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Struggles with sexism: why we must be specific

Eradicating sexism is difficult because when men and women do the same things, they are interpreted differently – often to the detriment of women. Changing attitudes or portraying women as similar to men doesn’t always solve things. Here are a few examples:

When men are portrayed as dominating, that traditionally meant that women were passive and submissive. But getting more dominant women on TV might not make things much better because when women are dominant they’re seen as bitchy, crazy, mean and agressive.

When men are seen as having an insatiable sex drive, women are meant to be the civilizing influence on them, turning men to the family by witholding sex until marriage. Yet, for some regions the answer may not lie in portraying women as having equal sexual desire – because when female sex drive is acknowledged, it’s used as yet another excuse to control women (not allowing them free movement/driving) and seen as another inherent weakness in women (unable to resist temptation).

When women are percieved as more capable than men, this usually only extends to being better at parenting, organising, personal hygiene and tidiness. This portrayal of womens’ strength only serves to perpetuate the strict gender roles of women’s domesticity and motherhood-as-destiny. It further marginalizes women who are messy, disorganized or uncertain about being mothers. It’s fine for a man to be worried about loss of freedom when the baby arrives or worry about his capability as a father. Likewise, men are expected to be messy and oblivious to skin/hair products, even those for their gender. Thus, portraying women as superior to men may, in some instances, backfire completely as we inadvertently unearth the tired old Victorian ideal.

Therefore, solutions to sexism aren’t always as clear-cut as they seem. I am not advocating that we refrain from certain courses of action, nor that we do certain actions; I am just pointing out that the politics surrounding sexism are complex and that solutions cannot be too generalised. Solutions which work well in the west may backfire in other regions if the message is not more specific and tailored. Marketing images of women as superior to men may also backfire.

 
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Posted by on October 21, 2012 in Feminism

 

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Moulin Rouge!: Smashing the ‘happy hooker’/sex slave dichotomy

Baz Luhrmann’s 2002 movie about naive young Christian (Ewan MacGregor) falling in love with Moulin Rouge dancer and sex worker Satine (Nicole Kidman) tells a nuanced story of love and sex work.

The Moulin Rouge nightclub and brothel is owned by Harold Zidler. The movie follows Christian as he writes a play that is to be performed there and pursues Satine, finally recieving reprocity and having to keep their love a secret from the jealous Duke who wants to marry Satine. All of the characters’ success and happiness (and, for Zidler, his livelihood) depends on Satine keeping the violent Duke happy by ceasing her sex work. This is reminiscent of the great cultural burdens of honour that women historically carried/still carry in some communities; if they lost their virginity it was a betrayal and tragedy to their families.

Although Satine is what we in 21st-century Britain would think of as more of a ‘sex slave’ since there was no welfare state in her time (so if she didn’t do sex work she would starve), she is portrayed as enjoying her work and as having agency. She is capable of building healthy relationships – friendships with the other characters and being in love with Christian. Satine can recognise unhealthy or abusive relationships (the Duke’s possessiveness and, in a sense, Harold Zidler for using her for business).

Best of all, when Satine becomes the victim of attempted rape, this is not portrayed as an inherent risk of sex work or as Satine’s ‘fault’ for being a sex worker. Instead, the Duke’s abusive, insecure, violent character is to blame.

Of the two men interested in Satine, the one with the rescuer mentality (a desire to ‘rescue’ sex workers from their work) is the evil abusive character. Christian, while struggling with jealousy, seems jealous only of the Duke and diesn’t go as far as demanding Satine stop doing sex work, as the Duke does by requiring a contract from Zidler that “binds Satine to me”.

None of the characters are stereotypes. Zidler is both the unscrupulous pimp and the concerned father-figure; Christian is a respectful, loving boyfriend but still toys with jealousy. And Satine says that she must do sex work to survive – “A girl has got to eat/Or she’ll end up on the street” and that she has ambitions beyond the sex industry (to be an actress, the next Sara Bernhardt) but, at the same time, she obviously enjoys her work and is capable of manipulating clients (such as using love, sex or charm to get the Duke to invest in the play). This portrayal seems quite odd to some participants in the current sex work discourse; how can one want to exit sex work, yet enjoy it, be proud of it and not want to escape the industry to a life of luxury by marrying the Duke? Significantly, Satine does not realise her dream of “flying away” and “leav[ing] all this to yesterday” but instead dies in the Moulin Rouge.

