"There is difference and there is power. And who holds the power decides the meaning of the difference." --June Jordan

Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Question of Chivalry


Each time I teach Women's Studies 101, my students inevitably get in a rather heated argument about the concept of chivalry. They love debating whether it is really, really nice for men to show universal "respect" for women by opening doors for them and performing other such traditional rituals, or whether they agree with Marilyn Frye (from her classic 1983 essay, "Oppression") that male chivalry is evidence of female oppression, and downright insulting to women:
"The gallant genstures have no practical meaning. Their meaning is symbolic. The door-opening and similar services which are needed by people who are for one reason or another incapacitated -- unwell, burdened with parcels, etc. So the message is that women are incapable. The detachment of the acts from the concrete realities of what women need and do not need is a vehicle for the message that women's actual needs and interests are unimportant or irrelevant. Finally, these gestures initiate the behavior of servants toward masters and thus mock women, who are in most respects the servants and caretakers of men. The message of the false helpfulness of male gallantry is female dependence, the invisibility or insignificance of women, and contempt for women."
First, I tend to have to remind them that, in our racist, classist, ageist, ableist, heterosexist society, not all women are always extended the luxury (if it is, indeed, a luxury) of male chivalry. Then the discussion turns to the consequences of societal expectations that men behave like traditional "gentlemen" -- the corollary to that expectation being that women have to act like "ladies". And when I ask my students what it means to be a "lady" in our culture, they start naming off words like, "passive", "docile", "pretty", "polite", "petite", "gentle", "smiling", "grateful", "compliant", "dependent", "delicate", and "weak". And, suddenly, they don't seem so pleased with the idea of chivalry. Isn't it funny how that works?

It's not just a problem in Wasilla, Alaska

From the student paper at The Ohio State University:
A group of Ohio State students is campaigning against the university and OSU Medical Center, asking OSU to pay for the medical bills of students who have been sexually assaulted on campus and who seek help from the medical center.

"We're trying to get OSU to create a fund for victims of sexual assault, so when they go to the medical center to seek treatment, they aren't faced with bills of thousands of dollars," said Megan Zakany, a senior in women's studies.


Zakany said that the average medical bill after insurance for the victim of a sexual assault ranges from $300 to thousands of dollars. The group demands that OSU not charge survivors who go to the medical center to obtain an evidence collection kit. Another demand is to require all survivors to be informed about antibiotics when seeking treatment for an assault and to have them immediately available upon request.

The group also asks OSU to provide an emergency fund to cover therapy as needed by the survivor, emergency housing and the costs of hospital care.

"We're living on the biggest campus in the United States and we have the highest population of women," Zakany said. "We see that there's a need for this, we want that need to be met and we're demanding that the university acknowledge that there's tons of things they could do. We don't want not having insurance or any of these complications to get in the way of victims seeking medical treatment or getting any care that they need."

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Another Layer

Remember that PSA I posted about a while back? The one with the Dad practicing cheerleading with his daughter? I wrote about how much I loved it, and so did Melissa at Shakesville, but lisa at Sociological Images posted about it today, and she provided some valid insight about how the types of expectations about parental involvement differ for men and women:
Research on women’s disproportionate responsibility for housework and childcare has found that that, when men “help” women, they are more likely to do childcare than housework and, when they do childcare, they are more likely to do the fun parts: playing instead of bathing, feeding, cleaning, etc. I guess The National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse is just being realistic, but I’d like to see some diaper changes and dishwashing, too.

When the commercial I originally posted about is coupled with the other one lisa found, I can totally see her point. While moms are expected to take care of kids in countless ways (housework, cooking, picking them up from soccer practice, caring for them when they're sick, etc.), dads actually get to act like kids in order to be good dads.

It makes me think about how things were in my house when I was growing up. When Dad was involved (meaning not at work like he usually was), he was always playing with us and generally being fun and cool, making him the favorite parent by a landslide. Mom, on the other hand, was always the one enforcing the rules. She was the only one who was there to make us do our homework and chores and the only one around to yell at us when we were being bad, and she just seemed so boring when compared with super-fun Dad.

