A friend of mine – I’ll call her Kathy – recently attended a conference for women researchers in our field. She enjoyed speaking with the older researchers at the conference, who she felt were incredible role models and had important stories to share about being a woman in this field. She enjoyed presenting her research and learning about the research of others. However, there was a strong component of the conference that made her feel unwelcome and out of place: the way that feminists at the conference, who seemed to be a majority of the participants, expressed their views toward non-feminist lifestyles.
“There’s no positive feminist alternative to the Disney model of romance,” an old friend told me late one night.
As is not unusual in conversations with me, the topic of feminism had come up, and I’d asked him whether he thought gender roles were a good thing. He responded by sharing a story of his own heartbreak: a relationship that ended after moving in together and falling into a pattern of contentious discussions about who should be responsible for which chore.
My friend seemed to be implying that gender roles make things easier, that the feminist model of each couple negotiating for themselves was more work. “We spent all our time in negotiations about living together, instead of just enjoying living together.”
I pointed out that it was more work for him to talk about it, but probably less work for her because the continuing inequality in household chore breakdowns means that, statistically speaking, women who don’t specifically negotiate otherwise tend to end up with an unfairly large chore burden. And of course, relying on gender roles for divvying up household chores only works for couples with one man and one woman.
Nevertheless, I think there was value in my friend’s observation about a feminist alternative to the typical romance narrative. It was a revelation to me, perhaps because I live in a bit of a feminist bubble: I think there is a feminist story of love, and perhaps we just have to do a better job of spreading it.
A few weeks ago I saw the new BBC film The Invisible Woman, which tells the story of Ellen Ternan, the long-term mistress of Charles Dickens. The Invisible Woman contributes to a trend in film, literature, and scholarship of exploring the lives of previously ignored or neglected women who happen to be attached to famous or noteworthy men. Insofar as I believe this project is a very valuable one, I was predisposed to think highly of The Invisible Woman, and I was expecting a story of the life of a complex, strong willed woman in the context of a still decidedly pre-feminist society. (I am into these types of films, as you might have noticed.) However, on most fronts the movie fell short of my expectations – the two main women in the film, Ellen Ternan and Dickens’ wife, Catherine Hogarth, are underdeveloped, and instead of a complex examination of how heteronormativity limits and damages lives, we get a portrait of relationships without much content or redeeming richness.
Perhaps true to its name, the most mysterious character in the film is the invisible woman herself, Ellen Ternan, a young actress from a family of actors. Elsewhere on the interwebs, Ellen is described as “clever and charming, forceful of character, undomesticated, and interested in literature, the theatre, and politics.” Unfortunately, in the film almost none of these traits are evident. Ellen is portrayed as interested in literature, but only in Dickens’ literature, which she reads obsessively and sighs over wistfully as she listens to his public readings. Nowhere is Ternan shown to be engaging in a conversation with Dickens about literature that does not include swooning, and other than her love for his writing she appears to be totally devoid of intellectual interests or opinions. She is not, it turns out, even a particularly talented actress. As for being clever or charming, we never hear her make a single joke or witty aside – and contrary to being forceful in character, her primary talents seem to lie in being very pretty, melodramatically vulnerable, and appealing to Charles Dickens.
The only exception to this depiction comes when Ternan realizes that her relationship with Dickens – which enters a weird sort of formalism after her family collectively decides she will be better off as a permanent mistress than a mediocre actress – is expected to involve socializing with unmarried, co-habitating couples (which she finds immoral and offensive) and having sex on a regular basis with Dickens. “I did not understand I was to be your whore,” she protests. However, this defiance is short lived; once Dickens makes clear that divorcing his wife is not an option, she settles down into the life of the widely-known-about-but-never-acknowledged mistress, living off of Dickens’ support for the rest of his life and marrying under an alternative identity after his death.
Because of the emptiness of Ternan’s character, we are left totally puzzled as to why Dickens is so infatuated with her. To make matters worse, Dickens’ wife, Catherine Hogarth, is presented in a way that manages to make her more likable and interesting than both Dickens or Ternan while nonetheless attempting, apparently, to push our sympathies toward Ternan’s and Dickens’ romance. It is not that the film demonizes Hogarth or dismisses her suffering – on the contrary, the most emotionally powerful scene of the film came, for me, when her son reads to her the humiliating public notice of their separation Dickens has published in the newspapers. However, to the extent that she gets screen time, it seems like the filmmakers followed the narrative apparently left behind by Dickens – that Hogarth was a boring, unlovable woman who didn’t really deserve the loyalty of someone as vivacious and brilliant as Charles Dickens.
This is a guest post by Page Gramsci.
During a family vacation a few weeks ago, my brother-in-law was having a conversation with my father about a Bill Bryson book. He was extolling the virtues of Bryson’s ability to explain a complex subject when my father, apparently bored with discussion, changed topics suddenly.
“You know what someone should explain in a book which would make them tons of money?” he asked, pausing for dramatic effect while my sister and I, seated a few feet away at the kitchen counter and furtively trying to derail this interruption by remaining silent and refusing to provide the expected “What?” waited warily for his reply – “Someone should write a book explaining women to men.”
