21 February 2010

Femininity: Or, Patriarchy Warps Our Brains

I've been reading through ancient discussions on I Blame the Patriarchy, and naturally (the essentialism of the blogosphere!) certain mansplainers took it upon themselves to tell women what aspects of socially constructed femininity to accept or reject, based on the assumption that certain aspects of femininity are just so darned fun that they are, actually, innate activities women naturally enjoy. Here's an example [italics added]:
However, someone who did look critically at her own practices of femininity might decide that: it does not feel right to allow herself to be silenced in the boardroom; it doesn't feel right to buy certain kinds of toys only for a female child; certain patriarchy-acceptable outfits are just too uncomfortable and it doesn't feel right to be uncomfortable no matter how many men swoon in your path; use of collagen or botox may be counterproductive; wearing makeup regularly is more effort than men are expected and is therefore not cool; however, a comfortable flattering red dress is really not problematic, and a matching shade of lipstick that takes exactly thirty seconds to apply isn't either, especially if it's more fun to wear them to a client meeting than a boring suit.
Lipstick only takes a few minutes to apply, therefore it's "not problematic." What?!? Since when is feminist critique of the Patriarchy based on some kind of Taylorist efficiency model wherein culturally-proscribed feminine behaviors are only rejected based on how godawfully time-consuming they are? A quick rape takes a lot less time than cunnilingus!

20 February 2010

Enough with the Feminism?

A major criticism of my Feminist Advisor is that her classes are "all just the same class about feminism and cinema, rinse, repeat." Male students ask when we can get to the "real" topic of talking about the aesthetics of shots without having to discuss their political or social implications. "Too much theory" they squeel in protest.

It boggles my mind that these students feel that simply describing what is on the screen is a higher level of analysis than describing what is on the screen and analyzing its connection to discourses from other disciplines (philosophy, economics, politics, history, gender studies, etc.). Yes, it takes training to accurately describe shots, camera work, and mise-en-scene. But it's not rocket science! Seriously, isn't there something more to engaging a text (in this case, a film) than simply describing what it does on a formal level?

And having described the formal aesthetics of a shot (say, a close-up of a woman's face, suitably soft-focus, and covered with tears) are we to simply leave it at that?


Does the shot really say nothing to them about how women are depicted in media, how Image and Woman relate, different dynamics of spectatorship, etc.? If the shot is "beautiful" shouldn't we question what makes it beautiful? What in our culture, history, upbringing, and the media around us makes us see a woman in tears as a beautiful image?

I believe this is what Godard was asking in A woman is a woman. How can my male classmates only care about describing the image Godard created, disregarding the implicit question that the director asks?

It almost feels like the "boys" are terrified of having the formal purity of their engagement with cinema "dirtied up" with questions that pertain to women, death, life (and the meaning of life), and "Others" in general.

18 February 2010

Paths of Glory

Stanley Kubrick, 1957

Beyond the powerful critique of the military-industrial complex, I was fascinated by how masculinity is portrayed in the film. The soldiers are constantly posturing, competing to be the most noble, deserving of the most respect, strongest, etc., all qualities that can be summed up as attributes of traditional masculinity. Soldiers who are not behaving correctly are explicitly infantilized or feminized. A soldier who is being exhorted to die bravely is told to think about how he wants his wife and child to remember him ... the obvious options being a coward (unmanly) or a Man.

And finally, there's the scene at the end in the bar, the only time that we actually see a German in the entire film. And she's a woman. The men behave like animals, another expression of "masculinity," but eventually, struck by her fear and tears, they feel a kinship with her. Many cry themselves. And suddenly their commanding officer, who had postured as much as any other character, assisted by dramatic low-angle close-ups, sees redemption and hope for humanity in his soldiers' identification with a German woman.

Fascinating stuff.

05 February 2010

Marry the Man Today?

The Atlantic never ceases to amaze me with its remarkable blend of vitriol directed at Men in general and hectoring assurances that women should marry, bear children, and realize that feminism is bunk.

An individual's unfortunate experience or personal compulsion to marry and bear children does not a social science make. Yet authors in the Atlantic routinely extrapolate from their own limited experiences great social "truths" that somehow always end up reinforcing the lessons of the Patriarchy and stereotypes about women. And stereotypes about men.

Excuse me while I go throw up.

04 February 2010

It's Women's Bodies, not Babies

The Raging Grannies' video about CBS's decision to run the FotF ad is a wonderful image of strong, older women speaking truth to power.

The response to it, however, is appalling, with comments that don't merely drag up the same old arguments about how loose women who sleep around deserve the punishment of pregnancy -- instead, the comments focus on the bodies of the women in the video, calling them "skuzzbags" and remarking acidly that "no would would sleep with them anyway."

This simply underscores how much the discourse about abortion is emphatically not about saving babies, but is instead about women's bodies, and the investment that the patriarchy, the state, and the church have in controlling women's bodies.

In this dialogue, a woman's body is only acceptable when it is attractive to and available for men who can impose their own laws (secular or religious laws) upon its use. The Raging Grannies cannot be objectified comfortably, hence they are not sexually attractive and available, and instead of responding to their video by arguing passionately for the sanctity of life (meaning life, including the lives of Arab and Muslim children killed by US bombs) the comments are full of invective against the real issue that the video addresses:

Who controls the representation, the use, and the function of the female body? Women themselves, in all their variety, at all ages, and with complete self-determination? God forbid! These audacious crones must be attacked viciously for daring to defy the culture that requires women to be both silent and young/sexually available/attractive.

