In this 15min TED talk, the eminent masculinities scholar Michael Kimmel argues that feminism is in everyone’s best interest. After discussing the robust research on the benefits of gender equality, he concludes:
Gender equality is in the interest of countries, of companies, and of men, and their children and their partners… [It is] is not a zero sum game, it’s not a win-lose, it is a win-win for everyone.
I saw “Trainwreck” last night. The 7:00 p.m. showing at the 68th Street AMC was full. Maybe people had come just to get out of the apartment and yet avoid the beastly heat, but they enjoyed the movie. Sometimes the laughter lasted long enough to cover up the next joke.
The “Trainwreck” story is standard rom-com: Amy Schumer plays a young woman who rejects the idea of commitment and love. Circumstances put her together with a man she seems to have nothing in common with. You can guess the rest.
But this is Amy Schumer’s movie, so there’s an important twist – the conventional sex roles are reversed. It’s the man who is sweet and naive and who wants a real relationship; the woman has a lot of sex with a lot of different guys, drinks a lot, smokes weed, and resists love until at the end, she decides to become the woman he wants her to be.
Here is the R-rated version of the trailer:
What interested me was not the movie itself, but the reaction in some conservative quarters. For Armond White at the National Review, the movie triggered something like what Jonathan Haidt calls “disgust” – a reaction to the violation of strong taboos that surround things like food, sex, blood and other bodily matters, and death. These taboos are often arbitrary, not rational. Pork is an “abomination,” for example, because… well, because it is, and because pigs are “unclean.”
“Trainwreck” has no pork, but it does have what some find unclean.
Schumer’s tampon jokes and gay jokes, female versions of locker-room humor, literally drag pop culture to the toilet. A girl-talk scene set in adjoining restroom stalls — one revealing dropped panties, the other panty-less (obviously Amy) — is just Apatow using women to show off his indecency.
As a comedian and now as a filmmaker, Schumer talks about women-things: body functions and body parts. These jokes seem to elicit two different kinds of laughter. Back when researchers studying small group interaction were trying to code and categorize behavior, laughter posed a problem (see this earlier post). It could be coded as “Shows Tension,” but it might also be “Shows Tension Release.”
With Amy Schumer jokes, the male laughter is mostly a nervous, full of tension about a taboo subject. But the female laughter seems much less inhibited – tension release, maybe even a relief, as if to say, “Someone is finally talking publicly and frankly about things we could only whisper about,” since most of the time they have had to pretend to share the male taboo.
Indecency indeed. But something is indecent only to members of groups that deem it indecent. Some groups are not at all disgusted by pork. And for some audiences, tampon jokes and toilet-stall conversations about Johnny Depp movies are not indecent; they’re just funny. What audiences might those be? Women.
Take the tampon joke that the National Reviewer finds indecent. It would seem obvious that used tampons look different depending on where you are in your period – less bloody on the final day, more so a few days earlier. But at the mere mention of this fact in “Trainwreck,” hilarity ensues, especially among women in the audience.
The thing about taboos – ideas about what is indecent or disgusting – is that entire social structures get built around them. To violate the taboo is to threaten the entire edifice. Powerful taboos on women-things often go with male domination. So for the National Review, the “Trainwreck”reversal of rom-com gender roles makes the movie dangerous and subversive.
Here are some excerpts from the review just to give the flavor of this Purity-and-Danger-like conflating of taboo, female sexuality, and social/political threat to the established order (emphasis mine):
Schumer turns female sexual prerogative into shamelessness
the degradation of sex — and women
uses sex to promote feminist permissiveness.
She enjoys a sexual license
Amy brazenly practices the same sexual habits as men
Lacking . . . old-fashioned sense of shame,
It’s merely brazen, like Lena Dunham’s HBO series, Girls (also about a promiscuous female writer
Schumer’s film can be seen to distort human relations into smut.
This is not just disrespectful, it confirms Schumer’s project of cultural takeover,
she aims to acquire cultural power
Schumer disguises a noxious cultural agenda as personal fiat. She’s a comedy demagogue who okays modern misbehavior yet blatantly revels in PC notions about feminism, abortion, and other hot-button topics
I should add that not all conservative publications felt so threatened. Joe Morganstern at the Wall Street Journal gave the movie a warm review. Breitbart saw the movie’s essential conservatism (“The anti-slut message is a healthy one”) and praised Schumer as a comic actor. Still, the National Review piece seems emblematic of something broader in the cultural conservative camp: a taboo-like reaction to female sexuality.
