This is another post that is so five years ago, but it’s about a bit of media coverage that’s still annoying me in 2017. Specifically, it’s about the mainstream media coverage of model Andreja Pejic back before she came out as a woman and was being intentionally vague about her gender in interviews. Throughout that year or two of heavy coverage, the media was completely obsessed with its own invented idea of Andreja as terribly androgynous and the fun of a tired old “surprise, it’s a man!” storyline, while completely ignoring what was revolutionary about Pejic: the fact that she openly talked about a non-binary identity in interviews and asked mainstream readers to question their understanding of gender.
Recent debates on whether Chaz Bono on Dancing with the Stars is an appropriate viewing experience for children exemplify a dangerous conservative trend in the LGBT movement. As in debate on same-sex marriage, queer activists find ourselves being ask to defend our simple humanity, backed into a corner where visible queerness is seen as a bad strategic move.
Again, I find myself using an example of a queer celebrity in the media to argue the necessity of a truly queer movement. The more time we spend arguing that we are normal, “just like” our opponents, the further we get from our policy priorities. When we allow hate groups to define the debate, they have already won.
How can we turn this disaster around? Refuse to engage by framing our position around being like our opponents. We are not like bigots, homophobes, and transmisogynists. We embrace diversity. We fight with creativity and humor. We shift the ground under gender stereotypes and we regularly fuck with patriarchy. We don’t accept conservative arguments that dehumanize us and challenge our right to occupy our space.
We’re here, we’re queer. Join us.
The Internet has been all a-flutter the past few days with an unlikely question: Should Bert & Ernie get married on Sesame Street?
There have been a number of responses, from those claiming that queer representation for young children is crucial and Sesame Street should use the puppet-roommates to get back to its slightly subversive roots, to those suggesting that queer human characters make more sense, to those who are concerned that gay marriage might ruin the innocence of Sesame Street. The powers that be have explained that the Sesame Street puppets are not human, and therefore, don’t marry.
I’m not too invested in the outcome of the Sesame Street question, but I do think this is a good time to look at queer characters, and more broadly, what TV and film should be doing from a queer feminist perspective. My suggestions fall into two major categories.
In recent weeks, I’ve noticed quite a few faux pas in headlines describing some segment of the queer population. My guess is that the writers didn’t really think their terminology through, so I’d like to offer a little guide that might be helpful, especially to those who are not part of the queer community, in deciding what language to use when describing us.
- Don’t use the whole alphabet soup to refer to a specific population. The term “LGBT” means “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender.” It’s appropriate when referring to those four groups en masse, and at no other time. Often, the “T” is simply thrown in, as in “today, LGBT New Yorkers gained the right to marry.” While the marriage law did affect many transgender people, I don’t think that’s what the writer means there. It’s okay to say “gay, lesbian, and bisexual” or “gay and lesbian” if that’s what you mean. Even better with marriage is to simply say “same-sex couples,” which describes the exact population. Throwing in transgender people just to be politically correct is actually harmful, because you’re not referencing that population. If you do include the T, then include it: don’t be the group that holds an “LGBT” event and then excludes transgender people at the door.
- If you want to refer to the whole population, then use an appropriate term. I like “queer” because it can be used to refer to a range of gender and sexuality minorities. It works well when you’re not referring to specific populations, but to everyone who’s marginalized in this way. Of course, keep in mind that the goals of each population under this umbrella are not the same (see #1). Some like LGBT, LGBTQ, QUILTBAG, etc., but I tend to find that the alphabet usually leaves someone out. Others use trans/queer or queer/trans. When I say “queer,” I’m including trans, but that’s a matter of personal choice.
- Don’t use one term as a proxy for another. Lately there has been a lot of discussion about websites requiring people to identify as male or female. This gets characterized again and again as a transgender issue. Certainly, some trans people would like to identify as something other than male or female, but many of those affected by this issue identify as genderqueer or some variation. Instead of using the term transgender, it might make sense to describe it as an issue affecting non-binary genders, gender minorities, or non-conforming genders (I don’t love that one, but that’s for another time). I’ve also seen many “genderqueer” communities that are all about trans issues. It’s important to understand that genderqueer is a specific term with a specific meaning, not a proxy for transgender.
