Category Archives: depiction of women

I Don’t Look Down on Family Women, But I Think I Understand Why Amy Glass Does

By now everyone has read the Thought Catalog piece by Amy Glass/Chrissy Stockton titled, “I Look Down on Young Women with Husbands and Kids and I’m Not Sorry,” and her follow up explanation-ish piece, “Hi, I am Amy Glass.”  The piece inspired dozens (if not hundreds) or response pieces, 7 of which were published on Thought Catalog alone.

I think that Stockton misses the forest for the trees…but she’s not exactly “wrong.”  Allow me to explain…

Choice Feminism is a serious issue within feminism.  In Linda Hirshman’s piece she states, “During the ’90s, I taught a course in sexual bargaining at a very good college. Each year, after the class reviewed the low rewards for child-care work, I asked how the students anticipated combining work with child-rearing. At least half the female students described lives of part-time or home-based work. Guys expected their female partners to care for the children. When I asked the young men how they reconciled that prospect with the manifest low regard the market has for child care, they were mystified. Turning to the women who had spoken before, they said, uniformly, “But she chose it.””  They chose it.  And therein lies the issue: if something is expected, if a behavior is something we are reared into, is it really a choice?  If it’s assumed, are we really making the decision at all?  If it’s a choice, and an appealing choice, why are more men not choosing it?

Let me be clear – child rearing is absolutely a job, and is absolutely important in society.  Children grow up to be citizens.  They need to be raised, and raised well, whether that’s from a mom, a dad, both, two of one or the other, grandparents, a legal guardian, whatever.  It’s a shame that as a society we do value child rearing so poorly because it is the foundation of our society.  That doesn’t mean that a woman choosing to give up her career for childrearing is empowering.  It’s not, it’s important, but it’s not empowering.  It’s not necessarily feminist either, though there are certainly a great deal of awesome feminist mothers that use their role as a caretaker to raise children (boys and girls) who are respectful of others and aware of societal privileges.  Being a working woman isn’t necessarily feminist either, look at Ann Coulter or Michelle Bachman – both successful working women, both staunch anti-feminists.  A woman saying or doing something doesn’t automatically make it “feminist,” and trying to brand things like not-really-a-choice choice feminism and choice objectification as legitimate feminism only serves to dissolve the necessary force behind the movement.

This is where, I feel, the Glass/Stockton piece failed.  I don’t look down on married women with children, I wonder what their life could have been like if they hadn’t been brought up in a society where the expectation of women was still that they would sacrifice their careers when the time came to start a family, how much further we may be in science and medicine if half the population wasn’t still shoehorned into neglecting their academic potential, how different developing nations would be if women were really and truly given the same educational and career opportunities as men.  Chrissy is right to be angry that so many young women are giving up on their potential outside of the home, but she’s directing her ire at the wrong people.

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“You’re a Bad Feminist”

This is something a lot a self-identifying feminists hear (and think) at some point.  For me, it was something that become a bit of an existential crisis – how could I champion women’s rights if I couldn’t champion myself?

 

It took me a long time (months) to come to terms with the fact that acknowledging the falsities of the media and the pressure women and girls face did not somehow make me magically immune to the effects.  I’m not immune to body image pressure, I can’t turn my mind off to the pressure to fit a very streamlined and impossible idea of beauty, and I felt like a failure as a result.

 

When Pinterest opened up private boards last year, I made a thinspo board.  In public I wrote here, I wrote for friends, I wrote to friends discussing the dangers of thinspo (and it’s closely related cousin “fitspo,” which has nothing to do with being athletic and everything to do with being incredibly thin AND very toned) and I had my own thinspo collection.  I hated myself for it, I cried and I felt ashamed, and eventually I stopped writing, not just here but everywhere.  I couldn’t even make myself write fiction that had nothing to do with women’s rights because I felt like a fraud, unworthy of even writing a female character.

