Sunday, August 7, 2011

Do We Read Too Much Into Our Entertainment?

The first day of my Intro to Sociology class, my professor warned us that we'd never see our entertainment the same way. For better or worse, she was right.

When you're consumed by social consciousness and academic theory, as I am, it's sometimes difficult to kick back and enjoy media without tearing it to pieces. Sometimes, admittedly, it deserves to be torn apart. But what if it doesn't, and we do it anyway?

I've been re-watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I love that show, but, like all shows, I tend to analyze it. Maybe it makes it harder to stop because it's supposed to be ultra-feminist, which leads me to scrutinize it more heavily than shows that don't lay that claim. When you put something on a pedestal, it becomes very easy to knock it down.

Frankly, I'm sick of doing that. There was a time when I was able to analyze shows critically and yet still enjoy them. I was able to recognize that nothing is as simple as we like to make it.

I suppose it's timely that I re-watched the end of Season 6 last night and read Em McAvan's “I Think I’m Kinda Gay”: Willow Rosenberg and the Absent/Present Bisexual in Buffy the Vampire Slayer this morning.

A lot has been said about the way magic in the series was both a metaphor for lesbianism and magic. And a lot has been made of the fact that Willow turned evil following Tara's death.

But as a writer of fiction as well as a feminist academic, I'd like to pose the question: When is it okay just to try to tell a good story?

There are times when I, as a writer, want to make a social impact. I want to weave social consciousness into my stories and make people think. But other times, I'm not thinking like an academic. I just want to be creative and tell an interesting story.

In McAvan's notes, she writes "Bodger, on the other hand, suggests that magic is “a metaphor for female deviancy in the series. It comes to represent both the lesbian relationship between Willow and Tara, and later Willow's (and by extension woman's) inability to handle power as she becomes 'addicted' to magic in a sustained witchcraft/drug analogy.”"

Is this the case? Perhaps it is a metaphor for female deviancy. But does this metaphor universally insist that said female deviancy is wrong?

Willow and Tara's relationship was handled beautifully. It was never suggested that this deviancy was destructive. I'd argue that a reading of Tara's death that suggests that her lesbianism was her downfall ignores the broader context of the Whedonverse, in which characters are prone to dying just as they've entered a much anticipated relationship--gay or straight. It's a great way to rip the viewer's heart out, and does so effectively, but I don't believe it is or was meant as more.

And should the fact that Willow's magic elevates her to a (good) goddess-like level in the series finale change Bodger's reading of Willow's addiction to magic as female inability to handle power? Could we read Willow's addiction not as a warning to women about obtaining power, but as a more generalized, gender-non-specific comment on the dangers of the abuses of power?

Moreover, is it even fair to read the two metaphors of magic (lesbianism and addiction) as being part of the same thread? For instance, does it suggest that lesbianism is dangerous and addictive?

I believe that would be a stretch. Was it was ill-advised to change metaphors mid-way through the show when magic had originally stood for positive female sexual deviance? Perhaps, simply because of societal context. But, by the same token, could we just as easily read it as a plot device? A simple change in the metaphoric meaning of a supernatural phenomenon to fit and drive forward a plot?

Friday, July 29, 2011

Stigmatized Dress, Demeaning Words, and SDCC & Beyond: The Follow Up

So, the Oh You Sexy Geek Panel gave me a lot of food for thought, and I have been reading other blogs regarding it online (Action Flick Chick has a fairly complete list).

I'd like to give a more personal explanation for my opinions, since yesterday I went off on a bit of a random academic tangent (I do that--it will probably happen again ;)).

Stigmatized Dress

I can very easily see the points of other feminists about sexualized dress being a part of patriarchal oppression. But through both personal experience and academic studies, I find modest dress to be an equal symbol and symptom of oppression.

The Personal Side:

I like the way low cut tops look on me. I just's not about garnering male attention (or female, for that matter). In fact, for the longest time, I was so repressed that I was vehemently uncomfortable with the idea of anyone finding me sexually attractive.

So what's the catch? I felt uncomfortable wearing these tops, because I was afraid I'd be looked upon as dirty or slutty for wearing them. Moreover, I was afraid I'd get in trouble at school, due to what I now believe is an archaic and oppressive dress code for women. I remember tugging my top up higher to try to ensure that I exposed less cleavage, and always feeling very self-conscious about it.

The Academic Side:

As I discussed in my last post, I believe on a scholarly level that the enforcement of modest dress is oppressive. This enforcement is sometimes institutional (school dress codes and public indecency laws), and sometimes comes in the form of social sanctions (slut baiting and disapproval from those around you).

We give the Arab and Muslim world a lot of flack for forcing women to wear burqas, niqabs, and hijabs (it should be noted that there are places in this world where Muslim women have actually fought for the right to wear them). But we don't see how we subtly treat women the same way when we demand they cover their cleavage, their thighs, their navels, their backs, and their shoulders in order to pass as a 'sexually moral woman.'

