While most of Gawker media’s outlets have deteriorated significantly in quality (I’m especially looking at you, io9 — although I still swoon over Esther’s articles), Jezebel is still worth reading. On Saturday, they posted an article, ‘Screw Princesses — Disney Villains Are the Real Role Models‘.
Princesses are usually defined by their sexuality and fascination with pretty objects and cute baby animals. White Disney princesses wear puffy gowns with petticoats (Snow White, Belle, Cinderella, Aurora) and non-white princesses dress the same way sorority girls do for questionably-themed parties. (Jasmine, Pocahontas, even, to a lesser extent, Mulan.) I didn’t want to be saved; I wanted to drive the plot rather than be pushed into a happy ending.
So instead, I was fascinated by villains, particularly Maleficent, the self-proclaimed Mistress of All Evil. She’s cunning, she’s ruthless, and she has a sick wardrobe. Not to mention: DRAGONS. Maleficent demands respect, and I expected the same, which is why, as a four year old, I refused to answer to anything other than “Maleficent” for months. [Source: Baker, 'Screw Princesses -- Disney Villains Are the Real Role Models', Jezebel]
The article is great and discusses the Baker’s (the author) desire to grow up like a Disney villain instead of a Disney princess. It’s great stuff.
But it also got me thinking. Having had quite a bit of practice at reading waaaaay too much into things and a lifetime of mansplaining, I thought: ‘Why do we see the villains as villains in these movies?’
You might respond: ‘Mark, old buddy, there’s no extra level of meaning here. Grimhilde tries to kill Snow White. Maleficent tries to kill Sleeping Beauty. Ursula tries to turn people into wormy things. These characters are evil because they do bad things. Open and shut. Get back to doing real things.’
But I think you’re wrong. You sort of knew that Grimhilde was evil long before she went all ‘Time to eat Snow White’s heart!’ Maleficent is clearly the villain of the play from the second she appears in an explosion of green smoke, long before she gave Aurora a pretty shitty birthday gift. While Ursula is a bit more of the ‘Muahaha, I’m evil!’ type of villain, her big crime isn’t that sinister: allowing Ariel to enter into a contract when she’s clearly a minor.
I clang on a lot about the necessary laziness of storytellers. For folklore and fairytales, you sometimes need shortcuts to point out to the audience who is the evildoer. All too often, this requires the audience to fill in the blanks with their prejudices.
Thus, in an underwater world of slender Caucasian women, Ursula is clearly the enemy because she has darker colours and a BMI greater than 18.5. Although having tentacles and two nasty looking eels doesn’t help her win friends, her legalism is also a sort of unnatural evil. Resorting to contracts and legal negotiations is no place for a woman — even one with tentacles and ugly eels. Women should be interested in thingamabobs, whozits and whatzits galore. The final demonstration of her evil is that she wants King Triton’s symbol of power — the Trident.
And why freaking not? Nowhere in The Little Mermaid does Triton explain why he’s the rightful ruler of his soggy kingdom. But we take it on trust that he’s correct; after all, Ursula has darker colours, is a woman, and is a darker fat woman.
Maleficient also struggles against conceptions of the correct colour skin, but also against the idea of how women should behave. Here are the fairy godmothers:
Pinkish skin. Pastel colours. Not at all sexually intimidating. Compare and contrast with Maleficent:
The plot of Sleeping Beauty links again with these ideas of a woman being evil if she moves outside her designated space. Sure, cursing an infant to die on her sixteenth birthday is a bit of a jerk move, but compare her with the heroine of the story, Aurora, and you start to wonder if Maleficent wasn’t doing her a favour. Aurora is betrothed to some boneheaded prince for the purpose of uniting a kingdom which, for all you know, has a policy of stomping on kittens. The movie plays on our intuition that unified kingdoms are Good Things and anything which jeopardises that Good Thing is a Bad Thing.
In seriousness, why do we think the kingdom is so great that an arranged marriage is necessarily a good thing? Because the non-threatening little women in the pastel colours are in its favour? They are here in support of the arranged marriage. Their gifts are to be pretty and have a great singing voice. These are hardly the feminist icons or progressive philosophers.
Maleficent is clearly a utilitarian, viewing the removal of one person (the infant) as a necessary step in dismantling this insane feudalistic backwater where women are property to be traded for geopolitics. That, of course, is really why she is evil: she sees Aurora as a means to an end rather than as an end in herself, and all consequentialists are evil or ignorant when you think about it, and Maleficent does not seem ignorant.
But back to the comparison with Aurora. Maleficent has awesome powers. Aurora is pretty. Maleficent has ambitions. Aurora wants to fall in love. Maleficent gets shit done. Aurora falls asleep and is awoken by a sufficiently aristocratic suitor.
But Grimhilde from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was the first and set the template. All Grimhilde needed to do was look in a mirror and we knew she was evil.
Where Maleficent was all about breaking down the power structures of an oppressive kingdom, Grimhilde is in the position of tyrant (implied to be an illegitimate hold on the power). In many ways reflecting the attitude of some women in senior positions towards younger women, Grimhilde is trying to kill off competition. Even before she gets out the box and hires a woodsman, Grimhilde is considered vain, has the trappings of power, and — most importantly — is not in the company of men. Snow White, in comparison, sings about finding true love, hangs out with cute animals, and ends up hanging out with seven men as their maid.
This gets us back to the Jezebel article:
Villains are goal-oriented, while princesses are content with a puffball dress and Ken doll beau. Villains don’t put virginal love on a pedestal. One could even argue that villains provide an opportunity to teach your children about making the right choices. (For example, don’t be covetous/kill Dalmatians. Also, chill out if you don’t get invited to a party! That was Maleficent’s chief issue, which I’ll admit is a tad superficial, although I’ll argue that there’s way more going on beneath the surface. And DRAGONS.)
Princesses are only princesses because of who their parents are or the man they marry. Villains don’t get it that easy. Villains shape their own lives. [Ibid.]
Looking at these three examples and seeing the similarities: they are transgressive characters, they are active participants in their story arc, they happily trash gender norms when it suits them, and happily utilise them when it suits (further, they have three entirely different understandings of attractiveness). More than anything else, they are intelligent — much more intelligent than anybody else in their films. If I had a daughter, these are the sorts of traits that I wish she’d emulate — not the vapidity and vacuity of the protagonists.
I’d tell my daughter: ‘They’re not considered evil because they do bad things. They’re considered evil because ordinary — very ordinary — people don’t like women being anything other than mediocre.’
I’d hide the spinning wheels, though.
It must be really difficult to be Richard Dawkins. Each morning, he wakes up absolutely certain of things. He is absolutely certain that the world around him is real and that anything for which he cannot find empirical evidence is not. He is absolutely certain that only verifiable statements have truth values (except, of course, for the statement: ‘Only verifiable statements have truth values’ but that would just be obscurantist philosophers being silly). He is absolutely certain that there’s a thing called secularism and that you need only be a wealthy, white, straight male in order to distinguish the secular from the religious. He is absolutely certain that there’s nothing racist about hating on Muslims, nothing misogynist about excluding female perspectives if they do not accord with ‘strict logic’, and nothing to be gained in exploring the social sciences of hard sciences. You theists should only engage with the best available science, but if you ask Dawkins to engage with the best available theology, you are mocked.
Of course, all of this assumes that Dawkins is even aware of the intellectual quagmire into which he’s been sinking for the better part of a decade.
