Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Rihanna's Man Down and the Intersection of Colorism, Racism, and Hypocrisy (from the archive)

I originally published this post last year.

Rihanna's latest music video, "Man Down," has opened some fascinating discussions. Parents and pastors have cried out against the video for what they see as graphic violence and a poor role model for young viewers.

The video starts with Rihanna playing a character who watches a crowded station, and then pulls out a gun and shoots a man. The man then falls, and a pool of blood forms beneath his head, as his face takes on a horrified expression. The crowd that was surrounding him takes off, acting panicked. The video then goes back to the day before and shows Rihanna's character prancing carefree through town. She kisses and hugs children and elderly neighbors and even flirts and teases young men who are holding guns. As the video unfolds, it becomes apparent that the character went to a club where she danced with several men at different times. When one of the men tried to go further than she wanted, she clearly shoved him away and shook her head. He then followed her outside and raped her. The rape is never shown explicitly. Instead, the scene cuts from him holding her against the wall, his hand over her mouth and her eyes fearful, to her falling to the ground, still clothed but dejected and traumatized. It's clear what's happened, and it's clear that she's only clothed still for the sake of viewers. Immediately following the rape, Rihanna runs home, where she pulls a gun out of a drawer - a gun that was apparently there all along, but which she didn't feel she needed before the attack.

Much has already been said about this video, but I want to reiterate and elaborate on a few key areas: colorism, race, and interrogating the lenses the tint our judgment.


As Renee pointed out on Womanist Musings, it's significant that the rapist is dark-skinned, while Rihanna is light-skinned (as is her ex-boyfriend/attacker, Chris Brown). When news broke of Chris Brown's assault on Rihanna, a surprising number of people held her responsible and said that she must have provoked him. While it's not unusual for others to blame victims for what happens to them (I can tell you first-hand all about that one, as can the vast majority of victims and survivors), many pointed to stereotypes of black women as assertive and loud as evidence that Rihanna was somehow responsible. Yet it was hard to imagine the same response coming if Rihanna had been a white woman dating a black man. OJ, anyone?
So yes, no matter what Rihanna and the director intended when they cast the video, there are repercussions from the racial and skin hue breakdown of the "Man Down" video. Rihanna is easily the lightest-skinned person in the video. Every other character is played by a darker-skinned actor, including the children and elderly neighbors who are there in the sunnier scenes that lead up to the rape. On the one hand, this inclusion of dark-skinned actors in a major music video is fantastic. Actors with African descent have a lot against them as far as the performing arts go, particularly if they have darker skin than Oprah, Beyonce, and Rihanna. So it was great that Rihanna produced an all-black-cast video, with a mostly-dark-skinned cast. Heaven knows there are plenty of all-white videos out there.

But, as bloggers and commenters have been pointing out, why did it take a video about being raped, for the cast to be dark-skinned? And while only one of the dark-skinned characters rapes Rihanna's character, many other characters appear to share responsibility. After Rihanna's character leaves the party, the rapist follows and asks another man where she went, who helpfully points him toward her. Granted, there's no evidence that the other man knows what's about to happen, but camera angles make it clear that the rapist attacks her just feet from a group of other dark-skinned black men. It's not clear whether they hear but ignore, or if the rapist covers her mouth before she can ask those men for help. Either way, those men have implied complicity in the crime because they enable it by pointing him toward her and not interfering.

On the other hand, not all dark-skinned men are portrayed negatively in this video. The scene I find most compelling is the scene on the beach where Rihanna appears to be apologizing to a group of young boys, who transition from playing on the beach, carefree, the day before Rihanna shoots a man, to staring at Rihanna with somber eyes after she shoots him. I'm reading into things here, of course, but it seems like she's apologizing for killing one of their own, while also facing the fact that a man who became a rapist was once an innocent child. The implication that one of these young boys could some day take on a similar role is... well, haunting.

Ultimately, I don't know how to react to the way the video represents color, but I wonder if on some level (whether conscious or subconscious), Rihanna and/or the director selected a dark-skinned cast in order to differentiate the fictional video from what Chris Brown did to her, and to make certain that audiences would sympathize with the rape victim. After all, if audiences are more likely to take the word of a rape victim who is paler than her attacker, then why wouldn't Rihanna play into the system? It would be a tragic but understandable response on Rihanna's part.


