No Free Lunch for Social Justice

In economics, we have a saying: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch”. We like to say this because it expresses two important observations. The first is the lesson about “opportunity cost”, which is that the true cost of something is what you give up to get it. If you get a “free” lunch, you may not be paying money but you’re giving up the chance to have lunch somewhere else with someone else. The second lesson is that, as yet, humans cannot make something from nothing. So somebody somewhere is paying for this lunch. Someone made the lunch and their time was valuable, someone provided the inputs and those inputs were valuable. Lunch does not materialise out of nowhere.

This does not mean we cannot create something greater than the sum of the inputs. We know that certain things we make and do provide benefits far greater than the cost of the inputs (a vaccination is a great example). Actually, we routinely do this! Humans are amazing. But the inputs cost something, all the same.

I want to try to convince you that the “no free lunch” concept is something we need to apply to social justice. First let’s agree that as a movement, we have goals, which in general are just lunch on a grander scale. (Actually some of us have days where “lunch” becomes a serious goal, but let’s leave that aside.) Some of these goals are major, system-wide changes. We would like the rate of sexual assault of women to be as low as that of men. We would like the murder rate for transpeople to be as low as the murder rate for cispeople. We would like the incarceration rate for men of colour to be the same as for white men in the USA. We would like our media to celebrate diversity of appearances rather than enforcing a beauty heirarchy. We would like mental health to be taken as seriously in our community as physical health. And so on, ad infinitum.

I wish I could bring you good news on these goals but I can’t. I can only reiterate something most of us already know, but sometimes forget: If these things are going to happen in our societies we are going to have to give up something to get them. And these things are a lot harder to achieve than lunch is.

It is surprisingly easy to forget this truth, because we like to think that the world is going in the right direction of its own volition. You hear people say “the tide is turning” and “things will get better”. You hear them ascribe intent to the universe where there is no intent. We have to stop using the passive voice. If the tide is turning it is because somebody turned it. If things get better it is because somebody made it happen. The world is not on some kind of totally inevitable slide towards awesomeness that we just need to sit back and watch happen. The things we want to happen will not materialise out of nowhere.

Many of these problems need to be addressed at a regulatory level because they persist due to “coordination failures”. That is, we are stuck at a bad place because a single individual cannot make a big difference, and we can’t commit to work together on our own. That’s why we have government at all, to step in and help us get to the better outcome. (I’m not saying the government really does this, it clearly doesn’t do this a lot of the time, but it does some of the time and that’s it’s real job.)

We have good evidence that government could, if it wanted to and was sensible about implementation, actually change things. If you would like to know more about this, there’s a great speech by Professor Esther Duflo here on gender equality and development. Her research shows that introducing quotas for women in local government in India eradicates unconscious bias against women as leaders. Another great example: simply telling young girls that on the math test they are about to take, girls perform as well as boys on average, makes girls perform as well as boys on average.

I do not have such neat examples for how to fix problems that face trans people and fat people and PoC and disabled people. But that is probably due to my ignorance and not due to their nonexistence.

Now these policies are costly to implement in many cases, and they cost a lot more than lunch. As Esther points out, policies favouring women in development are more costly than gender-blind programs that give the same impact but for both genders. Often, the mere fact that these policies will disrupt the status quo or require re-training and follow-up mean they have costs. Also, we are going to have to fight hard to get them implemented because people are ignorant of their own biases, and because people with power don’t like to give it away. That fight is going to cost us too. These policies will be a net benefit overall in the vast majority of cases, but too often we confuse a “net benefit” proposition with a “no cost” proposition. When we confuse them, we get lulled into complacency and think we won’t have to fight for what we want. We can’t afford that.

But not all our goals are big, system wide, total overhaul goals. We also have what I’ll call “marginal goals”. While the system-wide problems persist, we can still work within the status quo to change things on the margin. So for example, we would like to live in a world where people recognise the persistent struggles of oppressed peoples instead of dismissing them. We would like to live in a world where the default response to a person complaining of systematic erasure is not “I don’t believe you, prove it!” but “That’s awful, would you like to talk about it?”. We would like to live in a world where there is justice for Trayvon Martin and where Mark Aguhar will be remembered. We would like to live in a world where, if a white person is told they are being racist, they say “I hadn’t considered that, I’m sorry, I’ll try to educate myself” not “Why did you call me a mean word? You’re so meaaaan! How are you any better than a racist if you are so mean?!?!”