The Personal Side, Continued:

Someone I am very close to also happens to like wearing clothes that are tighter and more revealing. Twice, she's been called out for it by random strangers who feel they have the right to impose their vision of sexual morality and modesty on her. These are the kind of social sanctions that leave some women feeling self-conscious and uncomfortable in their own skin. This girl has enough self-confidence that she doesn't let it affect her. But what about all the girls who do?

The Academic Side, Continued:

In my junior year at DU, I did a preliminary study on school dress codes and how they affect young women's views of themselves. I'd still like to do a more in depth, more controlled study, but the preliminary data still seemed pretty telling. The polling numbers remained consistent, as they went up, and told me what I already knew from personal experience: Girls are negatively impacted by these dress codes. It can affect their body image, reinforce the concept that female body and sexuality are dirty, and play to the idea that women need to modestly attire themselves to avoid enticing men.

Which brings me to my next subject: Why we need to flip the conversation from what women need to do to protect themselves from the male gaze to what we need to teach men about respecting women.

Demeaning Words and Leering Gazes

The Personal Side:

I've been sexually harassed. It's a familiar story to a lot of women. In my case, it was a boy in high school grabbing my ruler and putting it down his pants. Another time, I had a teenage boy touch my butt when I was 10 or 11. These things are not okay.

There is a reason that Chris Gore's comment raised my hackles. There is a reason that, while I know he has the right to say whatever he wants (free speech), there is a reason I can't respect his words. They were sexually objectifying and disempowering.

"I want to stick my penis in each and every one of these women."

There were ways he could have said this that would have been more respectful. I would never ask that people deny their natural attractions, or claim that sexual desire is wrong. "I find every one of these women attractive" -- that would have been appropriate and reaffirmed what the panel was saying about the need for a variety in what we see as 'sexy.'

"I'd like to have sex with each of these women." -- Not great, but still better for exactly one reason.

Sexual Power.

The Academic Side:

Sexual control is a huge problem in our society. It rears its ugly head in a culture where 1 in every 4 American women has been raped.

The flip side of this is sexual desire, and the way our culture often denies women the right to have this desire.

Pair the sexual control and domination by one party with the suppression of sexual desire with the other party, and you have a denial of female sexual agency.

The phrase "I'd like to stick my penis in" suggests male domination. Whether Mr. Gore meant it this way or not, it creates this image. The vocabulary feeds into the idea that there is only one active party in this sexual act and desire: The man.

No, I'm not accusing Mr. Gore of wanting to rape these women. Not at all. That would be a terrible and disrespectful assumption to make about anyone. I don't know the man, and I won't pretend to. All I know are the words he spoke at the panel and the words he subsequently wrote on Twitter--and those are the words I want to discuss, not his overall character, which I know nothing about.

Maybe his words were truly meant as a joke. If so, all he is personally guilty of is bad comic timing and satire that couldn't be discerned as such from his words or circumstances. But, unfortunately, his words recall a desire by men to sexually dominate women, irregardless of the desires of those women.

What demeans women is not men finding them sexually desirable. For heterosexuals, that's just a fact of human nature. What demeans them is the idea that they all are, and should be receptive to the sexual advances of a man, or men in general.

Telling a woman you have no sexual relationship with that you want to put your penis in her is not just crude. It's disrespectful. It assumes that not only is she receptive to that idea, but that she is perfectly comfortable with the thought. Or, that you don't give a damn whether she's comfortable with it or not, which to me is the ultimate disrespect.

Not everyone is going to be comfortable with what everyone says to them; that's a fact of life. But when it involves physical contact, especially in a society where so many women have been sexually assaulted or sexually harassed, it can be more personal, more offensive, and more uncomfortable. It can make women who have been victimized feel re-victimized, and it can create a hostile environment for women who feel that their own desires are being made subordinate to their male co-workers, friends, and even strangers off the street.

So to Chris Gore, if you read this: All I ask is that, next time, before you tell a woman you want to put your penis in her, think about how it might affect her.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Oh, You Sexy Geek: SDCC Panel, Gender, Sexuality, And Feminist Waves - WARNING: GOES OFF ON MAJOR TANGENTS

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the Oh, You Sexy Geek panel at San Diego Comic Con. Since the blog world seems afire with controversy about it, I'd like to add my own two-cents to the mix.

I will address three things from the panel getting a lot of flack in the blogworld right now:

1) Chris Gore's "I'd like to stick my penis in all of these women" comment.
2) Adrianne Curry's remark about sexual prudishness in the US
3) The 'girls are bitches' comment


Okay, first and foremost, I'd like to take this opportunity to say that I don't believe Chris Gore's comment was okay at all. If it was meant as satire, it was poorly executed. One of his follow-up comments on twitter (@ThatChrisGore) read: "I find it sad that acting like a real man is perceived as sexist today. It's the pussification/castration of the American male."