I've read work by many feminist writers who say that when they were young, they identified so much more with their fathers than their mothers, because their fathers seemed so much freer and more independent and generally so much more interesting than their mothers, who were always too saddled with household drudgery to be doing anything inspiring. Do these commercials, despite their positive message about involvement, actually reinforce gender roles for parents as much as they seem to challenge them?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

My Antifeminist Childhood: Brenda and Dylan's First Date Edition

My friends and I were completely hooked on 90210 throughout middle school, and we all knew that Brenda and Dylan were meant for each other and totally the perfect couple. He was so hot and mysterious, and she was so girl-next-door that it made us feel like even we could end up with a perfect guy like Dylan.

But I recently caught a rerun of the episode in which Brenda and Dylan go on their first date, and I saw the beginning of their relationship in a whole new light. Watch and count the stereotypes:

According to this scenario (and others like it throughout TV and movie history), those hot, mysterious guys sometimes can't control their anger to the point that they're mean and scary to the people they care about. They can't help it. But they mean well! And they really do care about you! And, if you're compassionate and understanding enough with them, they just might let you in so that you can hop on the roller coaster of intense love mixed with intermittent violence.

Later in this episode, Dylan stands Brenda up for their next date, and after she cries about it all weekend, he comes and lets her know that he was helping his fugitive Dad skip town, and he's really sorry, but he didn't know what to do, at which point she immediately changes her mind about never wanting to see him again, melts into a pile of goo, and makes out with him on the couch.

Any chance that my 13-year-old friends and I took away any ideas about what constitutes a healthy relationship?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Observe and Report Roundup at Bitch Flicks

For those who have haven't been folowing this, the blog Bitch Flicks (which recently celebrated its one-year bloggiversary!) has a great roundup of all of the controversy surrounding the use of sexual assault for laughs in the new Seth Rogen/Anna Faris comedy Observe and Report.

Check it out.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Mourning Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick

Via NIXWILLIAMS, I just learned that the amazing critical/queer theorist Eve Sedgewick died yesterday. She will be missed.

Feminist Insight While Watching Heroes:

Upon the introduction last night of Angela Petrelli's sister, Alice, as a new character who makes it storm when she gets upset, Dan remarked: "Why are so many of the female heroes' powers tied to their emotions?"

I can't believe I didn't notice it myself, but he's totally right. Remember how when Maya got upset, she accidentally killed everyone in the vicinity? Or how Nikki's multiple personality thing would act up, giving her no choice in the matter? Or even if they aren't tied to their emotions, most of their powers are passive in some way, like Claire's healing ability and Angela's dreams. Or they are completely unable to control the powers to the extent that their powers hurt or victimize them, a la Elle, Tracy, and Claire's biological mother whose name I can't remember. Even though she was never my favorite character, I liked that Daphne could run really fast -- until they killed her off. And the girl from Season Two who could mimic anything she saw was pretty cool, but she just sort of disappeared. Sigh.

My Antifeminist Childhood: That Damn Metal Bikini from Return of the Jedi Edition


I loved Star Wars as a little kid. LOVED it. I can't remember a time when I didn't pretty much know all three of the original movies by heart. And I loved Princess Leia. She was so smart and cool and collected. I wanted to be her, even though I had a much bigger crush on Luke Skywalker than Han Solo, and I knew that being Princess Leia meant that our love could never be. I was even willing to settle for Harrison Ford if it meant I could be Carrie Fisher.

When I was really young, Return of the Jedi was my favorite. I know better now that I can appreciate the interesting darkness of The Empire Strikes Back, but I somehow found Ewoks irresistible as a pre-kindergartener. But watching Jedi inevitably made me feel pretty ambivalent as a little girl, because I had to watch my hero Princess Leia be sexually objectified as a slave on a chain in a weird metal bikini in Jabba the Hut's palace.

