gender: violence

This month’s celebrity gossip included a scandal over a photo Serena Williams tweeted of herself that was quickly taken down.  The photo was of Williams in a bra and panties behind what appears to be a curtain; you can see her silhouette and some fuzzy details of what she is wearing.  It was timed to correlate with the release of the World Tennis Association’s Strong is Beautiful campaign, featuring Williams of course.

Williams took the photo down because of criticism.  A man had recently been arrested on charges of stalking her and the image, critics claimed, was exactly the kind of thing that triggered men to stalk her.  She shouldn’t encourage the creeps, said the blogosphere.  Sports columnist Greg Couch, for example, called her a hypocrite for daring to release such a photo and still wishing to avoid being stalked, and then went on to discuss her appearance and clothing choices at length.

Of course, selling one’s own sex appeal is more or less required for any female athlete who wants to reach the pinnacle of her career without being called a “dog” and a “dyke” at every turn.  So Williams isn’t breaking the rules, she’s playing the game.  And, yet, when she plays the game she gets, in return, not only stalkers, but criticism that suggests that, were she to be stalked again, she was asking for it.  This is an excellent example of the ugly truth about the patriarchal bargain.

A patriarchal bargain is a decision to accept gender rules that disadvantage women in exchange for whatever power one can wrest from the system. It is an individual strategy designed to manipulate the system to one’s best advantage, but one that leaves the system itself intact.  Williams is making a patriarchal bargain, exchanging her sex appeal for the heightened degree of fame and greater earning power we give to women who play by these rules (e.g., Kim Kardashian).  Don’t be too quick to judge; nearly 100% of women do this to some degree.

But once women appear to have acquiesced to the idea that their bodies are public property, their bodies are treated as public property.  Others, then, feel that they have the right to comment on, evaluate, and even control their bodies.  Williams made her body public, the logic goes, therefore anything that happens to it is her fault.  This is why the bargain is patriarchal.  Williams will be excoriated for her unwillingness to defer to the male gaze if she refuses to trade on her sex appeal. But if she does make this trade, she’ll be the first against the wall if anything bad happens to her.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Back in December, Carly S. sent in an ESPN video about NFL player Bart Scott, nicknamed the “Mad Backer.” The video illustrates a number of noteworthy themes:

  • The glorification of violence, with Scott reveling in the chance to dish it out.
  • Equating being able to play through pain caused by this violence as proof of masculinity — particularly disturbing given concerns about the long-term effects the physical punishment players take has on their health.
  • Through the “Mad Backer” persona and the presence of a straight jacket and stretcher, Scott associates mental illness with violence and danger as a way to prove his own superiority on the field. Not only is he “mad,” he depicts himself as a villain who enjoys brutality.

See for yourself:

Dmitriy T.M. sent in another example, via Jezebel, of the use of hunting as a metaphor for dating/attaining sex with women.  The metaphor portrays men as predators and women as prey,  suggesting that women are inherently unwilling and men inherently deceitful, coercive, and aggressive.  This sets the stage, discursively, for sexual assault.

Throw in a couple men representing a non-specifically “primitive” culture to remind us that such a relationships is “natural,” and you’ve got this Dos Equis ad:

For more of this metaphor, see Sex and Dating as a Hunt, Beer, Sex, and the Hunt, Taxidermied Girl Parts, and Hunting for Bambi.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Christine sent us a link to some fabulous photos coming out of Toronto. In January a member of the Toronto Police force, Const. Michael Sanguinetti, suggested to students at York University that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized” (source).  In response, SlutWalk was born.  The SlutWalk, which strode just yesterday, was a march designed to draw attention to the way in which the term “slut” is used to stigmatize and invalidate women.

As Leora Tanenbaum argues in Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation, the term is used to control all women, not just women who want to have sex, because it can be applied to girls and women regardless of their sexual activity (as any virgin with a slut reputation can tell you).  Young girls grow up using, and fearing, the slut label.  And that label continues to be used against them as adults, even when it comes to sexual assault, as the police officer’s comment makes clear.

In an effort to bring attention to word and  its use as a mechanism of control girls, women and men of all sexual activity levels came together on Sunday, re-claiming and diffusing the “slut” label.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

The sexual assault of CBS reporter Lara Logan in Tahrir Square last week has resulted in two predictable, but utterly depressing types of commentary.

Muslims are backwards

On the one hand are the anti-Islam culture warriors, eager to find in this incident proof of how degenerate Muslims (and Arabs) are. This, despite the fact that there’s no proof the assailants were Muslims, nor that they had any connection to the overwhelmingly peaceful and harassment-free demonstrations. In fact, there’s reason to believe that Logan’s attackers may have been pro-Mubarak thugs or apolitical opportunists. The right wing response to this story was inevitable, but liberal response was also problematic. Film critic and outspoken liberal Roger Ebert tweeted this today:

“The attack on Lara Logan brings Middle East attitudes toward women into sad focus.”