The Duke’s possessiveness, Christian’s love, Zidler’s business plans and Satine’s ambitions were really just dreams all along – Satine had tuberculosis and would never have lived long enough for any of this to be realised. All that was real was their love and her sex work.

A good point in the film is when Satine talks of escaping the Duke and the Moulin Rouge with Christian; however Christian isn’t rescuing her, she is choosing her destiny and wants to depart with Christian as equals.

Satine also only began to have wishes of exiting prostitution when she was told of an opportunity the Duke was affording her to become a celebrity, and this feeling only intensified when she fell in love and her relationship with Christian became her priority. So, without these two men entering her life, Satine would have remained happy to be a sex worker.

In addition, Satine is a well-rounded character who has a talent for acting and enjoys socialising – she isn’t a cardboart-cutout prostitute.

Sex work is not portrayed as either degrading or empowering in the film. It seems to be just another job, seen alongside the other characters’ jobs of acting, singing, dancing, writing and the arts – ( indeed, even interchangeable with the arts, as the sex workers dance in the Moulin Rouge and act in the play, and the actors (and writer) date and form friendships with the sex workers. The play itself is about a sex worker, and Christian’s novel, which narrates the film, is about the Moulin Rouge; Satine’s ambition is to act.)) All of these professions are shown as falling under the Bohemian Revolution spirit of Truth, Beauty, Freedom and Love. The Duke, who stops Satine’s sex work, is the one character who is opposed to these ideals – “I don’t care about your ridiculous dogma!”.

In general, Moulin Rouge! does not fall prey to either side of the happy hooker/sex slave dichotomy, but embraces the good and the bad of sex work without demonising, glamorising or dramatising it; it’s just another way to make money in a corrupt and unequal society.

 
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Posted by on October 4, 2012 in Film, Sex work

 

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Adult cartoons: conservative agenda?

South Park. Family Guy. The Simpsons. They’re ultra-liberal, filled with swear-words, innuendos and sometimes sexually explicit comments. A show like Family Guy, which has the word “penis” in half its episodes and utilises phrases like “your penis would shoot right off your body”, “my daughter’s womb is not a wildfire for you to douse with your adolescent seed” and show scenes of rape, sex addiction, kinky sex, and puppy-babies concieved by bestiality is not usually thought of as furthering the agenda of the religious right. But it does. Don’t get me wrong, Family Guy is my favourite thing on TV, IloveitIloveitIloveitIloveitIloveit. All these cartoons work against the right-wing agenda and mock it in many ways. But here is how it, and other adult cartoons, do further that agenda:

In The Simpsons, Family Guy and American Dad, the mothers are all housewives with no friends.

In all the above shows as well as the Cleveland Show, the focus is on a male character

The father is irresponsible, lazy and doesn’t do housework – especially Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin. The boys – especially Bart Simpson, Eric Cartman and Rallo Tubbs- cause chaos (which is not seen as deviant), while the girls are quiet (especially Lisa Simpson and Meg Griffin) or only cause ‘trouble’ to their parents by parental fear of their sexuality (Roberta Tubbs and Meg Griffin) or political views (Hayley Smith). In contrast, the mothers care for the kids and do not pull crazy stunts of their own – an exception is Family Guy’s Lois, but her stunts (kleptomania, revealing that she was in a porn film) pale in comparison to Peter’s.

In the first episode of The Cleveland Show, the mother is depicted as unable to control her children after becoming a lone mother. Only Cleveland, acting as a father figure, can restore discipline.

This ‘discipline’ includes controlling 15 year old Roberta’s sexuality by physically intimidating her boyfriend. This patriarchal control is juxtaposed with Cleveland’s freedom to have sex with Roberta’s mother at the very moment that Roberta’s sexuality is subject to his control

In contrast, Roberta’s 5 year old brother is encouraged by Cleveland to be sexual. Cleveland teaches him to invent a reason for having to peek up girls’ skirts, a behaviour which resulted in him being expelled in the first place.

