Friday, March 30, 2012

Primetime Reimagines Female Power

With the Hunger Games film being released last weekend, I've been thinking about portrayals of "powerful" women in television and film. I put powerful in quotation marks because the powerful women that grace our screens today represent illusions of what female power could or should be but is not in the real world (unfortunately). For example, I was watching the show Fairly Legal on USA. The lead female character is all about helping people and being a lawyer who cares about "justice." She walks around the office barefoot telling men that she can do whatever she wants. Well, I wish I had her job...

This archetype is visible on ABC's new show, Scandal.

In this clip, Kerry Washington's character, Olivia Pope, tells the president of the United States that she doesn't want to help him, and she prevents a shooting with a convincing verbal argument. She is a woman that always gets her way. Her gut tells her what to do, which is an interesting statement, since "female intuition" is constantly undermined and devalued. Women are often too busy fretting about their periods and appearances to be trusted to have any opinions at all. It is also interesting to note that Shonda Rhimes, the creator of Grey's Anatomy, is the mastermind behind this show. Grey's Anatomy, a show that can be viewed as progressive in some ways for its portrayals of successful female professionals, reinforces ideas about beauty and relationships. The doctors are all attractive, sleep together, and their personal dramas constantly prevent them from successfully completing surgeries (If this is true, I'm never going to a hospital!)

The tagline in another promo for Scandal states, "She's the most powerful woman in Washington and no one knows about her." Well, there's a reason why people don't know about her. She doesn't exist. I watch these shows and feel empowered, the same feelings I gained when watching Jennifer Garner kick butt on Alias. It's wonderful to get lost in these reimaginations of female power for a few hours, but how realistic are they given the current climate for women?

Jennifer Lawrence, who I think is a fiesty, intelligent, and cool actress, is either being oversexualized in magazines or criticized for being "big-boned." She makes daring film choices and doesn't seem to care what people think of her, and yet, every magazine I pick up is preoccupied with her love life or imperfect figure.

And where do these messages about female beauty perfection come from? I just saw this ad for Guess featuring Claudia Schiffer still sexy 23 years later. In fact, she has not aged at all.

I'm all about presenting more complex, strong female characters on television, but there's always some kind of catch on these shows. Female power always comes with a price tag, and often it's a lackluster love life for the workaholic female lead. And of course, these women are all young and beautiful since power only belongs to the young and beautiful! So, when I see these promos, I sigh a little because I want to be the women in these shows with limitless power, free from the lower paying jobs, sexual harassment, etc.

Another problematic aspect of these shows is that this illusion of female power creates the illusion that feminism is unnecessary, and women don't have anything to "complain" about anymore. If you've read anything on my blog, you'll realize that feminism is absolutely necessary, so I think these shows also serve as tricks that intelligent viewers should question and challenge.

Monday, March 26, 2012

What I've Been Reading

I was recently researching the London School of Economic's Gender Institute and found this article about a man who sued the university for being "anti-male." After 6-weeks in the Gender, Media, and Culture program, he declared that the curriculum discriminates against men. This great article from The Guardian explains that the goal of Gender Studies is to consider the positions of all people including LGBTQ individuals, people with disabilities, etc. I think that Gender Studies is often misinterpreted as being anti-male. Feminists are supposed to be man-hating witches that keep voodoo dolls of men in their rooms. Of course, I do not think this, and men have to be included in conversations about women's rights because sexism is a form of systematic oppression that men and women perpetuate. Also, I think it is a bit ridiculous that this man is getting so much attention when the time could be spent on more important issues (like the ones this man was learning about in class but not listening to!) 

(On a random note: While I am not anti-all men, I would like to state that telling a woman that God told you to tell her that she is beautiful is NOT an appropriate or believable pickup line. Really, student who used that pickup line on me last week! I'm starting to think my love life is hopeless because if that's the best I get, then I'd rather be single forever.)

This mom put her seven-year old child on a diet and then wrote an article about it in Vogue. I just want to give that child a hug. It's sad that we live in a culture where this woman is getting a book deal for calling her child "fat."

To end on a positive note, I recently viewed the "Get Real" commercials for Kotex that address the absurdity of tampon ads. I appreciate that these commercials assume that women are smarter consumers than they are given credit for.

Empowering, Funny... You decide.

*Special thanks to Megan Early for sending the "Get Real" commercials.