Increasingly, I wonder if I have given Dawkins too much of the benefit of the doubt. He recently took to Twitter to mansplain abortion to everybody and, well…
As is usual, the appropriate opening: I am pro-death. I think that women have complete control over their bodies all the way through the process and there is no legal justification in protecting the baby from the mother at any point. Late term abortions? Go for it.
I am very much wedded to virtue ethics, spiced with a bit of good old fashioned Kantianism. Morality is objectively true. &c., &c.
Now let’s get to Dawkins.
With respect to those meanings of “human” that are relevant to the morality of abortion, any fetus is less human than an adult pig.
Oh… Okay… Whut?!
This makes absolutely zero sense. Part of this suggests that there’s a spectrum upon which something might be considered ‘human’ and, upon this spectrum, is an equivalent position where one would find an adult pig. Which spectrum is this? Where does one find a copy of this spectrum?
Any sensible person would say that a pig is not at all human, yet a foetus is at least something like a human. ’At least something like a human’ is more human than ‘not at all a human’.
Dawkins (as we will see in a moment) is playing obscurantist word games with the word ‘morality’. The definition of ‘human’ in his tweet is not a biological definition, but a moral definition. Is there a moral definition of ‘human’? No. There’s a moral definition of ‘person’, but that wouldn’t be as trolltastic and Dawkins is nothing if not an attention-seeker.
The other word to look at here is ‘any’. Any foetus is less (morally) human than an adult pig. Dawkins will quickly back away from this claim into a weirdly pro-life position.
“Human” features relevant to the morality of abortion include ability to feel pain, fear etc & to be mourned by others.
Remember the word ‘any’ in his first tweet? We are fairly certain that late term foetus are capable of feeling pain and fear. When they are miscarried, they are mourned. So we know of some foetus who are ‘more human’ (seriously, what?) than an adult pig.
But from where is Dawkins pulling this definition? Why are those features relevant to being ‘morally human’?
The answer: Dawkins has stacked the deck. We know medical conditions where people are incapable of feeling pain (CIPA) or sensing fear (certain damage to the brain). But Dawkins doesn’t want a free-for-all on those people with atypical neural processes, so he includes the backdoor argument of ‘to be mourned by others’. What this does is connect the individual to the social community. You are ‘morally human’ if somebody will mourn your death.
Crazily enough, this opens the door to all kinds of vegan weirdness. ’My cow can sense pain, fear, and will be mourned by me. It’s unethical to eat cows.’
Dawkins starts to suspect he’s burying himself in crazy, so sends in more crazy trains as cover. First, he tweets a strawman about miscarriage. It’s a nonsense tweet. Then he brings out the big gun:
Yes, anything can be mourned. If you are going to mourn your fetus, you are free not to have an abortion.
Mansplained like a boss, yo. ’You are only free to have an abortion if you are not in any way emotionally connected to the foetus.’
There’s an obvious counter example. I think it’s morally permissible to abort a foetus if the child is disabled. I can imagine being in a horrible situation where my partner is faced with the choice of keeping a foetus to whom she has grown extremely fond and of aborting the foetus because she does not believe it’s ethically correct to give birth to a child who will suffer the disability. Dawkins is telling her that she is not free to have an abortion if she’s going to mourn it.
We should stop here for a moment. I think Dawkins has half understood a conversation he’s had with A.C. Grayling and is trying to repeat it. Dawkins’ buffoonish attempt to construct an argument really does sound like an undergraduate at the pub trying to appropriate their lecturer’s words. Dawkins has not presented even a remotely sane argument here.
Further, it says nothing about duty to protect which Dawkins himself has used on a number of occasions in his theodicy: ‘God could prevent a murder but He does nothing to stop it. Therefore, God is not omnipotent or God is evil. Therefore, God doesn’t exist.’ Dawkins can’t pull that munted rabbit out of the hat and then abort it the second it’s inconvenient. What is the moral duty of the community to prevent murders? If we know that a murder is going to happen, do we have an obligation to do something to prevent it? This is a problem for Dawkins (and not for me) because Dawkins has said that preventing a murder when you can is intuitively a moral obligation but wants to turn the act of abortion into a private matter between a woman and her foetus. If you are pro-life, you are not just pro-life for your own foetus; you are pro-life because you think that all foetus deserve protection.
Back to Dawkins’ tweets:
My criterion for “relevant to morality of abortion” is standard consequentialist morality. Opponents follow absolutist morality. Simple.
The opposite of ‘consequentialist’ is not ‘absolutist’. Dawkins is attempting to smear opponents: ‘Oh, you’re just an absolutist. My absolute nonsense is anti-absolutionism.’
Further, it’s not ‘standard consequentialist morality’. If that denotes anything, it denotes ‘rule consequentialism‘ which Dawkins has not described.
First, ‘human’ is not a moral category so ‘my definition is standard consequentialist morality’ is completely nonsensical. It’s like somebody saying: ‘My definition of “tennis” is standard quantum physics.’
Second, we’ve already seen why it wouldn’t be ‘standard’ consequentialist morality. Although I think consequentialists are incorrect, I don’t think consequentialists are stupid. Dawkins’ criteria are stupid.
Worse, a non-absolutist consequentialism can result in a pro-life stance. Indeed, a lot of pro-life arguments are consequentialist, examining the overall utility and good in protecting defenseless foetus against being terminated. We see this often: ‘Abortion stops the foetus from maximally enjoying their life.’ No absolutism needed.
Confusingly, Dawkins’ argument relies on an absolutist definition of ‘human’ (by which we should all think he means ‘person’). A human is a creature which can feel pain, experience fear, and will be mourned by others. Why are these the criteria? Because Dawkins is using an absolutist definition of human/person.
The next dozen tweets or so are old man crazy ranting. He returns to the land of coherency with this strange nugget:
Unlike many pro-choice friends, I think that fetal pain could outweigh woman’s right to control her own body. But pig pain matters too.
Dawkins’ argument is contingent on our understanding of foetal pain not changing. If we discover that you don’t need brains in order to feel pain — or, rather, if we discover that you don’t need a brain in order to feel pain on the same level as an adult pig… wtf — then Dawkins’ batshit argument leaves open the door for abortion to be morally impermissible. Further, Dawkins’ argument explictly excludes the right of a woman to have a late term abortion, which is cray-cray.
A woman is eight months pregnant. She is in a loving relationship with a man whom she intends to raise the child. A freak accident results in his death and she has a severe mental breakdown. It is flatly immoral to say to the woman that she cannot terminate the pregnancy just because Richard Dawkins thinks that the foetus’ ‘pain’ outweighs the mother’s quality of life.
Any good argument in favour of abortion will not be contingent on quirks. We simply do not know how a pig experiences pain. We don’t know what it’s like to be a pig. We hazard a guess that the experience is similar to our own, but there’s no real evidence that it is. You can’t see subjective experience on a brain scan. An adult pig might experience fear and pain in ways far beyond our own capacity — it would be odd if Dawkins thought that this meant it was okay to start killing other people willy nilly.
In short, he doesn’t know. He’s making it up.
But it sounds sort of sciencey. Like ‘evolutionary psychology’, it has all the right words there to make you feel like this is a rational argument. ’Yeah, I’d eat pigs. Pigs are less morally human than me. Foetus are less morally human than pigs. Abortions are great.’ But there’s no coherence to the argument. How could something be ‘less morally human’? Why do pain, fear, and ability to be mourned matter? Why is it a private affair and not something which should concern the moral community? Why do women lose control of their bodies? Dawkins doesn’t have an answer to any of this because Dawkins hasn’t really thought about it. This is him looking at the world and deciding that whatever he intuits must be factual. You know, like a lay-theist does when they look at the world and see that it’s ‘designed’.
