On PopMatters in 2015 (so far)

Here is a roundup of my contributions to PopMatters so far this year:

Why Mitt Romney deserves #bindersfullofwomen

Talking to Anne-Marie this afternoon about the “binders full of women” meme that sprang from last night’s presidential debate, and in particular about the pushback coming today from self-identifying feminists and feminist allies, we reached a few points that, to me at least, suggest that Mitt Romney deserves this response even if it is arguably reductive or making too much of an awkward turn of phrase.

The most important point here is that Romney’s binder remark was made in response to a question about pay equity, and whatever credit Mitt Romney might deserve for seeking out women for cabinet positions (see Amanda Hess’ blog post at Slate today), his statement is a bad answer to that question. In effect, he is saying, well, I hired some women once. At best this is a non-sequiter. At worst it’s a dodge that betrays a lack of concern, or lack of understanding, for the well-documented discrimination that women face in the workplace.

On its own, “binders full of women” probably doesn’t merit the attention it has received, but there is the larger context in which that phrase can be seen. I think that it is the context for the remark, and not the remark in and of itself, that explains the fast emergence and popularity of the meme.

To begin, Romney consistently went back to a vision of families with heterosexual partners where women do the cooking and childcare. As Amanda Marcotte points out, pivoting to the question of employers providing more flexible work schedules shows some progressiveness in regards to women in the workplace, even as it sidesteps the original issue, but he clearly has no room in his head for men wanting or needing the same kind of flexibility (one assumes that a household with two male or two female parents or a single male parent is beyond the pale for anyone capable of securing the Republican nomination for president).

Second, his most direct response to the original question was to argue that as president he would grow the economy to a point where employers would want to hire women. Amanda Marcotte makes a good case that this free market vision for achieving pay equity is belied by how women actually get paid in the workforce. But additionally, the way Romney made his argument implied that employers would start hiring women only after they had lots of jobs to offer. Scarce jobs, I guess, go to the men, who, in Romney’s world, probably merit them more as the primary breadwinners, if not entirely because they are obviously more qualified.

Finally, there was his blaming single-parent, and especially single-mother, homes for gun violence. The stigmatization of single mothers is a tired trope in American politics and one that any thoughtful person should be questioning rather than deploying as an alternative to gun control.

On the whole, Romney’s vision of progress might be notable if this were, say, 1980 (consider him in comparison to Ronald Reagan on these matters), but while I think that he clearly sees women in the workforce as a reality, he also clearly sees that as a novelty.

Next to the question dodging, I think the above points to another reason why Romney is being derided for “binders full of women”. While it is, of course, good that someone in Romney’s position would make an effort to hire women into government, the binders image, especially when seen in the context of his entire debate performance, brings to mind both mail-order brides and tokenism, rather than a genuine commitment to equality. In both cases, women are seen not so much as people, but as tactical objects waiting to be summoned or deployed as needed by their male patrons, whether in the home or in the cabinet.

Chuck Tryon points out that the politics underlying both this meme and the earlier one arising from Romney’s Big Bird comment in the first debate are far from coherent. However, what the macros in both instances do is highlight the inadequacy of Paul Ryan’s and Mitt Romney’s responses to tough questions about big issues, which is to reduce them to anecdotes from their personal lives as if stories about individual acts of thoughtfulness or compassion or personal preferences are the same as articulating policy. The Romney-Ryan campaign is essentially based on the premise that we should just trust them to get the job done; let them worry about the details once they are in office.

For anyone seriously concerned about issues like pay equity or equal rights, the fact that Mitt Romney may have personally reached out to hire women into prominent positions is good to know, but unless he means to imply that he will use the office of the president to ensure that all women who want work will get work and at pay commensurate to men in similar positions and with comparable experience and qualifications, his story about “binders full of women” is no more a serious response to a question about women’s equality than is cutting PBS a serious response to a question about making his tax plan work with reducing the deficit.