Oh, and one YouTube member has been posting at regular 6-minute intervals the observation that the South Florida Grannies all have Jewish last names. Thanks, sexist anti-semitic d00d. Great argument there.

02 February 2010

Abortion Debates, and Babies as Punishment

Echidne's excellent coverage of the Superbowl Ad debacle has gotten me thinking about the real motivations of those who want to further regulate or eliminate legal abortions. In October, a Slog post caught my eye with its assertion that:

Banning abortion only makes abortions more dangerous and kills women—which is what many opponents of abortion are after, really. They want people who have sex to be punished.
Ass Echidne pointed out, they want women specifically to be punished for their sins, because obviously nature is constructed (by God!) in such a way that the consequences of sex fall more heavily on the woman. So that must be what God intended, right?

***Embarrassing Confession Below***

On a personal note, I remember a conversation I had with my mother when I was twelve and excessively influenced by the Victorian novels I obsessively read. We were washing dishes (ha!) and talking about abortion, and my mother was trying in vain to explain to me that not all people who end up requiring or desiring an abortion are Scarlet Women of Babylon. (I also used to tell her that I would never kiss a man until I was married. She must have been really worried about me! But now I'm happily "living in sin" and loving it...)

I remember that, to my immature mind, absurdly scared of sex and ridiculously judgmental of "sinful" women, it did seem just that a woman who decided to have sex would have to bear the consequences of her action. (I was willing to make an exception for rape, which as Bitch Ph.D. points out is the hallmark of someone who does not trust women to be the experts on their own individual bodies and situations. Again, it's about judging and condemning sin.) At no point in my (thankfully brief!!) "pro-life" phase did I actually worry that much about the babies. In fact, I think I was all for stem cell research. This is my own subjective experience, but in reading between the lines of a lot of "pro-life" literature, there's more about sin and punishment than about love for unborn babies.

How do I know? Because of the absence of any pro-contraceptive agenda. Every year I approach the pro-life tablers at the local county fair and ask them what their position on contraception is, and they never answer my question. They tell me to ask my doctor about contraception. They tell me that they only intend to encourage pregnant women to carry their babies to term. So they either ignore that contraception exists and is the most powerful tool for reducing the incidence of abortion, or they're actively against it. Why? Because their concern is sex, not babies. They say that they're for babies to cloak that they're really against sex (except in certain circumstances in which it can be controlled effectively by family patriarchs).

That Victorian mentality that I thankfully outgrew before I was old enough to vote is very persistent in the world today. The obsession with sex that characterized Victorian morals is at the center of the religious right's take on many issues. I haven't read enough Foucault to really analyze the abortion debates from that perspective, but the conflation of sex/sin/guilt/power/control that we see in the abortion debates is both extremely Victorian and (I would argue) extremely immature. And all the more frightening.

01 February 2010

Avatar and Waking up from Dreams

I've been meaning to write something about Avatar ever since I saw it at the beginning of January. Luckily, I didn't get around to it until now, and Mark Morford has done an incredible job of saying pretty much everything I had hoped to say, but funnier.

My favorite part of his piece:

...in this movie, you don't merely get to fantasize about the Other from afar or even just indulge in interspecies sex. You get to literally become one of them. You enter into their bodies and actually move and hunt and breathe and fight and screw and kiss and talk like them, fuse your DNA to theirs forever and ever....Behold, the ultimate in guilty colonialist fetish fantasy epic porn filmmaking, ever.
The one thing I want to add to Morford's awesome analysis is to point out the one line that offered a hope of redemption for the film. Right before the Great Epic Fantasy Battle of Manliness, Our Hero is pulled abruptly out of his dream world with his hot alien girlfriend and says in voice over, "I was a warrior fighting for peace, but sooner or later you have to wake up."

Cameron actually cuts to black right after that insightful line, and when I was watching the film, I thought (oh, what a fool!) that that was actually the end. Imagine how different the film becomes if it ends with the message that sooner or later one has to wake up from idealist fantasies about escaping one's own situation?

My reading of the film departs from that line, and even the epic battle scene at the end can be perversely read as an element of a metaphor that compares how we watch films, desiring to project ourselves into and "Other" and truly understand her/him, to the white guilt fantasy porn of being able to literally inhabit the body of the Other. We're reminded briefly that "sooner or later you have to wake up" ... the film will end, fantasies are unrealizable ... but then Cameron plunges immediately into one of the most epic fantasy-realization sequences ever. We breathe a sigh of relief -- the film can have a happy ending!

However, this happy ending is marred by how utterly implausible the script becomes, as alien populations we never knew about magically appear, as the Sky People decamp never to return again (really?!?!), and the ultimate magic of becoming one of the Na'vi allows Jake to utterly escape all responsibility for his own situation and his own contributions to colonization. The fact that the end is so fantastical, so full of wish-fulfillment fantasies, just underscores the fact that sooner or later we have to wake up from this dream.

But sadly, I know that wasn't Cameron's intention. And sadly, most theater goers seem to have left the theater still deep in the dream that is Avatar. The film is about environmentalism? What?!?! It's a protest against colonialism? Really?!?!