what would be far more helpful is supporting and establishing secular charities that provide the same services without the homophobia. Unfortunately it’s not as simple as it may seem. One practical obstacle is that where service-provider already exist in a region, it’s often difficult to find money or funding to set up a service that would do substantially the same thing – even if the existing service is non-secular and discriminatory. There’s the additional self-sustaining cycle of such organisations from being the sole provider of aid in area. Because people come to know and rely on a particular organisation, that group gains more social capital. Any new service would need to forge new ties and take the time to establish themselves in the area, and it’s far from guaranteed that people would flock to an alternative.

Am I saying you should donate to the Salvation Army? Honestly, that’s entirely your own choice, as is the choice to boycott the organisation. But let’s be clear that boycotting an organisation is a privilege not everyone has. People in need of emergency aid and community support often aren’t able to choose which organisations they approach, even if they are aware of the homophobia in an institution. And while it often irks me to make a referral, it would be worse if I denied marginalised and disadvantaged people access to the help they need.


Under the Gaydar

Most people reading this probably know what the word “gaydar” means. It’s apparently an innate ability that identifies people with queer sexuality without explicit knowledge and sometimes, without even speaking to that other person. It’s an innate ability both straight AND queer people have professed to possess. However, it’s a concept that’s extremely erasing of some queer identities, and plays into assumptions about a heterosexual norm.

I’ve no doubt this myth has arisen unintentionally due to unexamined confirmation bias. Every time someone “correctly” identifies a queer person they stick that into their evidence basket, and eventually they seem to have a whole lot of evidence supporting the fact that they’re really good at identifying queer people. This kind of sampling obviously does not hold up to scientific rigor. What people don’t realise is that they’re not taking into account the people they’ve failed to identify as queer – or generally, people who they’ve assumed are straight.

I’m someone who often flies under the gaydar, and I know people who are even more stealth cloaked than I am. The problem is that only certain people are detected with gaydar: usually those whose queer identities are highly visible because they clash with the heteronormative framework (for example, femme men and butch women). And of course I think those identities are as wonderful and as valid as anything else, but the concept of gaydar reinforces the idea that queer sexuality only comes in so many flavours, and nothing else. For example, femme lesbians will often experience incredulity from others that they’re not straight, because they’re “not butch enough” to be a lesbian.

“Gaydar” also reinforces the idea that certain queer people (and ace/asexual people!) need to come “out” about their sexuality. I understand that in a heteronormative society there are benefits when an individual comes out, but we should be working towards a society where straight sexuality is not the default assumption. If we lack actual information about a person’s sexuality, then we shouldn’t make any assumptions because sexuality is not something that can be gleaned from personality type or clothing.

While I don’t accept the concept of “Gaydar”, I do want to acknowledge the benefits of having a queer community who can recognise each other. There’s nothing wrong with dressing or performing queerness in a way that differentiates yourself from the heterosexual crowd, especially if this is a practical necessity when looking for partners. And if that’s the case, then it’s necessary for other queer people to draw certain assumptions about sexuality almost purely from a person’s appearance. The ability for queer people to spot other queers is necessary and, I would argue, community-building to an extent. Something babies something something bathwater.

However, just because I’m queer doesn’t mean I’m perfect at identifying other queer people either. In one particular case a person was very active in both the queer and kink communities, was completely at ease with any deviations from heteronormativity, but was actually completely straight.* I had been 110% convinced they were queer.

To delve into some wholly unproven and unqualified pop psychology, I think I’m better at identifying queer people than a straight person because I’m more exposed to queer culture. I can point to community identifiers outside wearing plaid shirts and listening to Tegan & Sara, even if I can’t express exactly what. Often the feeling doesn’t come from any particular thing I can point to, it’s from everything and something extra. That said, I’m only good at identifying queer people from my region and culture, because I’m specifically exposed to the regional queer culture. I’d have a much harder time spotting a queer person if I were in another country with a markedly different culture. “Queer” itself is, after all, a Western-centric concept.

So where does this leave us? I’d argue that the Gaydar has been a broken model from the beginning, and if anything, a concept that is rooted in straight appropriation of queer experiences. Certainly we are not doing the queer community any favours by advancing or validating that concept. However, we also want to be able identify members of our community who are performing a certain form of queerness, while not forgetting other members of our community who validly choose to perform their queerness in perhaps a less immediately identifiable way. Oh yeah, and also acknowledge that we can often fuck up while doing both.