This – again

Last Friday I got referred to Helen Lewis’ blog post at the NewStateman regarding the ongoing attacks on Anita Sarkeesian resulting from her Kickstarter project for “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games”, and felt compelled to write something in response, or, really, as an adjunct. However, in my initial efforts, I got caught up in a tangle of rhetorical analysis, and started to feel as if I was getting away from what I wanted to say or from what compelled me to start my own post in the first place. I kept on writing as a way to work through my thoughts, but after doing that, and talking to Anne-Marie at a number of points, I erased the initial draft and restarted with this.

The attacks cataloged by Lewis at the NewStatesman are notable for being directed at Sarkeesian’s person, and for being violent and/or sexual in nature. These include a game wherein players can ‘beat up’ Sarkeesian’s face and drawings of her in sexual positions designed to be demeaning, if not dehumanizing, and that are difficult to read as consensual.

In the comments to the blog post, one line of excuse or justification for these responses is that the internet is a big place, full of all kinds of people with all kinds of sensibilities, and if you get attacked for something that you write or display, that’s just the way things are. Whatever Sarkeesian is being confronted with, it’s just what everyone has to deal with. The implicit message here is that if you are going to circulate your ideas or work online, you need to be prepared for negative responses, some constructive, but others vicious and mean. If you can’t handle it, leave.

Except what Sarkeesian is dealing with is not what everyone has to deal with.

While the internet may test, and even enable resistance and subversion of, many of the norms and boundaries constituted in people’s offline lives, that doesn’t make it entirely separate from those lives either. The internet is embedded in larger social contexts, and, in the main, the social inequities and discriminatory practices that define those larger social worlds are reproduced online.

While it maybe true that “people get attacked for their ideas and work on the internet”, the responses to Sarkeesian’s project are not directed at people, but are specifically gendered, both in the intended effect on her, and other women, and on the intended audience, which, it seems reasonable to assume, is other men who are angered or threatened by women speaking out on questions of gender equity in games and gaming.

The images and imagery Lewis draws attention to are notable for seeking to reduce Sarkeesian to an object who can be ‘put in her place’. And based on the images, that place is manifestly not one of being her own agent and speaking out about gender, but is one where she is: subservient to men, constrained from speaking freely, and without control over her own body; rather, her body is imagined to be available to men for purposes of both sex (willing or unwilling) and violence.

As noted in more than one comment at the NewStatesman, men, too, are attacked for their ideas and work. However, with the notable exception of men who can be effectively  ‘feminized’, it is ludicrous to imagine a person who presents as male being attacked on the basis of their sex or gender in the way that Sarkeesian has been. And, no, being called out for one’s sexism is not the same as being subject to discrimination on the basis of one’s sex or gender. There is no intrinsic connection between being biologically male and being sexist.

The significance of this is that these kinds of attacks are not, contrary to the defenses mounted in the comments to Helen Lewis’ blog post, simply part of some universal cultural ritual. Given the underlying male power fantasy of putting Sarkeesian in her place, these attacks seem clearly designed to discourage her from being online, not to invite her participation or to further some kind of dialogue. Furthermore, these kinds of attacks are not, in fact, directed at or available to everyone equally. Deployed against men, they would not have the same power; it seems doubtful that they would be taken as sensible or seriously at all.

The fact that the internet is a big, bad place, and that putting one’s ideas, one’s art, one’s writing online risks criticism or offense, should be challenge enough without also having to deal with unequal terms of engagement, particularly when that inequality has no bearing on one’s ability to be active online in the first place. Having boy parts does not make you uniquely suited to being online anymore than having girl parts makes you unsuited. And in conditions where some seem to think that one’s secondary sexual characteristics should mean getting to set the rules of discourse and determine who belongs online and who doesn’t, and how they should act, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when other people challenge or object to that way of doing things.

At the same time, this is undoubtedly why projects and voices like Sarkeesian’s are met with such intense and visceral reactions from some.