Ok, so I've already been talking about race as I've talked about colorism. But now I want to talk about the way race impacts our interpretations of violence. Remember Tim Wise's article from last year, "Imagine if the Tea Party Were Black"? As Tim Wise suggests, black Americans (or any Americans of color) who did and said what the Tea Partiers were doing and saying at the time would have appeared quite violent, to mainstream media and mainstream white culture. Many scoffed at Wise's article last year, but we all re-encountered the problem of latent racism when Michelle Obama invited rapper Common to the White House for a poetry slam. A few right-wing politicians and most of Fox News criticized Barrack Obama for allowing a "violent" man with "terrorist sympathies" into the White House, and many news stations quoted select lyrics out of context, to make it sound as if Common was promoting violence, in songs where he in fact was promoting the opposite - you just had to read the whole song to realize that the violent lyrics were an imitation of violent people, whom he was criticizing.

In fact, as I looked into Common's music, I was shocked by how mild and upbeat it was. Given the controversy, I assumed the lyrics would be mysogynistic at best. But no, that's not what I found. What I found was a man just a couple swears away from sounding like Will Smith. So, why do I think race factors into the way Common's critics panicked over his White House visit? Well, consider this video from Jon Stewart, where he compares how the same individuals who defended white politicians and white singers with quite violent lyrics, then tore apart Common for lyrics that were no more violent - perhaps even less so:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Tone Def Poetry Jam - Lyrics Controversy
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

2:20 through 3:30 is particularly telling. Essentially, Stewart says that Hannity's response to Common would be understandable, if he held other artists to similar standards. The show then cuts to a clip of Hannity saying that if Common had violent lyrics about Obama, he'd react in the same way. Followed by Stewart saying how amazing it would be if they had a clip to contradict Hannity, followed by a clip that contricts Hannity. In the clip, Hannity plays a clip (sorry for all the clips within clips confusion) of an artist who walks back and forth across the stage with two guns, exclaiming that Obama should stick the machine gun in his mouth and suck on it, and that Hilary Clinton should ride a machine gun into the sunset. Hannity then comments on the video by referring to the artist as "Friend and frequent guest on the program, Ted Nugent," who is "expressing his feelings toward President Obama and Secretary Clinton." Hannity then defends Nugent when a guest asks if he'll "disavow" Nugent. Clearly the rules are different for Nugent, where Hannity is concerned.

Of course, hypocrisy is nothing new, as far as human behavior goes. Hypocrisy is to be expected in human beings. And hypocrisy is much easier to see in others than in ourselves, which is why Democrats and Republicans alike love saying, "When Bush was in office, you said it was wrong to do X, but now that Obama's in office you're doing X." But I think we really need to step back and interrogate the lenses through which we interpret others' behavior.s

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Glee's Love Affair with White Boys (from the archives)

I originally published this post last summer.

Glee's Chris Colfer, with the show's creators, Brad Falchuck and Ryan Murphy. Murphy is a judge on  The Glee Project.  (Photo courtesy of vagueonthehow)

Maybe I'm a glutton for self-righteous but hypocritical pop shows, or maybe it's just my backwards penance for having once been a gleek. Whatever the cause, I've been following The Glee Project. I've never been a huge fan of reality TV, so I can't say much about the genre as a whole, but The Glee Project (let's just call it TGP from here on) has revealed a lot about what Glee thinks it's all about - and what it's really about.

If you aren't familiar with this show, here's the basic gist: 12 performers between the ages of 18 and 24 compete for a recurring role in season 3. Each week they sing and "act," ultimately creating a group music video. Based on their performance in the music video, the bottom three are selected, who then perform a "last chance" song, and one is sent home. Same reality schmuck you see everywhere else, right? Except TGP has the Glee legacy of thinking it's progressive and inclusive and multicultural. And like Glee, TGP is so wrapped up in its own image that it can't see the truth, which is that Glee and TGP are all about the white boys. 

Exhibit A: let's check out the initial demographics of the contestants. There were 12 contestants total in the first episode. Six women and six men. That's fair enough, right? But if we look at the race of the contestants, we find 8 white people and only 4 people of color. By the end of the fourth episode, only one person of color was left, compared to 7 remaining white performers. Of the first four eliminated, 3 were women and only 1 was a man. That one man, as you might expect, was a person of color. He was eliminated for suggesting an alternative move in the music video, a suggestion that he made politely and which improved the original direction they gave him. The three white judges who eliminated him thought he had a bad attitude.

When, in the fifth episode,  they finally eliminated a white man, it was a very short man whose hometown was in Brazil. After him, they eliminated a white girl, leaving the cast with four men and just two women. It's miraculous that Alex, the only person of color currently on the show, has made it this far. All these decisions are made by three white men.

