Culture and Feminism: Where does What Belong in the Discourse?

When I first started this blog I did a post about identifying bias, mostly to be transparent about who I am and what my perspective is, but also to remind myself that I cannot – and should not – ever try to write for or on the behalf of a group I can’t represent.  That being said, someone proposed the question to me and several others recently: who belongs in the feminist discourse, and what roles do radically different, sometimes opposing, groups have?  There seemed to be a few points of contention but they mostly boiled down to culture lines and gender lines.  This post will address the former, a future post will address the latter.

 

A forum I regularly post in has a feminism megathread (amongst hundreds of other political talking points) , and routinely the thread is closed and derailed on rehashed and repeated arguments, one of which is what level of “education” someone posting in the thread should have and why or why not that arbitrary line is fair.  It’s an odd conundrum – nobody wants to explain every page what male privilege is and that yes, it definitely does exist – but at the same time, can anyone rightfully be excluded from the discussion simply on the base of lack of academic feminist knowledge?  Surely saying so implies a rather white, upper-class attitude towards the discourse.

 

One member proposed this: does an educated Western feminist with a degree in women’s studies have more weight in the feminist discourse than an uneducated individual campaigning against female circumcision in his or her small community in Africa?  Is the second, who may or may not have any interest in “women’s rights” in a western sense at all, even really a feminist?

 

No, and yes.  The face of feminism in the US and Europe tends to be a pretty pale one (I would argue due in large to widespread racism when modern feminism was coming to its peak in the 60s and media still preferring to center on white spokespeople in most issues today), but it’s inaccurate and unfair to suggest that women’s issues are a white woman’s affair.  But why, in an era of global communication, is there still this disconnect between voices in the discourse?

 

We have a major cultural gap between priorities.  Not that first world women’s issues aren’t issues (an argument often made by particularly right-wing anti-feminists “you’re not stoned for being raped so you have nothing to complain about!” “your vagina isn’t mutilated so you have nothing to complain about!”) – that white, upper-class women, by and large, have failed to even identify and listen to what issues face other groups of women in the discourse.   So we end up segregated by lack of understanding and communication when we all have a common goal: at the root, everyone in the discourse wants women to have a safer, healthier role in the world they share with men.  An end to patriarchy, even if how they view patriarchy varies wildly.

 

Take body image issues, for example.  The body image issues that face black American women are vastly different from white American women – something I thought I understood – until an exchange and conversation I witnessed and took part in at work one weekend.  One of my coworkers – a married, childless, middle class mid-20s black woman – opted to let her hair grow naturally, no weave, no straightening, just her natural hair.  I remarked that it looked nice and she replied, “black men hate natural hair.”

 

This kind of took me aback for a second.  It’s her natural hair, it’s what her body is genetically conditioned to grow, and it looks lovely, why would anyone dislike it?  “Not all black men I’m sure,” I said, about to eat my own words.

 

A customer came in shortly after, a middle age black man.  “What happened to your hair?”

“I’m letting it grow naturally.”

“You should straighten it.”

“To look more like a white woman?”

“Nappy hair is shameful on a woman.”  I am not making this up or exaggerating, this is exactly what he said.

“You have nappy hair under your hat, why should I have to straighten my hair?”

“You’re a woman.  It’s not ladylike.”

 

My cheeks burned red with embarrassment.  How could I have missed such an obvious cue that she was expressing a real and very legitimate body image problem that is so embedded a complete stranger thought it was appropriate to say her natural hair was shameful?  The next man in line (another middle aged black man) who had heard the exchange assured my coworker that her natural hair was in fact, beautiful, but the damage had already been done – her feeling that “black men hate natural hair” had been validated.  I was stunned, I am still stunned, that the exchange happened.

 

And it’s because I hadn’t listened, I’d heard what she was saying, but I hadn’t listened.  In her saying, “black men hate natural hair,” what I was missing was the “…because black women are socially pressured to have straight hair like a white woman and to reject their own natural appearance.”