 

A friend of mine who I admire deeply posted a query on Facebook towards the end of the year asking about diet pills.  At first I thought she was kidding – this is a woman who works, lives, and breathes fighting for women’s rights – but it became clear to me she wasn’t.  I was floored, I was angry, I was so pissed that such a smart and motivated friend was driven to something so harmful and I didn’t understand why or how.  I’d put her on a feminist pedestal, I decided for her that she was immune to the exact same societal pressures I couldn’t escape from myself, and I realized how utterly wrong I had been to do so.

 

Ultimately my “failure as a feminist” wasn’t a failure at all, it was an awakening.  We’re all in this together.  I deleted the thinspo board.  And now, I’ve admitted it existed.

 

I’m back.  Every part of me, every weakness and strength.


I’m Not Giving Seth MacFarlane the Benefit of the Doubt

There has been a lot of fallout from the 2013 Oscars ceremony, namely from the jokes presented by the host, Seth MacFarlane.  The articles written in the days after seem to fall on one of two sides: that the ceremony was sexist and racist, or that MacFarlane was hilarious and people needed to lighten up.

There’s serious problems with both of these arguments, but a piece that particularly struck me was Victoria Brownworth’s Op-Ed for Advocate.com, in which she argued that the jokes were a dismantling of the Hollywood hyper-sexed system.  She asks if those calling the jokes sexist and racist were watching the same show as her, to which I have to reply to her, “are you talking about the same Seth MacFarlane?”

Yes, Mr. MacFarlane does advocate for marriage equality and against domestic violence, but I fail to see how in the 21st century it’s even slightly “impressive for a straight male” to do these things.  Are we not in an era where being anti-beating your significant other is somehow unique and worthy of praise?  It’s a moral standard to advocate for those who are taken advantage of.  Yeah, I get it, it’s still somehow acceptable to nominate Chris Brown for Grammys, but by and large society looks down upon abusers.  It’s not special to do so.

I’m extremely hesitant to even consider the idea that Seth MacFarlane doesn’t have serious issues with women and respect and equality given his track record for presenting what he considers to be an ideal role for women in his shows.  I’m not talking about blatantly sexist characters (like Peter Griffin and pretty much any other strong male character in any one of his shows) – those are clearly not written to be identifiable and indeed we are supposed to laugh at their stupidity.  For example, consider Family Guy S2E8, “I Am Peter, Hear Me Roar.”  Peter makes a sexist joke and is forced to attend sexual harassment sensitivity class, where they take away all of his “positive” masculine traits and replace them with emotionally sensitive “feminine” ones.  This is perceived by his wife, Lois, as a negative – she wants her man to act like a man while she acts like a woman.  The dilemma comes to a head when Lois and the feminist lawyer who sent Peter to the class get in a fight over choice feminism and wrestle, inspiring Peter to become aroused and be a man again.  The feminists are portrayed extremely negatively – they demean housewives and hate men – whereas Lois, the “feminine” woman comes to the rescue of traditional gender roles to say it’s more feminist to choose to stay home and have a chauvinist for a husband.

Choice feminism is a topic that literally can encompass entire books, so I won’t go in to it other than to say I have friends who’s job is to be a full-time mom (or dad) and that it is in fact, work.  My issue is with the tone with which MacFarlane approaches feminism and empowered women in the first place, which is my major issue with the Oscars.

I got in a facebook disagreement (I know, I know) with someone on the issue because I said the jokes weren’t funny and he fell back onto the “humor is subjective and who are you to decree what is and is not funny/acceptable humor” argument that literally comes up in 100% of all arguments about subject matter of comedy routines, and that’s not what I was trying to argue at all.  The problem is not boob jokes (though it’s pretty tasteless to include scenes of graphic rape, especially when the film is based on actual real-life accounts), or anorexia jokes, or even jokes poking fun at the future sexuality of a nine year old girl (ugh).  The problem out and out is tone, it’s the execution and the reliance on the idea that “if you don’t laugh at this, the problem is you and it’s you we’re really laughing at” that’s the problem with MacFarlane’s brand of “humor.”  It’s bullying.  Amy Davidson for The New Yorker really hits it dead-on, “Getting Charlize Theron and Naomi Watts to pre-record looks of mortification didn’t help, either. (…) It just seemed like a way for MacFarlane to make fun of viewers for being prudish and not ‘getting it.’ (See, the cool girls think that it’s funny!).”