Recently there’s been heightened attention to calling out microaggressions and giving trigger warnings. I recently speculated that the loudest voices making these demands come from people in categories that have gained in power but are still not dominant, notably women at elite universities. What they’re saying in part is, “We don’t have to take this shit anymore.” Or as Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning put it in a recently in The Chronicle:
…offenses against historically disadvantaged social groups have become more taboo precisely because different groups are now more equal than in the past.
It’s nice to have one’s hunches seconded by scholars who have given the issue much more thought.
Campbell and Manning make the context even broader. The new “plague of hypersensitivity” (as sociologist Todd Gitlin called it) isn’t just about a shift in power, but a wider cultural transformation from a “culture of dignity” to a “culture of victimhood.” More specifically, the aspect of culture they are talking about is social control. How do you get other people to stop doing things you don’t want them to do – or not do them in the first place?
In a “culture of honor,” you take direct action against the offender. Where you stand in society – the rights and privileges that others accord you – is all about personal reputation (at least for men). “One must respond aggressively to insults, aggressions, and challenges or lose honor.” The culture of honor arises where the state is weak or is concerned with justice only for some (the elite). So the person whose reputation and honor are at stake must rely on his own devices (devices like duelling pistols). Or in his pursuit of personal justice, he may enlist the aid of kin or a personalized state-substitute like Don Corleone.
In more evolved societies with a more extensive state, honor gives way to “dignity.”
The prevailing culture in the modern West is one whose moral code is nearly the exact opposite of that of an honor culture. Rather than honor, a status based primarily on public opinion, people are said to have dignity, a kind of inherent worth that cannot be alienated by others. Dignity exists independently of what others think, so a culture of dignity is one in which public reputation is less important. Insults might provoke offense, but they no longer have the same importance as a way of establishing or destroying a reputation for bravery. It is even commendable to have “thick skin” that allows one to shrug off slights and even serious insults, and in a dignity-based society parents might teach children some version of “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” – an idea that would be alien in a culture of honor.
The new “culture of victimhood” has a different goal – cultural change. Culture is, after all, a set of ideas that is shared, usually so widely shared as to be taken for granted. The microaggression debate is about insult, and one of the crucial cultural ideas at stake is how the insulted person should react. In the culture of honor, he must seek personal retribution. In doing so, of course, he is admitting that the insult did in fact sting. The culture of dignity also focuses on the character of offended people, but here they must pretend that the insult had no personal impact. They must maintain a Jackie-Robinson-like stoicism even in the face of gross insults and hope that others will rise to their defense. For smaller insults, say Campbell and Manning, the dignity culture “would likely counsel either confronting the offender directly to discuss the issue,” which still keeps things at a personal level, “or better yet, ignoring the remarks altogether.”
In the culture of victimhood, the victim’s goal is to make the personal political. “It’s not just about me…” Victims and their supporters are moral entrepreneurs. They want to change the norms so that insults and injustices once deemed minor are now seen as deviant. They want to define deviance up. That, for example, is the primary point of efforts like the Microaggressions Project, which describes microaggressions in exactly these terms, saying that microaggression “reminds us of the ways in which we and people like us continue to be excluded and oppressed” (my emphasis).
So, what we are seeing may be a conflict between two cultures of social control: dignity and victimhood. It’s not clear how it will develop. I would expect that those who enjoy the benefits of the status quo and none of its drawbacks will be most likely to resist the change demanded by a culture of victimhood. It may depend on whether shifts in the distribution of social power continue to give previously more marginalized groups a louder and louder voice.
Many important things will be said in the next few weeks about the murder of nine people holding a prayer meeting at a predominantly African American church yesterday. Assuming that Dylann Roof is the murderer and that he made the proclamation being quoted in the media, I want to say: “I am a white woman. No more murder in my name.”
Before gunning down a room full of black worshippers, Roof reportedly said:
I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.
For my two cents, I want to suggest that Roof’s alleged act was motivated by racism, first and foremost, but also sexism. In particular, a phenomenon called benevolent sexism.
Sociologists use the term to describe the attribution of positive traits to women that, nonetheless, justify their subordination to men. For example, women may be described as good with people, but this is believed to make them perform poorly in competitive arenas like work, sports, or politics. Better that they leave that to the men. Women are wonderful with children, they say, but this is used to suggest that they should take primary responsibility for unpaid, undervalued domestic work. Better that they let men support them.
