Category Archives: Blog Post

The threat of the female gaze?

Several months ago, I wrote a brief blog post on tumblr about the female gaze, and recent television series that allow that gaze to look at male bodies as objects of desire. I wrote about how this gaze is not necessarily the inverse of the male gaze, which is predicated on domination and reduction of the female figure, but rather exploratory, looking for a subjective position to take in relation to the male body. I wrote that how throughout history, media made about men, by men and for men has denied a place for women to hold a subjective, agentic gaze because it primarily caters to male agendas and desires. I noted that in instances where a female gaze is stitched into the structure of the text, the looked-at male characters do not suffer the kind of humiliation, passivisation or domination associated with the male gaze. Many women responded thoughtfully with some challenging questions and comments, and that was really wonderful.

Fast forward many, many months later. I started receiving notifications about this old post; comments from angry, self-proclaimed conservative men. I realised they would have had to scour tumblr for feminist tags in order to find my post – on Christmas Eve, of all days, which was sort of sad. They were angry for a few reasons: firstly, that my title was ‘Doctor’ and not ‘dumb bitch’ – they did not like my authority on this matter or that my field of expertise even existed; one man was angry that I was even allowed to continue to breathe.

 

It was a violent reaction to a woman claiming a space for her own erotic contemplation. They all started yelling ‘OP THINKS WOMEN SHOULD BE ABLE TO HARASS AND MOLEST MEN IN THE STREET! MISANDRIST!’ I was stunned. Nowhere in my piece had I suggested women should do this and of course I would never say this; in fact, my post was explicitly focused on cinematic visual conventions of representation (shot structures, editing, camerawork etc.). It interests me greatly that a discussion of the female gaze led these men to immediately jump to assume this is what I meant; is this because this is what they do with their own gaze? Is this the violence they want to do when they look at women? Is this why they assumed I would want to do this as well when I claimed an active position in relation to a desiring gaze? Women do not, will not, sexually harass or molest a man in the street, because we do not have the kind of structural power that would allow us to get away with that (you know, the kind of power that men have). Furthermore, we don’t see men as simple objects that we can manipulate and touch whenever we want. That would be the male gaze. The female gaze is something else entirely.

 

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He misspelled ‘dumb wits,’ which is ironic

One poster asked ‘what the fuck do women know about “male gaze” and all that fucking rubbish you wrote? You aren’t a man. You have no fucking clue what men want or need.’ I know what it’s like to be terrified and ashamed as an eleven-year-old girl who gets catcalled by a car full of middle-aged men wagging their tongues and calling me a ‘pretty little slut.’ I know what it’s like to watch films and television shows where women are not only actively excluded from the subjective field but also treated like objects to be violated, fucked, and brutalised without a second thought. I know what it’s like to be terrified of male violence all day every day, being told that this is an overreaction, and then when something does happen, being told it was because I wasn’t careful or fearful enough. I know what it’s like to be a woman on the Internet who, when she writes about her own gaze, is sent threats and incessantly harassed. So yeah, I know the male gaze. I know it intimately. I live with it every day, just like every other woman. Our whole lives have been structured around catering to what men ‘need and want.’

These men also took issue with my argument that dominant media produces images of women that are pure objectification – I cited the paucity of speaking roles for women who are presented as objects for the male characters throughout film history. To this, Angry Men of Tumblr responded that in fact it is feminists who reduce these women to objects, that we don’t allow them to be more than to-be-looked-at spectacles. The statistics were ‘Made Up’. I’m unclear as to how feminists control the presentation of these female characters’ bodies, their stories or the amount of dialogue given to them.

But at the heart of it, I could see their incredible discomfort at the thought of women claiming a subjective desiring position that might shake the foundations of the conventional representations they get off to. That women might refuse to be simple objects for consumption, demanding a place in the scene of desire that is active and in control, demanding pleasure rather than being placidly pleasurable. I could see their fear at the thought of the gaze, that they have wielded with such authority, violence and entitlement, being turned back on them. They felt threatened. They felt like a thing they are ‘entitled’ to could be challenged or taken away from them – silent women, passive women, women who only desire when/what/how they are told to desire. We have a rise in media that is slowly shifting this representational field; furthermore, we have a lot of women actively discussing this shift in representation and what it means for their own structures of desire – they are blogging, tweeting, writing, speaking, fangirling about it. Women are getting louder about what they want, and how they want it; they are demanding more from the media they consume. And this is a threat to the dominant culture that wants to keep us quiet, uncritical and compliant.

Women’s Fandoms: Unruly Desires, Perverse Pleasures

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In fandom, the beloved text or set of texts can be read in many ways: interpretations may conform to the creator’s preferred reading or they may veer off into wilder, more unruly and unexpected territories. The latter is more often the case because fandom necessarily involves a personal reading, a way of tapping into what it is that we want from the text rather than simply what the text wants from us. In women’s fandoms in particular, I notice that a lot of women, myself included, want to carve out a space in the text that caters to our own desires, our own particular pleasures and imaginaries. This might involve imagining all sorts of character pairings that don’t exist within the ‘official’ text; it might involve writing/reading/creating new versions of the text that incorporate a wider range of pleasures (slash and smut being obvious examples); it might involve passionately sharing or discussing a particular interpretation on Twitter or Tumblr.