Cleveland’s assertion that the kids “need some fathering” – mothering being inadequate

Robert’s absence supposedly caused the kids to misbehave; however, as a drunk who is disinterested in his children, how could he have disciplined them when he lacks discipline himself? The message is that even a drunk dad can parent better than a working, caring, sober mom.

Roberta is portrayed as accepting her boyfriend’s decision to take her home early/not have sex. Cleveland is controlling her through her boyfriend, and likewise her boyfriend is able to control her sexuality.

In one episode, Roberta is almost forced by peer pressure and a TV camera to flash her breasts, along with many other girls, but her stepbrother saves her by pretending to be a girl and flashing his chest. This implies that it is not good to flash your breasts for a TV show and that women are exploited in the adult entertainment industry. Roberta was portrayed as a victim with no agency who had to be saved by a younger male relative. The fate of flashing was portrayed as dire.

 

In Family Guy, Peter is pathologically possessive of his daughter Meg when she dates a trainee doctor – even stalking them in disguise- and attempts to shoot him when Meg is pregnant.

In the current season, both Peter and Lois stop Meg having sex with Glenn Quagmire even though she’s already 18. Meg is portrayed as accepting this.

While Glenn and Herbert are sex predators and Peter frequently uses very sexual language, the female characters are not permitted such expression. Even when Lois is revealed to have starred in a porn film, the revelation leads to her becoming a social pariah which is the main content of the episode. However, when male characters commit rape, cheat, repeatedly attempt child molestation, commit bestiality, abduct people for sex, etc, they suffer no consequences and their actions remain secret. These actions constitute very small portions of the episodes, in contrast to Lois’ porn movie, Lois’ sexy photo, Loretta’s affair, Meg’s boyfriend/subsequent pregnancy, Bonnie’s affair or Peter’s boss Angela sexually harassing him. The mens’ actions are not portrayed as problematic or deviant. They seem to happen as a result of the mens’ libido. However, the womens’ actions are problematized by the community and the family. Their actions seem to come from problems: lack of money (Lois making the porno), unhappy marriage (Loretta and Bonnie having affairs, Lois kissing Meg’s boyfriend) being naive and/or used (Jillian-Brian, Meg-Quagmire and Cheryl Teags-Brian) and being suicidal (Angela). The men suffer no consequences for their actions except Quagmire’s friends being annoyed with him when he is caught spying on Lois, and Lois being annoyed with him for trying to sleep with Meg. By contrast the women get publically shamed on TV (Lois’ porn film), lose public office (Lois’ photo), are discovered cheating (Loretta and Bonnie), have a pregnancy scare, a forced marriage, then lose their boyfriend (Meg) go to prison for harbouring a fugitive (Meg) accidentally make out with their brother (Meg) get dumped, get obssessed, perform a kidnap and get told to wait for the right man by Quagmire, a pervert – double standard much?(Meg), attempt suicide when attraction is unreciprocated (Angela).

When Lois briefly becomes a lone mother in the episode ‘Big man on the hippocampus’, the family’s income drops ridiculously low.

In South Park, being a slut is linked to being stupid and spoiled, and in a slut contest the male slut (Mr Slave) wins over the female slut (Paris Hilton). It is not suggested that Mr Slave is stupid or spoiled. The girls of South Park then immediately stop being sluts.

The only lone mother portrayed is Eric Cartman’s mother, and her son is completely out of control. She is also portrayed as promiscuos and as not knowing who Eric’s father is.

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on July 30, 2012 in Feminism, Film, Media

 

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Why 50 Shades of Grey is anti-kink, anti-sex and anti-feminist

It seems impossible to get away from 50 Shades right now. I can’t go on Facebook, WordPress, to the supermarket, on the bus or train or sometimes even check my texts without hearing about or seeing the book. After I give the evidence/reasons for the claims I’ve made in the title of this post, I’ll copy/paste this conversation so you can get an idea of how I (and apparently some other people) feel about the trilogy:

Evidence that 50 Shades is all the things I claim it to be:

Anastasia is economically dependent; when she does get a career, Grey then buys out the company she works for, making himself her boss’s boss

Ana is virginal in direct contrast to the very experienced Christian who is such a playa that he has never spent the night or done ‘the girlfriend thing’

Christian’s kinkiness is explained as being a direct result of child abuse including sexual abuse, not just his sexuality. I.e. it is unnatural (he was not born with it) and pathological

Christian has a kink-shaming thing going on where tells his therapist that he thinks something is wrong with him (as the therapist explains to Ana)

Ana has a sex-shaming thing going on where she feels that it is surprising or wrong for a 21 year old to want to have sex.

