Cross-posted at Caroline Heldman’s Blog.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” the third installment in this $1.5 billion franchise that just set a new record for a Fourth of July weekend opening, follows what has become a Hollywood action movie tradition of virtually erasing women, despite the fact that women buy 55% of movie tickets and market research shows that films with female protagonists or prominent female characters in ensemble casts garner similar box office numbers to movies featuring men.

Only two featured characters in the large ensemble Transformers cast are women, and none of the Transformers (alien robots, for the uninitiated) are female. And the two female humans consist of an unmitigated sexual object and a caricatured mockery of female leadership.

Let’s start with “the object,” Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), the one-dimensional, highly sexualized damsel-in-distress girlfriend of protagonist Sam Wikwiki (Shia LaBouef). Carly wears stiletto heels, even when running from murderous machines (except when the filmmakers slip up and her flats are visible), and she is pristine in her white jacket after an hour-long battle that leaves the men filthy.

The movie opens with a tight shot of Carly’s nearly bare ass as she walks up the stairs:


In a later scene, Carly is reduced to an object as her boss (Patrick Demsey) compares her to an automobile in a conversation with Sam:


And in case the audience doesn’t know to leer at Carly, they get constant instruction from a duo of small robots that look up her skirt and Sam’s boss (John Malkovich) who cocks his head to stare at her ass:


Sam’s “friend,” Agent Simmons (John Turturro), also ogles Carly and suggests she be frisked against her will:

[wpvideo ojm7ZvjZ]

In a disturbing scene of sexualized violence, Carly’s (robot) car sprouts “arms” and threatens to violate her:


Normalization of female objectification causes girls/women to think of themselves as objects, which has been linked to higher rates of depression and eating disorders, compromised cognitive and sexual function, decreased self-esteem, and decreased personal and political efficacy. Ubiquitous female sexual objectification also harms men by increasing men’s body consciousness, and causes both men and women to be less concerned about pain experienced by sex objects.

Transformers 3 is pitched as a “family movie” and the film studio carefully disguises it as such with misleading movie trailers showing a story about kid’s toys. (Okay, I still have an Optimus Prime robot…) Young kids were abundant at both screenings I attended, taking in the images with little ability to filter the message.


It would have been easy for Michael Bay to positively present the second female character, Director of National Intelligence Charlotte Mearing (Frances McDormand). Instead, she is a tool to openly mock female leadership and promote female competition.

McDormand does her best to breathe some realism into Director Mearing, but the script calls for a caricature with “masculine” leadership traits – arrogance, assertiveness, stubborness, etc. – who is ultimately “put in her place” at the end of the movie with a forced kiss. Women continue to be vastly under-represented in positions of corporate and political leadership, partially due to the double-bind of women’s leadership where, in order to be considered acceptable leaders, women have to project a “masculine” image for which they are then criticized.

Director Mearing’s authority is challenged by virtually everyone she encounters in a way that simply wouldn’t make sense for a male character in her position. Sam openly challenges her in this scene:


Director Mearing’s authority evaporates when Agent Simmons comments, “moving up in the world, and your booty looks excellent”:


Director Mearing is even challenged by a transformer. [SPOILER ALERT: Director Mearing is the only one to challenge this transformer’s intentions, and she gets no credit when it turns out she was right.]


This Transformer again puts her in her place with the dual meaning of “I am a prime. I do not take orders from you”:

[wpvideo EDGYfp2T]

Director Mearing also has a running theme of not wanting to be called “ma’am.”


The “ma’am” theme doesn’t readily make sense since Director Mearing isn’t young and doesn’t appear to be trying to look young. But it does make sense when viewed through the lens of director Michael Bay intentionally mocking women’s leadership. Remember the flap when Senator Barbara Boxer at a hearing requested that a general use her professional title instead of “ma’am”?:


The “ma’am” theme resurfaces in a particularly troubling scene where Director Mearing meets with Sam and Carly, who, in good double-bind fashion, challenges whether she is even a woman:


Bay does include a few minor female characters with lines – Sam’s mother, the nagging mother/wife; Director Mearing’s subservient Asian assistant; a scene with both the “Olga” and “Petra” Russian woman stereotypes; and a Latina with a bare midriff who has a “Latin meltdown”:

[wpvideo pLgrLBNm]

If Michael Bay can buy off the most accomplished actors and even musician/social activist Bono to participate in such harmful media, what hope is there in the war that pits girls/women (the Autobots) against unrepentantly sexist movies makers (the Deceptacons)?

Cross-posted at FemmePolitical.

As many as 4 million people — most of them women and children — are sold into slavery globally each year, according to the United Nations, and 70 percent of those women are trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation [PDF]. An estimated 200,000 American children are at risk for sex trafficking each year, and the International Human Rights Law Institute estimates that 30,000 sexual slaves die annually from abuse, torture, neglect and disease.

So why is Disneyland still asking us to laugh at an overt depiction of sexual slavery in its popular Pirates of the Caribbean ride?

Many of us have floated past the scene of a pirate captain selling captured women as “brides,” with the banner “Auction: Take a Wench as a Bride.” Viewer focus is drawn to a rotund woman on the auction block, an object of open derision due to her weight, as well as to a red-haired woman with her breasts on display, an object of hoots and hollers from surrounding drunken pirates.

These two women are linked to four other women-for-sale by ropes cinched around their waists. One of the captives–a teenager–cries profusely into a handkerchief while an older woman tries to comfort her. This disturbing scene of women being sold into sexual slavery is supposed to be amusing.