 

I realized my own personal error in creating an inclusive environment for feminist discourse, and I realized that my mental lapse is probably representative of a larger issue in the global discourse: we’re just not listening.  Every cultural group has a place in the discourse, every opinion has a place in the discourse, we just need to reach past hearing the words and listen to the heart and soul behind them.

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Sexy Cancer and Ugly Self-Acceptance

I’d originally planned on writing this post when images like this:

started circulating around facebook and other social media outlets, but then the Susan Komen Foundation/Planned Parenthood event happened and I had to retool my thoughts and approach the topic a bit differently because omitting the politicization of breast cancer in a post about the sexualization of breast cancer felt incomplete in the current blog climate.

 

Before we get to sexy breast cancer I’d like to address the “real woman” images floating around and what they really mean and address how damaging they actually are to women as a whole.  And they are damaging – Kiera Knightley is not inferior to me because of my breast size and Heidi Montag isn’t a disgrace because she paid for her body (though it says a lot about society that a gorgeous woman felt compelled to have ten invasive surgeries in one day because she didn’t feel she was beautiful enough).  We need to get away from this idea that there is a “correct” woman, only one kind of “sexy” woman, and accept that the most beautiful thing any woman can be is healthy.

 

For some women that’s a size zero and for others it’s a size 14.  And that’s okay.

 

Fellow WordPress blogger Whirlygigagogo made this image, and I think it makes this point well:

The fact of the matter is, when women point to one image and say, “this type of body is inferior to this type (which I more closely resemble),” in order to make themselves feel better it is at the cost of other women and that own woman’s value as an individual.  These images are not about whether D cups are “better” than A cups, or whether narrow hipped lithe women are “sexier” than wide hipped voluptuous women, they’re about bringing down one group to elevate another and it’s unnecessary.  More than unnecessary, it takes away what our focus should be on: health.  Should we starve ourselves to be thin?  No.  Should we overeat fatty and unhealthy foods to get curvier?  No.  We should strive to be as healthy as we can be with the shape our bodies are already inclined to be.  It’s really ugly to label an entire group of women as unattractive just because you’re not in that group.

 

This is where I believe the fat acceptance movement has in some places really overstepped it’s bounds.  Nobody should be made to feel ashamed for their very existence, nobody deserves to wake up and hate his/herself because of their body, I absolutely and totally agree with that, but to suggest or even outright say that obese women are superior to thin women or that obese women should ignore the health implications of their condition and accept their bodies as they are is irresponsible.  I’m not saying very overweight women are not/cannot be beautiful, I’m saying that on this path to self-acceptance we have sacrificed health.  TLC’s show Big Sexy was lauded for finally bringing sexy large women to television and I think it’s great that fashionable women who aren’t very, very thin can be shown as sexy on TV but I question whether it’s really a good idea to say things like, “Big Sexy follows a group of big sexy ladies who are living large with one mission: to show the world that bigger is better, ” (from the show’s lineup description) when several of the women on the show are clearly above a healthy weight.  Again, I’m not saying these women are unattractive, I’m saying they’re seriously unhealthy and saying that they’re superior to thinner women because of their size is pretty reprehensible.  Fat women are not better.  Thin women are not better.  Healthy women, healthy women who are proud of their bodies and take good care of themselves are what we should strive to be.

 

But, no matter how healthy you live your life, cancer can happen.  And, if the overwhelming wave of pink goods is to be believed, it’s probably going to be breast cancer.

 

Well, no, it’s not.  While being diagnosed with breast cancer is most common, lung cancer is the most common fatal cancer in women and colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer death across all ethnic groups.  For that matter, all cancer deaths total don’t topple the number one killer (of both men and women), heart disease.  So what’s with all the pink if what we really need to be wearing is red?

 

Heart disease and lung cancer isn’t sexy.  There, I said it.