In the United States at least, pursuits like video games, and other forms of ‘geek culture’, have served as safe spaces for many boys and men who, in other contexts, may not feel, or are not made to feel, confident in their own masculinity. In that context, it isn’t difficult to understand how the active presence of girls and women, especially those who seem to want to change games and gaming, could be seen as threatening, or how projects such as Sarkeesian’s could be seen as wanting to take something away. Video games have made it possible for some men to ‘be men’, or boys to ‘be boys’, in ways that are denied to these same individuals in other places, such as at school, at home, at work.

The problem is that the definition of what it means to be a man or be a boy isn’t native to gaming, but is reflective of larger cultural practices, practices that privilege male bodies and identities over female bodies and identities. Unfortunately, part of what makes video games ‘safe’ for some men is that they provide a space where they are able to enjoy the privileges of being a ‘man’ in a patriarchal society in ways that are perhaps harder to realize in other aspects of their life. In part, this is because games have historically been made by men for men, men who largely have seen no reason to question the norms of the societies in which they live. But also because actual women and girls are far more problematic, less ‘ideal’, than are carefully designed and programed game characters. Gaming also allows boys and men to remake themselves into perfected images of masculinity without, in most cases, offering girls and women the same quality of choices.

From this perspective, Anita Sarkeesian’s biggest offense is being an actual woman, a woman with her own ideas and desires to make the fields of pop culture ‘safe’ for girls and women in the same way that they have been for some men, and not staying ‘in her place’ or being content for gaming to be populated merely by images of women designed for the convenience and pleasure of men and boys.

But here’s the thing: neither cultures, nor the places in which they are made, are ever actually owned by anyone. There will always be individuals who are different from you, and who do different things in different ways from what you do and how you do them. Finding ways to address difference is an escapable part of being human. You can choose to expend time and energy attempting to deny those who are different from you access to what you do and the places where you do it, or you can think of more positive responses. In either case, there will always be others.

My interest in these questions, and the concerns that I have when I see the attacks on Anita Sarkeesian, and the excuses and defenses of those attacks, are not just abstract. I am also thinking about my daughter, who not only games, but reads comics, prefers genres like horror, science fiction, and fantasy, shows an aptitude for certain kinds of science; in other words, she crosses over onto ‘boy territory’ a lot.

She doesn’t talk much about being a girl and gaming online, but she talks some and we can overhear her sessions. What I know is that she:

  • Has had to deal with guys who approach her in a ‘creepy’ or ‘stalker-y’ way.
  • Has been challenged to ‘prove’ that she is a girl.’
  • Performs gender in a more masculine way while gaming online, deepening her voice and using colloquialisms like “bro” and “dude” in ways that she does not in other contexts.

This last point is complicated and interesting, but here I am mentioning it primarily to show the extent to which gaming is constructed as masculine. However, the first two points are clearly in the category of “crap my daughter has to deal with that boys don’t”. Whatever the other intents or motivations, being approached in a sexual way, however mildly, or being challenged on one’s identity, taken in the context of a game, are competitive tactics. However, these are not tactics intrinsic to the game, but draw on the asymmetries between men and women in society at large. What makes these actions sexist is not who poses the challenges, male or female, but the cultural practices and social structures from which they draw their power.

My daughter is already showing maturity in dealing with these kinds of attacks, but, as before, I don’t see why she should have to. She should just be able to play the game, which is challenging enough without being made into yet another space where she has to negotiate patriarchal social relations. This seems particularly the case in a context like online gaming where the nature of her body, especially her secondary sexual characteristics, has no bearing at all on her capacity to play alongside boys and men (and I’m not suggesting that it necessarily does or should in sports or games offline either, but in offline contexts, physical differences, whether based in sex or not, matter more to the form of competition than they do online, in a digital space. I defer in advance to those who have thought this question through more than I have).