Friday, March 16, 2012

JT and Timbaland will feed your sexual appetite

It seems that we live in a society that will only accept extreme views of men and women. There is the young virgin who is a prude and then there is the hyper-sexualized slut. At the same time that we tell young women that they must wait for Prince Charming to ride in on his white horse, we show them music videos where scantily-clad females are props surrounding famous musicians. Recently, I watched this music video for "Carry Out" by Timbaland featuring Justin Timberlake.

The lyrics are pretty obvious. A man provides a ticket and a woman fulfills his order. He satisfies her appetite with foreplay, and she provides the dessert. I think what strikes me the most about this video is the comparison between an appetite for food and appetite for sex. Women are constantly caught in traps where they are not allowed to have appetites for food (why? well, they wouldn't want to get "fat" and become unattractive to male suitors), and women also face judgment for having sexual appetites. Based on the images that we receive in the media, it is only thin, beautiful, and white women that are allowed to have sex and talk about it with the assumption that they don't really eat to maintain their figures. When women are eating dessert in this music video, it is clear that they are doing this in a hyper-sexualized manner referencing oral sex.

While the video is encouraging a woman's sexual appetite, it is reinforcing the view that women only have that one appetite. What about her appetite for new experiences, travel, or love? These other aspects of female identity are missing, and young women easily learn that to feed a man's sexual appetite they need to provide the dessert. People have sex. It is a natural part of life, but it becomes problematic when women only have sex or are sexual objects.

A couple of other thoughts I'm thinking through on this music video:

-The history of hip-hop culture would provide some interesting commentary on this video. I read parts of this book, Check it while I wreck it: Black womanhood, hip-hop culture, and the public sphere, where author Gwendolyn D. Pough, makes some thought-provoking comments about female rappers who have used questionable messages from male rappers to create empowering lyrics and music videos.

-Also, Justin Timberlake is a repeat offender. The film Dreamworlds turns a critical eye to his video for "Cry Me a River" where he stalks a Britney Spears look-alike and breaks into her home because he can't get over a breakup. (creepy, I think yes!)

-Also, I think it's interesting to consider how race and gender intersect in this video. I'm taking a course in African American Women's literature that I absolutely love (!), and we have discussed the ways that historically black women have been hyper-sexualized and compared to animals. Consider this recent ad:

Saturday, March 10, 2012

True Blood's Faux Feminism: A Review in Progress

(I started writing this post over the summer and wanted to share it before I forget. It's a work in progress.)

*Spoiler alert: I'll be revealing some details from the most recent season of True Blood.

The season opener was a shocker with the reveal that Tara is now a lesbian or bisexual. After romantic and tumultuous entanglements with Sam, Jason, Eggs, and Franklin, Tara escapes from Bon Tomp and begins a relationship with Naomi, a fellow cage fighter.

What frustrates me about this relationship is that Tara's transformation into a gay character occurs as a way out or alternative to her failed relationships with men. It is also a relationship I'm sure the writers thought up to excite the viewers. The "lesbian makeout" scene has been glamorized in numerous movies. Recently, the Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis kiss in Black Swan might have made more headlines than the film's accolades.

Another issue I have is that being gay always means that the character is moving over to the dark side, becoming more "sexy" and "dangerous." Natalie Portman becomes the "black swan" after the fantasy sex scene with Mila Kunis. She drinks, does drugs, and experiments with her body, which becomes the equivalent of being "bad" in our culture. Why is that? Why can't being gay be a part of who a person is instead of a “performance” for others?

This is new territory for me on my blog, and I do not know a lot about sexuality studies, but what I do observe is the lack of lesbian couples on television and the same scene played over and over again. The good girl becomes “bad” after she kisses a woman. Even in the film, Laurel Canyon, starring Kate Beckinsale and Christian Bale this story line exists. Kate’s character is a good doctoral student who is lured into the dark side by Christian’s music producer mother. They then engage in a makeout scene. The list goes on with celebrities that have made kissing women a “trend” (Thanks, Katy Perry!)

I just finished reading Susan Douglass’s Enlightened Sexism where she wrote about the problematic portrayals in television and movies where lesbians are sexualized or ignored. She proposes that this gap adds to the divide between women. Women in films must compete with each other for men or make out to please the male audience. Female love is only shown from a male perspective because why would we want women in successful friendships since they would only want to gang up on men!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Moving Beyond Period Jokes