 

Let me explain: when was the last time you saw a “save the lungs!” bumper sticker?  An “I ❤ clean arteries!” awareness bracelet?  How about a bar fundraising event called “save the colons and rectums,” featuring $2 shots with all proceeds going towards a charity specifically focusing on colorectal cancer treatment and awareness?  You haven’t seen or heard of any of these things because they don’t exist, but I’m willing to bet you see “save the boobies” or “I ❤ titties” pink stuff on a nearly daily basis.

 

Ultimately, what all this marketing and awareness boils down to is the breasts.  Not the woman they’re attached to, the breasts.  It’s not about ending breast cancer to save women, it’s about ending breast cancer to save breasts.  You want to see a powerful breast cancer awareness image?  Show a husband lovingly embracing his bald, scarred, breastless wife post double mastectomy.  Tell her she’s a proud and brave warrior and after she heals up she can get implants or just wear bra falsies, because having breasts and saving breasts is more important than the rest of her.  The wall of pink we’ve put up to pat ourselves on the back and say, “hooray titties!” has blinded us to the horror of what cancer is, the pain and trauma that women and their families endure.  Buying pink stuff and shoveling money towards groups that ultimately do nothing does not help these people.  Wearing a “save the boobies,” bracelet is insulting and childish in the face of real pain.  Save the woman.  Her life is more than her breasts.

National Breast Cancer Awareness Month was started by the American Cancer Society and Astra Zenica (you know, the pharmaceutical company) to promote mammograms.  Great, no problem, regular mammograms can help with early detection and treatment of cancer, but where did all the pink come from and where the hell is all this money going?  Pink handguns (firearms are the second leading cause of violent death in women), pink alcohol (that causes cancer), pink makeup (that causes cancer), everywhere pink pink pink, most with some or all of the proceeds going to to Komen.  And what does Komen then do with that money?

 

For a brief stint in January-February 2012, they stopped their funding of Planned Parenthood, who uses about 16% of their budget to provide breast, cervical, and other cancer screenings to women at little or no cost.  Why?  Originally the statement was that Komen would not provide funding to any group facing investigation but the reality that everyone knew was that Karen Handel, a Vice President level executive in the company, was taking her anti-abortion message louder and prouder than her breast cancer awareness message.  While Handel denies this (regardless of evidence to the contrary), the plain fact of the matter is this rule regarding funding groups being investigated was created solely to give an excuse for defunding planned parenthood.  Why?  If the focus, the one sole focus, of your group is to end breast cancer, why would defunding a group that provides free screenings as a major part of its service program even be an option?

 

Because the Komen foundation hasn’t been focused on doing the most good for the most women for some time.  This breakdown of their expense report (available here) provides some interesting insight:

12 percent for administration

8 percent for fundraising

7 percent for treatment

15 percent for screening

24 percent research

34 percent for education

Combined research, treatment, and screening make up less than half (46%) of the budget.  The three things that actually end breast cancer, the three things that most actively impact the women who have cancer, comprise less than half the budget.  As Lowder points out, why is 34% of the money going towards education/”awareness” when you’d be hard pressed to find a woman anywhere in the US who wasn’t aware of breast cancer and her potential risks?  Komen is a business, it’s a company, and with “education” comes brand recognition.  More money, more power.  More power, more weight to say things like, “we won’t fund an organization that performs abortions is under investigation,” and expect to get away with it.

 

Except they didn’t.  Women (and men) took a stand against Komen and with Planned Parenthood, vowing to cease donations, promising to stop buying all the pink crap.  And it worked, Komen recanted, Planned Parenthood proudly announced their continued partnership with the foundation, and Karen Handel resigned (having played her cards a bit too boldly or a bit too soon perhaps).  The reality is Komen hasn’t changed though, and just like the “I ❤ boobies,” “save the tatas,” bracelets and bumper stickers, they’re just using sexualized breast cancer and a pink ribbon to sell a product instead of focusing on the lives of the women they claim to want to save.

