This post is an extension of comments I gave at GeekGirlCon’15 on a panel focused on the feminist potential of Mad Max, Fury Road. I was honored to share the panel with Kristine Hassell, Elsa S. HenrySarah Mirk, Anita Sarkeesian, and Jennifer K. Stuller, who in turn spoke passionately about the film’s representations of WOC, women of size, disability, the hope of ecofeminism, violence as a mistaken feminist strategy, and women as heroes. These perspectives have helped layer my own understandings of Fury Road, as well as to appreciate the diversity of feminist experiences and interpretations of the film. Below is an elaboration of my comments on the panel, focusing on my argument that Fury Road is ultimately an updated White Christian man’s fantasy of being a “good” man in the context of White feminist politics.



IMG_3755 (1)
Max convinces Furiosa that she is on the wrong path; she and her tribe of women should go right back to where they began.

After the May 2015 release of Mad Max, Fury Road (a dystopian sci-fi/action film starring Tom Hardy and Charleze Theron, in that order), the U.S./Anglophone blogosphere erupted around the film’s uses and/or misuses of feminism. Men’s rights activist Aaron Clarey called for a boycott of Fury Road because he saw it as a “feminist piece of propaganda posing as a guy flick”; in the subsequent fury many feminist writers heralded Fury Road as worthy of feminist support, while others offered mixed and even negative reviews.

Much of the positive excitement centered on the Theron’s co-starring role as Imperator Furiosa, who in the words of Natalie Wilson is “a gender-queer, disabled, bad-ass feminist hero who proves that heroism has no one gender, no one body type, no one sexuality.” Yet many others voiced disappointment about the use of “scantily clad models” to portray the former wives/sex slaves (rescued by Furiosa from the evil dictator, Immortan Joe). And in one particularly scathing review, Eileen Jones also mocked the film’s “essentializing Earth Mother nonsense about women,” as well as Eve Ensler’s praise that “(a)ll the women in the film maintain their inherent woman-ness.” (Ensler – of “Vagina Monologues” feminist celebrity status – was a consultant for Fury. More on Ensler’s politics later).

I share some, but certainly not all, of these feminist praises and critiques. Theron’s role as Furiosa – a tall, bald woman warrior with sculpted shoulders and a prosthetic arm – offers viewers a beautiful view of gendered and human variability. I am delighted to see the portrayal of Furiosa’s former Matriarchal tribe, the Vuvalini. A mainstream Hollywood film respectfully depicting a lesbian-feminist-separatist’s fantasy of a vulva-centric tribe lead by wise women elders?! In addition I appreciate Furiosa’s relationship with Max, which builds slowly from animosity to peer-based respect and is free of romantic innuendo, despite Max’s puppy dog eyes and full lips. Max also does not demonstrate any sexual interest toward anyone in the film, including the stunning “sex slaves.”

But from my queer, intersectional, post-colonial perspective, I also have several additional reads of the film. For example, the criticism around “scantily clad models” is for me a (White feminist) red herring for a much deeper problem in the film: the deployment of the sex slave trope. And during my first viewing of the film I nearly shut it off after the first 30 minutes, as it was all about men screaming, abusing, chasing, and killing and each other. (Not my idea of a good time). I also find the film’s ending to be problematic. When Furiosa and her victorious women warriors return to the Citadel with the body of the evil dictator, Immortan Joe, a crowd of grateful minions shout to the White men and boys above, “Let them up, let them up!” The women heroes are then literally pulled up into power by White men.  In contrast, my fantasy ending of the film would involve the large bodied women in the Citadel (some of whom appear to be women of color, and all of whom were formerly used for their “mother’s milk”) taking over the controls to lift up the other women.

Yet ultimately it is Fury’s White and Christian order – swept in under the conservative (AKA “liberal”) agenda of White feminism – that turns my simultaneous admiration of and impatience with the film into political critique.


For anyone who has seen Fury Road, I am stating the obvious that the film is very, very White.  All of the dozens (hundreds?) of boys and men in the film appear to be White. And as if the film is not White enough, the bodies of many of the boys and men are actually also painted white. There are fewer women than men in the film, but at least three women with names and spoken lines can be visibly recognized as (light skinned) women of color. 

And yet, much of the mainstream (White) feminist discussion of Fury Road has underplayed the film’s racial politics. As Nashwa Khan writes:

Witnessing white feminists find ways to make themselves feel better about this lack of diversity in a movie they really want to love points to a larger problem. A big part of feminism is race, but these self-imposed blinders suggest that as long as a movie appeases white feminists, they will not question in solidarity why we women of color are absent.

Khan’s critique highlights the problem of feminist discourse that omits anti-racist critique and fantasizes the struggle as being between cis women and men (holding race constant). In other words, this type of feminism (AKA White Feminism) prioritizes the concerns of White (economically secure, heterosexual, cisgender, mainstream, Global North) women.


As with many Hollywood films, the plot of Fury Road incorporates several familiar Judeo-Christian symbols and cultural narratives. In this case the film features themes of redemption and witnessing, as well as crucifix/savior metaphors.

Redemption: Along their journey in Fury Road, Max and Furiosa both state that they are looking for “redemption.” For Max, it is possible that the redemption he seeks is due to guilt about not saving his young daughter who has apparently died (but who haunts him throughout the film). Clues about Furiosa’s need for redemption are more opaque. (Did she engage in unholy sexual or violent practices after being stolen as a child?). But from a Christian perspective explanations are unnecessary: all are considered to be born of sin and hence in need of redemption.

Witnessing: When Christians speak of “witnessing,” they do not mean that they just watched something happen. To “witness” means that one spreads the word to as many people as possible about how one was personally saved by Jesus’ sacrifice.

But in order to demonstrate the importance of good/God witnessing, the film first illustrates examples of bad witnessing. Namely, the practice of War Boys maniacally yelling “Witness me!” before sacrificing themselves for the evil cause of Immortan Joe (who reassures them that this will allow them to the afterlife of Vahalla and live again.) Christian writer Brett McCracken interprets the War Boy sacrifices as a reference to radical Islam’s suicide bombers, and I concur. (I also see reflections of the death of Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi in the mob celebration and maltreatment of Immortan Joe’s body after his death).

MM they helped us
Furiosa reassuring the Vulvalini leaders that the Max and Nux are “reliable.”

This theme of witnessing, in the Christian sense of the word, begins to be practiced after Furiosa introduces Max and Nux (the former War Boy who has now switched teams) to her Matriarchal tribe, the Vuvalini. The matriarchs ask: “The men – who are they?” Furiosa reassures them that: “They’re reliable. They helped us get here.”