In as far as we ourselves have some forms of privilege, these are things we can achieve by changing our own behaviour. White people, we’ve all been that white person, and the only way for us to get rid of that kind of white person is to check ourselves and check our people when they start mouthing off. Men, same goes for you. And cis people. And thin people. And able-bodied, mentally healthy people. And so on. If you want to consider yourself an “ally”, it is going to cost you. As well it should. Nothing is free, and as an ally you are less downtrodden than the people you are aiming to help, so you can afford to expend your energy and effort here better than they(we) can.

Because yes, it takes effort. Yes, it gets tiring. Yes, if you commit to listen every time someone tells of their oppression you will be committing a lot of time that you might wish you could spend talking about your favourite TV show. Yes, if you promise to check yourself and examine your privilege you are in for a long struggle. If you commit to this path you are in for a lot of painful realisations. Personally I shudder to remember that I once defended “The Blind Side” to a non-white friend. I’m sure she shudders to recall the time and energy she spent convincing me it was problematic, when she certainly had no obligation to do so. But she did it and I was willing to listen and together, we made me less racist than I had been before.

Changing your own behaviour takes time and effort and determination and unrelenting self-awareness. It takes up your energy. That is how you know you are doing anything at all. If your activism is always easy, and if it’s always fun for you, if you never have to give up anything, you might not really be doing that much. Nothing is free, not even lunch, and social progress at the margins is no exception to this rule.

Of course, you are not called upon to compromise your mental or physical health in this struggle. I do not recommend that you use up all your emotional and psychological resources on this fight, you have to take care of yourself – and self-care is a form of activism and resistance in a world that is trying to erase you. I also want to make it clear that it’s not the job of marginalised people to expend their effort educating others on their own marginalisation. Marginalised people are already expending effort just to survive under oppression.

But most of us have some form of privilege, and it is particularly in that area that we need to do some extra work. So while I don’t consider it my duty to explain feminism to men, as a white person I do need to educate and school other white people on anti-racism whenever I can. Here’s the secret: marginalised people don’t give a shit who identifies as an “ally” – it’s all about who actually speaks up and defends people against oppression. Talk is cheap. And you know what they say about the relative importance of actions and words. I’m not suggesting that you should put yourself in constant pain, but if you’re never or rarely expending effort or experiencing discomfort, then that is a warning sign.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch, not in social justice and not anywhere. I know most of you know this. But we all have privilege, and sometimes that means we forget it. Sometimes, we all need a reminder that the moment you find yourself thinking “But we’re discussing sci-fi right now, why does Angie keep bringing up racism?” is the moment where you need to choose the more painful option for you. Because that uncomfortable moment where you have to give up your fun conversation and have a sad, serious discussion, is the moment where you can actually change something. Even if it’s just at the margin.


Achievements Earned: Sexual Harassment, Rampant Misogyny, Silent Complacency

Listen up, gamers! When a prominent member of your community states explicitly that not only is sexual harassment a good thing, but that it’s ethically wrong to try to eradicate sexual harassment from gaming cultures, there is something very, very wrong. (I’m not the biggest fan of PA or this particular coverage, but it’s probably the best and most general overview of the issue.)

The fact that the article goes on to say that the fighting game community is split on the issue is positively frightening.

I’m not even going to address the people who think sexual harassment is okay because you’re morally reprehensible and frankly, you’re not worth my time. But for the people who are worried about the reputation and culture of the fighting game community, the gamer community or even the geek community in general, let’s chat.

First, it may be surprising that I’m not particularly interested in this Aris dude or the apparently numerous gamers who agree with him. At this point I’ve written them off as no-hopers who can’t see past their own egos to understand basic codes of moral behaviour. What I am concerned about, however, is the circumstances where the gaming culture has allowed these disgustingly bigoted views to flourish.