 

I relate these two topics because they have the same root issue: somewhere along the line health became second to something else.  The change in attitude has to come from within, we have to stop putting down other women, we have to stop buying meaningless pink stuff we don’t need and focus on getting back to being healthy.


“Feminists just can’t take a joke”

Early this fall I was speaking to a friend of mine who coaches women’s soccer at a co-ed college.  She expressed to me some difficulty she faced in the workplace with sexist comments and how she confronted the men making the remarks and she told me (quoted as best I can from memory), “they seemed to get it but they just made more jokes.  It’s like they can’t take feminism seriously because it makes them uncomfortable so they make jokes about it.”

This got me thinking – feminists have a long standing reputation for being “unable to take a joke,” particularly when said joke is overwhelmingly sexist or the question of workplace sexual harassment comes up.  I’ve never met a feminist that didn’t love to laugh; when George Carlin passed in 2008 I lamented the loss of a counterculture icon and favorite comedian of mine and certainly he had no shortage of bits that were less than feminist friendly.  So why are some jokes not at all funny?  Who gets to decide what is appropriate and what isn’t?  I’m not in favor of censorship, but I do believe hate speech and oppressive words should be called out as such (a right to say something does not make saying it morally or ethically just).  Some important questions I think are good to mull over before telling a sexist joke:

  • By telling this joke, what is the underlying message which I am trying to convey (women are less intelligent, women are deserving of rape, women’s sports deserve less respect than men’s, conversely a male’s value as a person is closely related to his penis size, et cetera)?
  • Why do I feel this sentiment is necessary to convey?
  • Do I genuinely believe this sentiment, and if not, why would I want someone to believe that I do?
  • If this sentiment were expressed about me personally, would I be offended?  Why do I expect a woman to not be offended by the implications I am making?

In a recent article titled Lighten Up, Ladies!  Sexual harassment, sexual shmarassment, right? columnist Tabatha Southey says, “It’s distracting. It hurts our productivity. Some of us will now sit in a meeting with a man, listening to him talk about, say, life-threatening safety violations in our own workplace, and be wondering if he thinks he’s doing a Seth Rogen impression and when in his speech we’re meant to start laughing. Sometimes we do start laughing. It’s a defensive move. We look insane! But insane is okay. Just never let it be said that we don’t have a sense of humour.”  Why has it now become a condition of employment that women need to take being offended in stride?  I’m no fan of those “he has a sports car/giant truck/hummer, he must be compensating for an undersized penis,” jokes, but would these same people say something like that to their boss that just purchased a new red Z3?  Why is it more acceptable to make jokes challenging a woman’s worth and abilities than it is a man’s?

I find it interesting that (at least in my experience), most of the people saying “anything can be funny, nothing is off-limits,” are white middle and upper class straight males.  Can someone in the position of ultimate privilege (white privilege, class privilege, male privilege, straight privilege) really be a fair and objective judge of what’s “funny” when the chance of that individual facing any real oppression or harassment in their life is nil?  Again, I’m not arguing for censorship, I’m just proposing that maybe the people making “jokes” in the workplace that disparage people based on their gender/race/sexual orientation should take responsibility for their words and realize that when they make the statement, “this joke is being told at the cost of your dignity, it’s funny, and if you don’t agree then you are the problem not me,” it is going to breed hostility in the workplace and it does in fact make them a bad person.  Nobody goes to work to feel humiliated.

What’s the appropriate response to rape jokes in the workplace?  Why is it acceptable to tell a woman who’s offended by a rape joke to “lighten up, it’s nothing serious,” and to drag her though the mud when she files a sexual harassment claim?  Is rape really something we as a society want to convey is funny?  I don’t understand at what point prison rape jokes and “she had it coming” humor became acceptable; I do understand that we use humor to diffuse uncomfortable situations but the line between softening the blow and making a mockery of victims of horrible personal violations has clearly been crossed (does anyone really believe that violent anal rape in prison is justified for minor drug crimes?).