But the importance of witnessing good/God men is most obvious in the climax of the film when Nux sacrifices himself to kill Rictus Erectus (AKA Big Dick) — the only viable surviving son of Immortan Joe. In an emotionally powerful scene, the camera focuses on longing looks between Nux and his love interest, Capable (one of the former sex slaves, riding in the war rig ahead). Nux points to Capable, whispers “witness me” and then deliberately crashes his rig, killing both himself and Rictus Erectus.

In contrast to the crazed “witness me!” yelling by the War Boys, Nux’s words are not an order. But they are also not an ask. Capable (i.e. a woman capable of loving a flawed man in seek of redemption) is required to witness his sacrifice and hence his redemption as a good man.

Witness me(n)
“Witness me”: Nux’s last words to Capable before sacrificing himself so that others may be saved.


While most of the film’s critical attention has been placed on Furiosa and Max, for me it is clear that Nux and Capable are the soul of Fury Road. The film gestures toward the possibility of Max being a savior (at one point his hand and head are pierced with a long sharp object). But in the words of Capable, it is Nux who has the “manifest destiny.”  As she later witnesses to her tribe of women: “he’ll be bringing us home, bring back what was stolen, as he’s meant to.”

Film critic Scott Beggs Nux is one of the few (apparently) secular reviewers who noted Fury Road‘s religious themes, calling Nux “a genuine Christ figure” because “he seeks death, wrestles with his doubts, recognizes that his god has forsaken him, and then sacrifices himself so that all of humanity can have another chance at redemption.” But what he and the other religiously-informed reviewers tend to miss are the how the Christian themes intersect with contemporary sexual politics.

For me, the moral of Fury Road is this: Women (specifically, White Feminists) must give credit to good White men who renounce their former evil ways. If they do so, together they may return stolen women/sex slaves, defeat the monster men, and lift womankind up into safety and security.


As I have written elsewhere, Hollywood stories about “sex slaves” have weight beyond just the box office — they actually end up reinforcing ideologies that can justify policies which focus on marginalized women, including sex workers, as being in need of rescue by organizations run by White feminists and Good White men.

It is thus not surprising that Eve Ensler, of Vagina Monologues fame, has used the film as a platform to dispense hype about “sex trafficking” as well as heap praise on director George Miller. In an interview with Time Magazine, Ensler describes Miller as a feminist, and explains that her consulting work for the film involved discussion about “sex trafficking in America, which is rampant.” (For a critical academic perspective on Ensler’s claim, see Ann Jordan’s “Fact or Fiction: What do we really know about human trafficking?”).

Given Ensler’s stature as a feminist spokesperson, is also important to note that she (as well as Charleze Theron, and several other Hollywood celebrities) signed a petition that opposed Amnesty International’s historic and important move to work for decriminalization of sex work.

Finally, imagine if this story was centered on White supremacy rather than patriarchy, with POC cast as slaves who are required to witness White people’s sacrifices and redemption, and then rely on more White people to lift them into power. Unfortunately, such a storyline is not difficult to imagine. As Brittney Cooper observed in the controversy over the 2015 film Selma (dir., Ava DuVernay), when Hollywood stories shift the gaze away from White heroes, racist backlash happens.

A (Fury) road for White men’s redemption

After now “witnessing” Fury Road several times, I have come to appreciate much about the film. (In addition to my earlier praise,  I am drawn to Fury Road‘s powerful visual and musical aesthetic). At the same time, the unsettling political undercurrents for me are bright as day. In the opening scene of Fury Road Max explains that he was once a cop, a road warrior in search of a righteous cause; similarly, the current End Demand (anti-prostitution) movement offers policemen and others a morally righteous mechanism to distinguish Good from Bad men. While both Fury Road and the End Demand movement provide the public with gripping tales of sex slavery focused on Good vs. Evil men, neither narrative addresses the sexist, racist, and hyper capitalist ideologies and policies that contribute to war, violence against women, exploitation of labor and natural resources, extreme inequality, and mass incarceration. Nor are such morality tales typically very useful for broad based movements for economic, racial, and sexual justice. On the other hand, both Fury Road and End Demand give Good White men the hope for blessings from Capable White feminists, which in turn further secures their position at the top of a remodeled White supremacist patriarchy.











Does it matter when popular stories about “sex trafficking” are based on half-truths, junk science, and/or religious beliefs? Given that many people are interested in the issue of human trafficking in general and human trafficking in the sex industry in particular, it is critical that we face the consequences of stories told in the name of rescuing girls and women.

Since the passing of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA), stories of human trafficking have been well integrated into the American cultural imagination. While there are now many more reliable scholarly resources on human trafficking today then there were at the turn of the 21st century, many individuals still derive most of their knowledge about human trafficking from sensationalistic media stories about so-called “sex trafficking.” [i]

In the United States, mediated stories of human trafficking of sex workers vary around specific contextual details of who, when, and where, but they consistently portray the same messages about why and how. Hollywood action-adventure characterizations of victims and villains are deployed; complex structural problems are squeezed into personal morality tales; and the stories are then used by anti-sex work politicians and activists to justify heightened forms of criminal punishment. While the stories may have popular appeal, evidence suggests that more criminalization actually hurts all sex workers across the continuum of privilege and oppression.

The argument I will make here is organized around the following interrelated points:

  1. We must critically interrogate dominant stories told about people in the sex industry. (There are numerous examples, but I will focus here on the content and impact of recent feature length film in particular, The Abduction of Eden);
  2. Such stories justify the criminal punishment system via rescue/capture methods as an avenue for social justice (this includes laws being proposed right now in Washington State);
  3. Because the criminal punishment system has a long history of destroying the lives of poor people and people of color — including those of sex workers — academics and activists concerned about people in the sex trade need to rethink this entire set of dominant stories and strategies.

1. Demonizing tales
While there are a plethora of sensationalized media stories about coercion, abuse, and trafficking in the sex industry one recent story – Abduction of Eden (AKA Eden, released 2012) – provides a powerful blend of Hollywood and Biblical tropes. This in combination with the promise that Eden is a “true” story makes it a productive one for understanding the relationship between American cultural storytelling and political policies about sex work and human trafficking.

Eden is a feature length film directed by Seattle filmmaker Megan Griffiths derived from the allegedly true story of Chong Kim. The protagonist (actress Jamie Chung) – a naïve 17 year old girl with hard working, Korean immigrant, Christian parents – is kidnapped and brought to a warehouse/jail with dozens of thin, young, feminine, cisgender, and (mostly white) girls who are forced to stand obediently in line wearing identical white underwear-tanktop sets. The protagonist’s (now renamed “Eden”) first assignment is on a BDSM porn set; she sobs as her hands are handcuffed and pulled upward. At her next job Eden attempts a dramatic escape; bloody and screaming she runs into a suburban backyard with white women drinking white wine (they don’t call the police and Eden is recaptured). We learn that Eden’s best friend in the prison/brothel was stolen at age 13, and when her friend gets pregnant and gives birth, her baby is also stolen and sold. A message portrayed in Eden is that when girls disobey or simply grow too old for the work (20+ years of age) they are executed. The film also implies that this sex trafficking operation is part of an international network directed from outside the US. Although the external controller is never named, there are Russian men working for the operation and Dubai is frequently mentioned. This includes a scene where the drug-addicted supervisor (Vaughn/Matt O’Leary) threatens Svletlana (Naama Kates), a blonde Russian woman with being sent back to Dubai, where she “can get dicked by donkeys all day.”