In many other subcultures and communities, people like Aris and his supporters wouldn’t make news or even dent the reputation of the community. Bigots like these people would be dealt within internally, mocked for their views and prompted ejected and vilified (as they should be). It would be clear that they were so completely out of touch with the community standards for good conduct that anyone claiming they were representative of the whole community would be laughed at.

But clearly this isn’t the case. There is a prominent and even normalised trend of sexually harassing women in gaming circles. I’m sure there are a number of perfectly nice gamers who don’t harass people and you know what, I could even believe that people like Aris are part of a small but vocal minority. The problem isn’t numbers, the problem is systematic complacency to bigotry and douchebaggery.

The Penny Arcade article illustrates the point perfectly here:

It’s important to point out that video comes from the first day of the competition. The stream where Aris defends and encourages the harassment of female players takes place on day five. That means this woman may have been mocked and sexually harassed for days without anyone stepping in, stopping the situation, or speaking to Aris. At one point during the stream there is even a conversation about the “Cap cops” coming in to shut things down, but the conversation about sexual harassment continues.

When no one stands up to bigots, then everyone who is silent is complacent to their bigotry because bigots take silence to mean approval. Yes, Aris was the one who was sexually harassing female players, but what of the number of spectators who stood around and just let it happen? This kind of behaviour could have been nipped in the bud if someone had spoken up from day one. Their individual silence is as bad as Aris’ abuse, and collectively more significant.

You might think it’s unfair that I accord this sort of responsibility onto spectators who don’t have control over what Aris says. The fact of the matter is, Aris had enough confidence to let loose his abuse because he’d done it before with no consequences. He’d done it before, might have even been congratulated by a few douchenozzles, but more importantly, he’d experienced no or very little backlash from fellow gamers. The truth is that if you’re silent about bigotry then you are complicit in it – because bigots will assume that, you too, are a bigot.

You might still think it’s unfair that I accord this sort of communal responsibility onto spectators, but it’s also fucking unfair that Miranda Pakozdi was allowed to be abused in this way. You can’t have it both ways; you can’t say that people like Aris are ruining the community image on one hand while having a laissez-faire attitude to the existence of such people within the community on the other.

Hey, gamers? If you’re so concerned with the reputation of the gamer community, you should be less concerned about the effects of media coverage and more concerned with eradicating bigots from your community so the media will have nothing to latch onto. Instead of complaining how the media focuses on the negatives, maybe you should be stating that people like Aris are unequivocally condemned within the community and their presence is wholly unwelcome in your social circles. Just like high scores or impressive chain combos, good reputations are earned by working at them and not by sitting around watching others play.


Vagina Dialogues

OK, let’s get some comedy nerdery happening on this blog. Australian comedy nerdery, that’s right, niche. (Some of the things I’m nerdy about are stuff you literally probably haven’t heard about unless you’re Australian and like comedy).

This week Corinne Grant wrote an opinion piece  about gay male comedians making sexist comments about women. Her main contention was that:

Gay male comics can declare how disgusting they find women’s bodies, how ugly older women are, how women are hags, nags, sluts, bitches and whores and the audience will laugh.

It was quite a provocative piece and in the latter part she speaks with Tom Ballard, a gay male comedian who is kind of a big deal, used to date one of the other best known Aussie gay male comedians (it’s a small country OK) and now does the youth radio station breakfast here. Ballard later wrote his own response blog.

I think the politics of this issue (in the social justice sense) are murky and ripe for getting into a oppression-Olympics showdown so lets try and avoid that. I can see the political validity in gay male comedians challenging heteronormativity, of course. Masculinity is often defined as being intrinsically related to being attracted to women. So getting onstage and saying “I am a man and I find lady bits gross” can be seen as a radical move.

However, the paradox of the way women’s bodies are viewed in society is that while women’s bodies are constantly arranged and displayed in a way that is pleasing to men and stresses the desirability of “womanliness”, so too women’s bodies are constantly attacked for failing to reach those standards. An almost impossible criteria of attractiveness are expected for women. Not too fat but not too thin, curvy but not too curvy (because then you’re tacky), enough makeup to appear with perfect skin but not so much you look “cheap”; women’s bodies have to be just right and they are regularly judged to be lacking. And let’s be honest, constructions of female sexiness are usually not about how great vaginas are. Framed in this context, a man on stage talking shit about women’s bodies seems less than politically-pure.

