Hello all. What lies below has only occurred once before at The Compass: we have a reader-submitted guest post. Huzzah! If you are interested in sharing your own writing, artwork or any other creative work, click the pencil icon above labeled “Submit!” Part of the mission of The Compass is to inspire others to create - we’d love to provide a home for it, anytime.
Today’s post comes from a good friend of The Compass, Cait. Cait is a wonderful young licensed librarian concerned with issues relating to feminism and disabilities (and a lot of other things, as you can see from her Tumblr. She’s also on Twitter.) As a blog started by four young white guys, there has not been a great deal of diversity at The Compass. Cait’s helping us out with this essay (the title is mine, the rest is her’s).
I know I probably won’t win any fans with this, because this post is going to be about feminism. Feminism is an intensely polarizing subject for many people as they find themselves confused by, angry at, and dismissive of the issues presented. Feminist discourse ranges from critiques of public policy, analyses of your favorite media, and even dissections of commercials and portrayals of women.
These are all important, as trivial as some of it may sound. However, I would like to point out that I am not expecting to convert anyone. My goal is simply to get you to consider the media you look at and how it reflects society. I will attempt to break it down with this extremely link-happy post. Click them! They are interesting!
When I say I am a feminist, I mean that my feminism is intersectional. This means I do not only think about just how women are affected, but also how they are affected by race, gender, class, sexuality, disability - basically anything that can set a person apart. Unfortunately, most feminist discourse is dominated by the rich, hetero, cis women. There are a lot of factors to take into account here when thinking about feminism, because we are all shaped by different experiences. Straight women experience life differently than gay women. Cis women experience life differently than trans women. White women experience life differently than Black, Latin@, Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern, Inuit, Native American, Aboriginal, or Filipina women. Abled women experience life differently from disabled women. I also would also like to note, while we are still at the beginning, that I am a white, hetero, cis female with a disability (deafness). This is important to know, because I cannot speak for other people whose experiences I did not have – an especially important factor of intersectionality. You do not get to speak for someone else because all races are not a hegemony. This is something I have run into a lot when speaking about deafness – many people seem to think they understand what deafness is and that all deaf people share similar qualities, which isn’t true. That is why it is exceptionally important to seek out the perspectives of those belonging to the culture you are doing research on (and why I have included so. many. freakin’. links. that. you. should. read.). Don’t take my word for it because I am completely unable to speak for everybody – educate yourself on these matters.
It is important to take into account ALL of these experiences in order to determine how the world can be better for everyone. However, most people don’t. They simply chalk up feminism to women’s rights. But feminism should be more than just women’s rights. It should be about all of these different experiences and perspectives.
It is also extremely important to criticize portrayals of women in media. You don’t even know. This is a country where Game of Thrones is hailed as a “feminist” show (1, 2, 3) and sitcoms spit forth racial and rape jokes with ease (The Big Bang Theory, Two Broke Girls, Whitney, other shows). Considering the fact that many women deal with racial slurs every day and many women have been raped or sexually harassed, it isn’t fair. We need to think about the deeper implications that these shows provide. We need to talk about how these shows reflect what is deemed acceptable in our society. We need to discuss that Jon Hamm was in blackface on 30 Rock two weeks ago, and many fans thought it was hot or hilarious. We need to talk about how most black characters end up being stock characters, whether it is the maid or the sassy friend or poor and usually abused and sometimes drug-addicted figure who is rescued by white people. And how about discussing that Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer were both nominated for Oscars playing such stereotypical roles – as Southern black maids? And maybe we should even mention the fact that the first black woman to win an Oscar was in 1940: Hattie McDaniel – for playing a Southern black maid. And since then only five black women have won Oscars (just one was for Best Actress). We should be discussing the fact that this year, there has finally been a black female lead on television in 30 years! We need to talk about how casts get white-washed, whether it is Akira or Avatar: The Last Airbender (a total travesty) or The Hunger Games, (and even Bane who is Latino and Khan who is a PoC) and how disgusting it is that fans were upset or not as sad because Rue is black. We need to talk about how women of color are frequently whitewashed in magazine photo shoots and other media. We need to discuss how trans characters are always just a punch line. We need to talk about how disabled people are always portrayed as innocent angels, with no real understanding of the cruelties of life. And that one of the biggest disability organizations, Autism Speaks, disregards the autistics it allegedly represents. We need to discuss how in music reviews, much is placed on female musicians’ looks and little on her talent. It is important to recognize that The Avengers, currently the holder of the biggest box office weekend yet, is written by alleged feminist Joss Whedon and yet does not even pass the Bechdel Test. And, unfortunately, this is a pretty common theme for superhero movies or comics, as the women are usually there as the love interest or some sort of plot device. They exist solely for the superhero to overcome his personal limitations and be all that he can be. And speaking of crappily represented female characters – Steven Moffat regressed passed Victorian limitations with his version of Irene Adler, and Woody Allen focused so heavily on The Lost Generation yet made poor use of major feminist and lesbian Gertrude Stein (and it fails the Bechdel test and yet his screenplay beat one written by women about women and their relationships with each other!). Or how about the fact that literature directed at women always gets a bad reputation. We need to talk about the women on Game of Thrones and of Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and how depicting violence against women (in both physical and sexual) isn’t an effective way to expose it, especially when there is no real discussion of it. All it does is perpetuate it.
