objectification

Confessions of a Former Writer of Sexist Fiction

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In the process of moving to a new state for a new job, I spent a whole mess of time packing up all my stuff into cardboard boxes. This led to the discovery of every writer’s waking nightmare: those short stories and novellas you wrote before you had any idea what “narrative structure” or “scene setting” meant. If you ever want to spend an afternoon alternating between sheer horror and vague retrospective enthusiasm, try reading those notebooks. It’s a trip.

Sometimes, when you take a nostalgic writer’s trip, you discover some things. I found two:

1. A sentence from a totally useless story that I immediately cut and pasted into my current manuscript, because it was perfect and I re-fell in love with it instantly, and

2. The following realization: “holy shit but I wrote a lot of misogynistic patriarchal sexist bullshit between the ages of 13 and 18.”

You want to know what kind of cultural tropes and baggage society gives us? Check out the way you thought about gender roles as a child. No filter, no sociological un-learning, just straight regurgitation of the dominant worldview.

Here are two of the most popular tropes I found myself using over the course of my youthful forays into fiction. The sad thing is, these are not exclusive to children. They’re everywhere: in movies, in TV, in mainstream fiction, in video games, everywhere. And the sooner we start breaking them down, the better shot we’ve got at stopping them.

1. Women as Plot Devices

Uncomfortable truth be told, it seems I’ve always been more comfortable working with male protagonists. I don’t know why this is. Well, I kind of do know why this is. Despite the steady diet of female empowerment my parents and I sought out, from Tamora Pierce (guys I don’t care how old you are go fucking read Tamora Pierce) to Little Women (#JoMarchForever), most media produced in America is phallocentric.

There’s a reason we invoke the Bechdel test as often as we do: because so many things fail it.

You know what the test is: the film must have two or more female characters, both of whom have names, and who have a conversation with one another about something other than a man. Should be a given, right?

Check out this list of which 2014 movies passed and failed the test. Then think about how many of those passing films were billed as “blockbusters” or “must-sees.” How many of them got heavy advertising? How many of them weren’t dismissed as genre films like “young adult” or “teen girl” or “chick flick”? I count maybe ten. And that list has 159 movies.

And this is fucking 2014.

No, this doesn’t make me feel any better about the number of variations I wrote on this story: charming yet disadvantaged male goes through dramatic adventures (piracy, vampirism, the Napoleonic Wars) only to discover that the only female in the story is the love of his life, and that he’ll do anything (kill the captain, commit suicide in a vampire/hunter street fight like West Side Story with fangs, feed the rival suitor to a hungry bear) to obtain her.

Easy Solution: Start telling women’s stories with the same authenticity as men’s.

Obviously, I’m not saying that we should throw out all male protagonists. (#notallmen.) But all I’m saying is that we have to make an effort to even the playing field. Women make up 50% of the world’s population. Asking for a few stories about women who aren’t only focused on marriage shouldn’t be so much to ask, but apparently is.

It’s also worth pointing out that bit parts like scene-setting servants, whores, crowd characters, or personality-less mothers don’t count. Female presence is not the same as female representation. As writers, we need to get as deeply into the heads of the women in our stories as we do the men. It’s especially disappointing to me as a woman that even I frequently did not do this. But it’s never too late to re-correct.

2. Objectifying and Sexually Skewed Adjectives

Guys. Guys. I can’t make you understand on an emotional level the number of times I referred to the female character in the aforementioned nonsense vampire novella’s “emerald-green eyes.” (I know, I know, I’m selling this vampire novella really hard.) I blame this partly on Harry Potter: flip through the series and see if you can find a color adjective unmodified by another adjective. But the sum-total character development I gave this girl was deciding she had “emerald-green eyes.”

Occasionally, “shockingly emerald-green eyes.” Though how this could possibly shock anyone after I’d already written it forty times is beyond me.

She wasn’t the only one to receive this treatment. I’ve read through at least nine stories written between 2004 and 2010 recently, and nowhere in any of them is there a female character of any plot importance who isn’t the most beautiful woman the narrator has ever seen. Statistically speaking, that’s not exactly likely. Worth noting that there are male protagonists, in my writing and elsewhere, who look all kinds of ways. Yeah, I skew toward a type (okay, yeah, I skew toward this type). But it’s not the only goddamned type.

There’s a reason that an unattractive female protagonist (and not a “you don’t know you’re beautiful” type, a genuinely unattractive female protagonist) still feels like a revolutionary idea.

Women don’t have to be “classically beautiful” to be important. Beauty isn’t the only trait that determines a character’s value to the story. If we don’t spend all our time describing the male protagonist’s jawbones or the way you can see the shape of his pelvis through his pants, we sure shouldn’t be constantly talking about a woman’s body more than about what she’s saying.

Easy Solution: Kill your adjectives with fire.

I’ve become super highly attuned to the work my adjectives are doing. Specifically the patriarchal work. Description is great, guys. I once spent an afternoon doing nothing but drinking iced coffee and writing descriptions of various rooms, just for practice.

But when description replaces your characters’ agency, you’re leaning too far in the “show, don’t tell” direction, and it’s high time for you to come back to us.

Also, please delete every time you describe the color of something with more than one word. Every. Damn. Time. There is nothing wrong with “green” or “blue.” Take it from me, your future self will thank you for it.

I feel a little weird outlining my shortcomings as a writer, especially when I haven’t been called out on it by anyone else. (This is because no one is every allowed to read that vampire epic. It should be clear by now why.)

But I really think it’s important to be honest about the way writing works. Feminism isn’t a banner you take up one day and then never do a sexist thing again. Writing isn’t a skill you pick up at Target and then deploy perfectly heretofore. Both are processes, and both require training and continual sensitivity.

Constant vigilance, even.

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A Feminist Blogger Always Pays Her Debts – Victories and Failures of Game of Thrones

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Confession: I just started watching Game of Thrones at the end of June.

Yes, yes, I know. I’m letting down the whole generation of Millennials who have been trying to make Lannister references at me for years. (And I do mean at me, since even after I announced that I’d been streaming other shows instead, the Lannister references continued to flow in. Maybe they thought they owed it to me – I’m told they always pay their debts.) Nonetheless, I caved this summer, largely because searching for full-time employment leaves a whole lot of free time on either end of perfecting cover letters and resumes.

I’m only on season 3, episode 2, so there will be no spoilers here. Okay, just one: Dumbledore dies. But having spent so much time recently listening to the epic intro music (possibly more epic when played by a New Orleans jazz trio) has given me some time to think. I was told I would love Thrones for its “strong, well-written, complex female characters.”

Now, I’ll admit, the prospect was attractive. Growing, up, I was that kid.  I devoured the Lord of the Rings trilogy and for a period could rattle off extended dialogue sequences from the films. I plunged headfirst into series like Terry Brooks’ Shannara series and Christopher Paolini’s Inheritence cycle. In my “younger reader” days I was into Percy Jackson and the Olympiansthe His Dark Materials trilogy, and the full sequence of The Dark is Rising. Hey, I never said I wasn’t a dork. But I’m aware of how fantasy novels can (and frequently do) dismiss women into minor roles, plot devices, or non-speaking parts. You’ll never catch me throwing Tolkien under the bus – the man defined my childhood – but let’s take a moment to count up the number of female characters with important speaking roles. I’m at three. And I’m done.

Thrones, on the other hand, smashes through the Bechdel Test on the regular. Catelyn Stark, at least as far in as I am, is running around kicking ass and taking names. Arya is adorable and spunky (in a way that, to any fantasy-reading child of the 1990s who was into Tamora Pierce at the right age, will sound bells of familiarity at every turn)Daenerys has killed a lot of people, albeit with her breasts quite frequently seeming to do a whole lot of the work. These are characters with internal lives, motivations, and specific traits all their own. You could not sub Arya in for Sansa and expect the story to unfold in the same way. Cirsei and Shae’s dialogue can’t be switched.

Would I call Game of Thrones a feminist show? Maybe? Meh?

Would I call Game of Thrones a show directed entirely by men, based on a book series written by a man, with a female-to-male nudity ratio of about one metric fuckton to a naked butt here and there? Absolutely.

(Note: “metric fuckton” not to be used in situations requiring accurate units of measurement.)

While I absolutely appreciate George R.R. Martin’s ability to write women in speaking roles and major parts – which is awesome and let’s never lose sight of the fact that this is also an anomaly – there are also many, many things we should keep in mind before touting Thrones as the pinnacle of feminist television. Among these:

The excessive use of brothels as a plot device.

Let’s think about how so many of the most sympathetic characters use “whoring around” as the most manly and dashing of pastimes. Let’s think about why Tyrian’s entrance to the show waking up in a whorehouse is supposed to be endearing and entertaining, not troubling.

The frequency of rape scenes or almost-rape scenes

Let’s think about how these are tossed in and tossed aside again without really even being discussed. And let’s remember the feelings I’ve already expressed about rape as a plot device – for the link-averse, they’re wildly negative.

The representation of people of color

This is actually the first thing that skeeved me out watching the show. Keep in mind the way the Dothraki are represented, as an interpretation of the “shamanistic, earth-goddess, noble savage” trope linked troublingly to Native Americans. Let’s look at Daxos, the sole black man (at least up to the end of season 2), and the way he’s presented as a liar, a cheat, a womanizer, and manipulative master of fraud. Then let’s look at the way every single major character is white.

Guys, this is the great thing about fantasy. It’s fantasy. You can make your world look like whatever you want it to. You’ve got warlocks reproducing themselves in a magical tower with no doors. You’ve got zombies rising out of the snow and ravens with three eyes carrying messages on scrolls. Surely your imagination can stretch far enough to POC in leading roles.

Strategic presentation of prestige dialects

I’m not claiming to be an expert on this – I’m an English major with an amateur’s interest in sociocultural linguistics. Take my assertions with that very specific grain of salt, but still, let’s talk about linguistic discrimination. The Lannisters are from the southwest. The Starks are from the north. The Baratheons are presumably from King’s Landing in the south. The Targaryens are from Valyria, wherever the deuce that is, but is presumably nowhere close to anything. Despite this geographic disparity, Tyrian, Ned Stark, Joffrey, and Daenerys all speak in the same “standard English” dialect using the same prestige RP accent used so often in high drama even when it doesn’t make sense.

(Side note – I’m not necessarily proud of it, but I watched all three seasons of Showtime’s The Borgias in a month. It’s a historical drama about murder and intrigue in renaissance Italy, and everyone speaks in standard British RP. Why is this a thing?)

On the other hand, anyone not a prominent member of these families almost universally speaks in dialect. Prestige accent gains its prestige from socioeconomic and sociocultural factors – this is why RP is considered “posher” than, say, a northern accent, since political and economic power centers in London. What is this saying about people who don’t speak “proper” or “standard” English? It sounds like reading too much into it, until you remember the history of dialect discrimination that is unfortunately not really history.

Oh yeah, that nudity thing

There’s a reason no one watches Game of Thrones with their parents or relatives without squirming. It’s not the violence or the language. It’s those completely gratuitous scenes of female nudity in order to appeal to HBO’s target demographic. It keeps nicely in step with fantasy, sci-fi, and nerd culture generally’s long-standing tradition of presenting fully-clothed armed men wielding swords alongside women in push-up bras and underwear. I mean, I’m not here to bash Wonder Woman’s status as feminist icon, but let’s look at a side-by-side of her with Batman and Superman. That’s all.

It’s true: the male gaze is a thing. And, to clarify a point and to stop the thundering onrush of #notallmen I sense cresting the horizon, let’s talk about that for a second. A large percentage of people in the world are sexually attracted to one or more genders. (Naturally, not all, as asexuality is a thing that exists.) Which is fantastic. And some people are very pretty to look at, which can be enjoyable. Guys, I have watched nearly the entire filmography of Tom Hiddleston partly because he’s a splendid actor, partly because I have eyes and am a straight woman who finds him beautiful. I’m not saying that we should all close our eyes and lock ourselves in chastity closets. (What is a chastity closet? Don’t ask me.) What I am saying is that when a show chooses to represent its characters in a way meant to appeal to its viewers’ sexuality, and it does so in a way that disregards the sexuality of approximately 50% of the population by only representing women in sexually charged and vulnerable positions, something is off.