Now let’s get real here, I think that we can all agree that jokes about how old women are gross and people with penises are the only ones worth talking to are not OK. We’re all humourless feminists here, right? But seriously, if that’s the point of your routine, you should really be trying harder. I spend enough time putting up with sexist bullshit in my life, and that stuff makes me want to cry not laugh. Constantly calling women by nasty names is just not cool. Here I am talking about a context where it’s on-stage and public, and the women in question aren’t OK with it. I mean if all your female friends love being referred to as sluts face-to-face I would first triple check and then go for it (because there IS a difference to what you say when performing for the public and what you say to our friends, and there should be). Tom Ballard’s response blog is actually pretty on board with this, and I really admire how both he and Grant have managed to have an actually civil and respectful conversation. I’m also glad that both of them are coming from a standpoint that “political correctness” is worth considering and if you are going to comment on this post this will also be expected as a baseline.

So the real issue here is vagina (and isn’t it always, amirite? Urgh. I don’t even know what that means).  That’s right, we’re going to have an in-depth conversation about what is OK to say about vaginas, PC police/Social Justice League, suit up! I suppose the question is “can you hate vaginas and love women?” There are plenty of women (I have even met some of them!) who would say yes, because that is them. It is really problematic to tell a group of people how their experience of being part of being a member of that group can be, especially if that group is marginalised. (I say “can be” because as is sadly, but not surprisingly, missing from this debate is that not all women have vaginas and not all men don’t, but urgh, society).

I think an interesting corollary to this is that my friends and I went to see Josh Thomas (Tom Ballard’s ex, as mentioned above) a couple of years ago, after he had just recently come out. He talked about how terrifying gay sex was and how you should really avoid it if at all possible. (He also made a particular comment about how great and useful vaginas were.) One of my (straight, female) friends thought that this was a homophobic attitude for Thomas to hold. I vehemently disagreed and then attempted to get into a discussion about the mechanics of anal sex (something it should be pointed out, that is not reserved to gay men), in a quiet cafe, you guys should all be very jealous we aren’t friends IRL. (Sadly my friend was not keen to discuss lubrication right then.)

I suppose my point here is that just because you’re gay you don’t have to be overjoyed about every aspect of the experience of being a gay man, and if you have a vagina you don’t have to be delighted by all its functions. I mean, let’s talk about periods here. There are women for whom menstruating is a beautiful and natural cycle of life (apparently). I mostly find that it hurts, makes me cranky and is kind of gory (yeah that’s right, so much for the fairer sex, blood GUSHES out of my body once a month). I feel pretty silenced by the whole ‘it’s all beautiful and natural’ approach.

On Twitter I saw someone (actually another one of Josh Thomas’ exes, lolz Australia) suggest that unless Grant loved everything about vaginas she was being a hypocrite (see Grant’s pretty hilarious response). I don’t really think women expressing negative opinions about their genitalia and not being happy to hear this as a punchline from men is “hypocritical”. Just like there are words which are acceptable if used by African Americans and not if used by white people, this is not a level playing field situation. You know why? Because it was NEVER a level playing field to begin with. See: privilege. Of course there is overlap here, and maybe gay male comedians would argue that being grossed out by lady parts is an intrinsic part of being gay and by telling them not to I am silencing them.

Tom Ballard in his response to Grant talks about the special relationship that women and gay men share. I certainly think there is merit to this argument, often there is a different dynamic to this kind of a relationship, although obviously its not a get out of jail free card. I thought it was particularly interesting that he referenced the relationship that female comedians have with their gay fanbases. He mentions Kathy Griffen and I was reminded of this clip from her (seriously great, omg I love her) show where she objects to being called “fish” by members of her gay male fanbase. So the relationship is clearly far from perfect.