Silence and irritated blinking followed. In one of those split second decisions we make every day – those gambles about whether to intervene and speak up about something problematic we’ve heard, and thus risk exploding the space and soiling everyone’s mood or, instead, to just grumble deeply in one’s throat and let it slide for the sake of not having to deal with said explosion – I decided to try to register dissent in a frame that my father would find difficult to immediately dismiss; by pointing out that not all men think like he does.
“You should just ask Tim [my boyfriend,]” I replied. “He understands women perfectly.”
“I highly doubt that,” was my father’s initial response.
“Well it is not that difficult, you know.” I continued. “You just start with understanding people and then you’re pretty much done.”
Perhaps irritated by the snark that had creeped into my tone – “it’s only a matter of time before she starts talking like that,” I imagine most of my conservative family members think to themselves – Dad quickened his retort and heightened his own tone of derision.
“Just because he agrees with you does not mean that he understandings you” – a comment which is only made explicable by the back history of Tim and I spending endless hours in political conversation with my father, each of us alternatively trying different strategies to push him along to perspectives we share. Still, the assertion was still baffling, and my brain rapidly tried to untangle the logic that could have produced such a reply. Was he suggesting that my political positions are merely products of the logic of Tim, and although I concur with him on most major points of politics, the process by which I do so is still somehow mysterious? And why was he focusing on my political views as what I was referring to when I claimed Tim understands me? Was the concept of Tim also understanding my emotional needs and states so preposterous to father that he assumed, somewhere in his head, that I simply meant Tim understands my intellectual positions? Or was he simply feeling backed into a corner, an experience that reminded him of many two-against-one conversations with the pair of us that was his most immediate reference for our mutual understanding?
Unable to solve the riddle in a matter of mere seconds, I simply said, “I have no idea what that even means,” and went on to clarify, “there has never been a time when Tim was not understanding about my feelings or experiences and did not listen to me closely to make sure he was understanding me correctly.”
At this point, my father’s defensiveness somehow melted – perhaps because, aware as he is of the very happy state of my relationship, his pleasure at seeing his daughter well-treated overcame his desire to win an argument about gender normativity – and as he nodded sincerely he said, “That must be really nice, it really must be.”
“Indeed, it is,” I grinned, and, mercifully, the conversation came to an end. But although it was brief, the exchange was so packed with absurdity and mutual bewilderment that it highlighted, like perhaps few short exchanges ever do, the vast ocean that separates the way someone like my father – a conservative white male baby boomer – and someone like me – a thirty year old white feminist leftist – think about relationships between men and women.
Recently, I saw the documentary Miss Representation, which explores how the media portrays women. The film has many virtues, but also many problematic limitations, assumptions and contradictions, and I plan to discuss the more substantial of those in a future post. But one of the more trivial (yet nonetheless somewhat irritating) of these came during a discussion of the lack of programming depicting women of all different ages, backgrounds, and personalities; something I think we can all agree is an extremely substantial problem. But while the film explained how those attempting to create a network to tell the stories of women failed to get sufficient support or funding to get it off the ground, a caption swept across the screen contrasting this with an example of what, apparently, would be the opposite of programming for women – did you know, that meanwhile, twenty-two ESPN channels are available to cable consumers!
Cut to me, sitting on my couch, looking confused and irritated and then, a few moments later, arguing back out loud, “but what the fuck?, doesn’t that assume that women are not interested in sports?” You see, it just so happens that sports are nearly all I watch on television. Really. I watch three things on TV – sports, the Daily Show/Colbert Report, and Project Runway. That is it. And of this time I spend watching TV, sports constitute an overwhelming amount of that time. And I do this nearly every day.
Now, I do recognize the point that the writers of Miss Representation were trying to make. Regardless of how many women watch or enjoy sports, ESPN assumes a male audience and packages most of its material with the male gaze in mind. The vast majority of coverage, moreover, goes towards sports involving only men – especially, of course, professional basketball, football, and baseball. To this extent, ESPN and other sports media outlets reinforce gender assumptions and inequalities as much, or even more so, than other cultural spaces. It is hardly a bastion of gender neutrality or equality.
Moreover, Miss Representation had a very good point about the lopsidedness of network options — while sports fans make up over 60 percent of the American population, that is not terribly larger than the nearly half of the population made up of women. And when the women who were trying to create the new network went to television executives, they would often reply with the question, “but don’t women already have Lifetime?” Now, when I heard this portion of the story, I took the sly smirk on the woman’s face to mean, “how absurd to imply that Lifetime is really a station that avoids, rather than reinforces, stereotypes about women” — but a fellow DDP blogger has since pointed out to me that the following ESPN factoid could have been intended to make the point about the inconsistency of the executives’ argument, since if the category of “sports fans” can justify 22 stations (and more, really, beyond ESPN) then surely there could be more room for networks which explore the lives of women. This is a very good, and very legitimate point.
TRIGGER WARNING: Rape culture & misogynist language.
One of my favorite movies is the 2004 historical (but heavily fictionalized) drama film The Libertine. As a history nerd and a feminist, I know of no other movie that combines these two elements in such a provoking, satisfying manner.