And I hated that damn metal bikini. I don't know how I felt about it when I was really little, but it was well before developing a feminist consciousness that I somehow developed an awareness that putting her in that outfit humiliated and reduced her in a way that only women can be humiliated and reduced. I hated that she had to suffer that humiliation and wait to be rescued by Luke and Han. It just reinforced the sexist idea that I'm sure I was getting elsewhere that women are always the victims and men are always their saviors. And the fact that she ended up strangling Jabba herself with her chains did little to mitigate the harm done. I totally resented that the movie did this to her, especially when I got older and began to realize how much of that scene was probably created solely for the titillation of a male audience. Because nothing gets horny Sci-Fi geeks off like bondage-themed sexual violence, right?

Sunday, April 12, 2009

My Antifeminist Childhood: Girl Talk Edition


I think was in about 5th grade when I started playing this board game with my friends. My memory of it is a little fuzzy, and there seems to be relatively little information about it on these here internets, but it doesn't take too much remembering for me to know that this game didn't exactly teach me any progressive ideas about gender or sexuality.

From what I remember, the game was set up like Truth or Dare, with a spinner that landed on a question you had to answer or a challenge you had to live up to, and if you refused to answer a question or fulfill a challenge, your punishment was to wear a bright red zit sticker on your face -- because nothing is more embarrassing to pre-teens and teens than acne! Except for those zit stickers, everything in the game was pink, and the questions and challenges were nearly all about presumably male "crushes", presenting heterosexual romance as the only option for pubescent girls.

The worst part about this game, though, was that the object was to collect fortune cards, each representing what the game implicitly dubbed the four most important ares of girls' futures: Career, Marriage, Children, and Special Moments. And I may not be remembering this correctly, but I'm pretty sure they were specifically presented in that order -- as if careers are only the time-killers while women wait for their real purpose in life: marriage and motherhood. And my friends and I ate it up. Everyone knew that the career cards were the most boring, and we anticipated reading the cards that told us what type of weddings we might have, what our husbands would be like, and how many kids we would have and what we would name them.

In later years, they developed another version of this game that came with a beeping plastic cell phone, and currently, there's a Hannah Montana version on the market. I don't know if the content of these games is any more progressive, but I think the general message -- that girls (and girls only) like to bond with their friends through telling secrets and dreaming about their futures -- is still intact. What is troublesome is how these board may limit girls' futures by painting such a narrow picture of what is truly possible.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

My Antifeminist Childhood: Streetfighter II Edition

As a young Nintendo freak, I played my fair share of Street Fighter II on SNES, and my favorite character was Chun-Li:

Why write about Chun-Li in a post about antifeminism? Well, aside from being the only female character to choose from in this game (Cammy wasn't introduced until Super Street Fighter, which I never owned), she wore a cute little dress and had little to no upper body strength compared with the other fighters. While her kicking proficiency was unmatched by any other player, the game-creators just had to make her jump up and down and giggle when she won rounds. I always totally hated that. I didn't know the word "infantilizing" as a kid, but I had enough of an awareness of how women aren't taken seriously to be incredibly annoyed every time my favorite character transformed from super bad-ass to giggly schoolgirl at the end of a match. Even more infuriating was how every time I would play against my older brother, one of his friends, or one of my male cousins and totally kick his ass playing as Chun-Li, my win was immediately diminished when they decided to make fun of her "girly" jumping and laughing.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

My Antifeminist Childhood: Swiss Family Robinson Edition

For me, gaining a feminist consciousness has been accompanied by a process of reconciling the now-painfully-obvious sexism in the movies, TV shows, games, and whatnot I grew up enjoying. There are enough of these things that I decided to start a new series: "My Antifeminist Childhood".

I re-watched the 1960 Disney film Swiss Family Robinson over the weekend, and I was reminded of all its not-so-subtle messages about gender. As a little girl, this movie taught me that men and boys are capable of anything. That they are strong, fearless, adventurous, and resourceful, and that women are useful here and there but need lots of gentle treatment and extra help.

First, the men of the family build and then reveal their elaborate tree house to their wife/mother, all the while driving home the point that she is afraid of wild animals, climbing things and being up high. She, of course, is especially excited about her new kitchen:

Then, Fritz and Ernst sail around the island and end up rescuing a "cabin boy" from a bunch of pirates. They treat him roughly and remark to each other how soft and "sissy" he seems, and when they discover that he is actually a girl in disguise, they turn on the chivalry and begin competing for her attention.

