WAM!It Yourself Blogathon: The Case Against a Battle of the Sexes

Have you been keeping up with the WAM! (Women, Action, and the Media) It Yourself unconference this week?  Today is the last day of the Blogathon and we’re talking about various aspects of gender and the media.  My post for this event focuses on the idea of the “battle of the sexes” and why it presents such a barrier to feminism and gender activism in media.

I got this idea from watching the first few episodes of Celebrity Apprentice Season Four, an endeavor I do not necessarily recommend to my readers.  I started watching because my favorite actress, Marlee Matlin, is on the show, and of course it’s not too surprising that a show like this would piss me off with all its ableism and misogyny.  I do think it provides an interesting example, though, of one place where reality TV consistently goes wrong–and it’s not just reality TV.

A battle of the sexes is supposed to be fun, funny, and rile up the audience.  Everyone can root for “their” team, and it’s a clear dividing line that we’re all used to in this society.  You can even make an argument that in this modern, “post-feminist” world, the battle of the sexes is updated and consistent with feminist goals.  Many of the shows that use a battle of the sexes have a strong female team, the women tend to be intelligent and kick ass, and the female viewership supposedly gets excited about this and ratings go up.

But something is seriously wrong with this picture.

In my view, feminism is about getting up in the gender binary’s face and telling it who’s boss.  If we improve the image of “women” as a monolith to catch up with “men,” we haven’t achieved our goals. That’s not “gender equality.”  Gender equality would mean that the ideas of “women” and “men” are not monolithic.  And, I keep coming back to the conclusion that gender equality means not organizing by gender. Gender organization doesn’t just leave many trans, intersex, and genderqueer people out, but it pushes those who don’t meet gender norms to the sidelines.  On these shows, even looking past the gendered stereotypes where the women are catty and bitchy and the men burly and unintelligent, what you see is that a certain kind of gender ideal gets pushed and the camera rarely focuses on the outliers.

This battle of the sexes problem isn’t only an issue in reality TV.  I’ve seen a rash of feminist blog posts lately commenting on mainstream newspaper and magazine articles that discuss dating in a “post feminist” era, mens’ frustrations, and the problems of college-educated women trying to date.  These articles tend start from the point of view that strong women are a good thing, but then do a wink and a nudge and imply that what women “really want” is one particular relationship dream.  It might not be a housewife-centered ideal, but the journalists in question tend to imply that 30-something feminist women are unrealistic, wanting romance paired with respect for political ideals, and supposedly tromp over men in the process.

These articles again pit the sexes against one another to the detriment of feminist goals.  They use language that’s supposed to get the modern feminist reader to sympathize, but in creating the ideal of the 30-something, successful, white, heterosexual young career woman they push everyone else to the side.  Again, the problem is that we tend to organize around gender. It’s about how women date and how men date, and we’re socialized to feel that this split is perfectly natural.

So!  Time for a solution, right?  What can we do about this bullshit?  My suggestions for any aspiring journalists, bloggers, or future TV producers out there:

  1. Organize around something else. There are plenty of organizing principles available that don’t essentialize gender and marginalize those who either don’t fit into that picture of”their” gender or don’t claim a gender at all.  This can actually be a fun challenge–think about another way to organize your blog post, article, or concept.  I like sports as an analogy, because it’s one of those areas that most people just take for granted due to the fact that so many “men” and “women” share a set of physical characteristics that makes them easy to group.  So why don’t we organize sports based on those characteristics?  Why don’t we do strength and endurance tests and then form teams based on skill level?  Sure, a lot of those who are strong and fast will be men, but it doesn’t have to be a litmus test.  Come up with creative ways to do the same when writing a story.
  2. Think about how you unconsciously use gender norms.I think a lot of the problem, especially in popular journalism, is that writers tend to want to use a casual, familiar language and do so with what I described above as the “wink nudge.”  I’ve seen this at feminist conferences where the audience is feminist, feminism is assumed, and so a presenter will say something about how we all need to not be afraid to get in touch with our feminine side, to heal and nurture, etc.  I don’t have a problem with the ideas of self-care, enjoying domestic pursuits as a feminist, or embracing one’s inner nurturer.  What I do have a problem with is the implication that all women behave a certain way or have a certain desire.  I also have a problem with the idea that everyone who has a “female” body and “female” hormones behaves a certain way.  Nurturing is not necessarily “female,” nor can we divide who enjoys nurturing along gendered lines.  Why should we?  I think the key here is to watch out for those “hey we’re all a community” cues in your writing that aim to make feminists feel supported and unified but actually make some people feel excluded.  Build community through talking about shared goals and shared problems, but don’t equate “feminist” with a lump of norms considered “female.”
  3. Beware of essentialization and state your subject clearly. This is a simple test: when writing about “men” or “women,” consider whether this is the population you are actually describing.  Bloggers are starting to do this by talking using terms like “cis-gendered” to be clear, or “heterosexual.”  There’s nothing wrong with writing an article about the habits of cis-gendered, white, heterosexual, young, able bodied, middle class women.  But if you use the term “women” when that’s not really what you mean, you’re essentializing gender.

Believe it or not, I have high hopes.  Smashing or even slightly destabilizing the gender binary is an action that takes centuries, but we’re making subtle shifts at the level of blogging that I believe may gradually penetrate mainstream media as technology and feminism forge on.

Remember, you can check out all the WAM! It Yourself blogathon posts at the WAM! website.

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About Avory

Avory Faucette is a queer feminist activist, writer, and public speaker. Zie graduated from the University of Iowa with a JD in 2009, focusing on international human rights and gender/sexuality issues in the law. Hir current work focuses on queer identity, policy, and marginalized identities under the queer umbrella. As a genderqueer person, zie comments frequently on non-binary identity, transgender and genderqueer issues, and media coverage of these populations. Zie also speaks at colleges, universities, and events on transgender and queer issues and conducts trainings on related topics.

Posted on March 27, 2011, in gender, media, pop culture and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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