In the end, I have failed to come up with some kind of grand unified theory for comedians talking about vaginas on stage. I think there probably isn’t one to be found, because there are a lot subtleties, statements like “I think vaginas are gross” “We all know vaginas are gross” and “Every time I hear the word vagina I want to gag” are different levels of problematic to me, and I think there is an argument that the first one is acceptable but you can argue with me in the comments (respectfully! And I don’t promise to answer. I have important things to Tumblr work on, OK).


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.


Diet Culture Is Bad For Our Health

It’s that time again: a new season of The Biggest Loser is on the air in Australia. That means that even for those of us who would never willingly watch an episode of this heinous circus of self-loathing, the adverts are everywhere. I saw one at the train station yesterday. It is awful.

I don’t want to talk about the ways in which the show is dangerous for its participants, some of whom end up urinating blood. I don’t need to tell you it peddles damaging misinformation about health and weight, in a manner so disingenuous that even other anti-fat fitness professionals condemn it. I don’t even need to tell you how suspicious it is that the show doesn’t rigorously follow up with the participants afterwards, yet their trainers feel completely comfortable declaring “mission accomplished” – which they do so prematurely it would make George W. Bush do a double-take. You know all that. I want to talk about the social impact of a show like The Biggest Loser.

The Biggest Loser contributes to the primacy of diet culture. Diet culture is a system of thought in which food is an issue of public morality, where eating whatever you want is a grave sin and abstaining from “bad” food – which could be fatty food, sweet food, or carby food, depending on the month – is seen as virtuous. In this culture, bodies are rated as healthy or unhealthy based on their degree of “fatness”, and health becomes a saintly attribute while ill health becomes a serious personal failing. This is a culture in which thinner is better until the person is literally hospitalised (then of course we’re going to wring our hands about anorexia, but like, not too much in case the fat people get confused and think starvation is bad for them too!). This is a culture in which guilt is the primary emotion associated with food. A culture that has declared war on fat bodies.

The Biggest Loser is mired so deep in this ideology that it might as well be the official propaganda arm of the anti-fat movement. Indeed, since the show blatantly disregards the long-term health of its participants, it would seem that its true purpose is to spread an aggressive, rigid, guilt-centic mode of relating to ourselves and our bodies.

Diet culture is awful for everyone. It can take the average, mentally healthy adult human and totally fuck up how that human decides how to feed themself. I have seen otherwise-mentally-healthy adults exhibit genuine fear when confronted with potatoes or full-fat milk. And that’s just people who start off mentally healthy and who are considered mentally healthy. Diet culture is even more toxic for people who struggle with mental illnesses, in particular eating disorders, depression, anxiety and OCD, and/or are generally predisposed to disordered behaviour around food.

I’m not sure how to describe what it’s like to live in diet culture as a person in recovery for an eating disorder. Every day, we all see images and messages telling us that we should be thin, should not eat anything except magic food X and super food Y, and that frankly the only way for you to love yourself is to go hungry until you are thin. The Biggest Loser, in fact, endorses this last message explicitly. But in many cases a person with an eating disorder has a voice in their head that tells them that in much harsher terms, constantly, relentlessly, without pity and without mercy. That voice does not need any encouragement. But in our culture, encouragement is exactly what it finds in abundance.

A room in which The Biggest Loser is playing on the television is a room that is not safe for many people with eating disorders. A train station or a bus stop with advertisements for Diet Shakes, Diet Cereals, The Biggest Loser, Jenny Craig, and other weight loss paraphernalia on it is not safe for many people with eating disorders. A highway with a billboard for a weight loss show is not safe for many people with eating disorders. A menu with large, obtrusive calorie counts is not safe for many people with eating disorders. A magazine with a column by Michelle Bridges that laments the existence of fat people who don’t diet is not safe for many people with eating disorders.

If you feel safe in the presence of these images, that is your privilege. Virtually no public spaces, and a large proportion of private spaces, in the western world are even remotely safe for people with eating disorders.