In conclusion, pop-atheists really need some new role models.
I’m writing up a post on another issue and happened to come across this ‘open letter from the secular community‘.
Long story short, pop-atheism has a serious problem smack bang in the middle of the ‘movement’ (in the bowel sense). Because pop-atheism relies so heavily on intuition and the assertion of a particular viewpoint as the default rational perspective, it absolutely cannot deal with the concept of plurality. Plurality is anathema to pop-atheism. There’s One True Rationality, One True Logic, and, therefore, One True Culture — a secular culture.
But nobody can work out what a secular culture is, so we get ‘Take our current culture and delete anywhere it says the word “God”‘.
Feminist philosophers, of course, have a lot to say about this sort of buffoonish stupidity. Even the fundamental concepts which pop-atheists consider default rational: the building blocks of logic, for example, aren’t value-neutral. When this is pointed out, a lot of very angry white guys who are pathologically incapable of grappling with criticism lash out. Pop-atheism is openly misogynistic and definitely not a safe space for anybody who’s a white guy. I’ve been in face-to-face conversations with pop-atheists where I have been very fortunate to have several thousand years of privilege behind me — it’s much harder to shout down somebody who is quite accustomed to living in an ivory tower. I know others from different backgrounds who just straight up refuse to engage with pop-atheists.
Thus we get to the ‘open letter’ which is… strange.
The principle that women and men should have equal rights flows from our core values as a movement. Historically, there has been a close connection between traditional religion and suppression of women, with dogma and superstition providing the rationale for depriving women of fundamental rights. In promoting science and secularism, we are at the same time seeking to secure the dignity of all individuals. We seek not only civil equality for everyone, regardless of sex, but an end to discriminatory social structures and conventions – again often the legacy of our religious heritage—that limit opportunities for both women and men.
Unfortunately, the discussion of these issues has suffered from the same problems that plague online discussion in general—although arguably to a greater extent. Some blogs and comments actually exhibit hatred, including rape threats and insults denigrating women. Hatred has no place in our movement. We unequivocally and unreservedly condemn those who resort to communicating in such a vile and despicable manner.
Here are some things that we plan to do to make our online secular community a place where we can exchange ideas and views instead of insults. We hope that others may also find this approach useful.
Here are some things that we plan to do to make our online secular community a place where we can exchange ideas and views instead of insults. We hope that others may also find this approach useful.
Go offline before going online: pick up the phone.
When you hear that an organization or member of our community is doing something that you think is wrong or bad for the community, call and talk with them, find out what they are actually doing and why they are doing it. If you don’t have a phone number, send a private email and arrange a time to talk. So much of the time there’s more to the story, and talking to another person on the other side of the issue can help us more fully understand the situation. Plus, a phone call makes it easier for people who are making mistakes to change course, because they aren’t on the defensive as they would be after being called out publicly.
Wait… what? Just what? So if you’ve got somebody being a misogynist jackhole, the correct response from the woman being attacked is not to respond with anger, indignation, or any of the other perfectly legitimate responses; she should consider how the jackhole will respond to being criticised. We need to make the community a safe space for jackholes.
Dial down the drama.
It’s tempting to overuse inflammatory and derogatory rhetoric. It gets attention. We should be cautious about using this tactic within our community because of the long-term damage it does to relationships and morale. When critiquing people within our community, everyone should remember that our goal is to persuade our allies to see our perspective and modify their opinions. Insults don’t change opinions; they harden them.
There’s some weird definition of ‘insult’ being used here. If I call somebody a racist jackhole, is that an insult? What if they are being a racist jackhole? What if I point out their racism without using the word ‘jackhole’?
As it turns out, insults do change opinions. Ad hominem (in the sense of ‘insult’) is a powerful and important pedagogic tool.
Help others along.
We should remember that we weren’t born knowing the things we know now. To get to the reasoned conclusions that we’ve reached, we learned by reading, thinking, and talking with others. When we encounter someone espousing a view we think is based on lack of knowledge or experience, we should remember that we have all held ill-informed views. We should cultivate patience and try to educate instead of condemn.
There we go. Don’t condemn the racist, misogynistic mouthbreathers in the atheist community. We all need to sit down very patiently and explain to them why being racist, misogynist mouthbreathers is a bad thing. And if they don’t listen, then we need to try harder. It is our role to educate these halfwits and to consider how it must feel to be an ignorant spunkerchief.
Importantly, there is no declaration within the letter that the responsibility not to be a turd rests with the turds. This letter is not about making it a safe space for everybody: it’s to render the natural, sensible, and appropriate response to such cockery as illegitimate. Pointing out the nasty underbelly of the atheist community is divisive and there’s no room for divisiveness. It’s similar to Andrew Bolt’s: ‘People of colour are being divisive when they declare that they are people of colour.’
Seriously. These pop-atheists are just the worst people.
That is my reasoned conclusion.
The birds and the bees they hum along… Should @FemFreq mention female-positive games for ‘balance’? (Answer: No).
Feminist Frequency was the subject of a disappointing Kickstarter drama last year. Wanting to produce a series of analytical videos about gender issues in video games, Anita Sarkeesian began a Kickstarter campaign to bankroll it. Of course, a large fraction of the gaming community can’t handle the thought of women expressing views about gender, so the Kickstarter drama was more about the influx of trolls rather than the subject of women in gaming.
Fortunately, the drama might draw attention to her videos which (despite some tiny quibbles about presentation) are first class. Here’s the first episode:
The reaction from the gaming community was predictable. ’Silly girl with your HARDCORE feminist friends, you have completely ignored all the examples of positive role models for girls in video games!’ Indeed, so common was the response that a friend of mine (an avid gamer) even threw down this magic card, using the word ‘balance’ to justify the position.
The view seems to be that the only way to tell if women are objectified by video games is to list all the games which objectify women and all the games which don’t — if the Good List is longer than the Bad List, then there’s no problem in the gaming community.
This is a rubbish view for two reasons.
The first is obvious: we shouldn’t be ‘balancing’ the two lists to determine the extent of the problem. The problem is that the ‘Bad List’ exists at all. As a straight white guy, I can’t think of a single game where my character analogue is anything less than a triumphant hero. If we’re balancing the lists for single white guys, the Bad List is practically non-existent. Yet when we discuss women in video games, we can’t criticise the Bad List without doffing our caps to the Good List?
The second is less obvious and something to which Sarkeesian alludes but doesn’t hit squarely on the head: guys are really bad at spotting gender issues. The idea of comparing two lists of female representation assumes that we can objectively identify which representations go on which list. Thus, one internet blowhard (who even went on to argue that Sarkeesian was censoring guys’ responses by disallowing comments to her posts…) listed Ms Pac-Man, Super Princess Peach, and Borderlands as examples of games Sarkeesian should have mentioned if only she’d done more research and wasn’t such a HARDCORE feminazi.
Ms Pac-Man, as we are all aware, is a complicated and multi-layered story about a young woman who eats giant dots and bits of fruit. Women identify with Ms Pac-Man because, like them, they wear a red bow in their hair, have beauty spots, and wear red lipstick. Here she is standing up against the objectification and sexualisation of women on the original arcade machine:
Snark aside, ‘female Pac-Man’ in the gaming community meant ‘sexy Pac-Man’. Further, the ‘Ms’ element is what we call in Aristotelean terms an ‘accidental attribute’ rather than an ‘essential attribute’. This essential vs accidental issue is a complicated problem at the heart of representation issues in culture. We see straight white guys as the norm, with each step away from that norm being a quirky twist. Captain Smith is a hard-edged, no-nonsense leader of a group of space pirates… oh, and she’s a woman! That’s what makes this series different to the others! Woman! President Jones is a kindly, gentle leader of the Free World… oh, and she’s a woman! How will she cope with all of her women’s periods?