I’d like to call Roger Ebert’s attention to the case of Roman Polanski, who has enjoyed a long and celebrated movie career, in spite of his status as a fugitive child rapist. When Polanski was arrested in September of 2009, while attempting to accept an award at a film festival in Switzerland, supporters circulated a petition on his behalf. Over a hundred people in the film industry signed that petition which gratuitously called Polanski’s crime “a case of morals.” Some weeks later, Gore Vidal went so far as to smear Polanski’s 13 year old victim as “a young hooker.”

Has Ebert ever decried the Polanski case for the way it “brings Hollywood’s attitudes towards women into sad focus?” Has he ever criticized Polanski, Vidal, David Lynch, Wong Kar Wai, Harvey Weinstein or any of the dozens of cinematic luminaries who signed off on this petition? Nope. On the contrary, he gave a big thumbs up to a documentary which argued Polanski should be given a pass for his crime.

I hardly expected Russ Meyers’ former writing pal to be an exemplar of feminist discourse, but his tweet yesterday was especially myopic. Does he really believe that the West is so much more enlightened about rape and sexual violence than those primitive, backwards Middle Easterners?

The opportunistic use of feminism is a common feature of the “liberal” discourse in the culture war against Islam. Just look at how Ayaan Hirsi Ali is trotted out by the media (especially Bill Maher and Steven Colbert) to justify imperialist wars and burqa bans, all in the name of protecting Arab and Muslim women from their own cultures. Meanwhile, many of these same commentators ignore the fact that rape and misogyny are also endemic to our own culture. (And that includes our movies, Roger.)

Rape is sexy

The other type of response to Logan’s assault was the usual victim blaming, made extra creepy by the focus on Logan’s good looks and alleged sexual history. The worst offender was LA Weekly blogger Simone Wilson, who, in an extraordinarily trashy piece of writing had this to say:

Logan was in Tahrir Square with her “60 Minutes” news team when Mubarak’s announcement broke. Then, in a rush of frenzied excitement, some Egyptian protesters apparently consummated their newfound independence by sexually assaulting the blonde reporter.

Wilson conflates the historic Egyptian revolution with gang rape. Classy stuff. But she’s not through. In addition to “blonde reporter” we’re also treated to these descriptors of Logan:

“it girl”
“shocking good looks”
“Hollywood good looks”
“gutsy stunner”
(this courtesy of a NY Post article from 2008)

As has already been noted, focusing on a sexual assault victim’s good looks and allegedly dubious sexual character amounts to victim blaming. But it also does something even more insidious. It makes rape sexy.

This is par for the course at the LA Weekly, where almost anything can be sexed up. LA Weekly‘s cover art department in the last couple of years has managed to make nearly every topic sexy, from murder to toxic mold and overpopulation.

Murder is sexy:

Toxic mold is sexy:

Overpopulation is sexy:

Rarely do the sexy women adorning the covers of the LA Weekly figure as the subjects of these stories. They’re splayed on the cover to boost circulation, because sex sells and, after all, “what’s wrong with being sexy?” (This isn’t even to mention the content of the Weekly– its abundance of ads for plastic surgery, or its routine back page ads from American Apparel– subjects for a longer post.)

Given this particular aesthetic, it is not at all surprising that an LA Weekly blogger would choose to play up the sexy side of the Logan assault story, taking extra pains to emphasize her “Hollywood good looks.” Even an “alternative” newspaper upholds the local value system. Arab Muslim rapists are bad. Sexy women make great victims. And cinematic geniuses should get a pass.

UPDATE, after the jump:


Yesterday, a woman I know who moved to the U.S. as an adult mentioned that she was struck by portrayals of mother-daughter relationships in the U.S.  Representations of such relationships on TV, in movies, and regular conversation indicate that especially when daughters are in their teens and 20s, we practically expect their relationships with their moms to be fraught with conflict and difficulty (and the attendant eye-rolling and yelling), and for teens to be disrespectful and to find their parents intolerable. While she had certainly known individuals in Ecuador who didn’t get along with their parents, she felt that in the U.S. we almost cultivate conflict, making it seem like a normal aspect of child-family relationships in general rather than a characteristic of some individual families and culturally sanctioning the open expression of frustration with one’s parents as acceptable, even healthy.