If I were to sit down and talk with those three white men, they'd probably tell me I'm missing the big picture and that they choose whoever is most talented and the best fit for the show, regardless of race or gender. They'd probably point to the people of color (and white women) who feature prominently on the show. They'd probably remind me that two of the main characters on Glee are big women and that unlike any number of other shows, Glee actually shows big women in relationships with men who aren't big. They'd probably also remind me that Glee is progressive by developing relationships for homosexual characters. And then, when they said all that and I still insisted that the show is in love with white men, to the detriment of everyone else, then those three white men would probably shake their heads and walk away bewildered.

But here's the problem with Glee's attempts at including everyone: yes, on the surface, Glee and TGP do a hundred little things to suggest they're including everyone. But when you look at the key decisions that determine who gets camera time, character development, and storylines that are worthwhile - and who doesn't - when you look at those key issues, it's hard to ignore the sad truth. When it came to the initial performers TGP eliminated - the ones they saw so little promise in that they didn't want to wait and see more of those performers - they valued white men more than anyone else. And when it comes to characters with depth, characters whose parents are portrayed on Glee and who overcome real challenges in order to grow and learn as individuals - those characters are white men more than anyone else. Yes, some of them are gay and thus minorities in their own right, but they're white men all the same.

Awhile ago I was talking with a friend about how it bothered me that I'd read so little African American lit in my time as a college undergrad. She said, "Well, I don't care who wrote a book. I just care whether it's good or not." But the point she was missing - and which so many of us who are privileged by race, gender, and/or socioeconomics miss - is that what we perceive as "good" is always tinted by subjective lenses. Her high school teachers only assigned one or two books by black people, so how did she have the chance to determine whether she liked black authors?

And the same principle applies with The Glee Project and its parent show. If the three white men who eliminate contestants on TGP don't know how to relate to people who aren't like them, how can they truly determine whether a woman of color is giving a moving performance? A panel of truly representative judges probably would have selected an entirely different cast.

Friday, July 27, 2012

A commentary on sexualized violence as a "women's issue"

There's a lot floating around in popular discourse at the moment about American comedian Daniel Tosh and the rape-joke fiasco that left several people feeling victimized and a hell of a lot more people outraged, confused, and defiant for various reasons. I won't rehash it now- just Google Tosh's name and "rape joke scandal" and I'm sure you'll find a summary. Suffice to say Tosh acted like a moron, his audience members did the same, and now Americans find themselves arguing round and round about comedy, free speech, and anti-oppression. An excellent HuffPo piece- the one that's inspiring this article today- breaks down the basics of the conversation for us: it doesn't matter who made the joke; the fact that people find the idea of using sexualized violence to exert control over a portion of the population funny is the real problem. For the most part, I agree.

My challenge to Soraya Chemaly, the author of said piece, is that the article takes an incredibly gendered view of what constitutes sexual assault as a social problem. To quote, "in the time it took me to write this paragraph another woman was raped, as one in five women (and countless children of both genders) will be in their lifetimes in [the U.S.]." Conflation of sex and gender- and adult women with children-aside, I see Chemaly make no reference to the countless men, genderqueer, and trans people who will be targeted for sexualized violence in their lifetimes. No reference to the socially-accepted pecking order of rape and sexual assault in prisons. No discussion of how sexualized violence is used as a means of oppression whenever someone wants to use physical force not only to subdue, but to shame, humiliate, and psychologically break someone else.

This is not to deny the fact that sexualized violence is often used to maintain social structures that are patriarchal at their cores. Across countries with predominately Christian backgrounds, for example, discourse about male and female sexualities is often predicated on the idea that male sexuality is boundless, whereas female sexuality (and, thus, female social roles) can be categorized as either virgin or prostitute. These same countries, developing cultures beyond religious constraints, create a gender mould for women that asks them- us- to toe the line between these same roles. We should be sexually available but not overly so, at the whims and wishes of the men in our lives, otherwise we're "asking for it." Remember that old line? Still gets used today, unfortunately. And in many countries, sexual assault statistics do indicate that the majority of reported sexual assaults involve cis men targeting cis women.

Here's the problem, though. The global discourse around sexualized violence has slowly established the baseline that sexual assault is about power and control, not arousal, demand, or poor decisionmaking skills on the part of the victims. Worldwide, we see that reflected in the people who come forward and whose stories don't reflect the male-assaulting-female stereotype; often, these people belong to social groups that are devalued, outcast, treated as property, or are otherwise denied their full personhood. That the majority are cis women points more to the social acceptance of women as victims than of anything else. It's already so difficult to report a sexual assault; imagine going through that process knowing that you will be ridiculed, ignored, and/or threatened. When we continue to report sexualized violence as solely a male-on-female phenomenon, we not only contribute to the denial of the experiences of all other victims, but we also perpetuate the archaic belief that sexualized violence is about sex. After all, if it's not about sex, then it doesn't matter the sexes or genders of the offenders and their victims; the power exerted by the violence is what counts.