What I wrote about dealing with difference has implications in many directions, and that includes the reality that there will likely always be spaces for “boys to be boys”. Nor do I think that there are many who would want to close off all of those spaces either, though I certainly would hope that they would not be extended to the point of justifying rape or violence against individuals solely on the basis of sex or gender. What I do think that individuals like Anita Sarkeesian are fighting for is to transform the mainstream of gaming into a space where my daughter is accepted as an equal and not as an intruder or an ornament. Sadly, it seems as if at least a hardcore minority finds that thought too much to bear, but perhaps what we are seeing in the intensity of the response to “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” is the violent death rattle of a culture in decline.

Kelly Thompson at She Has No Head! – Dear Marvel: Please Stop Ruining Everything

Earlier this week, Kelly Thompson posted a new column on CBR reacting to Marvel Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada’s statement, reported at Ain’t It Cool News, that, in effect, there is no combination of actor and character he can think of that would make for a viable female-led franchise from the Marvel Universe.

Thompson points out how disappointing this is in the wake of The Avengers and the critical role played by Black Widow in that film. She also underlines the absurdity of the statement, particularly coming from someone with the word “creative” in their job title. Most hilariously, she uses a series of images of characters and actors to show what a colossal failure of imagination this claim is given the whole universe of choices available to Marvel producers.

Most saliently, she points out that, increasingly, there is little rational basis for assertions like the one made by Quesada. Whether one is looking at who goes to see movies, including genres like the superhero film, or who leads a film, there is no reason to assume that a) women won’t go or b) that female-led films are box office poison. In the face of successes like The Hunger Games, as well as the other films pictured in the column, and the fact that a substantial part of the audience for movies like The Avengers is female, the idea that featuring a woman in a Marvel film is to necessarily court disaster is ridiculous.

Simply put, what matters more than who leads a film is whether it is well made and is backed with the intent to build the audience. If you hire hacks, people with no vision for the character or an understanding for the genre, and show no faith in the film in promotion and publicity, then your movie will fail, regardless of character or actor. I can’t believe that Quesada truly thinks that not only is there no combination of character and actor that would make a female-led franchise from the Marvel universe work, but that there is also no combination of creative talent and Marvel/Disney resources that could make that same franchise a success.

One of the insights derived from semiotics about concepts like gender is that, in many language systems, certain categories of people and things become “marked” in ways that privilege some identities as “normal” and marginalize others as deviations (hence, the need to be “marked”). What is “normal” is left unmarked. In American English, “female” is a marked category while “male” is unmarked.

This is clearly illustrated in fields like college sports where the unmarked term, “basketball”, “soccer”, “lacrosse”, etc., signifies men’s teams, while women’s teams are marked by the term “women’s”. At some universities this is further bolstered by applying the term “Lady” in front of the school’s nickname, as in “Lady Bulldogs” or “Lady Wildcats”.*

While less starkly illustrated in fields like popular film, does anyone think of Iron Man, Thor, or Captain America as, primarily, “male-led” titles? I suspect that these are thought of as, simply, “superhero” films. I also suspect that the only context in which the gender identity of the leads in those franchises matter is in the context of discussions like this where the real issue is the success or failure of female-led movies.

The people behind the scenes at Marvel clearly made a decision at some point that The Hulk would be a key part of their movie plans and they have stuck to that decision despite financial disappointment and creative problems related to the character. It is worth pointing out that, creatively, this seems to have been a good decision despite the difficulties encountered on the way to The Avengers. If the same initial decision had been made with regards to She-Hulk, I don’t think we would have seen a second film devoted to the character, let alone found her in The Avengers (and, of course, in light of Quesada’s comment, it seems pretty clear that this scenario is a flight of fancy in the first place. Plus, did you see what just happened when going from “Hulk” to “She-Hulk”?).