I thought about that when I saw a commercial sent in by Livia A. for the video game Dead Space 2. Here’s a behind-the-scenes video released as part of the ad campaign; the entire selling point is the idea that your mom will hate it:

It’s a great example of this social construction of child-parent relationships as at least somewhat antagonistic: what kids love, parents hate, and parents hating it proves it’s awesome. Telling young people “your parents will be disgusted by this” becomes an automatic selling point. And this idea of how people relate to their parents (in this case, mothers specifically) is presented as an essential, permanent fact: “A mom’s disapproval has always been an accurate barometer of what is cool.”

But of course, this isn’t an inherent property of family life across human history. It largely rests on the invention of adolescence and young adulthood as distinct life stages in which we expect individuals to act differently than children but not quite like full-fledged adults yet, and the assumption that a normal part of this is to struggle to separate from your parents as you try to establish your own identity. Parenting norms today expect parents to accept teen/young adult rebellion and continue loving (and supporting) their kid anyway; you don’t get to withhold resources and affection if you think they’ve been disrespectful. And with the increased visibility of youth culture, we expect kids will find their parents terribly uncool and will see peers, rather than family members, as the proper judges for what they should like. Together, these cultural norms both make it relatively risk-free to take open joy in horrifying your parents and trivializing their values, since there’s little chance they’ll disown or abandon you for it and make young people who do like the same things as their parents seem weird.

I suspect some of our readers may have an interesting gender analysis, as well, what with the emphasis in this video on moms from “conservative America”, while the entire behind-the-scenes crew is made up of young men. While I can imagine an ad that might say “Your dad will hate it,” I don’t think that would work as well here, given that part of the desired reaction was a disgust at the level of violence and gore, something we assume women are more uncomfortable with than men.

A student of mine, Tim C., wrote a nice analysis of two Dolce and Gabbana ads, one which has been widely castigated as a glamorization of gang rape, and one that I’d not yet seen.  The familiar ad, below, features four mostly dressed men standing/crouching over a restrained woman:

The second ad is very similar thematically, but instead of a group of mostly-dressed men standing/crouching over a mostly-naked woman, it’s a group of mostly-dressed men standing/crouching over a naked man (though with no restraint).

What does Tim make of this?

One can make the argument that Dolce & Gabanna, through these two ads, are not promoting male dominance over females.  Instead, they are promoting the dominance of the men who wear these brand name clothes, but through means of controversial ideas that society takes for granted.  They want people to see the superficial idea that if you wear these clothes, you will feel powerful and in control (just like these men in the ads).  This works because the social construct of our society has accepted this idea of male dominance [over women and inferior men].

What do you think?

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Sometimes we save up submissions on a particular topic so we can show several examples at once. And today, ladies and gents, I thought I’d present a few items that, to greater or lesser extent, glamorize brutality toward women or use images of dead women as props. Yes, I know — happy day!

On the less graphic end of the scale, way back in June 2010, Rei sent in these two trailers for the A&E show The Glades, where women exist just as props who manage to remain sexy, despite the deadness:

And some time ago Stefan Mesch, who writes for Die Zeit, let us know about the promotional website for Bret Easton Ellis’s new novel, Imperial Bedrooms. The website includes an interactive game where you’re a casting director and interact with a young woman who wants a part. From the homepage:

So theoretically, you have a choice — you can “exploit your position” or “do the right thing,” which presumably means not degrading or using a woman just because you can. But as Stefan explains, the options in the game are actually quite limited:

The game gives you options to talk to (and “encourage”) her, but they all lead to abuse, sexual harassment…The game rewards you for harassing the girl, and you’re supposed to drive up your personal score of “evil” by making her submit as much as possible.

Here are your first set of options:

I selected “encourage her.” The game then plays out a few seconds of dialogue and then leads to a second decision point, where I have these choices:

At least the first time I had one option to be a decent human being, other than not hiring her at all. I suppose that, in theory, giving someone booze might be a nice thing to do, but I think in this situation, probably nothing good can come of it. I selected that option; the director encourages her to drink when she doesn’t want to, and to drink more than she wants to. And then…

The “make her strip” option isn’t quite as bad as it might seem; when I chose it, she takes off her cardigan, but nothing else. At that point I felt like I’d pretty much gotten the point of the game, and wasn’t particularly interested in exploring how much of an asshole I could theoretically be, so I quit.

But both of those pale in comparison to our finale, readers. Dmitriy T.M. and Hope H. told us to check out Kanye West’s video for “Monster,” in which, among other things, Kanye casually rearranges the lifeless bodies of two women in bed with him:

Images of dead-looking women’s bodies appear throughout the video (which also features Jay Z and Nicki Minaj). I’m putting the rest of the images after the jump, as they might be particularly upsetting to some readers: