sexism

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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The Scariest Thing You Can Be Is Free To Choose

So it’s been a little while since I’ve been able to put together a post. Not for lack of material to write about or problems that need to be torn down, more a lack of time and energy to get out of bed in the morning. College life is catching up with me, and all too often I just want to curl up in bed and watch Netflix for three hours and escape from the papers and exams that need to get done in the (very) near future.

But then I saw this video this afternoon between exams and classes, and I knew that I couldn’t write a better Halloween-themed post than this if I tried. I’ll let it speak for itself, since these four ladies are more than capable of getting their message across. This piece of slam poetry comes from the Brave New Voices Grand Slam Finals from this year in Washington, D.C. And, more immediately, from Upworthy.

Whether you decide to go out on Halloween night as a sexy kitten or as Susan B. Anthony, just make sure it’s your choice. Because that’s the scariest thing you can be to some people: capable of making your own decisions and owning your own body for what it is.

And those are the people worth scaring.

Happy Halloween, to those of you who celebrate. As for me, I’ll probably spend it in my apartment, eating half-price Snickers bars and watching Hocus Pocus while quietly waiting for the hoopla to be over.

Be well, and hopefully I’ll be back soon with longer posts when people stop expecting me to write them term papers.

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.”

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.