In the case of Ms Pac-Man, this was literally the case. They needed a character who was different enough from Pac-Man to avoid a lawsuit but similar enough to be part of the franchise: thus, Pac-Man got some lipstick and high heels.
This might be dismissed as a trivial issue, but it has ‘real world’ implications (beyond telling the non-male gaming community that their identity is a quirky deviation from male greatness). There are court cases where people have tried to argue that the judge was biased because they were not a white male. White males are default neutral, anything else looks like bias. Does popular culture have a responsibility to change attitudes? Yes.
Super Princess Peach follows a similar argument but, this time, we’re talking about the story rather than the character. Here, Princess Peach is the protagonist and must save Mario. What reveals the gender issue lurking beneath the surface is that this is treated as a novelty. ’Hey, guys. I’ve got this crazy idea for a new game!’ said one of the game developers, no doubt. ’What if it were Princess Peach doing the rescuing instead of Mario?! Wouldn’t that be hilarious?!’
Super Princess Peach doesn’t mitigate the problem of gender in video games; it exists because of it. If gender issues didn’t exist in gaming, nobody would have thought to make this game where the object of the series transgresses against conventions to become the subject of a game.
Finally, Borderlands. My brother plays this game. Here’s a woman from it.
Time to call it a day, Feminists. Borderlands has clearly demonstrated that women are represented accurately and in a non-sexualised manner in video games. If those breasts don’t scream ‘progressive’, well…
Let’s go for another recent example of this (and one that I’ve already written about). In Batman: Arkham City, Batman is aided by a paraplegic woman who communicates through radio, by a woman who breaks social conventions to become a sort of villainous hero, and by a woman with complicated links to one of the key antagonists of the game. One of Batman’s adversaries is a fanatical woman who acts out of a perverse love for the Joker.
Although Batman allows guys like me to play out their power fantasies of being Batman (plus, Batman is the world’s greatest conservative hero, so I’m totally on board with playing as him), he’s put into a world where there are lots of opportunities for female characters to be on a near-equal ground with our hero.
Instead, the script — written by Paul Dini — turns Batman into more than a bit of a pig. When receiving advice from Oracle, Batman acts like a jerk and rather unkindly reminds her which of the two is the Batman. Catwoman, on the other hand, does little but make vaguely raunchy remarks. Talia al Ghul, a woman who is presented to the viewer as a person Batman turns to for advice and guidance, is also presented to the viewer as a sexualised object. The game takes on an aggressively hostile attitude towards women, with inmates (who, admittedly, are bad guys) frequently commenting on how various female characters are sexually desirable or bitches.
Nowhere was this attitude towards women more notable than in the transformation of Harley Quinn between Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City.
Here she is in Ayslum:
Sure, she’s probably not going to win The Germaine Greer Award for Feminism, but it’s still a garden mile ‘better’ than her appearance in City:
The new Harley had even fewer clothed on than before. This, by the way, was the original appearance of Harley Quinn in the cartoons:
That’s from the original Batman: The Animated Series. The more recent Batman had her looking like this:
Unless you count the face paint, neither version reveals any flesh at all. Yet in order to be acceptable to the gaming community (and, fair’s fair, the comics community) she had to bare skin.
What we see is game designers pandering to what they think the market wants: scantily clad women. In the case of Harley Quinn, Catwoman, Talia al Ghul, &c., I still recognise powerful women, but I’m encouraged to look at the characters as objects of titillation first. This is the problem we face when we ask guys to identify the good female role models for women: we have normalised the sexual component — fictional women are of course created for our visceral pleasure — so we can say with a straight face that these women are powerful, liberated role-models for women.
This, by the way, is but one of many reasons why I don’t think men can be feminists. Admittedly, as a straight, white, conservative male, I’m not sure why anybody would care about my definition of ‘feminist’.
So let’s wind this back up to the start. When we hear the complaint that Sarkeesian doesn’t acknowledge all the great female role models in video games, what we are actually hearing is the complaint that Sarkeesian isn’t viewing video games as a guy. When she is confronted by images of women being objectified, we claim that her reaction is misplaced and that she should instead think of all the women guys claim aren’t objectified (like Ms Pac-Man). What we are also hearing is that people like Sarkeesian have no right criticising males unless she acknowledges all the good things that guys do, like create novelty games for women such as Super Princess Peach. In short, if Sarkeesian doesn’t play by our rules when she discusses video games (the rules which make guys feel better about themselves), then we simply aren’t going to enter into a discussion about her point.
The balance argument is particularly noxious when we consider Sarkeesian as something of a pathologist. Here she is diagnosing a problem at the heart of gaming, yet her critics argue that she’s ignoring a perfectly healthy appendix. Her patient (the gaming community) says, ‘I refuse to accept your diagnosis of my diseased heart, Dr Sarkeesian, unless you praise me for what a healthy appendix I have.’
I, for one, am looking forward to further episodes of her webseries. I just wish she’d stop using French phrases followed by their literal English translation. Seriously, it’s my one quibble. If you need to translate the phrase immediately, then you don’t need to use the phrase.
There are some conversations we can’t have. The conversations are complex and tempt us towards uncomfortable thoughts — thoughts we suspect we ought not to have. The conversations are nuanced and intimidate us with subtlety — subtlety we can avoid by sticking to our safe, black and white views of the world.
Do we really have rights? Is the death penalty morally superior to life imprisonment? Is procedural justice morally just? Should unsustainable indigenous hunting practices be protected from change by western countries who are committed to protecting endangered animals?
These discussions are far too quickly hijacked by megaphones who fear a society which plays in greys. It is easy to be absolutist about things. It is difficult to accept that other people can disagree with us with sensible, reasonable arguments.
I think Bettina Arndt has situated herself in one of these discussions. An Australian sex therapist, her articles and books have stirred controversy for decades. In the 1980s, she was a cause for concern to the religious right for claiming — shock, horror — that there’s this thing called sex and it can be enjoyable.
Today, she upsets the left for claiming — shock, horror — that there’s this thing called sex and it can be enjoyable.
Ah, I’ve taken all the subtlety out of the leftwing and rightwing positions in order to ridicule them. Everybody can see that. What a poor analytical tool.
And yet this is precisely how I read most of the recent criticism of Arndt. Don’t concern yourself with what she writes; she clearly means the opposite. When she says that nothing excuses the poor treatment of women, she actually means that men have a right to treat women poorly… Or something.
The latest controversy surrounds an article written in the SMH: ‘Busted: the politics of cleavage and a glance‘. The article uses a few anecdotes to stir a conversation about men in an environment of increased sexual liberty.
That’s the context that makes the constant just-out-of-reach titillation men now face confusing, irritating and even insulting. Yet many men are still trying hard to get it right, listening to their partners about why they hate men’s ogling. [Source: http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/busted-the-politics-of-cleavage-and-a-glance-20120211-1sy7e.html#ixzz1mGnFuwqU]
It’s an interestingly subtle argument. We have a culture which has moved in favour of sexualisation. Television shows, advertisements, movies, music, &c., &c., all declare that only a sexy woman is a competent, healthy woman. At the same time, the message to guys is that their reactions to a sexualised world are negative and make it more difficult for women to succeed as equals.