Ana displays the classic traits of an enforcer (female enforcer of the double standard, see my post on ‘SM and the double standard’) by judging her flatmate Kate for sleeping with Elliott

Both protagonists are codependent and appear more interested in having some kind of little boy or sex slave to take care of than an actual sex partner or boyfriend/girlfriend

Christian is abusive, not a Dom. BIIIIIIG difference, James. BIG difference.

BDSM is linked to emotional damage by the title ’50 shades’ which corresponds to Christian’s assertion that he is “fifty shades of fucked-up” due to childhood abuse

Ana is a complete idiot, barely able to ‘research’ BDSM online without Christian’s guidance or find sex tips although she has a degree. Most kinky people were ‘researching’ BDSM online at age 12 or 13. (I started at 14 because we didn’t get internet access at home until I was 14, though my first attempt was at age 9 or 10 on a school computer).

Ana’s passivity, submissiveness and physical weakness are an antifeminist portrayal of women and, as she is well-educated, young, and not overweight, is completely unrealistic.

Ana is portrayed as having extreme physical weakness, i.e. taking four strokes of the crop is too much for her, sex exhausts her and a hand spanking is injurious to her physically (Christian has to use baby oil to soothe her) and emotionally (sje doesn’t want to repeat the experience).

The above portrayals also stigmatise BDSM as a very dangerous and harmful behaviour when actually this level of pain and exhaustion is very rare. Christian obviously was not paying attention/didn’t care (which is another disturbing aspect of this story).

Ana is not only a virgin but also asexual, having manifested no sexual desire before meeting Christian and exhibiting very little desire even after that. She has never masturnated. Even after being spanked she does not experience the spanking in a sexual way (either positively or negatively).

This asexuality is in direct contradistinction to Christian’s hypersexuality and extreme fetishes (no, I don’t think he is either of those – nor would I use ‘hypersexual’ on anyone who hasn’t been clinically diagnosed with nymphomania) but this is how James is presenting Christian. This contadistinction is just the double standard made more obvious and extreme.

Ana’s submissiveness and low self-esteem are portrayed as meaning that she is a natural submissive; similarly, Christian’s billionaire alpha male status mean that of course he is the dom. This stigmatises BDSM and is actually completely false. Sexual kinks and proclivities have no bearing on reality. Gays aren’t all effeminate, are they? Lesbians aren’t all butch, and cross-dressers only cross-dress sometimes. Transgender people can be gay or straight. ‘Tomboy’ girls and sensitive boys don’t grow up to be gay.(As a child I wore boys’ clothes/shoes and refused to wear skirts, dresses or play with Barbie dolls. A family ‘friend’ told my mother I was “a homosexual”.Now I love style and am so feminine that I’m prostituting myself; I love sex and men.)There aren’t any rules. If anything, powerful individuals are more likely to be subs because it’s relaxing for them.

Ana expresses disappointment that she was not raped while asleep by Christian, and questions her attractiveness because of this.

Ana is one-dimensional, superficial, whiny, has low-self esteem, lets herself be abused, has no confidence, possesses a very conservative view of sex, is sexually repressed, doesn’t know how to use the internet, and is stupid. (All unrealistic traits in a young educated American woman).

Female drinking and partying is presented as dangerous, with Ana being sick and having to be rescued by Christian and taken to a hotel

Christian exhibits the traits of a stalker and is overprotective; he buys her a new car because her old one is potentially dangerous (how? Are all poor peoples’ cars dangerous?) and takes her to a hotel when she is drunk instead of just taking her home. Also, he didn’t have to trace her call; she was just feeling sick from drinking too much, hasn’t that happened to nearly every 21 year old student? However, it is portrayed as deviant.