If these themes are not enough to convince the average American viewer that the world of sex work is pure evil (relying on enslaved cisgender girls enacting forced BDSM porn and probably dictated by an international network of men from Russia and the Middle East who have sex with donkeys), the film hits home the message with multiple Biblical references and metaphors.

This includes the obvious metaphor about the Garden of Eden. It also includes a scene where God appears in the body of a tall white deputy named Ron Greer (Tony Doupe). When Greer questions the corrupt, murderous federal marshal Bob Gault (Beau Bridges) about his possible role in a double homicide, Gault/Bridges looks upward with fear in his eyes and says: “Lord. How are your leads coming?” When Greer informs him that his cell phone activity was picked up near the scene of the crime, Gault replies: “I’ll be damned.” Greer responds: “Well I surely hope not.

Beau Bridges in a screen shot from Abduction of Eden. Bridges is a devout Christian who reportedly refuses to accept roles that take the Lord’s name in vain, when he says “Lord” and “I’ll be damned” – I think we should assume that he means it literally
Beau Bridges in a screen shot from Abduction of Eden. Bridges is reportedly a devout Christian who refuses to accept roles that take the Lord’s name in vain. So when he says “Lord” and “I’ll be damned” I think we should assume he means it literally.

What Eden viewers may not be aware of is that there are many counter-narratives to the “truth” claims of such messages. For example:

  • While there are certainly degrees of coercion or lack of choice found in all jobs especially unregulated or informal economy labor including the sex industry, the portrayal of a warehouse of dozens of kidnapped teenage girls being forced to be prostitutes is simply not consistent with reliable data about the experiences of contemporary sex workers, especially as practiced in the U.S.
  • Individuals representing a spectrum of genders, sexes, races, ages, social classes, sexual orientations, and body types work as sex workers.
  • BDSM is a consensual sexual lifestyle choice for many people as is participation in pornography – but both of these activities have long been demonized by conservative feminists and religious groups. The stigma and fear of BDSM and porn can thus be used as an easy tool to invoke shock and horror from people who are morally opposed to both.
  • Despite narratives about international “sex trafficking rings,” critical criminologists describe trafficking in the sex industry as better described as “crime that is organized” (rather than “organized crime”).[ii]
  • Eden was produced and consumed within a broader U.S. cultural context where fictitious claims about “sex trafficking” are common, ranging from grossly inflated and unreliable global estimates, to thorough highly debunked claims that the Superbowl creates an uptick in sexual slavery, and statistically untenable assertions that the “average age” of women entering prostitution is 13-14.[iii]
  • As it turned out, none of the content of Eden was based in truth. In June of 2014 multiple investigators into Chong Kim’s story found that she lied about the everything.[iv] Kim was investigated and charged for fraud by a variety of anti-trafficking organizations.[v] But Eden still had several years of celebrity adoration before this news broke.

Initial mainstream responses to Eden
Even before its official release, mainstream (non-sex worker and non-allied) audiences and critics went wild over the story of Eden. While many found the performances impressive and the action-adventure storyline gripping, what sealed Eden’s critical success was that people believed that this story was true. Feminist and women’s groups, churches, and film festivals sponsored screenings; awards were given, local anti-sex work/trafficking politicians were featured, people became enraged en masse and were motivated to join the crusade. The text of Eden folded seamlessly into the curriculum of U.S.-based anti-sex trafficking efforts with its images of taped mouths, chained wrists risen toward the heavens, “in our own backyard” and “stolen innocence” messages, and the idea that the average age of sex trafficked girls in the U.S. is age 13. The true story of Eden appeared to be an American anti-sex trafficking activist’s dream come true.

Even mainstream/secular journalists converted to Eden’s cause, infusing their reviews with Judeo-Christian language and imagery. David Schmader of the progressive Seattle based periodical The Stranger called Eden “a miracle.”[vi] James Rocchi of MSN Entertainment described Eden as “a rewarding, righteous example of how fiction can tell the truth.”

In June 2014, the “true story” sex trafficking film, Eden, was exposed as having no basis in truth. In September 2014 the official website for Eden was still claiming that the film is based on a true story. By at least early February 2015 the website had completely vanished. Director Megan Griffiths, Producer Colin Plank and others affiliated with the film have given no public explanation or apology for the fraudulent story, their strange silence about the controversy, or the disappearance of their website.

Anti-sex work apologists may try to explain away the embarrassment around Eden (as well as other high profile “sex trafficking” stories)[vii] as just an anomaly, or as a few people stretching the truth for a good cause. But Eden is just the visible cultural iceberg of a story that has already become embedded into U.S. policing practices.

2. Context of U.S. policing & criminalizing policies
Part of the reason for the success of Eden is that it was preaching to an American choir that already had the why and the how part of the story in place. It also complemented dominant approaches to end trafficking in the sex industry that feature coercive “law and order” methods where participants are either forced to be rescued/reprogrammed or captured/incarcerated. The rescue side is led predominantly by well-meaning (and mostly white) middle-class women and men (Christians, social workers, feminists) attempting to “save” cisgender girls and women from sex work. The capture side is directed by (predominantly white) men in policing agencies (police, FBI, Homeland Security) who capture girls and women for rescue and men for punishment.

The dynamics between the rescuers/rescued and capturers/captured can also underscore racist power relations. To borrow from Gayatri Spivak’s famous phrase, “white men are saving brown women from brown men”[viii]: Anti-sex trafficking crusaders are often white men and women saving (all cisgender) women from (black and brown) men.

However, we are now in a cultural moment – thanks in part to the Black Lives Matter movement – where many white middle class people are collectively and finally having an epiphany around the reality of police brutality, mass incarceration, and criminalization of everyday life for poor communities and communities of color.[ix] But what many people have not yet made the connection on is how these same principles need to be applied when evaluating the war on trafficking.[x] This war combines many of the same strategies from the “war on drugs” and the “war on terror” (targeting “urban gangs,” people of color and immigrants) to create even more invasive policing and surveillance mechanisms of marginalized people’s everyday lives.