Arndt has published a few articles and books around this theme. In What Men Want, Ardnt discussed the importance of sex to a relationship and the importance of getting both people on the same page when it came to expectations. Her argument was that guys felt they couldn’t talk about sex openly with their partners. Men receive the messages that their sexual desires were harmful and wrong, and should be repressed.
It’s not an outright silly thing to say. At the same time, it’s not an unproblematic thing to say.
One of Arndt’s suggestions in her book for couples was for the less sexually interested partner (unfortunately identified as the female but, in a public lecture, she indicated that it could be either) to have sex even if they didn’t feel like it. The point was to highlight the sexual needs of both partners and, too frequently, the partner who didn’t want to have sex ‘won’ by default. This argument was characterised by the local women’s group as ‘Men have a right to sex’. While it’s clearly not Arndt’s argument, Arndt doesn’t express herself precisely enough to defend herself against these claims.
Arndt is discussing an otherwise healthy relationship, with the lack of sex considered a dysfunction. Is a lack of sex a dysfunction? It’s not analysed. Arndt is not discussing unhealthy relationships (or pseudo-relationships). Nor is she claiming that sex should be non-consensual. The question for her is how to get both parties to enjoy sex, and she sees not having sex as an obstacle.
But back to the ‘Busted’ article.
We see the same reasoning assumptions. Women are buying into a sexualised culture which associates sexiness with success, but acknowledgement of that sexiness by men is discouraged. Arndt’s argument is that a healthy society would provide a way for men to acknowledge sexiness without a) being creepy or b) feeling creepy.
From my perspective (straight, conservative, single guy), I can sympathise with that a bit. If I’m out for drinks or whatever and I meet a woman I find interesting, intelligent, and attractive, I feel creepy if I acknowledge that she’s physically attractive. It is far safer to keep my mouth shut. Arndt suggests that in a healthy society, I wouldn’t keep my mouth shut, but would have a way of discussing the fact that I find somebody physically attractive in the same way that I can discuss finding them intellectually attractive.
But this is discussing a relatively healthy situation. What it’s not discussing is the culture of objectification in unhealthy situations. If you ignore the caveats throughout Arndt’s article, it can be read as justifying men’s reactions to women dressing provocatively.
But when young women stand in front of mirrors on a Saturday night, adjusting their cleavage, seeking ever greater exposure, maybe they need to think more about what they are doing. While there are women who claim they dress sluttishly just to make themselves feel good, the fact remains that, like the protesters, the main message sent is about flaunting women’s sexual power. [Ibidem]
Arndt chooses words poorly. ’Flaunting’ is particularly egregious. Despite all the comments that she’s discussing healthy attitudes towards sex, her words lend support to ‘slut-shaming’ and ‘nice guys’.
If Arndt wants to discuss subtle, nuanced problems like unhealthy attitudes towards sex inside normal, otherwise healthy social interactions, she needs to be more careful with words. Personally, I think she’s saying something important and prompting interesting discussions about healthy attitudes towards sex. It’s a shame it’s wrapped up so tightly in troll-bait.
It’s rare for somebody to begin a blog post with ‘I’m probably incorrect but I can’t work out why…’ and yet here we are, folks. Here is a bit of contract theory where I’m sure I must be wronger than wrong and yet I can’t work out why.
On Sunday, Kate Galloway wrote about the NSW Supreme Court’s decision in Ashton v Pratt. The details of the case are pretty much of the ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and the Famous’ kind. The story goes: Richard Pratt is fabulously wealthy and travels about the place sans his wife. He meets an escort, Ms Ashton, and — in a supposed exchange read into the decision which definitely needs to be poorly acted by Home and Away starlets — says to her: ‘If you stop being an escort and “concentrate on my needs and wants” (mistress), I will give you a swag of cash.’
The best line of that exchange: ‘after all, I am Richard Pratt, one of the richest men in Australia’.
The court found:
Ms Ashton’s case in contract fails – although the terms of those arrangements were not too uncertain and incomplete to amount to a contract – first because Mr Pratt and Ms Ashton did not intend to enter into binding and enforceable legal relations, and secondly because public policy denies enforceability to any such contract as alleged. [At 88]
The second part of this decision is what interested Galloway:
Although the Court found there were insufficient indicia of a contract (ie the arrangement lacked intention to create legal relations) Brereton J nonetheless turned his mind to whether such an arrangement could theoretically be enforceable, or whether it would be against public policy. The public policy in question was rendering void and illegal, contracts that are ‘sexually immoral and/or prejudicial to the status of marriage’. [Source: Galloway, 'Sex & Immorality: The Court's Take'
Public policy is a weird bit of contract law. It basically says that there are some contracts which would be repugnant to community standards to enforce. Ordinarily, public policy problems shouldn't arise because people don't really make a habit of entering into contracts which offend standards of decency.
It's such a weird area of contacts that I had to go back to the textbooks to make sure I had all my ducks in a row. There are some great quotes about public policy because the idea of courts being able to determine whether a contract was, when it gets down to it, immoral spooked a lot of judges. In an 1824 English case, Richardson v Mellish, Burrough J calls public policy 'a very unruly horse, and when once you get astride it you never know where it will carry you'. Public policy takes away the autonomy of people to enter into agreements which they find accord with their moral values and surrenders that decision to the courts. Over time, judges became so spooked by the idea that they halted its development in common law. In another English case, Janson v Driefontein Consolidated Mines, Halsbury LC rejected the view that 'any court can invent a new head of public policy.' This reasoning led to a decision by an Australian judge, Windeyer J, in Brooks v Burns Philp Trustee Co Ltd:
The House of Lords has said that it is not for courts to create new heads of public policy. [...] The proposition continues to excite controversy among those who doubt whether the fertility of courts in the 19th century has now given way to sterility, resulting from senility, in the common law.’ [Source: Brooks v Burns Philp Trustee Co Ltd (1969) 121 CLR 432; quoted in Paterson, et al. Contract: Cases and Materials]
And yet here we are in 2012 with a case which shows public policy considerations are alive and well. In this instance, the contract was considered unenforceable because it was sexually immoral.
Galloway argues that prohibiting contracts which are deemed sexually immoral by the courts is problematic.
A feminist reading of this case might identify that the Court framed its inquiry around the ‘social’ and sexual (ie private) nature of the arrangement. In positioning Ms Ashton’s claim as private, it existed outside the law. This reveals how contract law privileges the so-called objective, rational, autonomous public face of the market place – for it is these arrangements that will be enforced by the law while others within the domestic or social sphere will not. [Source: Galloway, op. cit.]
But I’m a bit worried by this reasoning. There’s already a shaky understanding in contract law that courts don’t like to mess about in family matters: Balfour v Balfour ran with this idea that, because a contract is formed when the parties intend to create a legally enforceable agreement, agreements between spouses (and, by extension, family members) weren’t obviously contracts. If I say to my brother, ‘Hey, Ian. You can crash on my floor when you visit’, I don’t expect him to sue me if, for whatever reason, it turns out that him crashing on my floor is impractical. When I go about my social interactions with my family, I don’t think that it’s obvious I’m creating all kinds of legal obligations. I might create moral obligations. I might be considered to be a terrible person if I let my brother down by forcing him to stay at one of the many Canberran hotels when he comes to visit. But I don’t think I’m a legally culpable person.
At the heart of this, I don’t like the idea of my life being reduced to legal interactions (in the same way, I worry when libertarians tell me that my life is merely a collection of economic interactions).