In an industry where women struggle to be treated with the same respect as men, where to be willing to do a nude scene can be viewed as a make-or-break career decision, having a song where the tone is, “you did this incredibly personal work for your art and ultimately it’s still for our sexual amusement” is really gross.   It’s faux-edginess, it’s offensive for the sake of offensive without any counter-culture goals at all and you’re lying to yourself if you think otherwise.  Seth MacFarlane is not a champion of women’s empowerment or acknowledging the problems actresses uniquely face compared to actors in Hollywood, he’s paid huge sums of money to continue to get cheap, exploitative laughs, and is seemingly eager to do so.

I’m not here to be the morality police and say “certain things aren’t okay to joke about” because context and tone is really everything.  However, we need to be honest with ourselves: the Oscars were an embarrassment.  People who were offended had a right to be so and “comedians” aren’t immune from criticism just by the nature of their art.  Seth MacFarlane may believe he has nothing to apologize for, which is fine, because it’s not like we didn’t already know what kind of a person he was in the first place.


“The Women’s Olympics”…well, not really.

From George Takei’s Facebook, comment if you know root source

I, like most other women tuning in to the Olympics this year, was so excited to learn that every country had sent at least one female athlete to compete in London.  “The Women’s Olympics!” the media was quick to dub it.

And that was about the last positive thing any major media outlet (or social media) had to do with women’s sports in the games.

We’re all well aware women’s sports doesn’t get the kind of respect that men’s sports does.  The fact that Title IX even had to be mandated illustrates as much.  But the coverage of women athletes in the 2012 Olympics was, well, embarrassing.  Let’s start out from the beginning, the title of “Women’s Olympics.”

It’s a crock.  The two Saudi women who competed were only covered by one news outlet in their home country, an English language paper, had a public shame campaign launched against them on Twitter, and oh yeah, were likely only added at the last minute to avoid a ban from future games.  It’s great that these women competed, it really is, but to act like it’s a step towards Women’s Rights is dishonest.

And while women from every nation competed, which women were given any (positive) attention was quite limited.  Before the game even started some athletes were attacked for not being skinny enough.  Yes, at an event where the very best athletes from around the world come to compete, what these women’s physical appearance is was more important than their athletic ability.  You don’t see male weightlifters being called fat, but there you go.

If not “fat,” how about “ugly, masculine, and dyke(ish)?”  That’s what British weightlifter Zoe Smith was subjected to after a documentary about women weightlifters in Britain aired.  Don’t worry about Zoe though, she got the last laugh (and seriously, great job Zoe!).

With the close of the games tomorrow, it’s important for us to look back with pride at what women around the world have accomplished, but also necessary to examine how we watched these women compete.  Was it really necessary to identify volleyballers by their asses?  Did we need a slow motion montage of unidentified, exclusively attractive athletes?  Did one of the woman athletes who had no chance of medaling need as much coverage as she got just because she was labeled, “the hottest Olympian?”  Was it appropriate to call women Olympians “Gold Diggers?”  We’ve come a long way, ladies, but until our athletes are honored for their abilities and not their bodies we will not ever have a “Women’s Olympics.”


Reading Between the Lines: Female Musicians in Rolling Stone Magazine

From time to time The Feminist Menagerie will feature an article by a guest author.  I’m excited to present the first guest piece, written by Kera Lovell, 2011 graduate of Purdue University’s American Studies Master’s program.  I had the pleasure of completing my undergraduate thesis at the same time as Kera and was first introduced to her research on women and the rock music industry at that time.  She’s recommended the books Electric Ladyland by Lisa Rhodes and Rock ‘n’ Roll Woman by Katherine Orloff for further reading.