Am I saying that Game of Thrones would be a more feminist endeavor if there were more dick shots? I might be. I won’t deny it might help.

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As with most media analysis, the important thing here isn’t to decide once and for all whether Game of Thrones should be used in Women’s Studies 101 classes as a classic example of feminist media. We need to appreciate the time spent developing the personalities of female characters – and, for the sake of the old gods and the new, giving them speaking roles for a charming change – while at the same time looking critically at our favorite media outlets and insisting that they do better. Without media analysis and critical lenses, we’ll be relying on blind trust that people will do the right thing. Which as Ned Stark used to be able to attest to, never works well.

Sorry. I said no spoilers. Well, that’s the internet for you, then.

VMAs: If You Scandalize It, They Will Come

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Ah, the VMAs. If the media wanted to make an awards show that made me feel old, cranky, and fun-hating, they couldn’t have done better. Even the Teen Choice Awards feel sophisticated in comparison with last night’s crap-tastic spectacular (don’t believe me? Watch Ashton Kutcher’s acceptance speech at this year’s TCAs, and then compare it with whatever the heck aired last night. Hmm.)

And yet, is this really anything different than what we expected? Let’s consider last night’s most enduring, cringe-inducing four minutes: Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke. Briefly. Because the point I’d like to make today is why we should only consider it to convince others to stop considering it.

It’s no secret how I feel about Robin Thicke. I’m convinced, and I’m not alone, that he is capitalizing on shock tactics and female objectification to generate buzz about a sub-par song and a perfectly average singing voice. Would anyone have listened to “Blurred Lines” if it wasn’t accompanied by the most scandalous video of the summer? Probably not. It’s catchy, but it’s not a work of musical genius. Yet here I am, blogging about it.

Now let’s pull back and think about the VMAs in a larger context. Does anyone here remember what VMA actually stands for? If you guessed Video Music Awards, you get five brownie points. The awards given out last night were for the most interesting, most award-worthy music videos.

What was the last music video you watched?

If you can’t remember, you’re probably not alone. If you want to catch videos on cable TV, unless you subscribe to some fancy channels you’re pretty much reduced to VH1 between the hours of 6 and 10 am. And considering the age demographic of people who used to watch music videos, I’m guessing very few of them are popping out of bed bright and early on a Wednesday morning to watch the latest Kanye vid.

What to do, then, to get people to flock to MTV in droves on August 25th to watch awards given out for videos they haven’t seen? Again, hmm. The dilemma leaves me scratching my head in confusion.

Except it doesn’t.

Shock tactics have been in use at least since the Romans began performing live executions in their theater performances. Want to get people to watch your show? Give them the promise of something they couldn’t see anywhere else. Give them something gratuitous to talk about. Make it not about the actual awards, but the glitz, the glamour, the meme-worthy-ness of the spectacle as a whole.

If you scandalize it, they will come.

And scandalize it they did. I’m not going to recap Miley and Robin’s performance for a few reasons: one because I was half-watching, half-playing Bejeweled Blitz at the time, two because giving it any more write-up is playing into the problem, three because if you really didn’t see it, the folks at Jezebel have already taken care of that. But what could be more buzz-worthy than the creepy-sexually-inappropriate Robin Thicke taking total and inappropriate advantage of a coked-out ex-Disney-Star while being surrounded by teddy bears?

I expect we’ll find out next year, since Miley’s already out-Kaneyed Kanye in our last edition of “VMAs did WHAT?”

I definitely feel sorry for Miley, mostly because she’s been forced to play into the virgin-whore dichotomy so clearly. You can either be a Disney star or an extra in a Robin Thicke video, and there’s no space in between for women, especially not in the entertainment industry. But all those who say she’s too young to know better and she’s being taken advantage of need to consider how old she actually is. She’s only six months younger than me, which is slightly unnerving. It’s a social game she’s playing into, and while she’s not completely to blame for the latest move in it, she’s not completely innocent either.

