Archive for the ‘Pop Culture’ Category

Trigger warning – pop culture oppressiveness, slurs, some violent imagery etc.

When we talk about social justice and popular culture, we find ourselves talking a lot about the twin problems of invisibility vs bad representations. Invisibility means the complete absence of marginalised group/s from the piece we’re analysing, and generally from most popular culture as well. That’s things like pieces that are white-only, that feature only conventionally-able folks, that erase non-het/cis folks entirely etc. Bad representations are exactly what it says on the can. Where someone from a marginalised group is present, but is presented in a stereotyped/reductive/negative/comical way due to the inherent fact of their belonging to that group. So we’re talking there the ‘lol chick with a dick haha ur gay now’ transhatred, the all-too-common portrayal of white people as the ‘good folks’ and PoC as the ‘bad folks’, the ‘Smurfette principle’ whereby in a group of men the woman’s only defining trait is her womanhood etc.

I tend to have this vision of myself as not much of a pop culture consumer and therefore tend to stay away from talking about it. It used to be true – until a few years ago, I could count the films I’d seen in the cinema on the fingers of one hand. I still watch basically no TV, and my consumption of books and music is generally confined to certain genres. These days, I’d say that even if I’m not an aficionado, I’m probably well enough up on things to comment in a general kind of way.

The invisibility vs bad representation dilemma is a hard one. I hate both – I want to see rounded, diverse, interesting characters of all abilities, ethnicities, gender/s/non-gender/s, sexualities, classes etc in all sorts of genres and media, placed there irrelevent of their divergences from the kyriarchy’s ideal. But that’s damned rare, especially for something to be non-oppressive in all ways. You can find a book that is queer-positive, but see racism writ large all over it. You can find a film that passes the Bechdel test, but is really cissexist. You can find music that is non-classist, but hear misogyny everywhere.

The distinction between the two types is hard to police. You might have a film that features no non-het characters and no discussion of non-heterosexuality – but it might say, ‘every man needs a good woman’ and blur the boundary by moving from implicit erasure to explicit erasure.

This started churning around in my head because, during a visit to some older members of my family, we saw some 70s comedy and I was told repeatedly that, ‘This is incredibly un-PC.’ Now, leaving aside the fact that PC is a terrible term, leaving aside the fact that there was badness in it even if it wasn’t the specifically-oppressive badness I’m more used to seeing, it was evident that my family expected me to be wildly ‘offended’. And I wasn’t. I sat there going, ‘that’s a bit sexist…there’s no-one in this who diverges from the kyriarchal ideal…that wouldn’t be funny if it was real even if it’s not oppressive…’ but I didn’t get sporked in the eye.

That’s probably partly because I have unfortunately seen quite a bit of mainstream modern ‘comedy,’* and am therefore a bit desensitised. But it was mainly because on the whole the problem was that of erasure rather than explicit bigotry.

I really hate that I find myself having to choose between invisibility and bad representation in popular culture, and I hate that I find myself actively favouring the older, more insidious option. But frankly, I’d rather not see oppressed groups being used for cheap laughs and I’d rather not stop consuming pop culture entirely. Which mostly leaves me with the option of things that completely erase marginalised groups. And I think I would have to say to creators that if they can’t create – if they’re too lazy to create – a character who is a member of a marginalised group without exploitation and bigotry, they shouldn’t be doing so at all. It feels like admitting defeat, and it’s not a strategy to guarantee better representation – the only thing that will do that is creators actually doing their research and making their characters diverse and rounded no matter who they are – but it at least means that we don’t get that terrible ‘I want to punch you through the screen/book/speakers’ feeling.

I don’t think that any representation is better than no representation. If the representation is oppressive, better not have it at all.