This brings me to the current legislative climate in Washington State: the location where Eden was produced. Washington is currently facing several new state legislature bills intending to create more criminal penalties for clients of sex workers[xi]. The bills are largely generated and coordinated from the desk of Washington State senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who is a long time supporter of state level anti-trafficking legislation.

An earlier anti-trafficking bill (also sponsored by Kohl-Welles) resulted in harsh felony punishment for domestic “traffickers” in Washington State. The first individual sentenced under this new law in 2009 was a 19-year-old African American man working as a pimp/manager/boyfriend to a group of young African American women in West Seattle.[xii] He sits now with many other young men of color in prison, many of whom were first incarcerated under the failed and racially discriminatory “war on drugs,” and now also increasingly incarcerated in the name of the war on “sex trafficking.”

With Federal and State punishments now locked in for “traffickers” in Washington State, the new set of proposed state laws are now set on the clients as part of the “end the demand” approach (AKA the “Nordic Model”). The idea is that if men are given harsh enough criminal and social punishments for buying sex, then they will stop trying to buy it. This is a popular idea with contemporary anti-sex work activists despite the fact that:

  • there is no reliable empirical evidence to support that this approach is helpful for reducing harms to sex workers,[xiii]
  • leading global health experts oppose any form of criminalization in the sex industry due to the health harms it poses for sex workers,[xiv]
  • sex worker activists and advocates have consistently documented the harms of criminalization and policing on the well-being and human rights of people in the sex industry,[xv]
  • these policies criminalize sexual interactions between consenting adults, and:
  • more criminalization ≠ social justice.

Is there a connection between sensationalist “sex trafficking” stories such as Eden and policies that hyper-criminalize the sex industry? I think there is. Not only do these stories serve as a popular master narrative around the sex industry; in this case the critical acclaim for Eden (and its director, Megan Griffiths) is also intertwined with the success of Kohl-Welles’s push for increasingly harsh anti-sex trafficking legislation in Washington State. At a May 2013 screening of Eden, Kohl-Welles was featured as an expert on sex trafficking; Kohl-Welles subsequently supported the Motion Picture Competitiveness Bill in Washington State, which directly benefits filmmakers like Griffiths. In October 2014 Griffiths spoke in support to Kohl-Welles’ re-election.

3. Work with sex workers, not against them
Many progressive individuals and communities aspire to support the war against trafficking, and want to trust that laws that criminalize men actors will help girls and women who are coerced, abused, or trafficked in the sex industry. However, evidence from global health and human rights researchers consistently show that more criminalization hurts all sex workers across the continuum of privilege and oppression.

Because of the harms of criminalization:

  • We must insist that the voices of a diverse range of sex workers be included in all panels and policy discussions that impact them.[xvi]
  • It is time for class- and race-privileged individuals to examine their own complicity in supporting sensationalistic stories and moralistic rescue/capture policing strategies.
  • People concerned about exploitation in the sex industry should join activists working for the labor and human rights of people working in the sex industry. This includes opposition to criminalization of consensual adult sexual exchanges.
  • Rather than seek to punish individuals who are already marginalized, and/or punish people for engaging in adult consensual sex, it is time to work with sex workers against systemic punishment, criminalization, and institutional exclusion of women, people of color, poor people, trans* individuals, undocumented people, and homeless youth – many of whom rely on the informal economy including sex work.

If you care about improving the lives of people in the sex trade it is time to advocate for a greater diversity of sex worker stories and perspectives on how to first discuss and then solve coercion and abuse in the sex industry. There may certainly still be space for religious beliefs and metaphors in this wider diversity of stories and plot lines. However, if one truly listens to the bottom line perspectives of sex workers around the world, it will become clear that we need to look beyond the criminal punishment system for solving social justice issues.


References and further readings:

This essay is an extension of an argument that I made in an earlier publication, which was featured as a dialogue/debate amongst experts on human trafficking: Lerum, K. 2014 (Winter). “Human Wrongs vs. Human Rights.” Contexts.

For the 5th year in a row, Sexuality & Society brings you its (highly subjective and mostly North American/U.S.-centered) list of top ten sexual stories of the year!

One of the satisfying aspects of compiling these stories each year is noticing their connections to past stories. Collectively, these “sexual” stories are critical to the societal narratives that are told and retold and sometimes sold to make sense of our lives. Below are some of the stories which struck us as worth retelling and analyzing…..Check out our lists for 200920102011, and 2012!

Also: We maintain an active Facebook Page — please find us there as well!


10. Iowa court says it’s ok to fire women who are “irresistible”

This story is so ludicrous that it is difficult to believe that it is not out of The Onion. Nonetheless, it relies on 19th Century Victorian notions of femininity whereby women were viewed as responsible for controlling men’s sexual desires, and thus ensuing calls for modesty were viewed as minimizing the possibility of sexual attention from men. See below for a 2013 version of this Victorian mentality:

Melissa Nelson was fired because her boss found himself unable to restrain himself around her “irresistible” charms. An all male jury and judge agreed that the scourge of irrisistible women must be stopped.

(CNN) — Melissa Nelson lost her bid Friday to have Iowa’s top court reverse its ruling that held the former dental assistant did not suffer gender bias when she was fired for being “irresistible.”

The Iowa Supreme Court stood by its December finding that Dr. James Knight was legally able to fire the assistant after his wife became concerned about the relationship between the two.

Knight’s conduct was not sex discrimination in violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act, the court said.

The all-male court had previously ruled against Nelson, finding that employees who are seen as an “irresistible attraction” by their employers can be fired in such circumstances.


 9. Susan B. Komen rejects money donated by exotic dancers 

The Pink foundation has made our list for a second year in a row …. (remember last year, when they cut funding to Planned Parenthood due to anti-abortion politics within the foundation? But then they changed their mind?). This year they kept themselves under the public radar but still received some press when they refused money from a fundraiser held by exotic dancers. Their rationale? “Southern Nevada’s Executive Director Stephanie Kirby said it’s Susan G. Komen’s national policy to not partner with certain businesses, especially ones that may sexualize women.”

“It just doesn’t fall in line with who we are as an organization. There are too many survivors out there who no longer have the body part that is being displayed at a lot of these shows,” Kirby said.”

One of many T-shirts available for purchase at the Save the Ta-Tas Foundation.


Meanwhile, the Komen Foundation also appears to be consistent in their distancing from sexualized breasts as they have no official partnership with the Save the Ta-Ta’s Foundation — a breast cancer research and for-profit organization which sells T-shirts like “Save a life; grope your wife.”

8. Teen girls criminalized for their consensual sexual relationships

Kailyn Hunt (18) was prosecuted and eventually jailed for her relationship with a 14 year old girl.