So what do I think should be done about all of this?

Imagine this: next year, the VMAs put on all the glitz and glamour to shock us out of our senses. We have naked tightrope walkers snorting lines of crushed glass off of hundred-dollar bills while riding a bear on a unicycle. Eminem and Kanye get into a fistfight, and Lady Gaga starts swallowing swords shaped like dildos.

The next morning, the media is silent. Facebook talks about the weather. Twitter tweets placidly about nothing in particular. The New York Times reports the latest economic crisis.

And the year after, or maybe the year after that, or maybe decades down the road after repeat after repeat of the above scenario, the VMAs are a quiet, subdued affair that actually show music videos.

But NSYNC reunions can stay. I was born in the nineties, after all.

I’ve Got 99 Problems And Today, Robin Thicke Is All Of Them

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Oh, Robin Thicke. I know the odds of you reading this are one in a million, but wherever you are, know that I’m shaking my head at you and sighing. Repeatedly.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, I’m sure you’ve seen the controversy swirling around Thicke’s new music video for the song “Blurred Lines.” How it’s the most misogynistic video to emerge out of the swamp that is VH1 since the dawn of time immemorial, how “kind of rapey” it is, and my personal favorite headline on the subject, “Robin Thicke’s New Video Is Horrible, Misogynist Bullshit.”

But thanks to my awkward leave of absence from the world of American music videos, I didn’t actually get to view the video in its entirety until this morning.

And today, I’ve got 99 problems, and Robin Thicke is all of them.

Let’s not talk about how irritatingly catchy the song is, because that’s not the point. The point here is, we have four and a half minutes of three fully clothed men following at least half a dozen women dressed in white plastic and flesh-colored thongs around, whispering in their ear, rubbing their faces against their feet, and murmuring repeatedly, “you know you want it.” There may or may not be a repeated segment with one of the women twirling around a rope of sausages like an Indiana Jones whip.

The scary part? This is in the VH1 version. There’s an unrated version.

What? Is this real life?

Now, anyone who has ever even toyed with the idea of being a feminist (and for the record, anyone who can pass this simple test pretty much is a feminist, whatever you call yourself) can see what the problem with this video is. I don’t know if I need to say it, but I will, for the sake of being thorough.

Showing three-quarters-naked women in plastic wrap riding bicycles backwards and basically humping a giant stuffed dog is not art. This is soft-core porn. Not even that soft, really. It’s another excuse to take women’s clothes off and look at them like sex toys, and anyone who thinks that this is breaking any new ground in music videos is not paying attention. But it’s a shock when an artist is just so blatant about it.

The source of the other 98 problems I’m having with Robin Thicke at the moment stem from his response to accusations of misogyny, sexism, and implied rape in his video. (For the record: if you have to say “you know you want it” eighteen times in the same song, she doesn’t want it. And if you take it, that’s rape.) Let’s look at the slap in the face that Thicke seems to think is an appropriate response to these claims:

“The idea was when we made this song, we had nothing but the most respect for women… We had no idea that it would stir this much controversy. We only had the best intentions.”

“I think that’s what great art does — it’s supposed to stir conversation, it’s supposed to make us talk about what’s important and what the relationships between men and women are. If you listen to the lyrics, it says, ‘That man is not your maker.’ It’s actually a feminist movement within itself. It’s saying that women and men are equals as animals and as power. It doesn’t matter if you’re a good girl or a bad girl, you can still have a good time.”

Let’s repeat that last bit in bold italics for the sake of clarity.

“It’s actually a feminist movement within itself. It’s saying that women and men are equals as animals and as power.”

Sorry, but no. It’s actually not saying that.

What it’s saying is that women’s power comes from the ability to stimulate desire in men, and men’s power comes from being able to seize that desire. Especially if that desire comes coated in plastic and rides a bicycle in place for no particular reason.