Reading Between the Lines: Female Musicians in Rolling Stone Magazine, 1975

Reflecting the massive changes initiated by the women’s liberation movement, women began to drastically challenge gender inequality in the music industry in the 1970s, with growing numbers of women as music journalists, vocalists, musicians, writers, and executives who helped support openly feminist musicians and organize feminist music festivals. Even at Rolling Stone, one of the most popular national music periodicals still today, the magazine began to hire more female journalists and editors, covered increasing amounts of women’s rights issues, and, in 1975, dedicated a record number of cover stories to female artists. In spite of all the successes of Second-Wave feminism, it doesn’t take a genius to crack a 1975 issue of Rolling Stone and expect to find rampant sexual objectification of women. You can flip to almost any page and find it—the variety of pornographic magazine advertisements and nude album cover promo ads are just the tip of the iceberg. To say the least, this was a very difficult time in the history of female musicians who attempted to negotiate a space within the hypermasculine music industry.

Rolling Stone exemplified how even Leftist, counterculturally-rooted organizations negatively reacted to feminism. The magazine repetitively denigrated the Women’s Movement and “women libbers,” and more often than not, sexually objectified women by including articles on female pornography stars, female sensual massages, and political sex scandals. While Rolling Stone claimed to support progressive politics, readers can clearly see by reading between the lines that women are portrayed as sexual objects and subordinate to men. Not only were men sexually objectifying women in the advertisements, articles, and images in Rolling Stone, but female musicians ultimately mirrored this sexual objectification by over-sexualizing themselves to win over the patriarchal world of rock ‘n’ roll.

Women’s own self-sexualization surprised me most when investigating the magazine’s 1975 volume for my senior thesis at Agnes Scott College a few years ago.  Although there had been female musicians on Rolling Stone covers since the magazine was first published in 1967, cover stories of women had been few and far between. These numbers are pretty grim, with no female musicians on covers in 1972 or 1973. There were, however, eight women on Rolling Stone covers in 1972: four prostitutes, a nude woman receiving a massage, Sally Struthers, and Jane Fonda. 1975 began a drastic jump in female coverage with six covers devoted entirely to female musicians. This volume also shows a wide range of female musicians, including blues-rock artist Bonnie Raitt, hard rock artist Suzi Quatro, the African American glam rock group Labelle, Jewish jazz and rock artist Phoebe Snow, pop and later country sensation Linda Ronstadt, and pop rock artist Carly Simon.

Even though it might appear that these women were gaining greater respect and recognition through increased publicity, women began to take a lead from male journalists and sexualized themselves during their interviews, possibly to attract more male fans. Other than Raitt, who attempted to maintain a disinterest in sex, all of the cover stories on female musicians included the artist’s discussion of her orgasms. Patti Labelle compared her onstage ecstasy to being married to a million men and women: “And when I’m married to a person, I give all I have. It’s like a climax, and when the audience does it like they did last night in Atlanta, I come…Yes…I wear Pampers onstage.”1 Fellow band member Sarah Dash added, “It’s like letting a million people see you in bed with whomever you love…and being naked and having sex with your music…but I don’t wear tampons because if it ran down my leg, that’s what you see and that’s what you git. We told our band; ‘Now we like to reach orgasms onstage, and they thought we were from out there somewhere.’”2 Not only do these accounts reveal the lasting boom of the sexual revolution, but show how female musicians were expected to perform onstage and in articles. Journalists exhibited no surprise at these artists’ sexual revelations. Rock ‘n’ roll sold sex and women who were candid about their sexuality were successful entrepreneurs. In the heat of the revolution, many women wanted to embrace their sexuality, while other women felt that flaunting a sexual image only resulted in more sexism in the music industry. According to Terry Garthwaite, member of the band The Joy of Cooking, women were expected to be what she calls “chicky-poo”: “ultrafeminine and…submissive in their attitude,” while at the same time being what fellow band member Toni Brown defined as a “sexpot”: “a doll-like figure” “playing a flirtsy-cutesy role” (Orloff 59, 34). Male journalists consistently portrayed women as vulnerable and weak, yet sexually feisty women. Yet women were treated this way by all factors of the music industry, encouraging women to wear low-cut gowns rather than produce their own projects. Rather than feeling pressure to sacrifice their femininity to be “one of the boys,” women were often led to be passive and sexual. In Rock ‘N Roll Woman , her 1974 collection of interviews with female musicians, Katherine Orloff discussed how Ronstadt perpetuated the stereotype of a ditsy showgirl which many female musicians had to fight:

It seems she has been pigeonholed to such an extent that she is often given little credit for having any brains…Linda likes to feel sexy onstage and the message is communicated as much through her clothes, a wardrobe which includes tight pants and filmy blouses, as through her movements, suggestive comments, and generally friendly attitude. In this way, she sometimes seems to perpetuate her own stereotype (123).