- Describe subsets of a queer population accurately. This is a problem in pretty much every area of activism, not just the queer bubble. Don’t say, for example, that “gay people have more money.” The ones with the money are mostly white, cis-gender gay men. If you’re doing academic research and the population you’re studying is white, young, middle-class, students, or some other subgroup, say so. The queer population as a whole has been done a tremendous disservice because those of us in a position of privilege tend to ignore huge subsets of the population–particularly trans people, youth of color, homeless kids, etc. It’s important to be clear and take note when you are making a statement that does not including one of these or another group. Define the subset clearly, then make your point.
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.
My Google Reader was all abuzz today about Ellen Degeneres and Portia Rossi on Oprah, so I decided to check out the appearance. Now I know Oprah’s kind of schmaltzy anyway, and I’m sure she had the best of intentions, but the episode kind of struck me the wrong way from the opening segment. Oprah talks about a photoshoot where Portia walked into the room and Ellen’s eyes lit up, and how beautiful that was, and how she said “Hey Baby,” and how cute that was, etc. It had a very animals-in-a-zoo feel to me. “Look at the lesbians in their natural habitat!” Yes, Ellen’s eyes lit up when Portia walked into a room, because it’s her wife. I’m just saying.
So we all know about the stupid commercials trying to convince women that our guilty pleasure is shampooing, eating yoghurt, jogging… but today I’ve been thinking about my own guilty pleasures, things that I enjoy and feel a bit guilty about because I’m a feminist, because I’m queer, because I’m supposedly not girly, because I’m intelligent, whatever. These are my guilty pleasures – what are yours?
- Britney Spears, especially “Womanizer” and “If You Seek Amy”
- That fucking Katy Perry song that I hate on principle but can’t get out of my head
- Justin Timberlake
- The Holiday
- The Bachelorette
- Silly YA novels
- Diana Gabaldon
I grew up on Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables. I could sing every part and play both scores through on the piano. I saw both plays as a kid, the latter several times. I also saw the movie version of the former once in college, but I wasn’t paying much attention. It happened to be on sale at Amazon for $5, so I bought a copy and watched it last night.
It’s not that I’m exactly surprised that the plot is sexist and has a ridiculously portrayed female lead. That I knew even without being a feminist. However, I noticed that with this new lens (and also not having watched or thought about Phantom since developing a lesbian identity) there are certain things I read differently.
For example, I always thought Christine should end up with the Phantom, not Raoul (I think everyone thinks that). But whereas before I thought that she was just an annoying, fickle little bitch, and I was annoyed at her for screwing the Phantom over, now I read it a bit differently. First, it’s ridiculous that the disfigurement is so played up, but of course I can see how living in isolation and without love due to your appearance could make you pretty crazy. Also, though, it’s interesting how before it didn’t really occur to me that a choice might be to go with neither of them. I mean, Raoul’s still an annoying little twit who just assumes that things haven’t changed in the past ten years, and the Phantom admittedly isn’t a great choice after he starts indiscriminately killing people. But in previous viewings, I fully bought into the idea that Christine did need a man to protect her – I just thought she was choosing the wrong one.
If you listen to the score, you’ll notice an awful lot of possessive language. Both characters use the term “guide,” and “Master” is used for the Phantom. Christine pretty much goes along with this entirely – she needs someone to guide her, a strong male figure. And no surprise after all, having been raised by her father, then basically put in the Phantom’s care as a teacher, then grasping for another male figure in Raoul when the Phantom starts to get creepy. I don’t necessarily think there would be a better choice for her in the context of this plot, but it is something I notice, that Christine is in no way created in a way that she could feasibly say “hey guys, let’s talk about this, things kind of crazy here…” For example, in the film version, there are several clear moments of hesitancy where she shows real care for the Phantom (which I like) and those are completely obliterated by the presence of Raoul. She really has no chance to speak on her hesitation or express emotion towards the Phantom.