* Do not get me started about the modern ‘comedy’ that I’ve seen. Now, I’m not denying, some can be okay. Especially if it favours the ‘invisibility’ side of this equation. However, it appears that a lot of people who call themselves ‘comedians’ prefer getting cheap laughs out of their and their audience’s bigotry and oppressiveness rather than coming up with genuinely funny material. People who rely on oppressive crutches for their ‘comedy’ aren’t funny. (I saw a production of one of Shakespeare’s lesser comedies recently. The company had decided to make it into a parade of gay stereotypes. It was horrible. I squirmed in my seat. It relied on the audience’s misohomy for virtually all its laughs – and then when it stopped being a misohomist shitstorm, they managed to be funny. If they’d steered clear of the misohomy, they could possibly have pulled it off. But it left such a bad taste in my mouth.)

TW – sexual harassment and non-consensual objectification.

Apparently it’s National Cleavage Day on Thursday. Created by Wonderbra and originating in South Africa, it is held at the end of March/beginning of April. Let’s hand over to Wikipedia for some illumation, hey? (Woman throughout this post stands for woman-identified person, and occasionally female-assigned person if said person is being taken for a woman by society at large and ‘people read as women’ is implicit in the context.)

‘According to Samantha Paterson, the brand manager for Wonderbra, the National Cleavage Day is started according to a design to solemnise women’s independence and power in all facets of life, from their careers to their relationships to their own destiny. Anita Meiring, public relations consultant for Wonderbra, explained the event. “It is a day for women to realise that their cleavage is something unique and that they should be proud of it.” Paterson explained “It gives women a chance to be beautiful and glow in the furtive, yet appreciative, glances their cleavage evokes from men”. She also explained “It gives men a legitimate reason to stare at boobs.”‘

So women’s independence and power in their careers, relationships and destiny should be celebrated with cleavage? OH YES I FORGOT IN THIS FUCKED UP SOCIETY WOMEN’S ONLY VALUE IS THEIR SEX APPEAL. Sure women can be proud of their cleavage – OR LACK OF IT – but we don’t need a capitalist, objectifying day devoted to it.

And it’s a while since I’ve done some quality debunking – actually it isn’t, but never mind – so let’s get going on those last two abominable sentences. Paterson explained “It gives women a chance to be beautiful and glow in the furtive, yet appreciative, glances their cleavage evokes from men”. IT’S CALLED HARASSMENT AND OBJECTIFICATION. Also, all women are beautiful, all the time. This is not the sole indicator of their worth. All women are also worthy, and human, all the time. AND ALL WOMEN DESERVE FREEDOM FROM SEXUAL HARASSMENT AND NON-CONSENSUAL OBJECTIFICATION. She also explained “It gives men a legitimate reason to stare at boobs.”‘ THERE IS NO LEGITIMATE REASON TO NON-CONSENSUALLY STARE AT BOOBS. AND NOT EVERY WOMAN WITH A CLEAVAGE WANTS THEIR BOOBS STARED AT. Talk about legitimating harassment! And heteronormativity! Not all men want to stare at boobs! Also, some heterosexual men are not assholes who HARASS WOMEN.

I’m also annoyed because it’s the SAME FUCKING DAY as Transgender Day of Visibility. GREAT. Because I just KNOW that any discourse will be taken up with cleavage, and there will be no thought given to non-cissexist, respectful discourse and education about trans folks anywhere in my vicinity unless I do it. Which I probably will at least to some extent, if I feel super-brave that day. Also pissed off because the people I found out about this from went off into the ‘At least it’s not Thailand – you wouldn’t know whose cleavage you were looking at!’ shpiel. Misoxeny and transhatred, woo! Fun!

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. Yay for a day devoted to consumer capitalist expressions of lurrrve… (heterosexual of course). Or rather, boo. Valentine’s Day, how do I hate thee, let me count the ways.

Firstly, well done for marketing the day as a day for everyone who isn’t part of a happy couple to sit in front of a TV crying. I’m noticing this among het cis female friends particularly – they’re using Valentine’s Day as an excuse to shame themselves for their looks, their weight and their personalities that somehow have prevented them finding a boyfriend, going off into the ‘forever alone’ idea. This discomforts me – I hate to hear people putting themselves down, especially in the kyriarchal, fat-shaming, heteronormative, misogynist, slut-shaming language they’re using. This is for anyone who is blaming themselves for the lack of companionship they desperately want;

You are worthy. No matter where you fit in our defective beauty standard, or our defective intelligence standard, or our defective gender standards, or our defective standards of worth; you are worthy. You are worth celebrating. If you want a companion and you are going to conduct that relationship in a respectful, consensual, enjoyable way, then you are worthy of one. And you don’t need to use the language that marginalises you, that puts you and others down. Leave the oppressive language.