In The Hidden Gender of Law, Graycar and Morgan cite Atkin LJ: ‘Each house is a domain into which the King’s writ does not seek to run, and to which his officers do not seek to be admitted.’
But people disagree with this idea.
Again in Graycar and Morgan:
[T]raditional feminist arguments raise concerns about the private sphere as notionally unregulated, for example, in suggestions that ‘the legal system’ has traditionally failed to respond to violence against women in their homes. Not only has this approach meant an over-reliance on an analytical tool that fails to encompass the experiences of many women [...] but Lacey suggests that some feminist critiques imply that privacy ‘has nothing to recommend it to women.’ [Source: Graycar and Morgan, The Hidden Gender of Law, p 20]
Unpacking the gist of the argument: if there’s an area of social interaction ungoverned by law, then there’s an area of social interaction where the socially disempowered have a means of redress for wrongs. This seems to be where Galloway’s argument is heading here:
The law reveals its gendered nature in presuming that a person will delineate their life in a work/home dichotomy. In contrast, in the private sphere a person might see work and family as mutually defining. This would however fall outside the consideration of the law. In this way, the processes of contract law subtly privilege that which inhabits the public domain to the exclusion of inhabits the private. [Source: Galloway, op. cit.]
As I’ve mentioned at length elsewhere, I don’t identify as a feminist. Although I can see Galloway’s point — that people in the private sphere might have a need to seek legal remedies to problems, and that the law does not empower people in the private sphere to overcome differences in power — I’m still not sure legalism should creep into private interactions. Then again, I might just be intuiting this because I’m in a privileged position as a conservative white male.
But more to the point, are we sure we want to argue that contracts which establish ‘mistress contracts’ should be enforceable in the courts?
In this example, Ms Ashton would have benefited from the contract being enforced. She was the mistress and held up her end of the contract; therefore, Mr Pratt’s estate should fulfil its end.
But what if Ms Ashton did not benefit from the contract? The agreement between Ashton and Pratt didn’t include an exclusivity arrangement, but it might have. The agreement might have been: ‘I am Richard Pratt, one of the richest men in Australia, and I want you, Ms Ashton, to be my mistress. When I’m in Sydney, you will provide me with sex. You won’t have any other partners beside me. In return for sex and exclusivity, I will give you a swag of cash.’ It would be strange if Pratt tried to have the contract enforced if Ms Ashton had extra-extra-marital affairs. It feels like it would offend basic norms of morality for the court to enforce the contract.
Because the contract seems to favour Ms Ashton in the original example, we might be tempted to think that the court is imposing its ye olde morality into contract law. But I think we would be appalled if the contract didn’t favour Ms Ashton and Pratt’s estate were trying to have it enforced by the courts. I think it’s the same revulsion we feel when people try to restrict access to divorce to permit ‘at fault’ divorces only: it’s not really the court’s role to get involved in people’s sex life. These ‘mistress contracts’ invite the court in for a ménage a trois of contractual bondage.
I quite like that last sentence.
I feel as though something is wrong with my reasoning. Am I relying too heavily on my intuition of the private as a justifiably unregulated space? Am I too quick to think that mistress contracts are repugnant, and that more people would agree with me if the contract disadvantaged the woman?
If nothing else, am I correct that the ’fertility of courts has now given way to sterility, resulting from senility, in the common law’ quote is really awesome?
You said you’d stand for every known abuse… Pro-lifers? In my feminism? It’s more likely than you think #MTRsues
The Melinda Tankard Reist v Jennifer Wilson debate is reaching its inevitable telos: vitriol.
The latest manifestation is a series of Tweets informing readers that the ‘debate’ isn’t between pro-lifers and pro-choicers: it’s between pro-choicers and anti-choicers.
Meanwhile, the attacks on Melinda Tankard Reist are getting more personal: if she’s anti-abortion, can she really be a feminist? Really, really? Has anybody seen her feminist barcode tattooed to her neck?
The first issue sheds some light on the latter, so let’s start there. By way of disclosure, I’m a white conservative male who doesn’t identify as feminist and who is pro-death. I don’t have a horse in this race. I disagree with MTR’s pro-life stance and I also disagree with the increasingly vitriolic, personal attacks against her (particularly the: ‘Ignore her arguments; remember she’s a Christian!’ rhetoric).
The way we talk about issues shapes the way we think about them. It is notable that both sides of the ‘debate’ refer to themselves as ‘pro-something’. More than that, they both refer to themselves as ‘pro-something-everybody-should-be-pro’. The language is to reassure the advocate: they are on the side of angels, defending things which are worth defending, be it choice or life.
But the language we use is also a way of posing their side of the debate as default rational. Of course you should be pro-life; are you anti-life? Of course you should be pro-choice; are you anti-choice?
As such, the labels we use are shorthand for thinking. Condensing a complicated argument down into 140 characters means resorting to snappy, emotive caricatures of our opponents. With issues as deeply personal as abortion, it seems almost inevitable that we’re going to demonise our opponents.
As said earlier, I’m pro-death. I’m fine for a woman to terminate her baby right up to labour, and for parents to issue doctors with Do Not Resuscitate instructions for their newborns. I can understand why people wouldn’t agree with my position. In today’s intellectual climate, it seems rather extreme but it’s founded in the idea that not every life is worth saving, that medicine is about quality of life, and that parents should be able to decide whether they want to undertake the burden of raising a child with severe health issues.
It also sits comfortably with my conservative views: some life isn’t worth saving. Quality life is worth preserving. Who decides the threshold for quality? The people who are living it.
I understand the argument against my position. I have a lot of sympathy for it but I’m not convinced by it. I understand that there are some moderate pro-choicers who are uncomfortable with the idea of post-natal abortion. Being honest, I suspect that they’re in the clear majority.
It would be absurd for me to declare them ‘anti-choice’ just because they disagree that post-natal abortion is a morally acceptable choice. It would be absurd for me to demonise them.
And yet that’s what the main players in the debate do to each other on a daily basis.
It is not difficult to understand why a pro-lifer sees a similarity between abortion and murder. It’s the deliberate ending of a life. It’s the deliberate ending of a human life. Many vegetarians and animal rights activists argue that we should extend the right to life as broadly as we possibly can. Logical conclusion: unborn human life should be protected. We might disagree with the idea, but it’s not pants-on-head stupid.
Characterising people who disagree with us as ‘anti-choice’ trivialises their position. Weirdly, people on the pro-choice side of the ledger tend to have the most ridiculous assertions. Consider the ‘If you ban abortion, women will have backyard abortions’ argument. It’s clearly absurd. The anti-abortion advocate is obviously against backyard abortions as well. It’s not inconsistent for the anti-abortion advocate to champion better services for women to reduce the need for backyard abortions: better family planning, easier access to contraceptives, campaigns to reduce shaming of out-of-wedlock pregnancy, free education for women, &c., &c.
And it’s here that we crash into the ‘Is Melinda Tankard Reist a feminist?’ question.
If you believe that prohibiting abortion is a means by which males control female bodies, then feminists cannot be pro-life. But this isn’t the only valid concept of anti-abortion. If you believe that a feminist is a person who champions the endowment of women with the maximum scope of rights, but do not consider access to abortion to be a legitimate right as it infringes on the rights of the unborn baby, then it is not inconsistent for a anti-abortion champion to also be a feminist. Similarly, I don’t think it’s the case that you have to champion my pro-death, maxi-choice position in order to be a feminist, even though my position extends more rights to women than most pro-choicers.