On that note, have you cracked an issue of Rolling Stone since 1975? Things haven’t change much, except perhaps the self-sexualization and sexual objectification of women has gotten a little worse.

1 Art Harris, “Labelle: Comin’ Comin’ Comin’ to Getcha!” Rolling Stone, July 3, 1975, 42. Note how even the article’s title is a play on the article’s orgasm banter.

2 Harris, “Labelle,” 42.


Video Games I: Characterization of Women

I’m an avid gamer.  I grew up with a NES and a Sega Genesis, we’ve had every Playstation ever put out, still have a working Dreamcast and Gameboy color, and bought an Xbox 360 in early 2007 after a friend-of-a-friend introduced me to Gears of War.  Chances are if I haven’t played it I still know about it.  The world of video games is wide and vast: it varies in style and theme, target age group, and from single player to interactivity between thousands.

A (male) friend of mine who writes about comic books and had an upcoming article about sexism and misogyny in comics recently linked a video on facebook about the exploitation of the female body in gaming and the differences between how male and female characters are presented.  The video makes an excellent point about body language and characterization:

A recently released picture for the upcoming Mass Effect 3 illustrates this point particularly well:
For those not particularly familiar with the characters of the Mass Effect universe, the above characters are from Mass Effect 1 (and briefly 2): Ashley and Kaidan.   Only one of these characters survives the first game and which one it is depends on choices you make as the player.

Both of these characters are equal – they’re both Alliance soldiers (Ash in the Soldier class, Kaidan in the Adept), both are promoted in rank in Mass Effect 2, and both reach the highly elite Spectre status in Mass Effect 3.  Effectively, it doesn’t matter which one you choose to survive the first game, they come out as equals in rank and importance in the final game.

But despite her Spectre status, Ashley is drawn primarily as a sex figure.  Her body language presents her as an object for men to ogle, eyes averted, hips skewed.  It says nothing about her character and in fact can be argued to be directly contrary to her actual characterization in the games.  One of the stills is even of her turned around so that the gamer can see what her ass will look like in ME3.  Kaidan, on the other hand, holds a firm and confident pose, facing forward.  Keep in mind, these characters are supposed to be interchangeable and equal.

While I agree with Bob Chipman about how clothing is or isn’t worn, I do think he misses the mark on whether or not clothing (or lack thereof) is a concern (and should be) to female gamers.  Let’s continue with the Mass Effect example before moving on:
In Mass Effect 1, Ashley is introduced as a “tough” character – she’s the sole survivor in her unit of an attack on the human colony on the planet Eden Prime by Geth invaders.  However, even with her initial introduction, her clothing is the bigger statement: she’s wearing bright pink and white armor.  Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with conventional femininity and women wearing pink.  “Feminine” isn’t inherently anti-feminist or bad.  The fact that there is pink and white armor (and yellow and black and every other color) in the game is not the problem.  The problem is that out of every single recruitment in the game, Ashley is the only one in an armor color that isn’t remotely suitable for any sort of combat situation wherein concealing oneself might make the difference between life and death.  She is othered for her sex.

In Mass Effect 2, your team consists of many male and female companions.  See if you can spot a difference between the men and the women in this picture:
With exception to Tali (third from Left), none of the women are wearing armor suited to intergalactic combat despite every single one of the male companions being dressed for the occasion.  Jack (far right) has belts for a top, Samara (second from left) – a warrior hundreds of years old – wears a catsuit with a revealing cut down to her navel, and Miranda (center) wears a bodysuit so revealing you can see literally every contour of her body during the game.