And, the one that Roof used to rationalize his racist act was: Women are beautiful, but their grace makes them fragile. Better that they stand back and let men defend them. This argument is hundreds of years old, of course. It’s most clearly articulated in the history of lynching in which black men were routinely violently murdered by white mobs using the excuse that they raped a white woman.
I stand with Jessie Daniel Ames and her “revolt against chivalry” in the 1920s and ’30s. Ames was one of the first white women to speak out against lynching, arguing that its rationale was sexist as well as racist. Roof is the modern equivalent of this white mob. He believes that he and other white men own me and women like me — “you rape our women,” he said possessively — and so he justified gunning down innocent black people on my behalf. You are vulnerable, he’s whispering to me, let me protect you.
All oppression is interconnected. The matrix of domination must come down. I am a white woman. No more murder in my name.
I’m going to start this post even though I don’t have an ending.
About a year ago I was asked to start writing for Playboy. The editor said that he was helping to transform the magazine’s website into one that “was a destination for smart writing on sex.” I said that I’d keep the offer in mind but, between you and me, the answer was no.
Around the same time, I heard of some other high-profile feminist writers being invited as well. “Huh,” I thought, “they may actually be serious about this.”
Since then, I’ve ended up on the Playboy website a couple of times, following links by like-minded people who found material they thought was valuable. I’ve been surprised and tentatively impressed. Then, this week there was a flurry of links to a piece by Noah Berlatsky, deftly and smartly analyzing feminist responses to trans woman Laverne Cox’s decision to pose nude for Allure.
The article began with a cropped screenshot of Cox’s photograph featuring her face and de-emphasizing her body and a quote from Cox about the widespread belief that black women and trans women, and especially black trans women, can’t be beautiful.
Berlatsky then goes on to discuss the challenges intersectionality poses to feminism, conflicts within feminism about whether trans women count as women, debates over cosmetic surgery and the problem with trying to live up to patriarchal standards of beauty, and whether Cox’s decision to pose naked is degrading. You don’t have to agree with all Berlatsky says to notice that he is no stranger to feminist theory.
Moreover, he seems to look upon Cox’s photograph with a delicate and sensitive gaze, describing what he sees like this:
Cox is not fashion-model-thin. She’s not fashion-model-petite or willowy, either. She has very large hands, which are not hidden, boldly displayed. In the photo, Cox lies on a blanket; her body taut rather than relaxed, her head in one big, strong hand, eyes closed, a slight smile on her face — like she’s a little embarrassed and amused at being embarrassed. She’s voluptuous and awkward and sweet all at once. In her simultaneous enjoyment of and discomfort before the camera, she seems, in the frankly staged pose, startlingly natural — and beautiful.
As I reached the end of the article, I was considering sharing a post from Playboy for the very first time. Then, this happened:
That’s a screenshot of a pop-up that arrived on my screen when I reached the end of Berlatsky’s thoughtful, feminist essay. It says: “Enter your email to see a 45-year-old with an amazing booty.” In other words, “Click right now to see a woman still fuckable after 40!” (And here I’m going to just go with the idea that this is sexist, but not engage with the extensive feminist theorizing about pornography.)
This is where I’m at a loss.
Is this what change looks like? Is this what change looks like, specifically, when it comes from inside of an organization? A slow, stuttering shift from misogyny to feminism, replete with missteps and contradictions?
Who’s in charge over there? What is their strategic plan? Are they trying to appropriate feminism? It’s not like they haven’t done it before. What role do they see this feminist discourse playing in a space that’s still so misogynist?
Or is the right hand just not paying attention to what the left hand is doing? Maybe Berlatsky was as surprised by the pop-up as I was, thinking “Come on, guys!” Or do they not think that their pop-up was sexist at all?
And, from a feminist perspective, does this do anyone any good? I don’t mean this rhetorically. I honestly don’t know how to answer that question. And, on the flipside, could this hurt feminist activism?
The White House has made preventing sexual assaults on college campuses a priority, The Hunting Ground documents extensive institutional denial and malfeasance, the Department of Justice finds that one in five college women are assaulted, research shows that 1 in 25 college men is a serial rapist, and students at almost 100 campuses have filed federal complaints against their schools.
Yet, according to a study of 647 college presidents, only a third (32%) believe that sexual assault is prevalent on college campuses in general and only a tiny minority (6%) think it’s prevalent on their own campus.