So, what is 'acting like a real man'? If acting like a real man involves degrading jokes about women, then I'd like to meet some fake men.

Let me put it this way: If a male coworker approached a woman in a work environment and said that he'd like to put his penis in her, she'd have one hell of a sexual harassment suit.

I'd like to make one thing clear. I consider myself a third wave bisexual feminist, and not all of my views are traditional. I DON'T believe it's wrong for men to be sexually turned on by women, just as I don't believe it's wrong for women to dress in a revealing manner. But I do believe it's highly offensive to make unwanted, crude sexual remarks and advances to anyone, male or female.

We can also problematize his term 'pussification,' as it is a crude slang term for 'feminizing.' Aside from the problems of using slang for a female body part as a term of disdain, let's tackle a deeper issue: Why masculinity is held up as higher on the totem pole than femininity.

This is a much bigger issue than Mr. Gore's uncomfortable faux-pas. This is an issue that I've noted even in feminism as it struggles to make women equal to men in our society.

To me, one of the greatest ironies of second wave feminism is this: It actually idealizes masculinity.

Both hyperfemininity and hegemonic masculinity are problematic for our culture. So too is the idea that women should be only feminine and men should be only masculine.

But second wave feminism asked women to fully eschew femininity in favor of masculinity. Perhaps that was the only way to break through into the male dominated world, something which desperately needed to be done. But it also led to the harassment of women by women for maintaining traditional femininity or taking on traditionally feminine roles (stay at home parenting, for example). Instead of equalizing femininity and masculinity and suggesting that women could take on both feminine and masculine qualities, and that men could do the same, it reemphasized masculinity as an ideal.

This is not to say that women should embrace hyperfemininity as a goal. Rather, I would suggest that both femininity and masculinity have positive functions in our culture, and should both be accessible to men and women without resulting in the fear of ridicule. It should not be considered 'unmasculine' to treat women with respect and refrain from making crude sexual advances toward them.


At one point in the panel, former America's Next Top Model contestant and winner Adrianne Curry commented that America was too prudish in regards to nudity. On this, I happen to strongly agree.

It is no secret that my academic work is devoted to understanding the development of sexual morality and gender roles, and that my stance is one that might rankle the sensibilities of other feminists of our time.

I believe that one of the ways to eliminate sexual objectification and repression of women is to embrace nudity and female sexuality as natural and healthy.

I would suggest that our heavy critique of scantily clad women serves to reinforce the idea that the female body is somehow dirty and that female sexuality must be contained.

This is not to say that no critique is necessary--these clothes and the women who wear them do not exist in a vacuum; rather, they exist and are interpreted in a culture that still often views a women's body and sexuality as her most valuable attribute. This is just as problematic as the other extreme, which can serve to separate a women from her body and sexuality entirely.

I defer to Ruth P. Rubinstein, a scholar on dress in culture. In her book, Dress Codes: meanings and messages in American culture, she writes: " covering and uncovering, all parts of the female body have been sexualized..." (Rubinstein, 148-149). Anthropologists have found that in societies where nudity is the norm, clothing is sexual. Likewise, in the Victorian era, being so completely covered led to the sexualization of female wrists and ankles, which are barely a thought in our modern discussion of female sexualized body parts.

For this reason, I would suggest that if 'Slave Leia' were the normative form of dress and it didn't feed into a taboo image of female sexuality, it might attract less attention and less sexual leering.


We can problematize girls calling each other and themselves bitches until the end of time. But the unfortunate reality of our society is that girls, via nature or nurture, seem to be each other's harshest critics, ESPECIALLY when it comes to issues of sexuality and dress.

Girls sanction each other's sexual behavior all the time with 'slut baiting.' I will agree that it's problematic to assume that women's behavior toward one another derives purely out of jealousy, HOWEVER, in a cultural context where we significantly value certain female body types over others, jealousy can easily arise. This is where the point about broadening the cultural definition of what is beautiful and sexy comes in: if we stopped idealizing a size 0 with rock hard abs and big boobs, we might stop being so jealous of the women who sported that body type.

And slut-baiting is real. Women critiquing other women's dress as 'immodest' and presuming it makes them somehow less moral is a real issue. It happens all the time, and it's a well documented phenomenon. Many girls who have worn revealing clothing have experienced dirty looks or unwelcome comments...from other women.

And to the idea that women who dress sexually are agents in their own oppression: That's a complicated issue. It's not black and white; some women do see their only value as sexual and believe that emphasizing their sexuality is the only way to secure male attention. And that is a problem. But where in this debate do we allow for women exploring and feeling comfortable with their own bodies and sexualities? Where do we allow for the woman who dresses like that because she feels comfortable in her own skin? Or because, for one day of cosplay, it's fun and liberating to escape the bounds of everyday sexual morality, and be given the opportunity to dress provocatively without being called an immoral slut?