Naturally, this girl (Roberta) is completely incapable of getting along without the boys' constant help and attention, and when Fritz is attacked by a giant snake in the swamp, she can only clutch a tree and scream instead of help out.

I get that it was made in pre-Second Wave 1960, but I grew up watching it over and over in the 80s, and there's no way it didn't have some sort of effect on my ideas about gender roles. I suppose if I had really wanted to, I could have tried to identify with one of the adventurous boys in the film, but instead (like most little girls watching movies with no strong female characters), I used to try to figure out which one I had the bigger crush on (definitely Ernst, by the way).

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Depends: Women can't merge into traffic, so they need different undergarments.

One of those Depends commercials I was talking about has finally shown up on YouTube:

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Depends: "Men and Women are Different"

I so wish I could find these ridiculous commercials on YouTube so I could share them here, but according to Depends, "men and women are different", and they therefore need different protective undergarments for their issues with incontinence. And not just because their genitals cause their streams of urine to aim in different directions, but because they think differently, drive differently, etc. Ummm, yeah.

And just when you thought it couldn't get any dumber, we see proof on their website that men and women think differently. An inkblot test!


Just wow.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Monsters vs Aliens: Beieve it or not, it's a feminist film.


A few months back, Dan and I saw this trailer for the Dreamworks animated film Monsters vs Aliens:

Since I'm always complaining about the dearth of female characters in animated films, Dan leaned over to me during this trailer and whispered, "female protagonist!", but I have to admit that while I was intrigued by the idea of a female character who literally takes up space, I was highly skeptical of this skinny blonde bride who is grossed out by bugs and monsters, fumbling, and completely uninterested in being a hero.

We saw it tonight, and, believe it or not, it's a feminist film.

(From this point on, this post contains spoilers.)

It's not completely without its problems, but I was totally impressed to watch an animated film with a female hero who discovers for herself that she has no interest in living in a man's shadow and that she can do amazing things on her own.

First, the problems:

-Even though she is the main character, Susan is still the token girl in the film. The funny ensemble of monsters is, of course, all male, and even the love interest of one of the male monsters is played by an inanimate Jell-o mold.

-The treatment of female screams in the movie is totally problematic. First, a random woman in a room full of men is shown screaming at the top of her lungs at the sight of a series of photographs of monsters. After she is kicked out of the room by a hypermasculine, militarized character, we hear the scream again at the sight of the next monster, and it is revealed that the scream came from the (male) president of the United States. While this may seem funny at face value, it's actually a cheap laugh at the feminization of a male character -- a joke that only works in a culture that is dismissive of women. Later, after the monsters collectively save the world from impending doom, three women utter the same scream at the sight of one of the monsters, only to rush into his arms and cover him with kisses -- an annoying twist on the stereotype of the adoring fan-girl who is wildly attracted to the male hero.

-At one point, after Susan does most of the work in defeating an alien robot probe, one of the monsters makes fun of another monster for having been shown up by a girl. This type of comment is so run-of-the-mill in movies with strong female characters, but I hate how it always serves as a reminder that the female hero is the exception rather than the rule.

-After being captured by the aliens, Susan wakes up on the spaceship dressed in a new, skin-tight, spandex outfit. WTF?

These shortcomings aside, I loved this movie. Despite her original role as a bride and her initial fear of the creepy-crawly monsters, Susan is a totally kickass hero. She's giant with superhuman strength, and once she discovers her power, she does what any male superhero would do with it -- she uses it. She pursues adventure, fearlessly chases down bad guys, rescues civilians, saves her friends, and realizes that she doesn't need a man to take care of her. The whole time I was watching, I truly couldn't believe I was actually witnessing such positive, feminist messages in an animated film. I'm excited for every young girl who gets to see it, and I can't wait for writers to go see this and witness how female heroes are done successfully.

Go see it.