Christian’s character-specific skills are evident at all times (dominance, confidence, clear goals, persuasiveness, taking the initiative both in the bedroom and out of it, etc). As is the money that his skills got him. However, despite having a degree  in English Literature, a part-time job, a possible insight into journalism through her friend Kate’s involvement with the student paper, as well as interviewing Christian, Ana’s skills and experience are never evident. She doesn’t even have any hobbies apart from reading classics (i.e. a hobby synonymous with her studies) or any goals, career plans or interests. Her CV must be pretty short.

Not only is Ana asexual, she has no actual goals or wishes for her relationship with Christian. She just does whatever he says

She is stupid enough to believe that a contract binding her to be a BDSM sex slave would be legally binding in the United States of America in 2011/2012

There is no sex for about half the book. This is not porn. It is not even erotica. If I was buying erotica (which I did, but it was far too mild so I didn’t like it much) I would not expect to read over 200 pages to get to the first sex scene. I’ll bet most Romance genre novels are more erotic than 50 Shades; after all, no self-respecting woman in 2012 is going to read romance novels that end ‘so we finally held hands AND kissed, AT THE SAME TIME! Phwooarr!!!! And rode off into the sunset.The End.’

There is no explanation given for Ana’s sex-repression or willingness to be raped while unconscious/asleep. It’s presented as the right way to think. Given that teens are reading it (it’s socially-acceptable porn, they can read it in school, of course they’re reading it) this is actually very harmful to society.

The message of these two things is that it is acceptable for men (even educated business professionals) to be so bestialy hypersexual that they cannot wait till the morning or even 1 second to wake up a woman and ask if she would like to have sex, but instead have to rape her while she is asleep, like a dog. However, it is totally unacceptable for a woman to want to have consensual protected sex with a hot billionaire in a potentially-committed relationship at above the average age of losing virginity.

Rape is portrayed as totally acceptable and to be expected if you are a female who gets drunk with her friends. (You’d deserve it, because girls shouldn’t drink. That was reckless and wild. Only boys get drunk.)

The lowest, most cowardly form of rape (raping the victim while they are drunkenly asleep so they’ll never know and you won’t be jailed; if they get pregnant they’ll never figure out how it happened or maybe not find out in time to get an abortion) is totally acceptable.

Ana’s reaction to suspecting that she has been raped (which in itself is paranoia) and subsequent reaction to not being raped is very stigmatising of rape victims and survivors. It suggests that they may have wanted it or not cared very much that they were raped.

Linking being a Dom and being a potential rapist is a misrepresentation of kinky individuals

The ridiculously large gap between the protagonists’ incomes/wealth is hardly conducive to feminism (or realistic)

The unswitchability and extremeness of the maledom and femsub roles is antifeminist; they could have been a malesub and domme which would be statistically more probable for a billionaire. Or one or both could be a switch.

Christian uses more pressure on Ana to get her to sign the contract than the average person would be comfortable with

Contracts aren’t often used by the BDSM community and contracts lasting as long as three months are rare. James has chosen the most ‘extreme’ example of BDSM (the Master/slave relationship) as opposed to much more common forms of BDSM like DD, being switches, doing it for fun, spanking as foreplay, or just doing it for fun sometimes to spice up a vanilla sex life (the most common form). And of course every nuance in between. (Should that be ‘every shade in between’? Ha, ha ha [despairing laugh]). By choosing this extreme form, James has rendered BDSM less acceptable to vanilla people and more scary, as they will assume that everyone who likes spanking is in a Christian/Ana relationship. Woop de doo.

Now, you can’t get any more anti-sex, anti-feminist and anti-kink than 50 Shades.

Excerpt from online conversation:

Me: 50 Shades of Grey is a conservative patriarchal fantasy. It may have been written as the poster child of sexual freedom. It may be being read as the promise of liberation. But it isn’t. It is antifeminist, slut-shaming, and stigmatises kinky people. The fact that lots of women ended up so sheltered that it took this badly-written travesty to make us explore our sexuality just shows how repressive and sex-negative our society really is.