Most importantly, however, we need to talk about how people are easily dismissive of all of this - to say that it is trivial and not important. That people are unwilling to see how hurtful these depictions are. All of these women should not be delineated to stock characters. Real women are not stock characters.
And it isn’t as though you can’t enjoy this media. I love television and I love films and I love books, despite the fact that they can be problematic. But I also love dissecting them, because as a literature major, I have been taught that books are reflective of society’s thinking. To me, the same goes for other media. And I find it is so, so true.
If you look at our statistics, you too will find it to be true. If you look at the news, you too will find it to be true. There are so many examples of people of color and trans people and women being hurt by society. Even this woman in an Arizona border town faced racism and sexism from city officials when she tried to run for City Council. Unfairly jailed, for crimes they did not commit, or no justice served for crimes against them. And yet most of the women who have dominated crime media in the past few years have all been white, whether they were victims or perpetrators (JonBenet, Natalie, Amanda, Casey…).
As long as the majority of films fail to pass the Bechdel or Johnson tests, and Parks and Recreation, which featured a wonderfully flawed but strong female woman and a multicultural cast might get cancelled while Two and A Half Men or The Big Bang Theory gets renewed year after year, I will continue to dissect the media I watch as reflective of society. Rape jokes affect women, all of those women who have been sexually harassed or raped and not reported it. Making a joke out of such a traumatic experience does not help women; instead it simply normalizes the issue and makes it seem like it is okay. It happens every day. Who cares! Your favorite football team lost, and you say that they were raped – as if it was exactly the same kind of situation. Pro-tip: it is very, very different.
When our media is all white, and I’ll use a recent but tired example here: Girls, that is also potentially harmful. Media is about telling stories. We have been telling stories about mainly white, hetero, cis people for years. Since television was invented, even, and since Charlie Chaplin has been gracing cinema screens. Even before that. In books, in comics, in photography. All of these stories are being told. Lena Dunham decided to tell the story of her experiences as a struggling post-grad New Yorker, hailed as one of the greatest, most diverse cities. She and her friends live in Brooklyn, an area where only one third of the population is white! Yet, four episodes in, and we have seen two black people (one was in the blurry background) and an Asian intern who is really good at photoshop. She is telling the story of her friends, four white girls from affluent families in this strange white-washed version of New York. What about the other New Yorkers who live and exist in the same environment? By neglecting to feature them at all, she erases their stories. Intersectionality asks that we acknowledge all stories and all backgrounds. We do not white-wash New York. We show it for what it is, a beautifully diverse multicultural city built on dreams.
But that is a rare depiction. It was rare on Friends and Sex and the City. It is rare on Mad Men. Now it is rare on Girls. And all of these shows are hailed as hallmarks of television.
And that is why it is so important to look at the portrayals of gender, class, race, disabilities, in media. It affects the real world. It shows us what the world is thinking, or what they want you to think. They want you to think that baseless jokes are acceptable. As long as I am the subject of sexual harassment (ongoing since a preteen), and discriminated against because of my disability, I will continue to fight against society’s attempts to dismiss my voice. Or that women should be seen and not heard, they’re wives, mothers, maids, baby-making machines. They get raped. They care only about their children. They do nothing. As long as most forms of birth control isn’t covered under health insurance, as long as the morning-after pill or abortions aren’t covered, but Viagra is covered, I will fight against the discrimination of my gender. As long as people from different races or sexualities, or are disabled, are being killed because of who they are, then I will never give up on feminism.
If you’re interested in learning more about how pop culture intersects, please check out the following!
And please, please check my privilege on any points.
Tiger Beatdown – especially My Feminism Is Intersectional Or It Will Be Bullshit.
Red Light Politics
Roxane Gay at The Rumpus
Feminists With Disabilities (this site is no longer active, but the archives are still hosted).
Oh, and this Racialicious post about Hipster Racism – as a response to Jezebel’s utter fail of a post on Hipster Racism – is a must read.