Secondly, not everyone is heterosexual. Not everyone is binary. Not everyone is monogamous. Outside of the internet, I have never come across any Valentine’s Day paraphernalia that acknowledges the existence of non-heterosexual folks. Seriously, Valentine’s Day, our love is just as worth celebrating as any other. Implying otherwise reinforces the heterosexist dialogue surrounding romance, the heterosexist dialogue that entwines itself in our lives from ridiculously early ages and poisons our youth’s minds. As for folks outside of the binary, we get relegated to our normal position in society – not existing! Isn’t it fun? And the same for polyamorous folks – polyamory doesn’t exist either! This is for everyone made invisible by the Valentine’s Day dialogue;

If you love, and you love consensually, respectfully and enjoyably, then your love is beautiful and worthy of celebration. No matter how many people are in your relationship or what gender/s/non-gender/s they have. No matter how you conduct your relationship. The erasure is wrong; a day for lovers includes you too. You too are a part of the rainbow of humanity.

Thirdly, not everyone wants a relationship. Relationships aren’t any kind of compulsory life step. They’re just one branch of the river that is life, and some of us will go down it, others will head off elsewhere. It’s not the end of the world, and it doesn’t make us freaks for not wanting it. This is for everyone who shakes their head in bafflement at all this stuff;

Don’t worry. You’re not a freak for not wanting what our entire culture says that you should want as a part of a normal life course. You’re another manifestation of the beautiful diversity of the human experience, and you are worthy because of it.

Fourthly, sexism. Gender essentialism. Guys can’t buy bras! Girls, don’t get too soppy! Guys, humour her! Girls, buy new underwear for your man! You should be having sex tonight, dammit, it’s Valentine’s Day, damn what you actually want! Shut the hell up, advertisers, writers, anyone talking about this in these terms. You’re adding to a creepy, misogynistic, binarist, cissexist, heterosexist culture, and that’s not good.

Fifthly, COMMERCIALISM! CAPITALISM! CONSUMERISM! We’re meant to become zombies to red-packaged, overpriced trinkets that are supposed to symbolise love, in all its weirdness and diversity and complexity. Talk about reductionism. You will consume, the media repeats, and we fall for it because we think that love is expressed by the box of chocolates when it is really the person handing over the box of chocolates that is expressing love. But then, in a capitalist culture, it makes sense to conceptualise love as something that involves spending loads of money on someone. Look, it says, I’m willing to spend the fruits of my slavery to capitalism on you. This is how much I love you.

Sigh. Comrades, if you want to do things on Valentine’s Day, do it and enjoy it. Just be prepared for the inflated prices. But remember, it’s really just another day. There’s nothing you can do on Valentine’s Day that you couldn’t do any other day of the year. The media Valentine’s Day machine is harmful, so do your own thing on your own terms. And remember to honour yourself and others, respectfully, consensually, enjoyably.

UK & trans issues

Posted: November 1, 2010 in Bodies, Gender, Law, Pop Culture
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The UK really isn’t doing well on trans issues at the moment. The media behaviour in the case concerning Sonia Burgess’ death has been appalling – first the continued misgendering of Sonia Burgess herself, followed by misgendering of the woman charged with her murder, Nina Kanagasingham. The judge, Timothy Pontius, outed Ms. Kanagasingham in court according to today’s reports, and she has been remanded in a men’s prison.

When will authorities realise that a trans woman, no matter the crime she is charged with, is not a man, and is not safe in a men’s prison? It doesn’t seem that hard a concept… Also, as said in the above linked page on Bird of Paradox, the UK’s principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ should preclude this sort of treatment.