In the state of Florida the age of sexual consent is 16. The problem is that the age of sexual exploration is much earlier than this. Given increased attention to the issue of child sexual abuse over the past couple of decades (a good thing), there have been many cases of older teenage partners now being defined as sex offenders, even if the relationship with consensual and non-violent (a bad thing). This is what appears to have happened to Kaitlyn Hunt, who was 18 when she entered into a sexual relationship with a girl four years her junior. The younger girl’s parents objected, and found that they could enforce their objections by law. Given the threat of going to prison and being a registered sex offender, Hunt chose a plea bargain, plead guilty to all charges and is now in jail. (Source:

See also:


7.  Russia instigates state-sponsored terrorism against sexual, ethnic, and artistic diversity (e.g.: gay people, labor migrants, and the punk rock band Pussy Riot).

Since 2011, thousand of people have gathered for Anti-Putin demonstrations such as this one in Moscow. See:–13_Russian_protests

In June of 2013, Putin signed into law an “anti-gay propaganda bill” which sought to punish individuals for “promoting” homosexuality. The law imposes fines for those members of society who “disseminate information at minors that are directed at forming nontraditional sexual setups” or which cause “distorted understandings” that gay and heterosexual relationships are “equivalent.”  (see

AmericaBlog reported on these events by stating that “Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law … one of the most draconian anti-gay laws on the planet.” (right up there with Uganda: see # 6 below).

“The new law, coming only seven months before Russia is to host the Winter Olympics in Sochi, would ban anything considered pro-gay, from gay-affirmative speech, to gays holding hands in public, to even wearing rainbow suspenders. The law also contains a provision permitting the government to arrest and detain gay, or pro-gay, foreigners for up to 14 days before they would then be expelled from the country. That provision ought to send chills to anyone gay, lesbians, bisexual or transgender who is planning to attend or participate in the Winter Olympics.” (see:

The Russian media is also under fire by Putin: One Russian news media outlet is now under investigation for reporting on a gay teacher who was recently fired for being gay (he was said to teach that gay relationships are equivalent to heterosexual relationships). The news coverage did not report negatively (enough) about the gay teacher. (see

While the Putin regime is also instigating crackdowns on ethnic minority labor migrants in Moscow, there is an increased movement to oppose Putin’s politics both inside and outside of Russia. The recently released members of the Punk band, Pussy Riot — imprisoned for two years as punishment for their anti-Putin demonstration in an Orthodox Russian Church — have promised to be part of this ongoing movement for greater sexual and social justice in Russia. See:

6. U.S. preacher behind Uganda “kill the gays” efforts will be tried for crimes against humanity

Since 2009 we have been following the story about the connection between US conservative evangelical preachers and the push by some lawmakers in Uganda for strident and violent anti-gay laws. See our first post on this here:  

Scott Lively, a US based anti-gay evangelical pastor who went to Uganda to preach his hatred, is now being tried for crimes against humanity.

Despite widespread global opposition, a version of this bill passed on Dec. 20, 2013. However, the story continues to evolve with now Ugandan GLBT activists pushing for accountability for the U.S. religious leaders who stirred up this mess. In what is being called a “landmark decision” .. “a federal US judge (has) ruled that the case filed by a Ugandan LGBT advocacy group against American anti-gay evangelist Scott Lively, for his collaboration with religious and government officials in Uganda that lead to the introduction of the African nation’s “Kill the Gays” bill, will be allowed to proceed.”

“As reported in Gay Star News, Michael Ponsor, the US District Judge in Massachusetts, said “Widespread, systematic persecution of LGBTI people constitutes a crime against humanity that unquestionably violates international norms.” This marks the first ruling by a federal U.S. judge calling the persecution of LGBT persons a crime against humanity, possibly setting a precedent for the human rights of sexual minorities will be protected under international law.”

“The case against Lively stems from the evangelist’s 2009 lecture tour of Uganda, the theme of which according to its Ugandan organizer, was “the gay agenda – and the threat homosexuals posed to Bible-based values and the traditional African family.”

A 2010 article published in , The New York Times, wrote about on one of Lively’s speaking engagements in Uganda.”[T]housands of Ugandans, including police officers, teachers and national politicians,” reportedly attended the conference. Lively and his colleagues “discussed how to make gay people straight, how gay men often sodomized teenage boys and how ’the gay movement is an evil institution’ whose goal is ’to defeat the marriage-based society and replace it with a culture of sexual promiscuity.’” Lively wrote days later that “someone had likened their campaign to ’a nuclear bomb against the gay agenda in Uganda.’” (Source:

5. Regnerus’ anti-gay “study” condemned by the American Sociological Association 

The past year showed us not just that U.S. based anti-gay pastors have influenced the laws of other countries (see #4 above), but that flawed empirical studies conducted by credentialed researchers can also inflict malicious impacts. The most striking example of this can be seen with the case of Mark Regnerus, who has a Ph.D. in sociology and is an Associate Professor at University of Texas, Austin. In the words of John Becker from The Huffington Post:

“The study was widely discredited for its flawed methodology, its wildly inaccurate conclusions and its alleged partiality. Nonetheless, it has been breathlessly touted by the anti-gay right as evidence justifying their opposition to equal marriage rights for same-sex couples. Many of the Supreme Court briefs filed by equality opponents rely on the Regnerus study, but the American Sociological Association — Regnerus’ own professional organization — has just demolished those arguments.”

Indeed, given its serious flaws combined with the intent by anti-gay activists to use it to justify anti-gay discrimination, leaders of ASAthe American Sociological Association have roundly condemned Regnerus’ study, including but not limited to the 42 page Supreme Court brief in support of overturning the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

Fortunately, law makers in the U.S. are also listening to the reasoning of the ASA as well as human rights activists to nip in the bud any ongoing legal influence of the Regnerus study. On November 12, 2013, we saw this news from a Florida judge:

In today’s opinion, Orange County Circuit Judge Donald Grincewicz ruled that emails and documents possessed by University of Central Florida (UCF) related to the flawed study’s peer-review process must be turned over to John Becker, who sought the documents under Florida’s Public Records Act. UCF houses the journal Social Science Research, which published the Regnerus study, and the editor of the journal, UCF Professor James Wright, led the peer-review process for the research. Becker is represented by the Law Office of Andrea Flynn Mogensen, P.A., and Barrett, Chapman & Ruta, P.A; and the Human Rights Campaign Foundation funded the litigation. (Source: Human Rights Campaign press release found at

While Regnerus’ study has been discredited by experts and law makers in the United States, other law makers with malicious anti-gay intent have and will continue to grasp at any “evidence” which supports anti-gay messages. For example, in Russia (see #6 above) the Regnerus study was presented to the Russian legislature and may have played a role in supporting Russia’s recent move to outlaw non-heterosexuality. See:

4.  Transgender justice and visibility 

Laverne Cox plays the role of Sophia Burset, a transwoman prisoner in Orange is the New Black.
Laverne Cox plays the role of Sophia Burset, a transwoman prisoner in Orange is the New Black.