The other thing that diet culture does is make eating disorders completely effortless to hide. I had an eating disorder for years and the first person who realised there was something wrong was me – because the excuses for not eating very much, or not eating certain things, are everywhere. “I just feel better when I am thinner”, “I’m losing weight for me”, “I want to feel good about myself”, “I’m happier at this weight”…these are things sick people say to hide their sickness. Other people swallow it because their default reaction to weight loss is “good” and it takes work for them to be convinced otherwise. Now, I’m sure these things have been said by mentally healthy people too and I’m not suggesting everyone who ever diets has an ED. But I’m also sure the average listener doesn’t know the difference. The hold of diet culture can be so strong that sometimes even the speaker doesn’t know the difference.

This all adds up to one simple message: our culture couldn’t give a fuck about your mental health. Clearly when people “just worry about your health” – even if they do genuinely mean health and not just thinness – they only mean the health of your body without any consideration for the brain. On a biological level this is completely ludicrous because you simply can’t separate the brain and the rest of the body. They’re one whole and can’t be considered in isolation. Here’s a rudimentary example: a chronically anxious brain will pump the body full of cortisol and adrenalin, which both contribute to all sorts of adverse physical outcomes including a weakened immune system and reduced mortality. Oh noes, did your mental health just affect your physical health – you know, the one we pretend we care about? Say it ain’t so! But in all seriousness, the truth is, they can’t really be separated. It’s all health. Mental health is health.

A culture that is willing to throw people with serious mental health problems under the bus in an endless quest for everyone on earth to be thin is not a culture that cares about health. It is a culture that is using a narrow, twisted definition of health – which coincidentally reinforces social norms around attractiveness – to beat up on everyone, including some of its most vulnerable members. That is the culture being explicitly promoted by the Biggest Loser and other shows like it. It’s making us sick. It’s making our media dangerous to consume. For a society supposedly obsessed with health, we’ve got a damn funny way of showing it.


Reveeenge! (Against Common Tropes For Strong Female Characters)

Mild spoilers for Revenge up to 1.12 Infamy. When I refer to Emily, I refer to the protagonist of the show.

Every time I hear or read the phrase “strong female characters” I get flashbacks to Kate Beaton’s comic about it. Characters like Sarah Connor and Xena were pretty ground-breaking at the time for being bad-ass female protagonists, but it feels like pop culture hasn’t progressed very far in their definitions of what a bad-ass female character should be. Too often creators seem to believe that “bad-ass” means making a woman hold a gun and fighting rough while spouting sarcastic one-liners. There’s often no internal motivation or driving force behind that character besides “being bad-ass” (read: being a male fantasy and nothing else).

Revenge is a TV show (very) loosely based on the Count of Monte Cristo and features a female protagonist. I was delighted when I heard about the premise because Dumas is one of my favourite authors, but my delight turned to full-blown worship after I actually watched the show.

I think what elevates the show from “alright” to “exceptional” is how it avoids the common gender tropes for female bad-asses, and subverts many of them. When I really thought about it, I realised that most shows that purportedly had strong female protagonists usually engaged with at least one of the following tropes that would irritate me, yet Revenge hasn’t (yet). I’ve got my fingers crossed that the writers will continue to treat Emily (nee Amanda) with the awesome she deserves and not have me hastily retconning the content of this post.

To be clear, I don’t think the following tropes are problematic in isolation, but they’re macroproblematic representations of women, especially when media engages with more than one of them at a time. The issue is not the representation itself, but the fact that there are very few other representations of women:

1. Women are more emotional and sentimental.

Part of what the actress Emily VanCamp does beautifully is her portrayal of a single-minded, focused woman who is actually operating deep undercover. A lot of media fall into the trap of women being “fooled” by their own emotions while undercover, such as accidentally developing feelings for people they’re meant to dislike. I think the writers tried to incorporate this into the text, but I hope they gave up on it. VanCamp plays the duality perfectly – in one moment she is warm and friendly to her enemies, and in the next moment we see her coldly plotting their demise.

It’s refreshing to see a woman who is not sympathetic to sob stories and who can’t be swayed by appeals to her emotion. It is a male character, Nolan, who frequently has to play The Heart and moral compass to Emily’s scheming – to varying levels of success.