As a global community, we have a lot of work to do to end the ways we legitimize sexualized violence. We campaign against rape but laugh at lines like this one; we open advocacy agencies but don't staff them with sexually and gender-wise diverse people; we talk about sexual assault as though it's a "women's issue;" we ignore victims of prison rape because they're incarcerated and thus somehow "deserve" it. Even when we do lip service to the fact that sexualized violence is perpetrated against people from all walks of life and that it isn't okay, we continue to use gendered pronouns to refer to hypothetical victims and plan our community responses. Again, this does not minimize the fact that cis women are so often victimized in this manner. A significant percentage of the world's cultures are patriarchal and, thus, females and women are disproportionately targeted as part of maintaining those power structures. But if those particular power inequalities vanished today, we would continue to see sexualized violence being used as a tool of oppression- we would just see a new group of people represent the majority of its victims.

There is no one-size-fits-all easy-peasy solution to sexualized violence, and the sad truth is that it has been used for the majority of human history. Humans find power gratifying and some of us, either through our own victimization or through a quirk of our brain chemistry, see sexualized behaviour as an ideal mode for expressing that. Even if most of us don't engage directly in victimization, we do indirectly by laughing when sexualized violence is used to control, intimidate, or punish someone who breaks the status quo for better or worse (again: prison rape jokes are much less controversial than they ought to be). Part of our jobs, as movers and shakers, is to recognize that sometimes we need to challenge socially-accepted discourses about phenomena- including challenging the second-wave feminist notion that sexualized violence is a women's issue. It's not. It's a human issue that affects everyone on the planet, regardless of age, sex and gender identities, country of origin, and belief structure. Until we change the way we think, and until we can truly tackle sexualized violence from the perspective of power and control, we'll only solve the problem for a handful of its victims.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Brave: A Feminist Princess in Disney's Most Traditional Family

Dear Readers, if you've been following the blog for the past couple years, you may have noticed that each and every year we hit a blogging drought in late summer. Each year we follow said drought with promises to never let you down again, but when the next year comes around, our promises turn out to be for naught.

Which is my long-winded way of saying that I meant to write this review a month ago, when I saw Brave on opening day. But hey, the plus of waiting all this time is that I can fill this review with spoilers, right? (Don't worry, I'll give additional warning before any major spoilers).

By now, it's probably old news that some have seen Brave's lack of a happily wedded after ending as cause for alarm. Because, as Stephen Colbert put it, any fifteen-year-old girl who objects to an arranged marriage must be a lesbian. Discussions of whether Disney should have lesbian princesses aside (I see a question of the week here!), such assumptions just reinforce the stereotype that all feminists (as Merida could easily be classified) are lesbians - after all, no woman who wants a man would object to sexism! But the utter lack of evidence that Merida is romantically interested in anyone should pause those discussions until Pixar puts together a sequel.

So no, I'm not interested in debating Merida's sexual orientation. What I want to talk about is how shockingly traditional the film is for a Disney movie. "But Emily!" you may be thinking, "Merida doesn't get married, she does archery, she rides a horse around." But despite all that, Merida has the most traditional nucleic family of any Disney princess that I can think of. She's got a burly hunter of a father, a mother who does domestic things and keeps everyone in order through her grace, and she's got three stereotypically-mischievous (if delightful) little brothers.

But that traditional family is really quite progressive, coming from Disney. Heck, the very fact that she has a mother at all is progressive, never mind that she's got two living parents who are married, in love, and invested in her life. Don't believe me? Let's run through other Disney princesses.

Snow White: has an evil stepmother, no living parent. In contrast, the original fairy tale at least starts with her parents alive.

Cinderella: has an evil stepmother, a father who dies while she's young, and a dead mother. In contrast, the mother returns in traditional retellings, in the form of a tree that gives her the dress and shoes.

Sleeping Beauty: Aurora is raised away from her parents, by three fairies. The father gets screen time, but I can't even remember the mother.

Belle: Has an absent-minded father who gets her into trouble, though at least the dead mother fits with the original story.

Pocahontas: Has a present father who is a powerful figure, but her mother is dead.