Also, Mikki Nicholson has won the UK Scrabble Championship. She has been misgendered by most of the UK papers, including the Times, which I’d have expected more of. There have been a range of reporting phrases used – the indirect reportage of her saying that she had been diagnosed as a ‘woman in a man’s body’ by a psychologist, and the Times’ memorable (shameful) use of the word ‘crossdresser.’ However, it is good to see that the Guardian has edited its article to use the correct pronoun, although shameful that they did not use it to start with. Well done, Mikki Nicholson, and may you always have the courage to be yourself and the talent and fortune to be successful.

The Final Frontier

Posted: September 26, 2010 in Music, Pop Culture
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Time for something a little more light-hearted. I do a lot of ranting.

A month or so after it came out (and three weeks or so after I bought it) I finally got around to listening to The Final Frontier, Iron Maiden’s latest. Now, to put this in perspective, I’ve disliked basically everything they’ve done for the last decade, wasn’t too fussed on the decade before – I adore their 80s stuff though. They used to be on my top ten bands thing, and if they’d broken up in about 1990 they probably still would be. There’s some things I like since then, but few.

I found it a bit like the Curate’s Egg; parts of it were excellent. There were moments when I was leaping around frantically playing air bass and screaming FUCK YEAH! IRON MAIDEN ARE BACK! and then there were moments when I flopped back into my chair and said, blurg, quit it already with these indistinguishable wimpy intros and boring old gallop.

To put things more concisely, if you want the spirit of 80s Maiden, get the White Wizzard album. They have a severe case of Maidenwannabeitis, and they make it work.

Gender norms in ads

Posted: September 25, 2010 in Gender, Pop Culture
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I’m not quite sure what point this ad is trying to make, but it sure as hell doesn’t include anyone who isn’t a stereotypical man. I’ve only seen it during rugby ad breaks, and rugby support is pretty gendered (although it’s assumed, where I live, that everyone of every gender drops everything to watch the national team – which is not an entirely incorrect assumption) so maybe they think that it’s not going to make much difference – or maybe they just didn’t think. More likely the latter. There is a nod to racial diversity, which I suppose makes it less of a disaster, but not much less. How hard would it be to include a couple of strong women pulling their weight?

Oh I forgot. Girls ‘aren’t physically strong’. That’s non-gender-normative behaviour, and god forbid it gets on our screens.

And there’s no such things as ‘girly,’ or ‘manly,’ drinks either. So that’s no excuse.

Update on the cringing post…

Posted: September 13, 2010 in Pop Culture, Sexism
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A few days ago, I wrote this post. Well, now I can link to the advert that managed to insult both men and women; this one. Luckily it seems to have stopped coming up for the moment, but it’ll probably come back.

Just read an opinion piece by Janice Turner in the Times about the idea of pornification as universal empowerment and how screwed up it is. (I use articles as sparking points for my own ideas; this isn’t a commentary, this is my opinion.) She makes the interesting point that many parents are seeing it as a phase, as a fashion akin to grunge or punk.

I can see where this idea is coming from, if indeed people are thinking of it like this. Every generation comes up with a fashion statement that their parents disapprove of, and it does indeed seem like, for girls, this porny image is my generation’s. But look at how pervasive it is. I don’t think that ever before a fashion aesthetic has permeated to this degree; for those who identify as girls or are seen as girls, there is very little escape from the relentless fashion for tits’n’ass (and the sexual objectification, assumption of sexual availability and all the rest of the stuff that goes along with it).

Look at the ‘alternative’ subcultures. Women in metal. Hyper-femininity. Breasts always on show. Makeup. Conventional beauty standards. A lot of legs. Perhaps less of an ass mentality than some areas of music, but the same old slim thing. That’s not alternative. That’s mainstream with more black and awesome music. (I’m a metalhead… doesn’t mean I approve of everything under the metal banner, though.) The idea of a punk girl is mainstream but with more anarchy symbols, unusual hairdye colours and ripped clothes. Ditto virtually every youth subculture that contests the mainstream. There are small scenes that aren’t that… but they’re rare. And of course, in all these scenes, there are the women who defy all that; White Skull are a band that stands out as a metal band with a kickass metal singer and frontperson who just so happens to be a woman.