This is stunning. Never before in history has the problem of sexual assault on campus been better documented. The media has never covered the issue so thoroughly, frequently, and sympathetically. We are in a moment of national reflection. Under these circumstances, a quarter of college presidents claim that sexual assault isn’t prevalent anywhere and 78% deny that it’s prevalent on their own campus.
These were confidential surveys, so impression management can’t explain these numbers. Those 94% of college presidents who don’t think that sexual crimes are prevalent at their schools either think the numbers are wrong, think their own institutions are exceptions, or think that one in five isn’t fairly described as “prevalent.” Or maybe some combination of the above.
No wonder faculty are frustrated and students around the country have felt forced to turn to the federal government for help. It’s clear. College presidents are either recklessly ignorant or willfully in denial — that, or they simply don’t believe women or don’t care about them.
Sociologists are interested in the workings of power. How is inequality produced and sustained? What discursive and institutional forces uphold it? How are obvious injustices made invisible or legitimized? Why is it so hard to change hearts, minds, and societies?
How does all this work?
Earlier this month, a sliver of insight was posted. It’s a clip of a speech by Anita Sarkeesian in which she reveals what it’s like for one person to be the target of sustained, online harassment.
In 2009, Sarkeesian launched Feminist Frequency, a series of web logs in which she made feminist arguments about representation of women in pop culture. In 2012, she launched a kickstarter to fund an ambitious plan to analyze the representation of women in video games. This drew the attention of gamers who opposed her project on principle and thus began an onslaught of abuse: daily insults and threats of rape and murder, photoshop harassment, bomb threats, and a video game in which her face can be beaten bloody, just to mention a few examples. Last fall she canceled a speech at Utah State University because someone threatened to commit “the deadliest school shooting in American history” if she went on. It’s been brutal and it’s never stopped.
So, is this power at work? Has she been silenced? And has her larger project – awareness of sexism and misogyny in video games – been harmed?
I’m not sure.
As an individual, Sarkeesian has continued to speak out about the issue, but how she does so and with what frequency has been aggressively curtailed by the harassment. In the four-and-a-half minute clip, with the theme “What I Couldn’t Say,” she talks about how the harassment has changed how she engages with the public. I offer some tidbits below, but here’s the full clip:
I rarely feel comfortable speaking spontaneously in public spaces, I’m intentional and careful about the media interviews I do, I decline most invitations to be on podcasts or web shows, I carefully consider the wording of every tweet to make sure it is clear and can’t be misconstrued. Over the last several years, I’ve become hypervigilant. My life, my words, and my actions are placed under a magnifying glass. Every day I see my words scrutinized, twisted, and distorted by thousands of men hell bent on destroying and silencing me.
How she gets her message across has been affected as well:
[I cant’ say] anything funny… I almost never make jokes anymore on YouTube… I don’t do it because viewers often interpret humor and sarcasm as ignorance… You would not believe how often jokes are taken as proof that I don’t know what I’m talking about… even when those jokes rely on a deep knowledge of the source material.
And she feels that, above all, she’s not allowed to talk about the harm that her harassers are doing:
I don’t’ get to publicly express sadness, or rage, or exhaustion, or anxiety, or depression… I don’t get to express feelings of fear or how tiring it is to be constantly vigilant of my physical and digital surroundings… In our society, women are not allowed to express feelings without being characterized as hysterical, erratic bitchy, highly emotional, or overly sensitive. Our experiences of insecurity, doubt, anger, or sadness are all policed and often used against us.
A youtube search for the video reveals a slew of anti-Sarkeesian responses were published within days.
Sarkeesian’s revelations put an inspiring human face on the sacrifice individuals make to fight-the-good-fight, but also reveal that, in some ways, her harassers are winning.
That said, their grotesque display of misogyny has raised Sarkeesian’s profile and drawn attention to and legitimized her project and her message. That original kickstarter? The original call was for $6,000. Her supporters donated almost $159,000. The feminist backlash to the misogynist backlash was swift and monied.
Ever since, the abuse she’s suffered as an individual has made the issue of both sexism in video games and online harassment more visible. Her pain may have been good for the visibility of the movement. I wonder, though, what message it sends to other women and men who want to pursue similar social justice initiatives. It is a cautionary tale that may dampen others’ willingness to fight.
The battle is real. The gamers who oppose Sarkeesian and what she stands for have succeeded in quieting, if not silencing her and have probably discouraged others from entering the fray. But Sarkeesian’s cause and the problem of gamer misogyny is more visible than ever. The fight goes on.