So if I’m not pro-life or feminist, why throw my hat into the ring? Because I think it’s illustrative of a problem which does affect me: a problem I call ‘Positionism’.
Positionism is when a person tries to determine which political label applies to a person based on the positions held by the person and not the reasoning behind the position. To the positionist, a person is left wing if they affirm a series of sentences. You care about the environment, homosexuals, asylum seekers, women, and poor people? You’re left wing. You care about the privileged, corporations, and stomping on kittens? You’re right wing. You care about equality of women? You’re feminist. You don’t think women should be allowed to have abortions? You can’t be a feminist.
It puzzles people that I, a conservative, can agree with left wingers on a variety of topics. When I go through the various positions and show that they can be reached by two, diametrically opposed ways of viewing the world, they seem shocked. (I always take advantage of their shocked state to induce post-hypnotic aversions to supporting the Greens)
We need to get away from this kind of tribal political discourse. Not only is it stupid, it’s damaging. It encourages group think (which has almost completely destroyed the atheist community) because to maintain the self-identification with a label, one feels the need to advocate a particular set of beliefs rather than employ a particular set of reasons. Stating that MTR can’t be feminist because she’s pro-life is to completely ignore the reasons why she advocates her pro-life views and to privilege dogmatically a particular conception of abortion.
More than that: perhaps it’s just time to stop treating everybody who disagrees with us as being too stupid to operate their brain properly. How I long for that day.
When James Massola compiled publicly available information to ‘out’ Grog’s Gamut, the Left lost its shit. ’How dare the Australian,’ it wailed, ‘try to silence views in this way?! It’s bullying!’
Recently, Jennifer Wilson of No Place for Sheep discovered a new passion for informing anybody who’d listen that Melinda Tankard Reist was a certain type of Christian who regularly worshipped at a certain church in a certain suburb of Canberra. Melinda Tankard Reist is unpopular for a variety of reasons: not least, she has the audacity to argue that the porn industry, taken as a whole, exploits women. The cheek!
Very few people try to engage MTR in her views because it’s far easier to belittle her. I’ve written about this before and complained that it’s yet another indication of a toxic public discussion. When I wrote about the state of the discourse, Jennifer Wilson appeared in the comments. Not to discuss the post, mind. She had absolutely no interest in the problems with the public discussion of pornography. What she really wanted to say was that MTR was a Christian.
Wilson’s argument is that it doesn’t matter what MTR’s arguments are. What matters is who MTR is. We should all know that MTR’s arguments are actually a conspiracy by shadowy religious types to destroy women’s rights while arguing that pornography exploits women… or something. It’s not entirely clear exactly why Jennifer Wilson doesn’t understand why this ad hominem argument doesn’t make a lick of sense.
Perhaps it has something to do with where Jennifer Wilson’s kids go to school…
Oh, wait. I totally wouldn’t start revealing information I’d mined from Facebook, Twitter, &c., &c, (if I could be bothered stalking her like some people stalk MTR) because that would be a Dick Move. I understand that it would be a Dick Move and that it would likely upset Dr Wilson and, being the wonderful human being that I am, I don’t do it.
Initially, this post was going to be about privacy torts and why Australia should have them. Natural persons, regardless of how famous they are or how much of a moral crusader they are, should be able to control the amount of information revealed about them. But it’s deeper than that. This is less about legality and significantly more about being decent people.
I first came across MTR when somebody directed my attention to absolutely vile threats made against her. If I got the number of rape threats as MTR, I would be cagey about my whereabouts as well. I might even make slightly stretched defamation claims in order to get rid of that info. What’s weird is that so many women — from both sides of the political spectrum — are subject to utterly disgusting threats by guys who don’t like to be challenged. Subjecting women to these threats is a way of silencing them.
Fortunately for all the pro-porn advocates who think what MTR really needs in life is a good shag (perhaps even with a firehose…), Jennifer Wilson doesn’t believe in respecting privacy. Instead, Jennifer Wilson and Catherine Deveny (sigh) think that it’s more important that crafty theists like MTR are outed come hell or high water. If something does happen to MTR, well… it was hardly their fault, was it? Freedom of speech, something, something, therefore they are blameless. Plus, Deveny really hates theists so it’s all cool, guys.
But Wilson and Deveny are just jumping on the silencing opponents bandwagon. Women who disagree need to be outed and denied the ability to control information revealed about them.
Jill Singer makes the strange argument that MTR’s attempt to protect her privacy is actually her attempt to silence opponents. Perhaps she’s right. There’s so much silencing going on, it’s amazing there’s so much noise.
At the end of the day, we should just look at ourselves and ask: ‘Why should I have more say in the control of another person’s private information than they do? Who am I to say how much information about them is made easily available to others? Does finding snippets of information in Google caches really mean the information is public domain?’
‘Cause, frankly, I think it’s just another case of people being unreasonably shitty towards each other.
Over the past week, a strange amount of energy was devoted to the question of whether men could be feminists. It’s important that, in a movement designed to empower women, men know where they stand.
The recent brouhaha started off with Corinne Grant’s post specifically about the term ‘male feminist’.
I could slide here into a discussion of comedians as social commentators. I don’t know if this is true in other countries, but I feel that social commentary is dominated by people who are better at being funny than insightful. Grant fits into this category along with Tim Minchin and everybody involved in The Chaser. Catherine Deveny would fit into this category but she’s not funny. There’s probably another post in here somewhere about our need to be entertained rather than informed, but this post is about why guys can’t be feminists.
The boring answer is that it depends on what we mean by ‘feminists’. I’ve spoken to a lot of people about this topic over the last week, with people much more intelligent than me. What’s striking is the diversity of the term. Does it mean ‘a person who thinks that men and women should be equal’? Does it mean ‘a person who critiques social power structures which disempower women’? Is it both? Is it neither?
I’ve surprised at least one of my friends by being both conservative and having an understanding and appreciation of privilege. It goes to show that you can be both conservative and not stone stupid.
I think — and I could be incorrect — that ‘feminist’ has to mean something more than just ‘believes in the equality of men and women’. People who are advantaged by privilege are in the worst position to judge what is ‘equal’. In the Andrew Bolt case, far too many people thought that it was ‘unequal’ for racial minorities to be granted protections in law denied to the white majority. What they failed to grasp was that the legal protection was to bring them on equal footing with our socially guaranteed protection. Nobody is going to attack me for being white. Using exactly the same language, we can disagree wildly about what is ‘equal’.
But if feminists are just those who critique the social structures which disempower women, we’ve neutered feminism into a dry academic discourse. Feminists are those who write the US-centric essays about unpacking privilege. Feminists are those who can reposition Marx’ material dialectic into a gendered discourse.
I don’t mean to disparage feminism as an academic endeavour. I’ve got a low opinion of gender studies as a discipline, but the quality, meaty, intelligent output is superb. It’s just that it’s filled with so much guff (probably a by-product of its links to Continental philosophy, which has the same problem. The great stuff is magical, sublime, and exceptional. But most of it is rot).
But if it is this academic endeavour, guys aren’t part of that project either. Part of privilege is that society renders the power structures invisible to those who benefit most. We’ve normalised it: it’s the background stage upon which we strut our funky stuff.
In truth, ‘feminism’ is probably going to sit in the grey area between the two extremes of the popular and the academic. But the arguments as to why a guy can’t be a feminist at either end still apply in the middle. There’s no way for a guy to not think like a guy. We’ve been socialised to do it. Feminism requires non-guy thinking. It’s the external critique to show us that the things we think are ‘normal’ or ‘obvious’ or ‘default rational’ aren’t. That critique, that discourse, can’t happen if we’re on both sides of the fence.