What’s even more heartening is the lack of emotional attachment to the consensual sex she has while undercover. Women who have sex with people they don’t love or even like are usually presented as having an unhealthy emotional motivation. She’s insecure. She’s lying to herself about her feelings. She wants to make someone else jealous.

In this case, Emily has sex with Daniel because it’s useful to her quest for revenge, and there’s nothing more to it. What we see instead is Daniel becoming attached to her after sex. Which makes sense given how Emily is deliberately plotting to attract him.

2. Women react to events rather than take initiative.

You are the Chosen One, go slay some vampires. Your son is going to lead a future rebellion, protect him. Something nasty is after you, pick up a gun. In many cases the actions of female protagonists are brought about by fight or die situations where characters have limited choices, and their only motivation is to stay alive.

Emily’s decision to exact a slow and terrible revenge on everyone in the Hamptons stem from her father’s death, but it’s hardly a forgone conclusion. Most of us would probably take the money and run. But rather than accepting the status quo, Emily takes initiative and makes plans to shape events and her world so it aligns with her beliefs. What’s exciting is watching events unfold as a direct manifestation of her will – a woman who has an impact on the world because she chooses to, not because she’s forced to.

3. Women are unable to achieve their goals without the help of others.

I’m a big fan of action movies where the lone wolf (or lone wolf plus side-kick/partner) trope is often invoked. Sadly there aren’t many female action heroes generally and the ones that do exist often do fall into the other tropes I’ve mentioned. Other portrayals of leading bad-ass women (Buffy and Veronica Mars for example) require them to receive help from their network of friends and allies — which is fine, but I’d love to see a female MacGyver, for example.

So far Emily has called in exactly two favours – everyone else she has manipulated, blackmailed or otherwise persuaded. She saves and navigates herself out of tricky situations – the favours she calls aren’t white knights or deus ex machina and still required a lot of her own scheming to work. While she receives assistance from Nolan, it’s clear that she initially doesn’t want it, will never ever need it, and probably doesn’t rely on it. Their dynamic seems to imply that she lets Nolan help as a favour to him, rather than as assistance to her.

It helps, of course, that she has a ridiculous amount of money. But so does Batman.

4. Women use sex to get what they want.

Emily is not a femme fatale. She has a sexual relationship with Daniel, but the sex is a byproduct of having that relationship. They have sex because she convinces him that they’re a romantic match and that she loves him; not because he’s suddenly lost all rationality because a woman wants to sleep with him.

Instead of overdone come-ons and seduction plots, we see Emily deftly using information and subterfuge to draw suspicion on others, and manipulating relationships to her advantage. It’s clear that she’s not only extremely intelligent, but also extremely competent. Too often we’re just told that a bad-ass female character is smart, only for the narrative to limit the demonstrations of her talents to her physical allure and nothing else.

Revenge subverts the femme fatale trope in many ways because the people we see wielding sexual power to manipulate others are men – Nolan and Tyler. Nolan seduces Tyler and makes a sex tape, Nolan is the the dinner date diversion while Emily blows shit up. Both are common plotlines would ordinarily be given to women.

And this is why Revenge is so compelling for me. The femme fatale story and the superspy story have already been told a thousand times – I don’t need to watch another iteration. But when you reverse the gender roles that story becomes different and infinitely more interesting. It highlights how much storytelling is about the choices of creators and that while certain choices are being made over and over to the point of needless repetition, other stories are being completely ignored.


Stilettos, Catwoman and The Dark Knight Rises

WARNING: Discussion of The Dark Knight Rises. Don’t think that there are any serious spoilers but the purists may want to give this a miss. There are also serious spoilers for The Dark Knight discussed.

The costumes of female superheroes are often the objects of intense scrutiny from various corners of fandom for various reasons. Anne Hathaway, who will be playing Catwoman in the latest incarnation of the Nolanverse Batman films, stated that “I love the costume because everything has a purpose, nothing is in place for fantasy’s sake, and that’s the case with everything in Christopher Nolan’s Gotham City.” The Hero Complex (spoilers at the source) has stated that in a scene they viewed, Catwoman was ‘navigating the steps with stiletto heels that, on closer inspection, turn out to have serrated edges capable of leaving nasty claw marks in a fight.’