Women love to laugh just as much as men do.  We just want you to laugh with us, not at us.


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 II: Women and Gaming

The other facet of women in gaming is the real women affiliated with the gaming world: the actual industry professionals, female gamers, and the women commonly referenced as “booth girls” – attractive women hired by game publishers and conventions to pose as gamers (who often are not actually interested in video games).  These women often face exploitation for their gender when they are recognized by the industry and are often otherwise ignored.

While female game designers go all the way back to Atari, there’s one woman designer with media prominence: Jade Raymond, of the team that made Assassin’s Creed.  Now, I don’t know Ms. Raymond, and I’m not saying she isn’t talented.  She didn’t get to her position in the game industry without talent and love of gaming.  However, I am saying the only reason her name rings louder than say, Carol Shaw (one of the earliest game designers) or Kim Swift (creator of the game Portal was based off of, Narbacular Drop, as well as a designer on the Portal team), is because…

1. She is attractive.

2. Her attractiveness was used as a selling point for Assassin’s Creed.

Now, it’s totally reasonable for producers to be public about their game – anyone who’s seen Cliffy B’s twitter feed knows that they’re often overly excited to do so.  It’s great to be proud of your work.  But, I have to question of things like this are really necessary to sell a game:

But you know what?  It worked.  Ubisoft put out Jade as an icon and sold their game by selling her.  This is a woman who by her early thirties had a resume including executive level work at EA and Ubisoft,  something respectable for any woman or man in the field, reduced to shilling her project by taking off her clothes.

Game designers aren’t the only industry women who face marginalization or exploitation for their work.  Game Journalists who happen to be female also face different professional standards.  Kotaku columnist Leigh Alexander had a piece about this recently wherein she argued that despite all of her work in game journalism, all of her articles and interviews, when people discuss her the most important adjective is “female.”  I don’t always agree with Leigh (her opinions on Bayonetta especially) but I respect how hard she works and it’s infuriating to me that her work gets distilled down to “female” with no attention to the actual vastness of her work.

When I think about women in the industry I often come back to this video because it’s something men generally find more palatable than outright feminist thought on the subject, but I have a couple problems with it, most notably the criticism of the aforementioned “booth girls” but also the suggestion that the best way to appeal to women is to make something pink.

The booth girl is not unique to gaming but the game industry in particular is fairly notorious for it and even embraces it.  It’s easy to point the finger and say, “hey, nobody is making these girls do this.  They’re making money by pretending to be gamers so women only have themselves to blame.  Really it’s men who are being tricked, they’re lured into these games by hot women who don’t really share their interests!”  Well, no.  Society is making these girls do this.

As girls (and later as women), we’re taught by our surroundings that our looks are our most important feature (“you can’t see smarts”) and that our sex is a commodity.  Men like to flip it and say that women commoditize sex to “get what they want” but supply doesn’t create demand (when was the last time a parent told his/her daughter her virginity was only as important as she deemed it so and that no decent man would judge her for having casual sex and enjoying intercourse?) and chances are these women didn’t just show up at a gaming convention one year and say, “hey, do you want to pay us to stand here and look hot?”

It’s not just paid models who fall into the “sex sells” role women are wedged into in gaming.  A half dozen sites and services exist to pair up men with women’s gamer tags.  While I’m not against the concept of matchmaking through gaming (I know I only date other gamers), these sites don’t approach it at that angle: the women get paid (per hour largely) and the company takes a cut.  It’s not prostitution by any stretch, but it’s not particularly good for women gamers either (it enforces the idea that women only pretend to game to get men).

So do actual female gamers and developers have an equal place in the game picture?  Is there any avenue for women in gaming that isn’t inherently exploitative?  Can a woman be just a gamer without attracting any undue attention; can an attractive women be a gamer without having more expected from her?  I think so.  I just don’t think we’re there yet.


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?