The video’s director, Diane Martel (oh my God this video was directed by a woman), has this to say defending her “work of art” against those overly sensitive people who think this is degrading to women:

“I wanted to deal with the misogynist, funny lyrics in a way where the girls were going to overpower the men… It also forces the men to feel playful and not at all like predators. I directed the girls to look into the camera, this is very intentional and they do it most of the time; they are in the power position. I don’t think the video is sexist. The lyrics are ridiculous, the guys are silly as fuck. That said, I respect women who are watching out for negative images in pop culture and who find the nudity offensive, but I find [the video] meta and playful.”

You know what would put women in power? Possibly not treating them like sex objects or having them play with strands of sausages while sticking their tongues out.

The biggest problem here is this. Okay, let’s take Thicke and Martel at their words that this is supposed to be some kind of feminist statement. Hang with me here. If this is supposed to be ironic and playful and tongue-in-cheek, I literally cannot think of a worse way to go about it. Here’s what I imagine the thought process would be like in such a meeting:

“You know how women are constantly being objectified and over-sexualized in the media?”
“Yeah, you know what, I’ve noticed that.”
“You know what would be a good way to draw attention to that and flip the power dynamics set up by patriarchy?”
“…Let the women dominate the men? Or maybe do a video that’s not about someone trying to force sex out of someone else, because that not only reinforces the fact that women are only good for giving men pleasure but also helps contribute to rape culture?”
“No, silly! Make the women even more objectified and over-sexualized! People will totally tell that we’re being ironic and socially aware when we give them exactly what they’ve been told they want to the nth degree, right?”
“You’re a genius! Clearly this is why you work in Hollywood!”

I exaggerate, but only slightly.

If treating women like walking, not-talking sexual objects ripe for the taking by any man who can whisper suggestive comments in their ear for five minutes straight is a feminist movement, then I think I need to get myself a new mission in life. Fortunately, I don’t think feminism will take this bait and welcome Robin Thicke with open arms.

No matter how many times he tells us that “we know we want to.”

I Feel Pretty… But Now’s Not The Time!

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President Obama and Attorney General Harris
(Photo from New York Post)

At first, I thought this was one of those topics getting most of its traction in the so-called “feminist blogosphere.” (I don’t know why that’s such a thing, but for some reason it is.) One of those little off-the-cuff remarks that gets seized upon as an example of what’s wrong with our culture in regards to women, but nobody else pays much thought to.

And then it made the headline of my news homepage when I opened my computer this morning: “Obama: Sorry for the ‘Best-Looking’ Comment.” And when I say headline, I mean top headline. This one outshone an article about bird flu in China and an exposé on the North Korean military.

Move over, Kim Jong Un. Unsolicited appearance-based comments are in town.

For those of you not familiar with the debacle (because a debacle it is, my friends), here’s the gist. At a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee, President Obama was asked to introduce the Attorney General of California, Kamala Harris. Here are Mr. President’s remarks, which have made a small explosion on the Internet:

“You have to be careful to, first of all, say she is brilliant and she is dedicated and she is tough, and she is exactly what you’d want in anybody who is administering the law, and making sure that everybody is getting a fair shake. She also happens to be, by far, the best-looking attorney general in the country. It’s true! C’mon!”

Well, thanks so much, Mr. President, for reassuring us right off the bat that even though Ms. Harris is a woman, she is capable of performing a legal and professional job regardless of her gender. Oh yeah, but ain’t she a looker, though?

Oh, Obama. I love you, man. I voted for you in my first presidential election (yep, I’m a young’un that way). I watched the election results this November with my fingers crossed and did a quick victory lap down my hallway when I saw the Electoral College’s results. But…

No. Just… no.

Yeah, really not how we should be going about politics.

Yeah, really not how we should be going about politics.

Women (and men!) on the Internet have gotten up in arms over the President’s remarks. In the time it took me to copy and paste the link to tweets mentioning “Kamala Harris”, twenty more tweets had popped up at the top of the page. Twenty. In about thirty seconds. These remarks, however, go in both directions. The lovely people over at Fox and Friends provide the counterpoint to the firestorm of criticism that largely dominates Twitter (at least, my Twitter), which runs, to paraphrase:

Why are all these women so angry? Can’t they just take a compliment?