David:There’s nothing sexually free about it. The main character feels guilty for having sex, and for wanting sex, and that’s presented as a good thing; the way to be. Also, I hate the way they try to justify the main male character enjoying BDSM- it’s the result of severe childhood abuse, as opposed  just liking it. Urgh the trilogy is disgusting.

Me:omfg – TOTALLY. And she judges her flatmate too for sleeping with Elliot. The whole juxtaposition of virginal, vanilla Ana (who, unbelievably, seems practically to have never heard of BDSM) with Christian who’s such a slut that he’s never stayed the night with a girl, is very radically-conservative. (i say ‘slut’ ironically; i don’t believe in the concept of ‘slut’ – its just a patriarchal device to control women). Anyways, female drinking/partying is also degraded in the book, as is female sexual agency. Ana is economically dependent. Obv E L James has never tried BDSM, the descriptions are very unrealistic and OTT. And yeah, its verystigmatising, like all BDSM-ers were abused. Lots of abused ppl are into vanilla, maybe NOT liking BDSM is a result of abuse, James? And when she wakes up in the hotel room and is all, ‘why didn’t Christian rape me while I slept? I mustn’t be pretty enough for him’ is very disturbing.

Susan: Or maybe it’s just a book? That doesn’t have to have hidden antifeminist agendas? Maybe just a mediocre but slightly entertaining read? Just saying.

Me: Yeah I hear u, and I’m not saying it has a deliberate antifeminist ‘agenda’ – if anything, I think it was written to be sexy. What I’m annoyed about is that absolutely everyone thinks the book is feminist and helping to give us sexual freedom but it’s not. I can’t get away from hearing about how wonderful and freeing it is, whether its on Facebook or the media or just friends.And women being like ‘oh I never dared to try spanking until I read this book and found out I wasn’t a deviant’ and ‘this book gave me the courage to finally explore my sexuality and tell my hubby what turns me on at age 48’ is sad.

David: @Susan:- Even if it isn’t deliberate, it’s still ingrained. Also if you look up the author, especially taking a read of her Twitter, you’ll see she’s very set with gender roles and Man is Provider, Woman is Nurturer. Which isn’t exactly someone who makes for a great representative of sexual freedom. Also, remember it started life off as Twilight fanfiction. The only difference is the names were changed for publication. Twilight is a metaphor for no sex before marriage, being a subm issive wife before anything else (like being independent, going to college etc) and not having an abortion, no matter how much danger you put yourself in. All written by a devout Mormon.

Emma: A Brigham Young University graduate friend of mine described ‘Twilight’ as ‘Mormon porn’. There’s something in that, I suspect 🙂

Me: Isn’t it interesting how all the teen-aimed billion-pound movie/book franchises of the last decade have dealt with abstinence themes? Even Harry Potter hints at minimal sexual contact in the teen/young adult years and the characters end up married to their teenage boyfriends/girlfriends – Ron marries Hermione and Harry marries Ginny. And 50 Shades has a ‘wait until hot rich traditional gender-role guy’ as its moral. The franhises that were not abstinence themed (I Am number Four, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Hunger Games, LOTR etc) were either not aimed specifically at teens or aimed at teen boys. Whereas Twilight and 50 shades are aimed at women, and Harry Potter was aimed at teens of both genders.Vampires, witches and kinky sex are being tamed down and re-packaged in an abstinence-themed context for teenage girls and young women (judging by the characters’ ages, James probably intended to appeal to young women; it is the media who subsequently dubbed it ‘mommy porn’).

Emma: The Hunger Games is a genuine kids’ book, written by a classicist. Pretty much all of it is lifted from ancient Rome, one writer in particular. It’s well done, but the very different morality had to be dealt with carefully, and Collins does that. She can also write exceptionally well (as can Rowling). The trilogy is well worth a read. I don’t plan to read this 50 Shades book, not because I disapprove (I really don’t care what other people read; I’d rather they read than burn down their local Poundland or whatever), but because if I wish to read smut, I have my trusty classics major in hand 🙂

Calling all parents, teachers, social workers and psychologists: Where swere you when the female children under your care were going through puberty and adolescence? How could you let us get so repressed that 50 Shades is our sexual awakening?
 

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