I’m not contesting that many of the women who present in this way in music and pop culture do find it empowering… but I’m also wondering how many of them see only women who present this way getting success and emulate it for the good of their careers. And then there’s very little recourse for girls to find role models and heroines who aren’t like this, so they may take on board the message that the only way to be a woman is to be like this.

So no. It’s not ‘just a trend, just a phase.’ It’s a full-blown bloody cultural emergency.

I really, really hate the term ‘real women.’ How do you become a ‘fake’ woman? Answer; you can’t. If you’re a woman, you’re a real woman because you exist. No matter what surgeries or cosmetics or whatever have gone into your appearance, if you’re a woman you’re a real woman.

What is a fake woman? Clue – Elizabeth Bennet is a fake woman. So are Professor Trelawny, Jane Eyre, Miss Marple, Bella Swan and Juliet Capulet (spot the really sucky series!) Fake women are those who aren’t real, those who are on screen or in the pages of a book or on a stage. Who have been created by a writer. Any woman who exists in real life cannot be a fake woman.

So I wish people would stop calling models who aren’t incredibly skinny, ‘real women,’ because that implies that the incredibly thin ones are fake women. And, since they are women and they exist (they aren’t actually coathangers that get shoved into the wardrobe between fashion shows, you know), they cannot be fake women.

In unrelated news, I really hate binary thinking. ‘Ladies here, guys here’ – excuse me comrade, what about me?

Adverts, cringe cringe

Posted: September 5, 2010 in Gender, Pop Culture, Sexism
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Going to see a film, for a chronically early person like me, means sitting through a series of ads at the start. And that causes pain

Honestly, the Diet Coke ad that’s being used at the moment is appalling. Women as puppets that dance for lower-calorie drink and are easily distracted, the actual look of the puppets and targeting women for the ‘diet’ drink… urgh.

And then the one that came after it – I have zilch idea what it was advertising (too busy cringing… I will look next time I see it), but it managed to insult both women and men in approximately a minute. First it shows three women being shown, by another woman who may have been service personnel and had an accent (idea of immigrants as servants?), a walk-in wardrobe with clothes already in it. The door opens and the women start screaming and jumping up and down. I mutter to my friend ‘THIS AD INSULTS WOMEN!’ Then roaring is heard and the scene cuts to another walk-in area, this time a walk-in beer fridge. There are three men jumping up and down and screaming in there. I mutter to my friend, ‘THIS AD INSULTS MEN! Damn, I’m glad I’m non-binary. I don’t get insulted!’ It’s the essence of gender stereotyping in a minute or so, and manages to insult most of the population… while simultaneously selling something to them.

Oh, how I wish one could take a pen to video ads and write across them in capitals, ‘THIS AD INSULTS HUMANS!’

The hourglass is not a solution

Posted: September 5, 2010 in Bodies, Gender, Pop Culture
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I don’t watch Mad Men myself (there is a slim chance I may watch the series just about to start in the UK on BBC iPlayer, but I think it unlikely), but it’s impossible to avoid hearing about its ‘curvy’ female stars being hailed as healthy relief from the unrealistic ideal of excessive thinness. I’ve finally given in and decided to blog about it.

Uh… no. Sorry. Yes, it’s good that we’re seeing women who aren’t excessively thin on our screens. But it’s not good that this is creating a different and just as unattainable beauty standard for women.

The bottom line is, we’re all stuck with the bodies we’ve got. They can be modified, both by processes like dieting and exercise and by surgical procedures, but the fundamentals of our body are very difficult to change. We can’t aspire to a body type we don’t have, whether that’s excessively thin, excessively muscular or excessively hourglass, and we will do ourselves damage if we try.

Your body is your body. Not anyone else’s. And no-one else can tell you how it should be, because you’re the one who has to see it in the mirror, and you’re the one who will have to deal with the fall-out if changes go wrong. It’s fine to change your body – but only if you want to. Your body, your choice.