I’ve gotten into this argument (er… spirited debate) many times before. Is feminism making it impossible to tell a good-looking woman that she’s looking good? Is politeness and chivalry dead? Won’t we think about the children, who some days just want to be reassured that they look pretty? Are we not even allowed to sing West Side Story anymore because so much as saying the word “pretty” is the mother of all insults?

I like being told I’m pretty as much as the next girl. I had a bank teller a few weeks ago tell me that she thought the color of my eyes was beautiful. And that made me feel warm and fuzzy inside as I cashed my check and headed back to my car. I’m not telling anyone they’re not allowed to compliment women.

But there is a difference between complimenting women and demeaning women.

It’s all about intent, people. If you tell me I’m pretty because you want to pay me a compliment and make me feel good, then go ahead and tell me, “You have beautiful eyes,” or “I love your sense of style.” This is not the same thing as whistling at me as I walk to the library on a Saturday afternoon and cat-calling, “Hey baby! Why don’t you smile?”

I wasn’t put on this Earth to smile for you, random man. Sorry if that offends your machismo.

This is the only kind of cat call I want to see.

This is the only kind of cat call I want to see.

Harassment is not a compliment, nor is it something that was intended to be a compliment but simply went too far. Again, intent! Compliments are only compliments if they come from a place of positivity, not from a desire to inflict power or to belittle someone. Consider this infographic from stopstreetharassment.org. Can you tell the difference between the well-meant attempts to brighten someone’s day and the harassing comments meant to reduce a woman to a collection of body parts? Even if you’ve never been a victim of verbal harassment (and I hope you haven’t, even though between 80 and 90 percent of women have experienced catcalls or street harassment at some point), I’ll bet everything I’ve got that you can tell.

Now, I’m not suggesting that Obama’s “best-looking attorney general in the country” was on par with a creepy stranger on the corner trying to grope a passerby. I’m not saying that the President was participating in street harassment. There are various levels of inappropriateness, and in the scheme of things, this comment is relatively low.

But it reflects a problem that many of us are hesitant to admit exists.

Bringing in irrelevant and unsolicited commentary about a woman’s personal appearance to a context where the comments do not belong is inappropriate. Ms. Harris is a public servant, being recognized for her professionalism and her efficacy in performing her job. Would it not be just a mite inappropriate if, at Obama’s second inauguration, Justice Sotomayor had prefaced the oath of office with a breezy, “Now, I have to make sure I say that President Obama has been a champion for universal health care, immigration reform, and environmentally friendly practices. But damn, folks, would you get a look at the way he’s wearing that three-piece suit!”

If that makes you laugh at its sheer ridiculousness, think for a second about how it’s become so ingrained in our culture that women are supposed to enjoy being looked at that the President of the United States makes such comments without thinking about them.

So yes, skeptics, feminists can take a compliment. Tell me I can make a mean batch of chocolate chip cookies. Tell me you like what you’ve done to my hair today, if you know me. Tell me that my smile (if I’m already smiling!) makes your day. Hold a door open for me, if it floats your boat. I’ll do the same for you, if you’d like. Just don’t deny our ability to be professional and capable in any field. Do not conflate women with their appearances. Focus more on the “attorney general” bit than the “best-looking” bit.

If this is tough to swallow, I’m going to start making comments about Obama’s abs during each of his political appearances. We’ll see how it works out when the tables are turned.

Same Song and Dance: Seth Macfarlane and the Oscar Feminism Fail

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And the winner is…

I think of myself as a person who can take a joke. My sense of humor ranges from the dorky (I laugh at Shakespeare, so sue me) to the stupid (have you seen this video yet? If not, you’re welcome) to the extremely inappropriate. I’ll laugh at things that aren’t meant to be funny. I have a twisted sense of schadenfreude. Hey, it happens.

But the number of times today I’ve heard phrases like “stop taking everything so seriously,” “it was just a joke,” and “just get over it,” in response to statements I agree wholeheartedly with is stunning. Is it my fault? Has my time working for feminist websites and trolling The Vagina Monologues on YouTube deprived me of the ability to laugh?

Possibly.

But I doubt it.

I’m talking, of course, about the train-wreck black-tie affair that was the 2013 Academy Awards.