Now, Catwoman is a thief. Whether she is a thief in the Nolanverse isn’t entirely clear, though I see no reason for her not to be. Barring the Batman Returns interpretation, her whole aesthetic relies upon the cat burglar motif and as a thief, what she relies upon most is stealth. By the time she’s been seen or heard, it’s too late. Anybody who has ever worn stiletto heels knows that they are really fucking loud.

And that’s without even talking about how hard it is to run in heels, how easy it is to turn (or even break) an ankle, how hard it would be to land from a jump of any height in heels. Anybody who has seen a Batman film or read a Batman comic book knows that they spend a lot of time running and parkour-ing across rooftops.

The ability to cut somebody when you kick them (something which seems a ridiculous idea to me in the first place) is surely secondary to all that. The fact of the matter is that Christopher Nolan seems to care about gritty realism with regard to his male characters but not his female ones. Catwoman is the first female member of Batman’s rogues gallery introduced in the Nolanverse, the first woman in the Nolanverse who could be considered to be a “superhero” or “supervillian” in the same vein as Batman himself.*

This is significant, particularly in a series that is severely lacking in women. Rachel Dawes and Martha Wayne are almost literally the only named women in the first two films and between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rachel Dawes receives a rather unfortunate personality transplant. This of course is not actually the case and the problem lies with the source material as well as with the films. Anyone who has watched The Dark Knight with more than a passing knowledge of the extended Batfamily and any investment in Barbara Gordon was more than likely appalled at the final sequence of the film with Two-Face and Jim Gordon, which focused not on Barbara, a significant person in the Batman mythos, but on Jim Gordon’s rarely-mentioned son.

When a number of photos were released, some bloggers were endorsing a ‘wait and see’ approach with regards to The Dark Knight Rises, implying that Christopher Nolan is someone who can be trusted with female characters, something which I don’t believe to be true. With regards to Batman’s white, male characters I have faith that Christopher Nolan will treat them well and with the respect they deserve.**

With regards to his female characters however, I have little expectation or belief that they will be treated with the respect they deserve. I would very much like to be surprised! But in general, Christopher Nolan seems to work best with female character when they are dead or about to be dead, serving as motivation for his male characters.^ This means that the issue of Catwoman’s costume takes on more significance than it might otherwise, indicating that she may well be being treated with the same level of respect that Nolan often treats his female characters. In a universe where “gritty realism” is paramount, Catwoman’s costume and its practicality becomes an even greater issue than it is in the hyper-real world that the comic books inhabit.

*I’m not counting Nolan’s horrifying attempt to character assassinate Renee Montoya in The Dark Knight. This actually works in his favour! The character ‘Ramirez’ was originally supposed to be Renee Montoya and DC refused to allow him to use the name.

**Both Ra’s Al Ghul and Bane have been white-washed in the casting department and the only POC in the films that has been treated with any kind of respect is Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox. Admittedly Lucuis Fox had been treated with utmost respect but in light of the way in which other POC characters have been treated this seems a bitter trade-off.

^Rachel Dawes in The Dark Knight, Mal in Inception, Julia and Sarah in The Prestige.


We Expect More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Happy New Year!

On behalf of everyone at SJL, I want to wish all our readers a very happy arbitrary-orbital-segmentation-point! Thank you all for stopping by, no matter how often you do so – and especially if you have contributed to the discussion in any way.

SJL is a labour of love for us, and we really only post once a week. We’re so grateful for the level of interest and stimulating commentary you guys have already provided. Obviously, we’d do it to an empty room if we had to: this blog was born because we spend a lot of our time talking these issues through together, so we’re used to that! But we’re really happy when we manage to write something that resonates with you, or makes you reconsider something, or articulates something you already felt. That’s what we do for each other, and that’s what we hope we’re doing with this blog.

In particular, to our handful of regular commenters, re-posters, re-bloggers, twitter heralds and assorted linkers-at-large: you are magnificent. I can’t count how many times one of you has made my day, and I know the rest of SJL feel the same. Thank you all, wherever you are.


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!