In 2013, many tuned into U.S.-based media and saw several stories featuring transgender individuals and issues. Perhaps the most visible faces were Chelsea (formerly: Bradley) Manning — a U.S. solider who was incarcerated for releasing war-related documents to Wikileaks; and Laverne Cox, one of the stars of the Netflix series hit centered in a women’s prison, Orange is the New Black.

The media attention on the real life and fictional stories of Manning and Cox inspired a press release from the Sylvia Rivera Law Project on “the realties for transgender and gender non-conforming people in prison, jails, and detention centers:”

A significant amount of media fascination with transgender people in prison is about accessing surgery and focusing on the criminalized act underlying an individual’s sentence. Not only do transgender people in prison have problems accessing healthcare, but they experience a heightened level of gender policing.  The clothing they wear, their hairstyles and grooming practices, their bodies, mannerisms and identities are scrutinized and controlled by the state.  Any deviance from norms can lead to violence at the hands of corrections officers or other people who are incarcerated.  Legal “protections” are hard to access as there is little accountability on the inside.  If one is brave enough to risk retaliation and file a grievance, they must follow up with that grievance and timely appeal any denials.  It is not until those appeals (usually two) are denied that one can access the court system.  Finding a lawyer or representing one’s self pro se (without a lawyer) is another difficult barrier that one must overcome, as SRLP’s report IT’S WAR IN HERE has documented.”

Beyond high rates of incarceration, trangender individuals also face an alarming rate of violence and harassment in the US and worldwide and this intersects with race, class, and other social locations. According to a recent report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, in the U.S., LGBTQ people of color experience 1.8 times the violence of white LGBTQ individuals. 73% of all LGBTQ homicide victims are people of color. Transgender people are 3 times more likely to experience police violence than non-transgender individuals, with transgender women experiencing the highest rates.

In one legal step toward transgender rights, in August 2013, Jerry Brown signed into law AB1266 that offered the right for individuals “to participate in sex-segregated programs, activities and facilities” (including bathrooms) based on their gender identity rather than by birth sex. Predictably, conservative groups and religious individuals immediately rallied in protest, creating a new “war on privacy rights.”  California Republicans support a referendum that is being prepared to overturn AB1266. While the law goes into effect on January 1, 2014 and the state plans to continue to issue same-sex marriage licenses, there could be enough signatures on Jan 8 against same-sex marriage to push the referendum process forward. We’ll be watching this case unfold in 2014.

3. The Papacy changes its guard

Despite the fact the the majority of the world is not Catholic, the Pope, as leader of the Worldwide Catholic Church, tends to have a lot of influence on sexual politics. (Recent church statistics indicate that 17.5% of the world’s population is Catholic). The Changing of Papal leadership was important in several ways, including the historic resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of the left-leaning Pope Francis.

The old (Pope Benedict XVI , left) vs. the new (Pope Francis, right). Source:

“Pope Francis faulted the Roman Catholic church for focusing too much on gays, abortion and contraception, saying the church has become “obsessed” with those issues to the detriment of its larger mission to be “home for all,” according to an extensive new interview published Thursday.

The church can share its views on homosexuality, abortion and other issues, but should not “interfere spiritually” with the lives of gays and lesbians, the Pope added in the interview, which was published in La Civilta Cattolica, a Rome-based Jesuit journal.

“We have to find a new balance, otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel,” Francis said in the interview.

“The church has sometimes locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules,” Francis said. “The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials.” (source:

2. Utah finds itself in a pickle about its marriage politics.

Utah, a state founded by members of the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormon) church, has long been a bit of an outsider compared to the rest of the nation; indeed it was only after leaders defined marriage as being between one man and one woman that it was accepted into statehood. This was after a long history of plural marriages:

In 1852 church leaders publicized the previously secret practice of plural marriage, a form of polygamy.[52] Over the next 50 years many Mormons (between 20% and 30% of Mormon families)[53] entered into plural marriages as a religious duty, with the number of plural marriages reaching a peak around 1860, and then declining through the rest of the century. (source:

Given the need for the Mormon church to divorce itself from plural marriages it is likely that for Mormon leaders, the moral mantra of monogamous heterosexual marriage is likely undergirded by an ongoing quest for mainstream assimilation. Indeed the success of Proposition 8, the anti-gay marriage ballot proposition in the 2008 California elections, can largely be connected to money from the Mormon Church, which is headquartered in Salt Lake City Utah.  (See, for example the documentary 8: the Mormon Proposition.)

Thus, when in December, a federal judge struck down Utah’s anti-polygamy stance on the grounds that one cannot “prohibitsister-wives-season-4 cohabitation” mainstream Mormon religious leaders were not happy. The challenge to the law was brought by the Reality TV star Kody Brown who stars along with his four female partners (and 17 children) in the reality TV show “Sister Wives.” The Brown family successfully argued that the Utah cohabitation law violated their rights to privacy and to religious freedom.

Ironically, during the same month, Federal Officials also shot down Utah’s discrimination against same-sex marriage — thus striking down the original requirement by the Feds a century and a half earlier that Utah define marriage as a dyad between one man and one woman. U.S. District Court Judge Robert Shelby stated that the law to ban same-sex marriage conflicted with the U.S. Constitution which guarantees equal protection and due process. Thus even though 2/3 of the voters voted to ban same-sex marriage on a ballot in 2004, in 2013 Utah became the 18th state in the United States (17 states and the District of Columbia) that allows same-sex couples to be legally married.

utah.gayWhile same-sex couples flooded the county clerk’s office seeking to be married, movements to reverse both legal the Utah polygamy and same sex marriage decisions are underway. We’ll be following both stories as they progress in 2014.




1. Two victories for sex workers’ rights: Decriminalization of Prostitution in Canada, and the repeal of the Anti-Prostitution Pledge

Finally, we end with two major developments in support of global rights and justice for individuals who work in the sex trade.decriminalize-prostitution-men

The movement for decriminalization of prostitution (much like that of moves historically and currently against criminalization of homosexuality) — arises out of the work of a range of global human rights activists. And after years of work by Canadian activists, on December 20, 2013 prostitution was decriminalized in Canada.

“The Supreme Court of Canada has struck down the country’s major prostitution laws, saying that bans on street soliciting, brothels and people living off the avails of prostitution create severe dangers for vulnerable women and therefore violate Canadians’ basic values.

Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, writing for a unanimous court, stressed that the ruling is not about whether prostitution should be legal or not, but about whether Parliament’s means of controlling it infringe the constitutional rights of prostitutes.” (source:

This ruling comes on the heels of an important statement stemming from the United Nations in 2012 calling for decriminalization of prostitution in Asia. (See:

In a similar spirit, in June of 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the Anti-Prostituion Pledge, stating that “it is a violation of the First Amendment for the federal government to force groups to endorse the government’s views opposing prostitution in order to receive funding to combat AIDS overseas.” (Source:  Finally! A brief breath of relief from global health workers and sex worker activists across the globe — but more work needs to be done as this ruling still only protects US-based organizations.


Happy New Year from Sexuality & Society! Thanks to all the activists, scholars, and practitioners working towards sexual and social justice. May 2014 be filled with stories of hope and justice.

As the Gregorian calendar year officially comes to a close, we offer once again a sampling of the year’s top ten sexual stories. While certainly not a complete, in-depth, or globally representative list, we do think that this list contains snippets that have both disturbing and hopeful implications for sexual justice.

10. Rick Perry steals gay, secular icons to create anti-gay Christmas message

Rick Perry in a replica of the jacket worn by Heath Ledger in "Brokeback Mountain."

 “​By now, you’ve probably seen Rick Perry’s “Strong” ad, in which he opines, “There’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.” Not only are gays in our military, they’re also composing music for our campaign ads. As the Harvard Political Reviewpoints out, the music that plays in the background of Perry’s ad is inspired by or directly taken from Aaron Copland, a gay composer.” (Nick Greene, Dec. 10, 2011, Village Voice).

9. Herman Cain tests Mainstream American Media: What’s worse in a political candidate: Assault or Affair?

Presidential hopeful Herman Cain’s campaign abruptly crashed and burned after news media learned of his long time extra-marital lover. But this was after his multiple cases of sexual harrassment and assault against his former employees were also aired. Most news media, including reputable news outlets like the Washington Post, failed to differentiate between Cain’s alleged criminal and consensual acts, using the language of “accusation” to describe both. See for example this story with a headline of “Ginger White accuses Herman Cain of long affair.”

…”Cain denied the accusations. In an interview that aired before White’s allegations were broadcast, Cain told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that he knows White and that the two had been friends but that there had been no sexual contact and no “affair.” He characterized their relationship as “trying to help a friend” because of her “not having a job etcetera and this sort of thing.””

The story then goes on to simply state that:

“This month, Cain was accused of sexually harassing several women.”

Such lack of differentiation between criminal and consensual sexual scandals is common among contemporary American mainstream media. Gratefully, Amanda Marcotte (Alternet, Nov. 30, 2011) provides a helpful guide for assessing the significance different kinds of sex scandals. See Marcotte’s article here: “6 Kinds of Sex Scandals: What Should be exposed? What should be left private?”

8. Wienergate

… AND speaking of the need to have more sophisticated interpretative filters around why and how some Wieners constitute a “scandal” … see article above, again. … See also our post about Anthony Weiner:

“In contrast to the Dutch, Americans love sex scandals. We love them so much that in a good year we produce and consume not just one of these high-profile scandals, but several. For many of us interested in sexual justice, the juiciest stories are those of the hypocrites: the Elliot Spitzers who lead anti-prostitute campaigns while purchasing sex; the George Rekers who champion the anti-gay movement while hiring “rent boys,” and the Newt Gingrichs who lead impeachment hearings while engaging in their own extra-marital affairs.”

7.  Obama’s Secretary of Health & Human Services overrules the FDA, pulls “morning after” pill 

Kathleen Sebelius overrules FDA recommendation

“In what can only be called an astounding move by an Administration that pledged on inauguration day that medical and health decisions would be based on fact not ideology and for which women are a major constituency, today Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) overruled a much-awaited decision by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to make emergency contraception (EC) available over-the-counter (OTC) to women of all ages.

According to the New York Times, “no health secretary has ever [overruled an FDA decision] before.”  See Jodi Jacobsen’s full story in RhReality Check here.

6.  The politics of Rape. Rape committed by men against women was frequently in the news during 2011, not because the dynamics of it have changed (it’s always about maintaining/exerting symbolic power), but because some people and institutions have found new tactics of exerting and/or maintaining heterosexism. Here’s a sampling of three such tactics.

Ms Magazine posted several stories on rape this year. This image comes from:

5. Penn State & masculinist cultures of sexual abuse.  Rape and sexual abuse committed by men against boys was again in the news this year. While the Catholic Church and the Military managed to avoid serious spotlight time in 2011, another site of masculine privileged culture — American college football –wasn’t as lucky.

“With former Penn State football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky charged with sexually abusing children—and school officials including iconic former football coach Joe Paterno dismissed for purportedly failing to report Sandusky’s alleged crimes to law enforcement—many observers have compared the situation to a series of similar cases that have rocked the Vatican.”

See: What the Catholic Church can teach us about the Penn State Scandal.” (Patrick Hruby, The Atlantic, Nov. 16, 2011.)

After all these dire (and at times ludicrous) sexual stories, we will end with four stories on a slightly more hopeful note …

4.  Mainstreaming of Transgender stories (including both opportunities and misses for gender transformation).

Transgender actress Harmony Santana

While images of Chaz Bono’s new book and his stint with Dancing with the Stars were ubiquitous, the inclusion of transgender individuals in policies and programs were just as, if not more, influential.  Any sort of mainstreaming can bring missed opportunities for radical transformation (in this case for the institution of gender). But Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality details 14 reasons why 2011 was “a game-changing year for transgender rights.” (See full story in The Advocate, Dec. 28, 2011).

3. Sex workers rights recognized by the UN and US State Department

(Meanwhile the conservative sexual politics of mainstream anti-trafficking rhetoric became increasingly exposed. See: for example, social justice activist Emi Koyama’s brilliant investigative article in Bitch Magazine, American University Human Rights professor Ann Jordan’s series of critical papers exposing the “Hype” of the abolitionist/trafficking movement, as well as of course the Village Voice’s mocking of Ashton Kutcher’s “real men” campaign.)


2. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers historic gay rights speech to the United Nations

 GENEVA — The Obama administration announced on Tuesday that the United States would use all the tools of American diplomacy, including the potent enticement of foreign aid, to promote gay rights around the world.

In a memorandum issued by President Obama in Washington and in a speech by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton here, the administration vowed to actively combat efforts by other nations that criminalize homosexual conduct, abuse gay men, lesbians, bisexuals or transgendered people, or ignore abuse against them. (Myers and Cooper, New York Times, Dec. 8, 2011).

1.  The Sexual Politics of Egypt’s Arab Spring, featuring:


Happy New Year from Sexuality & Society! Thanks to all the activists and scholars working toward sexual and social justice; may 2012 be filled with your stories!