“What’s Your Number?” and Slut Shaming

I’d like to preface my criticism of the film What’s Your Number with a note that I have not seen the movie itself, I am basing my feelings about the content of the film on previews and actual film reviews.  My commentary has nothing to do with the acting, production, or any artistic aspect of the film.  I happen to think Anna Faris is a very funny woman, however, the theme of her present flick is not.

For those not in the US Rom-Com loop, there is a major theatrical release wherein the protagonist (Anna Faris) goes on a quest to not sleep with anyone else because she will never find a husband because of the number of men she has slept with and is inferior to her friends for having a larger number than them.

Spoiler, she has sex with one more man (Chris Evans), presumably because she intends to marry him (because premarital sex is fine but only if you’re planning on getting married!).

Now let’s be honest – romantic comedies, while often geared towards women, are hardly ever progressive about the messages they convey about healthy relationships and gender roles.  Boy meets girl (or girl meets boy), boy loses girl, boy gets girl back.  The man usually has to come around to loving the woman in spite of or because of her flaws and then do something romantic (profess his undying love, purchase a price-inflated blood diamond for her, stand up to her father) to seal the relationship forever.   Often this means the woman giving something up (such as a career).  For example, in You’ve Got Mail, following the collapse of her business due to the corporate crowd-out by Tom Hanks’ character, Meg Ryan’s character closes her small independent bookstore to work in Hanks’ large male-owned and dominated store because despite everything she loves him.  She has lost her livelihood, she has lost her independence, but it’s okay because she has the love of a providing man.  And these are the movies we want compare our real-world relationships to?

What’s Your Number? is indicative of a larger problem within our society: Slut Shaming.  The idea that women should be embarrassed by or ashamed of sexuality, that sexually empowered women are somehow deserving of or responsible for being victims of sexual assault and rape, and that women shouldn’t enjoy sex (especially casual sex) are all frames of thought behind slut shaming.  Think about the number of times you’ve seen or heard the following (on facebook, in person, wherever):

  • “Think of it like this: if a key opens a lot of locks, it’s a master key, but if a lock is opened by many keys, it’s a shitty lock.”
  • “She’s such a slut, look at what she’s wearing.”
  • “Well when you dress like that, things happen to you.”
  • “She’s had sex with x number of guys, she’s such a whore.”
  • “She’s loose.”
  • “Women just need asprin for birth control: put an asprin between your knees and keep it there!”
  • “She only says she’s bisexual to get attention from men because she’s a slut.”
  • “She’s the town bicycle, everyone’s had a ride.”

Now, think of how many of those have ever been applied to men.  With exception to the second to last (which will be discussed further in a future post about bisexual erasure), none of them.

Keep in mind that absolutely none of these statements, no matter how “jokingly” they’re made, do anything but value a woman based on what her worth is to a man and base that value on an arbitrary number of penises that woman has come into contact with.  Some of them even suggest that if a woman enjoys sex, owns her sexuality, and feels comfortable about her body, someone taking sex from her would be partially her fault.

Slut shaming isn’t limited to men turning women’s sexuality against them; some of the most vicious slut shaming comes from our own peers, woman to woman, in a misguided effort to obtain some nature of pack hierarchy.  Girls turning against girls, women against women to enforce a rigid patriarchal structure that harms everyone as if somehow to say, “I may only be valued by my vagina, but I want my vagina to be valued more highly than hers.”

In the 2004 film Mean Girls (based on the book Queen Bees and Wannabes by Rosalind Wiseman) Tina Fey’s character tells the girls of her school to, “stop calling each other sluts and whores,” because, “it just makes it okay for guys to call you sluts and whores.”  What we have is a culture so engrained in this idea what women shouldn’t have sex and if they do they shouldn’t enjoy it too much that the biggest insult to a woman’s character it to suggest that she does these things.  A culture so entrenched with the idea that the number of people a woman has slept with determines everything about her socially including whether or not she is worth marrying is so acceptable that a romantic comedy film can be made about it…and women will pay to go see it.


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