This feat is particularly impressive because The Libertine does not take place in a time period we usually associate with feminism – on the contrary, the film is set in Restoration England (that means roughly 1660-1688), well before women began appropriating Enlightenment notions about the right of man to argue in defense of their own gender. Yet the film does not approach feminism through distortion, but rather faces head on the conditions women experienced in this context, all while simultaneously exploring what it might be like for an ambitious, independently spirited woman to try to carve out a space of her own from within the patriarchy.
Yet the main protagonist of the film is not a woman, but a man – John Wilmot, the 2nd Earl of Rochester, a historical figure here portrayed and reimagined by Johnny Depp. Continue reading
2013, 2014, Activism, ambi, ambidancetrous, blues, community, consent culture, cooperative living, group houses, intentional communities, new year, safer spaces, sexual harassment, social justice, swing
We talk a lot on this blog about dismantling systems of oppression, and about what we want to build to replace them. I see the welcoming of the new year as a time of intention setting, so this open thread is dedicated to sharing stories of those who are building something. Tell us the cool stories of work you or others are involved in to make the world better. Let’s all get inspired for 2014!
I’ll start with three:
1. Ambidancing: In lots of partner dancing, leading and following is tied pretty strongly, historically and currently, to gender roles. The people at Ambidancetrous think that sucks, and they’re working to build dance scenes where everyone has a real option to lead or follow. They tell us why single-role scenes are sexist, why the nod to ambi isn’t enough, how to change it as an instructor or a dance partner…and give us some past and present visual inspiration:
Hello, friends! It’s time for another installment of “Lucy responds to questionable/terrible sex and love advice on the internet!”
This week, my friend sent me a gem of a piece from Cosmopolitan about two of my very favorite topics: oral sex and equality in sexual relationships. It’s called…wait for it, “Girls who say they love blow jobs are ruining my life.” Because, insists author Anna Breslaw, there is not a single woman on Earth who truly gets off on giving oral sex to dudes. NOT A SINGLE ONE. The absurdity of such a declaration is only heightened by the fact that it was published by a magazine that consistently runs content dedicated to the pursuit of male pleasure (5 BILLION SEX TIPS THAT WILL BLOW HIS MIND) while barely addressing female pleasure.
Y’all know I have a lot of feelings about this. Let’s begin:
This is a guest post by Silver Longjohns.
The one time I have dressed up for the opening of a movie was for Serenity in 2005. I went with a dozen costumed friends. I was Christina Hendricks’ ambiguously-named character. My favorite was my “two by two” friends in white lab coats who had swiped blue latex gloves from chem lab and thumb-wrestled for our cameras. We also had Kaylee with a parasol; two Inara’s in various finery, and someone had even knitted the Jayne hat. The one black guy in our group of majority white friends is a devout Christian and went as Shepherd Book. Our Zoe was a white lady and wore that signature disconcerting string of leather as a necklace.
Full disclosure: I was embarrassed to be out in public dressed up and I would never have done it alone. However, the time was right – as a stalwart Joss Whedon fan, I was delighted he’d done a movie, and the feeling of belonging in that group of fellow fans was very powerful for me. Even as I fretted about how our costumes set us apart from other folks in the theater I relished the opportunity to publicly fly a shared nerdiness flag.
So I’ve had a longstanding loyalty to Joss Whedon’s work, and I’ve been glad to see him gain more recognition. But my latent feminist tendencies have developed quite a bit over time and there’s a lot I wish Joss would do differently. In a fit of Netflix-enabled nostalgia I did re-watch Firefly recently, and because there’s been so much discussion recently about Joss Whedon and feminism, I’m sending out here some of my current reactions to Firefly. They’re somewhat popcorn style, focused on the lady characters, gender, sexuality, and romantic relationships. I should also acknowledge that it is particularly egregious that Firefly takes place in a future where everyone speaks Mandarin Chinese but not a single actor appears to be of Asian descent. Joss’ characters generally are not very ethnically diverse; it is a problem, y’all. Others have written on that before, though, so I won’t unpack it here. (Also, I only took two years of Mandarin but in Firefly their Chinese is terrible.)
Firefly disappointingly barely passes the Bechdel test, but I’m relieved that in the limited conversation among Kaylee, Zoe and Inara, they are unequivocally supportive of each other (River I’ll get to later). The sex positivity allowed to their characters is also simply delightful (Zoe and Wash get all sweaty and adorable together! Kaylee hooks up with a guy in the machine room because engines turn her on!) However, I wish Kaylee and Inara presented better models of communication about romantic needs.
content note: discussion of situations analogous to sexual assault
I vividly remember the day my mama taught me the concept ‘No means No’. At the time, it had nothing to do with sex.
How did my mother teach me skills to reject unwanted sexual activity without ever talking about sex? She empowered me to assert my boundaries.
I was 7 years old, and I was wrestling with my brother. Despite the fact that he was only 4, we were a pretty good match in strength. Throughout the time we were playing, I was saying “No!” and “Stop!” playfully, in a giggling high-pitched voice, with a smile on my face.
But then, my brother really started really hurting me.