The problem here is that “female superhero” is a marked category, and the gender identity of those characters is made into an issue that, for the moment at least, is deployed as a reason not to make movies based on women characters from the Marvel Universe. Meanwhile, as Thompson notes, ” … if we blamed box office failures on the gender of the star we’d simply have no films. There are thousands upon thousands of failing films with male leads, but nobody suggests that we stop making them because people don’t want to see movies with male stars…because that would be INSANE.” Films with male leads are just films, while films with female leads are female films. Whether the latter “succeed” or not is secondary to the fact that they are always already constructed as deviations from what is conceived of as “normal”.

And it is this perception of inherent strangeness, not some absolute lack of creative choice or available talent, that keeps the Powers That Be, like Joe Quesada, from seriously considering the possibility of making and supporting a movie with a female lead. That same perception also explains why the reporter at AICN is able to glibly follow Quesada’s comment with their own  – to wit, “I’m thinking I might agree with him on this one actually” – and also why so many find it easy to offer rationalizations for why such a film won’t work (scan the comments on the column to see this in action).

Read Kelly Thompson’s column at CBR: http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2012/05/21/she-has-no-head-dear-marvel-stop-ruining-everything/

*College sports is also an indication of how language can change. The “lady” appellation, for example, is increasingly archaic, even though it can still be found in use at certain schools and among certain groups of fans. I’ve also noticed that, in the past few years, as women and girls playing sports comes to be a seen as normal in some contexts like basketball and soccer, some sports reporting agencies have started to mark both categories of teams, using abbreviations like “mbb” and “wbb” in their tickers, for example.

Joss Whedon special section at PopMatters

On Friday, Robert Moore introduced a PopMatters Spotlight on Joss Whedon. Moore’s essay critically reviews Whedon’s body of work, and then asks, “Why do his shows resonate so strongly with his viewers?” Moore suggests that Whedon’s films and TV shows (and, presumably, comics) work because he likes what his audiences like, and, most importantly, does what he can within limits imposed by networks and producers, to deliver on those tastes and preferences. He also argues that Whedon’s work attracts loyal fans because he respects their intelligence, and that he demonstrates an authentic interest in and respect for women, a rare quality in Hollywood and in mainstream comics.

My favorite passage is from that last section of the essay. Like Moore’s motivation for writing these paragraphs, I have personal, as well as  political, reasons for appreciating Whedon’s interest in making strong, complicated female characters central in his work.

I have a twelve year-old daughter who is currently trying to watch Buffy and Angel as fast she can, and who has already devoured Firefly. I think that Moore perfectly captures why Whedon’s work has been significant in helping to change how American pop culture is gendered.

Why is this important? Why particularly is it crucial that there be these vital, strong, heroic women?

Here I must turn personal. As a single-father raising a young girl, I quickly appreciated how desperately my daughter wanted to see heroic girls and women in movies and on TV. Watching Peter Pan, she unexpectedly viewed Wendy as the hero of the story. Many classic films were rejected when we visited the video store, my daughter asking instead for movies “with girl heroes.” This was immediately before Buffy, and after The Wizard of Oz, The Journey of Natty Gann, and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind we were faced with slim pickings.

All this changed with Buffy. Instead of a handful of movies or television series with strong girls and women, there are a host. It is possible that shows like Fascape, Roswell, Dark Angel, Alias, Veronica Mars, Battlestar Galactica, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and Fringe would have appeared anyway, but the fact is that it was only after Buffy that such shows hit the networks in any quantity.

I learned firsthand just how important it is for young girls—or even older girls—need to feel that it is OK to be strong. It is just as important for men to grasp and understand that it is a great thing for women to be every bit as strong and heroic as we popularly assume that men can be.

My daughter wanted “girl heroes” that she could identify with and whose exploits she could enjoy. Unfortunately, she had few. Today, post-Buffy, there are many. Anyone who has helped change the cultural landscape to that degree deserves considerably more than a Spotlight.

The first regular entry in the series, Laura Berger’s, “Joss Whedon 101” piece on the Buffy movie, also appeared on Friday. I am looking forward to the rest of the Spotlight, which you can track from its homepage.