I’m going to be totally honest with you: I did not actually watch the show live. I had other things to do last night (by which I mean I finally got around to watching the Downton Abbey series finale. All of the feels!), but this morning I opened my browser to check who took home those weird little golden statues. No surprise about Anne Hathaway, and it’s always nice to see someone as awesome as Jennifer Lawrence get a little recognition. But what I didn’t expect was the explosion of coverage over Seth Macfarlane’s hosting job.

Okay, to be fair, I partially picked this picture because it looks like he’s riding an invisible horse.

Okay, yes. It’s the guy who brought us Family Guy. I didn’t expect him to sashay in like Tim Gunn and tell us that we’re all fabulous and no matter what, we’d make it work in the end and we should believe in ourselves no matter what. (Side note: Tim Gunn for Oscars 2014!)  But this thing was broadcast on national television. My grandmother was watching this show. Could we at least try not to offend every single person on the face of the planet?

I could cast my net wide and call out Macfarlane on his inappropriate jokes about domestic abuse, slavery, eating disorders, child molestation, and rape until the cows came home, but that’s been done plenty of times since last night already, even in video montage form. But let’s just talk about that opening number for a second.

You know the one I mean. The song-and-dance version of (oh God am I really typing this sentence right now) “We Saw Your Boobs.”

Yes. A full two-minute Broadway-inspired number about all the women in the audience who have had topless scenes. Now, I’m not denying the truth of this. Female nudity in Hollywood gets a lot of screen time. Not nearly as much screen time as male nudity, despite the outliers like “Magic Mike” or “Brokeback Mountain.” Those movies are just that: outliers. When we read “Rated R for nudity,” we assume we’ll exit the theater having seen a few more lady parts than full-frontal males. Okay. Granted.

But just because something is true doesn’t mean it’s funny, or even okay. Take, for example, Macfarlane’s first target: Meryl Streep.

Meryl Streep.

Can we talk more about how amazing this woman is, and less about her breasts, please?

Is there a single human alive who hears the name “Meryl Streep” and immediately thinks “boobs”? Meryl Streep is one of the greatest actresses of modern times. She has been nominated for 17 Academy Awards and 27 Golden Globes. Her performance in The Devil Wears Prada haunts me every single time I open a fashion magazine. And suddenly she’s reduced to her body, or more specifically her breasts.

Excuse me?

Would we reduce Daniel Day-Lewis to his prostate gland? People can act without needing to rely on their male or female organs. Actually, you can do just fine without them.

Is Macfarlane implying that the only reason actresses are allowed to fill the seats of the Dolby Theater is because they’re willing to take off their shirts to get a role? Is this any different than the age-old trope of the casting couch, or the female CEO who sleeps her way to the top? With all the discourse circulating around female objectification in film and advertising, especially after this year’s particularly horrendous Super Bowl, why are we glorifying the process of reducing women to a pile of body parts with a song-and-dance number?

Yes, Macfarlane can sing. But that doesn’t mean he should.

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I know that feel, Charlize Theron.

 And this brings me back to the original point I had, that apparently I’m “taking this all too seriously.” Clearly the Academy knew what they were getting into when they chose Macfarlane. I highly doubt he leaped onstage and started ad-libbing sexist and racist remarks and none of the workers backstage could figure out how to turn his microphone off. The horrified faces of actresses in the crowd were even pre-recorded. Yes, okay, it was meant to be funny. But that doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to be offended.

Why are we wasting our energy coining irritatingly catchy jingles about female objectification instead of doing something about it? In a world full of slut-shaming, body judgment, and media snarking, reinforcement of the status quo by the people behind the scenes is the last thing we need.

And yet, apparently I’m not allowed to criticize being made to feel like a plastic Barbie doll that can be posed in various positions and moved from scene to scene without being the stereotypical “feminist who can’t take a joke.”

You know why feminists can’t take some of these jokes? Because they’re harmful, not funny.

Sorry, Seth Macfarlane. I used to watch Family Guy, but I think I’ll be going on hiatus until you learn to make a joke I can actually laugh at again.

Unfortunately, no more Downton Abbey in the meantime… I’ll have to make do with residual feels.