It’s complicated (of course) and I definitely don’t have the answers. My personal solution is probably fairly unsatisfying: “put less weight on your ability to evaluate a person’s queerness if you don’t know for certain”. My ability to evaluate queerness changes depending on the context of my encounters as well – from queer events, a friend’s party, a shopping centre and to being in any country where homosexuality is still outlawed.

If I were to admit to the existence of “Gaydar” I would say that it only works moderately well in extremely limited circumstances, never finds all the targets you’re looking for anyway, and will sometimes result in false positives. In my opinion it’s better disavow the existence of Gaydar altogether than explain all that to straight people who will otherwise think that queer people have a secret handshake and superpowers. Or, you know, that queer people can only look and act in very limited ways.

On a more serious note, it’s also my personal belief that the limited portrayal of queer identities in queer sexuality is one of the reasons why many stay in denial about their sexuality. The idea that you have to change your whole identity to look or act a certain way is a far more daunting thought than the fact you’re simply attracted (a) particular gender(s).

*I’m aware that there’s some discussion around how the “queer” label and identity should be applied (namely, whether it can or should be used in solidarity with the polyamoury and kink communities), but as this is a social justice blog I think we can agree that a straight person still benefits from straight privilege, even if they may be marginalised in other ways.


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

Oh fuck off!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Fauxgress Watch: “Born This Way”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 


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. 


Fauxgress Watch: “Gentlemen Prefer Curves”

If we want to end cultural pressure on women to make their bodies conform to an ideal, we need to reject – not embrace – the idea that “men prefer curvy women” or “men like women to have some curves”. I know it’s tempting for those of us whose natural body shape puts us outside the sociocultural beauty ideal to try to latch onto this idea to regain some confidence. I also understand wanting to propagate a message that subverts dominant beauty standards, and because it attempts to do that, this message is not as harmful as a message that says the opposite. Nevertheless, a cursory analysis of this message reveals that it is not really progress. It does not promote genuine freedom from misogyny and beautyism.

First, by invoking male approval to validate a certain female body type, this message reinforces the idea that men’s approval of women’s bodies is the most relevant and important yardstick by which the quality our bodies should be measured. In this framework, women are seen to be valuable largely (or indeed only) to the extent that they are enjoyed by men. This idea is implicitly invoked whenever men’s approval is deemed the most suitable basis on which women are invited to build their self esteem. Obviously, this idea is deeply misogynistic and seriously heterosexist. It’s also damaging on a psychological level for individual women to base their self worth on the extent to which they please men.

Secondly, this message reinforces the idea there is a need to rank women’s bodies at all. It implies that some kind of hierarchy should exist. People who propagate this message want the current regime inverted to favour women with “some curves” rather than very thin women. This not only ignores but actively undermines the superior goal of destroying the whole concept of a beauty hierarchy. Instead of criticising the whole disgusting concept of ranking people based on the extent to which their bodies conform to the conventional ideal, the message actually reinforces it as a worthwhile exercise.

Thirdly, this message subtextually supports the idea that there is one nebulous, homogeneous entity of “men” who all like the same thing. Although this is what women’s magazines, men’s magazines and many human beings seem to believe, this is bullshit. This erases not only men who do like skinny women, but also men who like other men, men who prefer very fat women rather than women with merely “some” curves, men who prefer genderqueer or intersex partners, asexual men, demisexual men, men who don’t care about any physical attributes of their partners, and so on. Also, the message that all people, or even most people, have highly similar sexual preferences and desires is damaging in another way: it is part of what makes the existence of a cultural beauty standard so poisonous, because it allows our culture to invoke a monolith of attraction/disgust for certain bodies.

It is perfectly fine – important, in fact – for us to make media celebrating the fact that some people are really into women whose bodies are larger than the current sociocultural beauty ideal. Given the state of mainstream culture, it is fast becoming absolutely crucial we make media acknowledging that human sexuality is diverse, and that being outside the boundaries of conventional attractiveness does not mean nobody finds you hot, sexy, gorgeous, or beautiful. That would be real progress. This isn’t.