Jasmine: Has a father, but no mother. *Noticing a trend?

And I could go on and on, but I'm sure you'd all get bored. My point is just that for a Disney princess, having a mother is a rare luxury. Frankly, I think The Princess and the Frog had the most prominent role of a biological mother out of any movie before Brave.

So, with that background in Disney movies, imagine my shock when the entire plot of Brave turned out to focus on Merida's relationship with her mother. There were plenty of plot twists I could predict from the trailers, such as the lack of a love story or (spoilers!) the brothers turning into bears. And then there were elements I wasn't expecting, like the prevalence of naked Scotsman butts. But the last thing I expected, going in, was for the plot to focus on repairing things between Merida and her mother.

And the very solution they found was quite moderate. It wasn't a matter of Merida giving in and doing exactly what her parents said, anymore than it was a matter of her parents backing off and letting her do whatever she wants. After all, royalty have obligations. Instead, there are clear, symbolic gestures that spell our the importance of compromise and communication. (Spoilers) Merida has to sew, and her mother learns to fight, allowing them to understand each other better. (Big Spoilers!) And her mother even agrees to change tradition so that Merida doesn't have to choose a husband.

And none of this is shocking or even ground-breaking on its own. The shocking part of all this is that it's taken 75 years for Disney to produce a princess movie that portrayed a nucleic family.

Take that fact as you will.

* If I'm forgetting about some disney princess whose mother is a major part of the film, feel free to remind me in the comments.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

A Feminist Review: The Dark Knight Rises

***The whole thing is pretty much a spoiler.

So I’m writing this movie review with a lot of spoilers, because well, according to my facebook newsfeed, everyone’s already seen it. But even if you have seen it already, you’re probably desperately longing for my insightful commentary of the film; I mean, how else will you know what to think of it?

No one here is going to deny that Christopher Nolan has managed to take the superhero movie to a whole other level: the characters have far more complexity, a hell of a lot less campy lines, and a darker, grittier setting than the more upbeat Marvel comics. Even the fight scenes in this Batman film had a visceral heaviness to them, with each punch sounding so thick and weighty, you could just feel the epic-ness pounding you from the screen.

My praise for Nolan as a filmmaker however comes mostly from his dealings with evil. Most directors have laughable Lokis (The Avengers) and shapeless Sinestros (The Green Lantern) whose overwrought motivations and plans for world domination just get more tiresome with every rendition. The genius behind Nolan's villians is in how he makes them insidious by how fascinating we find them, exploring that ever-present possibility of the darker side of humanity is so psychologically interesting that we can’t turn away.  For example, Heath Ledger’s Joker was infamously brilliant and is, I think, the best superhero villian, given that his motivation was just “wanting to watch the world burn,” and it felt so...seductive. 

In a similar vein, Bane was inscrutable and intense; it wasn’t about some in-your-face world domination or strawman plot of blowing up the moon. Bane’s motivations are completely hidden until the last ten minutes of the movie. And that’s the draw. That’s why we keep watching. And in the last few minutes, when we learn that motivation, it was so simple, so seemingly counter to his character, that you couldn’t help but pity him. That motivation was of course love, and it was humanizing, equalizing even.

I feel a little bad bringing up the human fascination with darkness and villains in the aftermath of the tragic shootings in Aurora, Colorado, but as with anything, it has become a media event, one where we desperately want to know the motivation of the killer. As humans we seek that casualty in those we consider perverted and ill in an attempt to validate our own humanity. 

Besides the characters, the plot eerily parallels the current economic climate in the United States, looking basically like the occupy movement on crack. The class warfare depicted in the film, with it’s disturbing scenes of makeshift courts to punish the wealthy, French Revolution style executions, brought home the problematic images of what happens when poverty reaches it’s breaking point. Even the scene of Bane breaking into Wall Street (which felt evocative of Rage Against the Machines, “Sleep Now in the Fire”video) was a reminder of our economic vulnerabilities in the West.

Ironically enough though, the movie seemed almost an affirmation of class status quo, since these revolutionaries were the bad guys, and the billionaire (granted now broke billionaire) was the one who had to save the day and reassert order. On the one hand, at the end, there were scenes of the orphan boys heading off to stay in mansions and the bravery of the policemen, working class heroes if you will.  However, I felt that the film had a lot of potential to address economic disparity, but didn’t seem to come to any new resolution, just reasserted whatever economic platforms existed in the first place.