This problem also emerges in the dramatic graveyard scene. I can’t remember how this plays out in the stage version, so this is based entirely on how the film version is done. In the film, this is the one moment where Christine does get to emerge somewhat as an independent character. She sneaks past Raoul, going to the graveyard alone (well, so she thinks). Though she probably is trying to get herself out of this cycle of male dependence so that she can marry Raoul, since she deliberately sneaks away from him you could also read it that she’s trying to escape both men, and that she only goes back with Raoul because, well, there he is, on a fucking white horse no less. The point is, she’s actually doing some independent thought here, recognizing that she’s been living in the past and trying to replace her father. At the same time I always thought in that song that she was also singing in a way about the Phantom himself, before he went batshit insane. In other words, I miss these two figures, but I realize that neither are available to me, and so I’m letting both go. When the Phantom then appears, she moves towards the grave with intention, clearly realizing that this is the Phantom and not the ghost of her father (I mean come on, she knows his voice), and even saying that her mind is warning her that this is a bad idea, but her soul is saying otherwise. Whether or not that’s necessarily the world’s wisest decision, it’s her decision, which gets cut off when Raoul appears, misunderstanding what’s going on, completely not understanding that hey, the lady might actually be capable of making an informed decision, and then proceeding to take part in the final ridiculous manly sword fight. So the one time Christine does emerge as something more than property, her boy-toy gets in the way and decides her fate for her.
Similarly, this jealousy plot between the two men is unsurprising but very shallow when you look at it in a critical light. Christine is pretty clearly treated as property, from Raoul’s assumption that she will be his because they were childhood sweethearts to the Phantom’s outrage every five seconds that she has betrayed him without ever clearly voicing his expectations. And of course there’s the whole idea that he basically wants her to be one of his objects in the vaults in the first place. In the scene on the rooftop, the Phantom expresses no realization that Raoul is doing all the pushing with this relationship – she keeps hesitating, while he pours out declarations of love, and eventually she goes with it, but still while expressing reservation. On the other hand, the Phantom just predictably cringes when Raoul touches “his woman.” In the end, the jealousy plot subsumes Raoul’s romance with Christine when he uses her as bait, basically saying “yeah yeah I know you’re upset but I’ve really got to get rid of this guy, so, see ya,” just like the way it subsumes Christine’s attempt to make an independent choice in the graveyard.
It got me thinking about the male jealousy plot in general, and how silly it is, but also how much a reflection of our culture. Men feel this rage when another man touches the object of their affection exactly for that reason – she is an object. Men are encouraged to view women as property, and thus any sort of expression of desire going in another direction, from or to her, is a betrayal or a slight upon the “owner.” How often do you see a literary work or a film that depicts a relationship where the characters discuss their desires or their crushes, where a man who sees a woman in a physical embrace with another man asks questions rather than jumping to conclusion? You don’t. And if you did, I’d be willing to bet that the criticism would immediately label the female character as a slut, and that the film would be framed as one about weird, kinky, open relationships.
As a woman, I’m only just starting to realize how huge this thing we casually dismiss as “society” is. The reason its so hard to change is that we are taught that “women’s” issues are limited to things like fair pay and it takes us a while to realize that societal expectations consist of thousands of layers, heaped up on us by pop culture and often well-meaning, unknowing authority figures (along with the more malicious ones). I bought into that “need a man to protect me” trope for an awfully long time, and it’s part of why it took a while to believe that I could identify as gay. I’m not totally over it (the idea of a woman as protector is still somewhat appealing), but I’m starting to recognize it, and the idea of being fought over by two people and pushed back and forth like a sack of beans is not longer sexy.
(But I still like the music.)
Today’s sexism in the media rant focuses on a disturbing trend of sexualizing children. Now I admit I have some somewhat old fogie-esque views on this topic, because I think the longer people wait to have sex, in most cases, the better. As much as I embrace sexual freedom in some ways, and am uncomfortable saying that you shouldn’t be allowed to have sex if you’re under eighteen (and definitely don’t think we should demonize those that do), it bothers me that children and young teenagers are having sex. Maybe this is part of my middle-class privilege, in that I was “protected” from that in ways (and also just exempted by the fortunate fact that I was not a gorgeous fifteen-year-old), but it creeps me out when I see children marketed as sex objects.
Feministing recently posted two examples, here and here. The poster’s focus in showing the first ad, a creepy television spot demonstrating how a new cell phone can be used for stalking your sleeping neighbor, was that stalking/objectification is wrong. The poster’s focus in the second ad, a BMW magazine spread, is again the objectification of the woman pictured. Both perfectly good points, but I was surprised that neither poster noted that the “women” shown are teenaged girls. The actresses themselves may be eighteen, but I would pin them both in the 12-15 age range. What creeps me out is not only that we’re objectifying women, but that we’re objectifying kids, more or less. Especially in the second ad, the whole “yeah, you know she’s not a virgin” message nearly made my mouth drop open. Sure, in today’s culture perhaps it’s not inaccurate to assume that a teenager or preteen has probably been abused in the past, but should we be celebrating it?