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

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Subverting the Script

I babysat for my 19-month-old nephew over the weekend, and I learned that one of his favorite toys at the moment is an adorable "Finger Puppet Theater" featuring a fold-out, castle-shaped stage made of felt and a collection of "medieval"-themed felt finger puppets. Among these characters are a knight in armor, a dragon, a wizard in a purple gown and pointy hat, and the only female character is, of course, a yellow-haired princess in a pink dress.

The kid has just entered the cutest phase where he'll climb into your lap, act fascinated, and actually sit still long enough for you to tell a couple of stories with the puppets. So, when he did this with me, I suddenly felt like the pressure was on for me to stretch my feminist muscles with some non-heteronormative feminist puppet tales.

The sad thing about this is that when all you have to work with is a knight in shining armor and a princess in a pink dress, it's actually really hard to subvert the traditional "princess is stuck in the castle tower and needs to be rescued by the knight" cliche. Because when you start to make the puppets "perform" for a little kid, it feels so natural to slip into using an over-exaggerated, super-high and weak-sounding voice for the princess and an over-exaggerated, super-low and heroic-sounding voice for the knight, which would make it so easy to lead right into repeating the same old story.

I resisted the bothersome urge to follow that sexist script, but I have to admit that the stories I did tell felt super forced. I had no idea what sorts of voices to use for the characters, since their appearances seemed to suggest what their voices should sound like. After having the princess teach new spells to the bumbling wizard and tame the dragon and rescue the prince, I just felt tired and welcomed the opportunity to switch to playing with choo-choo trains.

It just made me sad, because I know that as he grows, he's going to hear and watch and read hundreds of stories, and he's going to learn all of these sexist tropes that are lurking everywhere, and if his feminist aunt who has a master's degree in women's studies has trouble improvising a few gender-role-subverting stories, what hope do we have of ever thwarting patriarchy?

Friday, September 17, 2010

How is Gender at Work?

As you've probably figured out, it's hard for me to consume visual media without thinking about the ways in which gender is at work in what I'm seeing.

For example, yesterday, I watched an episode of Hoarders that followed the separate stories of a woman (Robin) and a man (Ken) with terrible hoarding problems that made their homes completely unlivable. The interesting difference between the two stories was that while Robin was facing the possibility that her home might be condemned and demolished, Ken was being threatened with six months of jail time as a consequence for the condition of his property.

Now, it's not like their situations were identical except for their gender. I wondered if maybe Ken faced incarceration because his yard was incredibly littered with junk, whereas Robin's problem was contained indoors, and one was just more visible and therefore violated more city ordinances or whatever, but I still couldn't shake the feeling that gender mattered in how these two cases were handled.

Whether or not that's true in this specific scenario, we do live in a culture that is quick to punish men through the criminal system and more reluctant to slap women with the same charges. (I should note that this is especially true of white women, and that women of color are often not afforded the luxury of appearing too "fragile" for prison.) In many situations, we assume men are acting rationally and therefore deserve punishment for their actions, and we are quicker to assume that women are mentally ill and in need of social services.

I'm not saying that we should be quicker to send women to jail or that we should stop punishing men who commit crimes, but it's important for us to think about how gender stereotypes act subtly on our social consciousness, affect our actions and reactions to people and events, and result in myriad inequalities.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Axe Tells Men to Clean Their Balls

I refuse to give Axe any accolades whatsoever, but I can't say I'm not amused to finally see an ad campaign implying that men could use a little hygiene of their own "down there".

Now, don't get me wrong. This ad isn't sexism-free, what with the message that men should clean their junk so hot women will want to play with it, but the general absence of male hygiene ads contrasted with the sheer volume of such ads for women has helped to enforce the cultural notion that women are dirty and men don't really have to try.

Still, one funny "wash your balls" ad will never outweigh the decades of nauseating "freshness" messages we've endured.

Vintage Ad of the Day

I'm too creeped out by this to comment.


Monday, September 13, 2010

Boobs Drive Technology


Of COURSE the world's first 3D billboard would have to be for Wonder Bra.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Beauty and the Doofus

Last summer, when I was making my way through every episode of 90210, I posted about some stereotype-breaking, gender-flipped scenarios I'd love to see on television.

The other night, Dan and I watched Anchorman, and not only was it way less funny to me than it was six years ago, but it got me thinking about how annoyingly common this premise is in comedy:

Absolutely ridiculous, unattractive and/or unintelligent male protagonist actively and creepily pursues and/or sexually harasses a beautiful (but not funny), intelligent female love interest. She is either immediately or eventually (and often without explanation) won over by him and falls deeply and madly in love. They work together to resolve some sort of plot conflict. He remains comically strange and unattractive. She remains beautiful. They live happily ever after. The end.

(See Wayne's World, Austin Powers, Anchorman, Zoolander, Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, and a million others.)

Just ONCE, I'd like to see the gender roles reversed. Can you think of any film at all where a super-quirky, not necessarily beautiful female lead lands a strikingly handsome guy with little to no personality? The only examples I can think of that come close are the ones where the female character is a robot, alien, mannequin, or mermaid, and she is quirky by virtue of her non-humanness. However, in these movies she is still incredibly beautiful, and the story is still told from the point of view of the male character who falls in love with her.

It's just nauseating sometimes.

(See here for an example of a similar conundrum.)

Friday, September 10, 2010

More Options or Dangerous Double Standard?

My Women's Studies students always wanted to conclude that the fact that women are culturally freer to enjoy more "masculine" things (like sports, beer, and action movies) than men are to enjoy "feminine" things (like knitting, Twilight, and Lean Cuisine) means simply that women are advantaged and have more opportunities available to them. They didn't stop to think that perhaps things associated with women and femininity are so devalued that men are socially encouraged to avoid them at all costs, while activities associated with men are elevated such that it makes women seem "cooler" when they engage in them.

A good example of this is the ability of male comedians to get laughs by pretending to really like "feminine" things. I was reminded of this when watching a Daily Show episode from a couple weeks ago where Lewis Black expresses his disappointment in the film adaptation of Eat, Pray, Love for its inability to live up to the profound spirituality of the book and has the audience rolling with laughter at the notion that this heterosexual man would actually have any interest whatsoever in this feminine cultural phenomenon. (The video won't embed, but you can watch the segment here.)

Can you even imagine this scenario with the genders reversed? A female comedian waxing poetic about the latest Transformers movie with the audience laughing at the complete HILARITY at the idea that she might have enjoyed it? It would just come off as confusing.

Most women know from experience that showing off all the ways in which we like what "the boys" like can earn us a little bit of power, because it somehow gives us instant credibility if men know that we know all the rules in football or how to change a tire or whatnot. Growing up, I always felt like "one of the guys" for knowing my fair share about heavy metal music, video games, and Star Wars. I only regret that guys never expended nearly as much energy trying to impress me with their knowledge of anything "girly".