What makes this all the more alarming is that the Disney folks altered the ride to be less sexist during a major renovation in 2007. It originally included a scene with male pirates chasing unwilling (but giggling) townswomen and another in which an overweight male pirate, exhausted from his pursuit of a teenage girl, holds a piece of her dress and says, “It’s sore I be to hoist me colors upon the likes of that shy little wench” and, “Keep a weather eye open, Mateys. I be willing to share, I be” (an implied gang-rape invitation?).

The pirates-ravaging-wenches aspect of the Pirates attraction was planned from its inception in the late 1960s. Several sketches from illustrator Marc Davis conveyed the rapacious spirit of the scenes:

And they included the notion that women might even enjoy being sold into sexual slavery:

So why didn’t Disney get rid of the sexual slave auction when it had the chance? What arguments were put forth by corporate executives to justify showing these images to as many as 40,000 visitors a day, many of them children, with jovial music playing in the background? (Note: Pirates was the last exhibit Walt Disney oversaw before his death. The auction scene is the only one he saw fully animated, and the only scene that has never been altered.)

Disney has unparalleled power to shape young hearts and minds. If the Pirates of the Caribbean ride normalizes sexual slavery with humor, it can desensitize viewers to this heinous and very real gendered crime.

When will Disney learn that sexual slavery is no laughing matter? Contact the company to let them know what you think.

Special thanks to C. Martin Croker for his insightful research on the ride and to Theme Park Adventure magazine for images and history on the ride.

Trigger warning: racial violence and racist language.

A disturbing picture of racial slaughter emerges in the days following Katrina, at the hands of private residents and police officers. Racially-motivated murders were carried out in Algiers Point, a predominately white enclave nestled in mostly black Algiers, not far from Gretna. This part of the city is connected to the rest of New Orleans by bridge and ferry only, and it did not experience flooding. After the storm, a band of 15 to 30 white men formed a loose militia targeting anyone whom they deemed “didn’t belong” in their predominately white neighborhood (source). They blocked off streets with downed trees, stockpiled weapons, and ran patrols.

At least eleven black men were shot, although some locals expect that the actual number is much higher. On July 16, 2010, Roland Bourgeois was charged with shooting three black men in Algiers in the days following Katrina (source). He allegedly came back to the militia home base with a bloody baseball cap from Ronald Herrington, a man he shot, and told a witness that “Anything coming up this street darker than a paper bag is getting shot.”

To date, this is the only arrest of militia members, but the FBI is investigating the situation and will likely make more arrests given that two Danish filmmakers interviewed multiple residents who admitted shooting black people. In “Welcome to New Orleans,” militia member Wayne Janak smiles at the camera: “It was great! It was like pheasant season in South Dakota. If it moved, you shot it.” A woman nearby adds “He understands the N-word now… In this neighborhood, we take care of our own.” Many of the victims reported that militia members called them racial epithets during attacks, and a family member of militia members reports that her uncle and cousins considered it a “free-for-all—white against black,” and her cousin was happy they were “shooting niggers.”

Malik Rahim, a long-time Algiers resident and activist who co-founded Common Ground Relief after the storm, took me on a tour of bodies in his neighborhood a week or so after the storm. I only made it through one viewing – a bloated body of a man under a piece of cardboard with a gunshot wound to his back. I assumed that this death was being investigated, but should have known otherwise given that the state had essentially sanctioned these actions with a “shoot to kill” order that allowed civilians to make their own assessments of who should live or die.

One of Many New Orleans Vigilante T-Shirts Slogans:

Cross-posted at Caroline Heldman’s blog.

Caroline Heldman is a professor of politics at Occidental College. You can follow her at her blog and on Twitter and Facebook.

I wish I could spend all of my time in New Orleans, my favorite city in the world, so my friends are kind enough to send anything they run across that involves the Crescent City. Two friends forwarded a recent New York Times article on the rise of “sissy bounce,” a new take on bounce — an energetic form of rap/hip hop that originated in New Orleans. “Sissy bounce” refers to a handful of transgendered/gay rappers, some of whom perform in drag. Katey Red and Big Freedia are two of the biggest names in “sissy bounce.”

Like New Orleans itself, the effects of “sissy bounce” are visceral — raw and invigorating, and its club success surely represents an important interruption in a genre known for its homophobia. Looking beyond its woman-hating name, the mere presence of individuals in “sissy bounce” who challenge norms of masculinity and sexuality in bounce is a move toward gay equity.

But I take exception to Times reporter, Jonathan Dee’s claim that “sissy bounce… creates an atmosphere of sexual liberation — for women.”  He describes the typical “sissy bounce” scene: women gathered around the performer, grabbing their ankles and hoisting their gyrating arses in the air.  Dee deems this sexually liberating because, he argues, the female attendees are dancing “for Freedia.” That may well be the case, but videos and pictures from the Times article also show a constant group of men gathered on the perimeter, leering — snapping photos, filming, and shining flashlights on the dancer’s body parts.

Transgender/gay rappers spitting arguably misogynistic lyrics over a sea of throbbing female posteriors while a crowd of men looks on is not sexual liberation. It’s the same old tired show where women’s sexuality revolves around pleasuring the male gaze.


Caroline Heldman is a professor of politics at Occidental College. You can follow her at her blog and on Twitter and Facebook.