The problem is not simply that these characters are hyper-feminized, or that their outfits are revealing, it’s that they are explicitly treated differently from the male characters and are dressed entirely inappropriately for the situations which they are presented with in the game.  They are all presented primarily as sex objects and secondarily as characters (and their characters leave something to be desired – Miranda, Tali, Ashley, and in a way Jack all have major father issues that define everything about their actions).

Just to clarify because I don’t want it to seem like I’m railing only on Mass Effect, it’s one of my favorite games.  It’s in no way unique in the problems it has with female characters.

As another example, let’s look at Anya Stroud and Sam in the recent release Gears of War 3 alongside their male counterparts:
Gears of War 3 takes place decades after Emergence Day, the apocalyptic cataclysm between humans and Locust on the planet Sera.

Let’s do some math.  The first Gears of War takes place 14 years after Emergence Day (4 years after the incarceration of the protagonist, Marcus Fenix).  It’s established that Marcus, his best friend Dom, and Anya are all veterans of the previous war on Sera, the Pendulum Wars.  So, assuming they only fought one year of the Pendulum Wars and all enlisted at 17 (which isn’t true because Anya is an academy grad officer and Marcus is a decorated hero from the wars, but for argument’s sake, we’ll lowball the numbers), at the onset of the first game they’re all 32 years old at the absolute youngest.  The second game takes place six months after the first, and the third eighteen months after that.  So 34 is the absolute youngest any of these people are.

In the third game Marcus, Dom, Cole and Baird are all visibly older.  They’re grizzled, worn, scarred and dirty.  They’ve been fighting an unstoppable and unrelenting foe for sixteen years!  Anya and Sam, however, remain ageless and clean.  They have flawless makeup, no wrinkles, no scars, and cute haircuts (as opposed to keeping their hair tied back and out of their eyes, or cut short).

Again, the problem is not that they are attractive, busty, and thin women.  There’s inherently nothing wrong with being attractive or having large breasts or being lithe from a lifetime of being on the run (though it’s more than a little unrealistic).  The issue is that these women are presented so clearly different from the men with whom they have shared identical experiences and time alive.  These women should have battle scars, they should have lines around their eyes from peering down a rifle scope for years.  It takes away from the realism of a “this is the end of the world” mood when all the women seem immune to everything around them including physical damage and the space time continuum.

It’s interesting to consider this problem when applied to games with visible female protagonists, such as Lara Croft and Bayonetta, versus games with completely covered or not visible (first person) female protagonists like Samus Aran (of Metroid) and Chell (of Portal).  There’s nothing I can say that hasn’t been said about Lara before (she’s actually a poor role model and protagonist, her character is more or less void of characterization beyond her sex appeal though the reboot may attempt to change that) and the “subversiveness” of Bayonetta and the destruction of her foes through her femininity is arguably the most offensive ploy at “see, using/commoditizing sex and sex appeal to get what or where you want or need to be is empowering!” in gaming, but Samus and Chell are actually interesting to examine.

Samus is probably one of the, if not the most highly regarded female lead in gaming.  The reveal the the end of Metroid that the form under the power armor was that of a woman was a great twist and really forced the player to re-examine any misconceptions he or she might have had about heroines (even if it was done in the sleaziest “look, a girl in a bikini!” way).  Up until the unlockable Samus in Super Smash Brothers Brawl and later Other M, Samus kept her power armor on most of the time (unless you unlocked “good endings”), which was met by an interesting dichotomy: some game critics rightfully though it was pandering her character should have been above while others heralded it as an “about time” as if somehow, despite years of space ass kicking, she was totally unaccomplished until they could see her body on constant display (there’s multiple articles on “hot babes” in video games pointing out her curvaceous backside and large breasts).

Chell is seemingly the bright light in female game leads: she’s pretty average looking, she’s a woman of color, and the fact that she’s a woman is entirely inconsequential to the game.  In Portal she’s a woman trapped in an experiment gone wrong, using her wits and some neat technology to escape a homicidal artificial intelligence.  But what does it say about the industry when the best female character they can make is one that’s never seen, heard, or given a background?


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