But — as an extremely learned and excellent friend of mine pointed out — in making this argument, I’ve dichotomised gender. By dividing the world into two groups — those who can be feminists and those who can’t — along gender lines, I’ve forgotten the fluidity of gender. What about trans-folk? Are homosexuals similarly unable to critique the dominant masculinist mode? Is it just a certain kind of guy who can’t be a feminist?
The long answer is: I don’t know. There are so many conceptual issues with gender fluidity that I think the brutal ‘Guys can’t be feminists’ needs to take on some subtlety and nuance that I can’t muster here.
The shorter answer is: maybe there might be exceptions, but when we’re talking about guys being feminists, we’re not usually talking about anything except cismen who declare proudly that they’re ‘male feminists’.
Guys can’t be feminists. Not really, at least, because merely by interacting with the world, we’re taking advantage of all the privileges we don’t need to acknowledge. We won’t understand what it’s like to be women and, frankly, the guys who describe themselves as feminists are sort of pretending that they do. Guys should be content with ruling the world and stop trying to conquer and dominate the spaces created by women to advance their equality.
Procrastination makes readers of us all.
There’s a bit of a lukewarm debate about the representation of women in the media over on The Drum. Kate Phelan has a post up today about the individual’s experience in the face of media-portrayed versions of ‘normal’. Part of the article seems to be a response to this one by Jennifer Wilson which — somehow — links feminists to conservatives, claims that feminists infantalise women, and requests conservatives provide details of how a woman can sexualise herself appropriately.
That post, in turn, was in response to everything Melinda Tankard Reist has ever said.
Now I — a straight, white, conservative male — will fix the debate.
I think Wilson unfairly presents Tankard Reist’s position. From what I’ve read of Reist, her problem seems to be the commodification of (female) sex. While the media message has been ‘liberation’, the commodification of women’s sexuality has homogenised sexuality for women. The purchaser of the commodity is overwhelmingly men, so the commodification isn’t about the liberation of women: it’s about men (and a very small group of opportunistic women) making women feel positive about being exploited.
One of her more interesting articles was about Sexpo. I’ll admit quite openly that I have never been, so I’m criticising third-hand. What is liberating about it? Who is benefited by reducing sex to its more vulgar aspects? Who is being oppressed if we banned it?
Wilson reads these criticisms as wanting to be proscriptive.
It seems there is little in popular cultural representations of female sexuality that escapes Melinda’s disapproval. Even, I see on her website the US underwear company Victoria’s Secret,and twenty something TV star Lea Michele appearing on the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine showing cleavage, offends her conservative values.
The latter incurs wrath because Michele is, in Melinda’s terms, “sexifying” herself, and in so doing setting a bad example to the teenagers who watch Glee in which she plays a considerably younger character.
Christian sexual conservatives seem to have embarked on a mission to pathologise the entire world, rather than realistically deal with inevitable and at times large pockets of dysfunction. Their solution? Censor and ban. [Source: Jennifer Wilson, 'Pornify This', ABC The Drum]
Silly MTR! She thinks that having an older woman play an underage girl shouldn’t be praised for presenting herself as a sexual object! Foolish MTR!
What I find strangest of all is that these are the sort of examples Wilson associates with healthy sexuality. The media is so swamped with this sort of imagery that the champions of ‘healthy’ female sexuality can’t think of any examples beyond sexual objectification.
It was made all the weirder when Wilson launched the ‘The Patriarchy doesn’t have any influence over me’ argument:
Even when we think we’re exercising agency we aren’t really, because our actions are predetermined by the overwhelming influence of the patriarchy. [Ibid.]
When you can’t cite any mainstream expression of sexuality which doesn’t consist of objectification, I’m putting bets on the patriarchy having an overwhelming influence. I’m not even in the ‘Boo! Evil patriarchy!’ camp either.
Wilson turns the crazy up to eleven when she tries to argue that sexual objectification isn’t a problem because there are other real problems in the world.
You may like these looks, or you may find them silly, but are they really part of an orchestrated patriarchal attack on women’s human rights? Think about the real attacks on women’s human rights round the globe, rarely mentioned by MTR, by the way, and only when they comply with her ideology as an anti choice feminist, and then answer that question. [Ibid.]
It’s such a wonderful argument. ’You think Australia’s carbon emissions are a problem? Think about the real environmental problems around the world!’ ’You think homelessness in Australia is a problem? Think about the real homelessness problems around the world!’ ’You think me stealing your lunch from the fridge is a problem? Think about the real lunch-stealing problems around the world! Some people don’t have lunch at all! Did you think about them? Your problems are as nothing compared to Real Problems! Go fix all the other problems first and then we might think about this problem.’
Phelan’s response to Wilson’s is to demonstrate the impact of the beauty/sex industry on individuals (while rather happily chiding her as an old woman).
At high school I was surrounded by girls wearing makeup, and by boys who referred to the few girls who wore trousers as dykes. Watching my friends apply foundation at recess then at lunch, and again before leaving school, I was baffled. They explained that they felt more confident wearing mascara and blush. Why do young girls have to cover their faces to feel empowered? This reveals their feeling of being deficient.
Some would argue that these girls were embracing and expressing their femininity. Why does femininity take the form of plump lips and sculpted eyebrows? These girls were embracing an idea of female beauty that makes women loathe their bodies.
This learnt dislike of our bodies is age old. Yet, it has recently become more pronounced. This is evident in the number of young women waxing their vaginas, starving themselves, undergoing cosmetic surgery, essentially altering their bodies to look and feel ‘beautiful’. [Source: Kate Phelan, 'Can Feminism Overcome the Beauty Myth?', ABC The Drum]
The not-so-subtle reference to the burqa was cringeworthy, but the point she’s trying to make is fairly clear. Wilson can whine that MTR is trying to stop somebody I don’t know from Glee from liberating herself by dressing scantily, but Wilson also has to accept that her position is damaging to younger generations of women.
Phelan’s point indirectly provides an answer to Wilson’s request that sexual conservatives provide a template for appropriate sexual expression. Phelan states that the commodification of sexuality makes women dislike their bodies. Therefore, an appropriate sexual expression would be one which didn’t make women feel negatively about their bodies.
But I don’t think Phelan was precise enough. In arguing that we need to rewrite the concept of female beauty, she seems to be suggesting that cosmetics are bad.
We get cosmetic surgery, not because we are stupid, but because we want to fit the definition of beautiful.
I don’t want to pay 50 dollars every month to have my naturally growing pubic hair removed with hot wax but I want to be attractive, I want to be accepted. Unfortunately, being pretty appears incompatible with being natural. [Ibid.]
A toxic social narrative about beauty can entail a person wanting to get cosmetic surgery. It doesn’t follow that a person wanting to get cosmetic surgery is doing so due to a toxic social narrative about beauty.
The problem with the commodification of sex and beauty is that it is normalising. Every magazine cover looks pretty much the same and this sameness is called ‘beauty’. A few variations are permitted: will she have dark hair or blonde?
Cosmetics are a weird thing. People can have almost total control over their appearance: they’re not even limited to ‘natural’ colours. Despite this, just about everybody tries to look the same. In this sense, cosmetics weren’t liberating people’s appearance: they were promoting conformity.
The less toxic narrative would be one which promoted diversity and in which women weren’t bombarded with images that scream ‘You have to look like everybody else; everybody else looks like this because they want to be attractive to men’.