I've been watching a lot of Friends reruns lately, and after revisiting the episodes, it has become blatantly clear to me that the writers rely on stereotypes about men and women to make the show funny. For example, I recently watched an episode where Rachel claims she kissed a female friend while in college. When her college friend (Winona Ryder) claims to not remember the kiss, Rachel recreates it to the amusement of her male audience as represented through Joey's reaction throughout the episode. He consistently asks her about this sexual encounter because it makes her more attractive that she has "been with" another woman. Similarly the show relies on this idea that Monica used to be fat. In various episodes, Monica's previous weight is a source of humor. For example, when Chandler admits to breaking up with another woman due to her weight, Monica becomes concerned that Chandler will break up with her for the same reasons. In the end, Chandler says he'll love Monica at whatever size she is, but then Monica asks "How much weight did this ex-girlfriend gain?" When Chandler says about 150 pounds, Monica says, "Did she eat a whole person?" and the audience laughs. But really, why are we laughing? I don't think it's funny to call another person fat or assume that all women kiss other women as a source of fun and amusement during college.

I was asking this same question about why we find certain jokes funny in popular culture while watching the recent episode of Modern Family where the women in the Dunphy household have their periods and Phil does everything he can to get away from the women. They are portrayed as overly emotional, angry, and hysterical because apparently all women lose their sense of reason and intelligence when they have their periods. It was particularly problematic that Alex, the Dunphy child that is often valued for her intelligence and quick wit, is belittled to an overly emotional wreck who cries at movies all of the time. The episode ends with Phil simulating "period symptoms" with the dialogue "I feel nauseous, hungry, angry, and upset all at the same time." This fits with Phil's character on the show since often the writers use his "feminine side" as a joke. For an example, you can refer to my post on Phil's visit to the spa.

This episode was also frustrating in light of the recent drama in the media about men making decisions about women's bodies and birth control. Women's bodies are constantly being portrayed as not belonging to them or as peculiar and abnormal. This episode of Modern Family reinforces this idea that once a month women become crazy and lose their ability to make clear judgments. I see a clear connection between this thinking and the doubts that women can hold political office or high roles in companies. Let's break this stereotypical thinking...

Note: Let me also be clear that I like both of these shows and enjoy watching them! I just think it's important that people become intelligent consumers of popular culture. Otherwise, we'll keep falling for the same stereotypical bs!

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Woman Behind "ADELE"

As a big Adele fan, it disappoints me that magazines and tabloids spend so much time labeling her and dismantling her image as a positive role model for young people. Adele has been very vocal about her comfort with her looks and wanting to make good music instead of changing her appearance to make someone else happy. This is such an empowering message amidst the barrage of teen icons that do not wear underwear (Thanks for that one, Britney!) or become hyper-sexualized at a young age (Christina Aguilera, Mandy Moore, and list goes on...). 
Adele was recently featured on the cover of Vogue magazine. Let's just take a moment to point out that the woman on this cover vaguely resembles Adele (but, that's another issue entirely!) I found the article initially on a different website, and it focused entirely on Adele's comments that she was finished being a "bitter witch" and "loved sex and cooking for a man." After reading the entire interview on Vogue's website, it's clear that certain websites were using selective attention to portray Adele as angry and man-hating. This is an uncomfortable position Alanis Morissette and Kelly Clarkson can understand. So, apparently women are supposed to be cheery and happy all of the time but if they express anger towards their exes, they're crazy or bitter? 

While I often disagree with the messages in "Sex and the City", this scene captures exactly what I'm talking about.

I question: who is ADELE? And to be honest, I don't care because I love her music. And shouldn't that be what matters?

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Sizeism on Display in American Idol Top 13

Yesterday, I had a conversation with my dad about the contestants in the American Idol Top 13, and he pointed out that America always chooses the more attractive and thin people to continue on in the competition. This is not a shocking revelation considering the transformations of past American Idol participants such as Jennifer Hudson, Carrie Underwood, and Katherine McPhee. Jennifer Hudson's doing weight loss commercials. Carrie Underwood's slowly ditching her "good girl" image for her listeners, and Katherine McPhee has become a Hollywood starlet with the new television show, "Smash." McPhee discussed her struggles with weight and and an eating disorder openly in 2010. At the same time as she was sharing her body struggles, Katherine appeared in this heavily-Photoshopped image on the cover of SHAPE magazine. Can we ever give women a break?

These images are particularly troubling since this past week was National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. While these images and stories aren't the only factors contributing to eating disorders and poor body image among young girls, they matter. Children consume an absurd amount of television every day, and I often talk with young girls that think they need to be as thin as a Victoria's Secret model to look good in their bras or lose weight to look like their favorite celebrity.

Check out the Love your body Campaign and 20 Ways to Love Your Body!

The Denison Feminists also did this cool project where they put positive quotes on sticky notes all around campus (in the dorms, bathrooms, etc...)