In terms of its feminism, it was pretty low. Marion Cotillard was Miranda Tate, the reserved, but stalwart, intellectual. Her character felt a bit stock to me: reserved do-gooder female seeks financial backing from billionaire do-gooder for her latest project and then falls in love with him (though I did love Nolan’s use of a slightly older, more interesting actress, instead of the standard young, perky brunette). However, of course, she shifts in the end, revealing her own complexities; her backstory was vastly more entertaining once I realized how gender ambiguous it was.

The other female character was Anne Hathaway as the always seductive, but startlingly normal, Catwoman; she’s a little more relatable than other renditions of the character, despite still wearing a black spandex bodysuit most of the time. This Catwoman, just like all the others, is always bad ass, though of course it must be in four-inch spiked heels. I’d normally talk it about it, but what can I say that hasn’t been said before? Female action heroes are still accessed mainly as an object of sexuality, even if you can probably look past the Catwoman character a little bit more, (though mostly because she is supposed to act like a feline, which are famously sinuous and flexible creatures).

For the most part I considered Hathway’s acting to be just her usual repertoire, except for one scene, which held probably the best acting I’ve ever seen from her. There is a moment of shift, when she goes from being a warm-blooded killer (cats are mammals friends, can’t say “cold-blooded” here in the interest of accuracy) to a terrified screaming witness at a shoot out, begging for help, back to being a killer. I thought it was a rather telling scene, since it embodies the two reactions you see for female characters in that situation. Either they are participating in and enjoying the killing, or they’re so completely terrified that they just scream.

These are the only two female characters with any lines, and they certainly never speak with other females (failing the Bechdel test), however besides it’s lack of female characters, the film was excellent. It had its campy moments, but I felt that on the whole, those were rare. Christian Bale was sufficiently gaunt for a struggling superhero and a lonely billionaire, and Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman were pillars of wisdom and fatherly concern.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Speaking of Female Modesty

With this year's heat wave still going strong, the subject of female modesty (and the need for women to cover up, lest the already-sizzling minds of men explode) has been making the rounds again, with a rather offensive facebook meme, for starters. Well, Zelophehad's Daughters has responded by discussing how we should consider both the implicit and explicit meanings of said meme.

Meanwhile, Patheos has an article on "The Modesty Doctrine," which the author identifies as a belief, specifically within Evangelical Christianity, "that women need to cover their bodies to prevent men from being attracted to them, because sexual attraction leads to sin and death for both." In the past, she has written about how this belief hurts women, but in this article she details how the belief hurts men too and suggests an alternative approach: teaching all youth that it's not wrong to feel attracted to other people and that the key is to control their actions.

We have a good number of LDS readers, so I'd like to point out that while, on a doctrinal level, the LDS Church seems to fall in line with her advice, on a cultural level I fear we too often veer toward what she refers to as "The Modesty Doctrine," leaving some young men under the peculiar belief that they are incapable of being spiritual if they so much as glimpse a woman in a bikini.


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Religion: A Stable Force for a Traveling Girl

I wrote this post a week ago, before moving.
In just a few days, I will leave Provo, Utah, a town where I have lived for eight years now.  A number of people have told me that I’m adventurous and that they’d never be so comfortable traveling to new states for academic conferences, or moving across the country for a PhD program. But the truth is that I’m mostly a homebody, so moving is overwhelming.
When I moved to Utah, it was my first time living outside of New Hampshire, and I came here with an older sister. She wasn’t my only support: one of my cousins was here at the time, as well as several other friends from New Hampshire. Not only do I have no family in Athens, Georgia — I have no family in the entire state. I have no family in the South. For a multi-generation New England girl, who grew up with two sets of cousins as her closest neighbors, that’s a strange feeling.
Of course, other aspects of leaving feel strange. Over the last two months Utah’s dry climate has declared war on my sinuses, so I can’t deny that I’m a bit anxious to get away. At the same time, the landscape is suddenly very dear to me. The mountains for once seem lovely, and when I step outside at sunset, I’m shocked by the beauty. When I spend time with the many people I’ll miss, I’ve found myself counting down the months, then weeks, then days I have left with them – as I simultaneously struggle not to count down.
A Mormon temple in Atlanta, Georgia. For Mormons across the world, temples represent a haven from the trials of life.
Moving leaves me anxious — much more anxious than I like to admit. But moving is also making me aware that my religion is one of the biggest forces allowing me to pick up and go. That statement might sound contradictory – religion can be a grounding force, and it often goes hand in hand with settling down and staying in one place. But it’s that very grounding element that allows me to wander into a strange place, as a relatively cautious single woman, and not panic.
When I visited the campus where I’ll be starting a PhD program, a Mormon acquaintance let me stay with her. She took me on a tour of campus and brought me to her own Mormon congregation, where everyone welcomed me and even encouraged me to join them at the University of Georgia.
But the support doesn’t stop there. A woman in my mother’s Mormon congregation recently moved to New Hampshire from Athens, Georgia. When my mother told her that I was going to Athens, this woman passed along her cell phone number so I could call her for help contacting other people in the area. She provided me with numbers of local leaders and helped me figure out which congregation I would be attending (Mormons attend the congregation that is assigned to us based on where we live).
As a Mormon feminist in Georgia, I will probably inhabit a strange but fascinating space. My cohort is likely to include a lot of liberal people, since that’s often the case with grad students in creative writing, and my Mormon congregation is likely to include a lot of conservative people. My students are likely to be conservative too, but perhaps without acknowledging my faith as more than a cult. Given Mitt Romney’s place in the upcoming presidential election, the rhetoric will be nothing short of fascinating. Especially if/when people find out that I’m a Mormon woman who intends to vote for Obama.
But even though my faith will provide part of that strange and contradictory place, it will also bring me a sense of stability and family. Not only will I find support from members and from my personal relationship with God — I’ll also find a place of peace when I go to the Mormon temple in Atlanta. Unlike Mormon chapels, where we meet for Sunday services, Sunday School, and other meetings and activities throughout the week, temples are set apart as very special and sacred places.
So yes, moving overwhelms me, and it makes me nervous. But even if I sometimes feel like I’m in a place as unfamiliar as the moon, the temple will always provide a haven and a sense of consistency in my life.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

A Feminist Review: The Amazing Spiderman

**Spoiler Alert

Poor Tobey Maguire: it’s been barely ten years and already he’s been replaced by an inevitably younger and hipper (is that a word?) star, Andrew Garfield. It’s seems not that long ago that I was in high school, geeking out over how great the new Spiderman movie was (though admittedly, last time I saw that version, I was all, “Meh”); and perhaps I should also add that I do share some affinity for the earlier version because when my hair was longer and redder, I was told at least once a week that I looked like Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) from Spiderman—A fact that I’m not sure I always took as a compliment.

So what did I think of the new one and how did it compare to the old one? Since this is a feminist review, let’s start with Emma Stone’s character, Gwen, first. I liked her. Much more than the Kirsten Dunst character. Gwen is incredibly smart, ambitious, with a quirky sense of humor that creates a more likeable and human character. She also has a bit more spunk and plays a greater role in the rescue of New York City (which faces yet another evil mutant monster attack).

She was also a very self-aware character: I liked her self-confidence and her realizations about what having a superhero boyfriend would mean. The chemistry between the two characters was pretty good (except for the first kiss scene, which was about as cheesy as they come) and I liked the equality in their relationship; even though Spiderman can crawl on walls, his girlfriend doesn’t feel the need to take any crap, or let herself become a glorified, screaming backdrop to his adventures.

However, the film is no paragon of feminist filmmaking, the presence of female characters is still pretty negligible, since only Emma Stone and Sally Field (as the loving Aunt May), actually have any real lines and they never talk to each other (epic fail on the Bechdel test). Though I suppose that Emma Stone’s character still has more complexity and personality than Dunst’s tepid Mary Jane, so at least there is progress on that field.

Spiderman himself as a character was quirky and a bit twitchy, and the director (Marc Webb) really spent a lot of time on the development of the story. In fact, the first hour and a half of this two-hour movie was spent mostly on Parker discovering his past, gaining his “powers” and then a substantial time spent on his revenge seeking and the emotional effects of his Uncle’s death. The story development in this version was much more substantial, and I thought did a much better job of showcasing the guilt and anger that often comes from the loss of a close family member; in this way, the director did a great job in really bringing out Spiderman’s youth and some of the troubles of teen life, instead of catapulting him into a college-aged punk.

However, I have to say that the cheesy, quippy lines that Spiderman kept throwing out as he strung through the street of New York City, were unnecessary and more than a little annoying.


There was an unexpected moment that I did really enjoy when all of the crane operators in the city decided to help Spiderman by lowering various cranes and wrecking balls over the streets, to act as anchors for his spider web thing.  If often seems to me that superhero characters and action stars must always save the day alone, they don’t need any help; however this was a good example of everyone rising to help out and a nice nod to working men heroes and the bravery and courage that anyone can possess (though why the helicopter that was following him and cheering him on didn’t just offer him a ride, is a plot hole of monumental proportions).

Overall though, the movie was standard, superhero fare, enjoyable enough, but certainly not groundbreaking.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Aladdin: A Feminist Film Review (Guest Post)

This is a guest review by Lia Gallitano, which was originally published on Bitch Flicks.

This movie is about a princess and a “street rat” who fall in love and must overcome the evil Jafar to get married. This movie is also about generalizing non-Western cultures (mainly Middle Eastern cultures) and perpetuating cartoonish stereotypes of Arabic peoples. As an added bonus, this movie masquerades as a girl power film when in fact, it enforces the traditional gender role of men as active/women as passive. 

The first time I saw this children’s movie was over this past summer, when I was the assistant director of a summer production of the musical Disney’s Aladdin. I was the only person involved in the production that had not seen Aladdin when I was a child. Every single one of the children (almost entirely girls, ages 9-12 with one 7 year old) came in with ideas of what the show would look like, because they had all seen the movie and they knew every single song. Because they knew the music, we had more time to work on choreography. For a marketplace scene, I asked the kids to strike a pose to freeze in during dialogue. I was looking for marketplace-y poses: two people talking, maybe gesturing to another person, walking poses, etc. They immediately put their arms up with their palms together so that their arms framed their face and their necks were moved to one side (a pose associated with “Arabia” in pop-culture). They all wanted to do their hair in the “I Dream of Jeannie” hairdo, because it was “so Arabian”. I wondered, where did they get such a stereotypical view of the Middle East? And then I saw the movie and all of those questions were answered. 

My director thought that this was a girl power movie. Look! At the end, the Sultan declares that Jasmine can marry whomever she chooses, when she chooses! And she rejects all of those suitors because she’s “not a prize to be won”! Girl power yeah! No. This movie is producing yet another hetero-romantic story where women sit there and men pursue them. She was na├»ve before Aladdin shows her a “whole new world”—she is the passive learner while he is the active teacher. How does she help with the defeat of Jafar? She kisses him—using her body to be attractive to men—the rest of the time she just kind of stands there while Aladdin fights Jafar. Again, she stands there lookin’ sexy and being passive, he fights actively. Even their body stance around each other assumes a dominant/submissive look—Aladdin’s body is tall and upright, Jasmine is leaning into him or sitting behind him or being held in his arms. He is also physically larger, aside from her hair (her ponytail is thicker than her waist), she is extremely thin and takes up very little space when compared to Aladdin’s broad shoulders and muscular body. And of course, what other characters in this movie are women? Oh that’s right, they are all men. Because women can only be in stories to be the object of men’s affections, not to fill other roles. There are some background women in the dance scenes, but those are the “harem girls” and other sexualized women (because foreign=exotic and sexy!)

Essentially, all of the women are defined by their attractiveness to men. “Ugly” women, then, are used as comic relief. In one of the first scenes, when a woman opens the door and says of Aladdin, “Still I think he’s rather tasty!”, everybody in the audience is supposed to laugh. Aladdin looks at the woman (who is quite large) and jumps in surprise and disgust. Oh, silly fat woman, you can’t have feelings because you’re ugly! We’re supposed to laugh at how ridiculous her thinking Aladdin is “tasty” is—because fat women and ugly women are not supposed to have sexual desires. Only when the sexy women do this is it okay—nobody is laughing at Jasmine’s proclamations of love for Aladdin, because it doesn’t seem ridiculous now. Aladdin is attractive, she is attractive, so they can be in love. 

So doing this story where every single role had to be filled by a girl made this an interesting production. Some girls told us they didn’t want to be a male character. Some girls who were cast into men’s roles started acting like men—they lowered their voices and changed their body language to reflect a stereotypical man. Some girls who were cast into men’s roles adopted them to be women’s roles—the girl playing Jafar, for example, had no issue with being a female Jafar. The girl who played Aladdin, the title character, made it clear that she was acting like a man—I, personally, thought that it would have been fine for her to be a female Aladdin (but the lesbian love story was not an idea that they particularly were comfortable with, which is interesting given how comfortable they were with heterosexual love stories). 

In fact, I think it would have made the movie better if Aladdin was a girl (and if all the racism was taken out). Suddenly, “A Whole New World” takes on a whole new meaning—but these movies with antiquated gender roles would not have been as widely accepted into culture if the relationship it portrayed was queer. 

When watching this movie, it’s hard to not get depressed about the fact that this is what little girls are told to aspire to. Watch something else instead. 


Lia is a First-Year at Wellesley College who doesn’t know what to major in yet. When she’s not studying, she enjoys watching movies, reading feminist blogs, and singing.