Warm regards, Kari Lerum and Shari Dworkin


Related Sexuality & Society stories:

I’m happy to say that I’m now also a contributer to Ms. Magazine‘s blog. My first article there is a review of Burlesque, the musical film starring Cher and Christina Aguilera. The original article can be viewed at this link. I’ve also inserted its text below (without the internal links and Ms. Magazine‘s pretty formatting):


Burlesque Is So Gay. And That’s A Good Thing.

December 2, 2010 by Kari Lerum

When I worked as a strip club waitress, part of my job was to look out for troublemakers: people entering the club with an intention to harm the dancers. OK, it wasn’t officially my job (that was up to the managers and bouncers), but as a feminist, an ally, and also friend to some of the dancers, I felt it was my unquestionable duty. The worst of the troublemakers? Undercover cops–guys who would enjoy a lap dance and then slap their pleasure provider with a ticket for indecency.

Now, more than 10 years later, as a tenured professor, my job has expanded to analyzing sexual-social systems and all forms of sexual policing. This is why I’m interested in not just Burlesque itself, the new musical film starring Cher and Christina Aguilera, but also the film’s sociocultural context, including the chorus of negative reviews.

Even before Burlesque’s Thanksgiving release, reviewers were sharpening their knives, eager for a kill. Not since the mid-90s releases of Showgirls and Striptease–both of which were given Golden Raspberry Awards for the worst in cinema–have reviewers been so eager to tear a movie and its (sexually unapologetic, dancing, woman) protagonist to shreds.

Post-release, most reviewers have followed a standard formula: Compare Burlesque to Showgirls; make fun of Christina Aguilera; declare the film a miserable failure. Below is a sampling:

• The headline for Marshall Fine’s review in Fox News exclaims: ‘Burlesque’ not just Bad, it’s ‘Showgirls’ Bad.’ Fine organizes his review around ridicule of Christina Aguilera:

There’s nary a surprise to be had, except for Aguilera’s apparent misconception that she has acting talent.

• Catherine Shoard’s review in the Guardian concludes “Two divas, one stage – you do the maths,” with the apparent assumption that no stage, or film, is big enough to fit more than ONE larger-than-life female (and unapologetically sexual) protagonist.

• Mary Pols’ review in Time judges Aguilera not against her co-star, but against other women who have played similar roles:

Aguilera, making her dramatic debut, is far from a great actress, but compared to Elizabeth Berkley [Showgirls] or Spears [Crossroads], she is a veritable Nicole Kidman [Moulin Rouge].

(Note that of the three films, only Moulin Rouge, which ends with the death of the prostitute/dancer protagonist, is implied to be “good.”)

• Finally, Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune ridicules not just the plot and the acting, but delivers the final cut: “The whole movie amounts to an I-will-survive anthem.” A curious denigration, as Gloria Gaynor’s mega-hit single “I Will Survive” is a recognized anthem for the women’s movement, the gay movement and HIV/AIDS survival.

With these critiques in mind, I took my partner and brother-in-law to see Burlesque on Thanksgiving weekend. Burlesque has a familiar plot for US audiences, full of underdog themes: A sweet, talented small-town protagonist moves to Hollywood to pursue her dreams. She faces initial hardships (can’t get a job as a singer or dancer), but her path is altered when she meets an intriguing character (in this case the character is a place, a magical neo-Burlesque theater). The protagonist meets opposition from the theater’s boss (Cher) and a rival performer, but through her determination and raw talent works her way into a top singing/dancing position.

Our immediate reaction? Pure, easy pleasure. Burlesque is a light, sometimes cheesy, visually gorgeous, sexually tame, feel-good film. A perfect Disneyland-for-Adults distraction for the Holidays. Cher and Aguilera have the kind of voices that make your hair raise, out of not horror but out of delight. Technically, it gets right some elements of both classic burlesque and the neo-burlesque scene, but it’s also a montage of styles borrowed from American Idol, Pussycat Dolls, and Las Vegas showgirls. Worthy of an Oscar? I’ll leave that up to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science–but I won’t be surprised if costume design is in the running.

What then accounts for the cutting reviews of Burlesque and Aguilera? What grand community or artistic standards does this film, or Aguilera, violate? Is there really no place for a fluffy, feel-good, aesthetically pleasing film during the holidays?

Then again, maybe I’m a bad film cop, and Aguilera is just an irredeemable actress, deserving of that ticket for indecency. At least her voice isn’t in question; perhaps her policers would ease up if she simply became the voice of a cartoon character, like the Rapunzel figure in Disney’s new holiday film, Tangled. As it turns out, Burlesque and Tangled have much in common: both were light musical romances released around Thanksgiving, both feature pretty, young, blonde, female protagonists and tall, dark-haired mother figures. Indeed, reviewers like Marshall Fine (who could barely spit out his disdain for Aguilera in Burlesque) seem quite taken by the “tale of the girl in the tower with the long, loooong hair.” According to Fine: “Disney’s new film manages to be romantic, musical, moving–and outstandingly funny. Don’t skip it.”

There is an intriguing similarity between Marshall’s enthusiasm for Tangled and reviews of Burlesque coming from gay or gay-friendly sources. Sara Michelle Fetters from Seattle Gay News writes:

But just because there are no surprises doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of cheesy cornball fun to be had by watching Burlesque. Aguilera is fairly charming as the star-struck ingénue, while Cher and Tucci (playing the requisite Gay best friend with an answer for everything) could do this sort of thing in their sleep and make it somehow worthwhile. Despite my best efforts to the contrary, I never felt terrible about sitting in my theater seat. Heck, most of the time I was reasonably entertained, going along with the flow even if every fiber of my being told me not to.

Mick LaSalle, writing for SF Gate, is unabashedly enthusiastic about the film:

Burlesque is irresistible from its first minutes, and over time it creates a whole atmosphere, not only onscreen but within the audience. It’s big, perfectly cast and entertaining in every way, but more than that it feels like a generous public event. See it with other people. See it with a crowd.

Much more can be said about the film’s web of inside jokes and gay cultural references and the fact that Cher and director Steve Antin were (at different times) long-time lovers with media powerhouse David Geffen.

But ultimately, here is where Burlesque goes “wrong”: While trashed for being too predictable, it is actually not predictable enough. Unlike most other contemporary Hollywood (fictional) films about sexual, dancing women, our protagonist is a “good girl” who is sexually expressive but suffers no negative consequences. She is not forced to choose between innocence and sensuality, good girl and vamp. She, and everyone else at the club, gets to have it all. The club is not a hotbed of despair, corruption, and exploitation. The tall dark mother figure, a sexy burlesque dancer herself, is not a villain. Rather, as a club owner she is fiercely loyal to her employees; her club is their family. Women employees ultimately stick together, survive and thrive. Gay employees are loved and integral to the club. No one dies.

I have a strong suspicion that it is all of this–more than the soft dramatic tension and cheesy lines–that most mainstream film reviewers really can’t stomach.