But when women fans create and explore readings that go against the grain of the text and spill outside its official bounds into unruly zones of desire, they are often derided. This derision is more often than not framed through a derision of femininity and female desire. The gendered language used to deride these fans and fandoms usually include words and phrases like: delusional, crazy, hormonal, irrational, embarrassing, unrealistic, ‘too much,’ ‘too intense,’ and so on. In this culture, ‘legitimate’ readings of texts are defined as cool, distanced, measured, sensible, ‘realistic’ and therefore masculine. Readings that assert unruly female pleasure pervert and disrupt these carefully guarded and policed aesthetic boundaries of ‘good’ taste, spilling over into unauthorised pleasures. Bad taste comes to be defined through a derision of the feminine and its multiple excesses which are seen as significantly inferior to masculine ways of reading and engaging in fan culture. Women are thought to fantasise too intensely, their erotic imaginaries are condemned as too unruly and in need of a ‘reality check.’ Furthermore, these expressions of pleasure are seen as evidence that women fans are stupid, vapid, and unthinking (here I am reminded of the disgusting phrase “TwiTards” used to deprecate girl fans of the Twilight franchise). So women fans are considered both too much and not enough — too desiring but not smart enough, as if pleasure overrides any capacity for critical engagement (spoilers: it doesn’t). This logic springs from a sexist hierarchy of taste in which masculine ways of reading and expressing desire  are considered ‘normal’ and ideal, while women’s reading strategies and desires are seen as deviant, decadent, indulgent, illogical, inferior, and just plain wrong. Women are called ‘crazy’ or ‘embarrassing’ for simply expressing their desire and I believe that this condemnation has little to do with the content of their fantasy scenario, and more to do with the fact that they are unashamedly, and often quite explicitly and loudly, demanding a space to declare their desires.

Vociferous fangirling emphasises and centres on women’s pleasure, and our culture never takes this seriously and frequently regards it with utter contempt. Male fans and fandoms are ‘passionate’; women fans and women’s fandoms are ‘crazy’ and embarrassing unless they adhere to the narrow, approved reading of the text. Spilling outside these boundaries into shipping ‘perverse,’ unauthorised, or queer pairings (or groupings) of characters/actors, reading the text against the grain and therefore pushing it into new and perhaps unruly territories, fashioning a space for the articulation of a range of pleasures and desires (erotic or otherwise) that we are typically not allowed to articulate in our day to day lives within patriarchal culture – these are some of the strategies that women fans within fandom. The gendered policing of the bounds of ‘good’ taste and ‘legitimate’ or ‘proper’ fandom demonstrates that these strategies for articulating women’s desires continue to be met with derision and deprecation, and that this has everything to do with cultural anxieties about women’s desire and pleasure.

new blog post over at Bitch Flicks

I wrote a blog post about the girl’s gaze on teen TV over at Bitch Flicks for their special issue on the female gaze – check it out! It’s called “When the Girl Looks: The Girl’s Gaze in Teen TV” x

http://www.btchflcks.com/2015/08/when-the-girl-looks-the-girls-gaze-in-teen-tv.html#.Vd1C087olFW

‘But it’s Historically Accurate!’: Why I’m So Done with This Defence

TW: discussion of rape, violence against women

The frequency and relish with which ‘historical’ television shows (primarily made by men, for men) fetishistically represent women being brutalised, tortured, and raped by men is disturbing. The ease with which people defend these representations as ‘historically accurate’ is equally disturbing *yeah, I’m looking at you, Game of Thrones*. ‘Historically accurate’ has become a get-out-of-jail-free card. It’s become a way of shutting down legitimate criticisms of a visual culture obsessed with seeing women degraded. It’s become a way to stifle a necessary discussion about why our culture sees this as unproblematic entertainment.

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lol

If these shows are so committed to ‘historical accuracy,’ then why are their women characters’ legs and underarms waxed into oblivion and their faces impeccably made up? Why do the characters all look so manicured and blemishless and clean and glossy? Please. Unless the GoT universe has a Brazilian Butterfly salon hidden down some secret alleyway, these elements are incongruous. So, really, it’s ‘historically accurate when it suits us.’ I’m not saying that we should ignore or censor this aspect of representing history, nor am I saying that there aren’t other aspects of the show that are interesting, challenging, or enjoyable; rather, I think we should be calling out the status quo fetishised representations of women as inevitable victims, the lazy and casual use of rape as a plot device, and how this feeds into misogynistic cultural discourses.

One of the major problems with the representation of rape in these shows is that it is in service of a male plot point – so the hero can save the day, or have a reason to go to war with the perpetrator, or finally realise how much he cares about the woman etc, etc, etc. Rarely, if ever, do these shows deconstruct or indict the manner in which women’s oppression is maintained through sexual violence. Rarely, if ever, are these shows committed to examining the toxic masculinity that maintains rape culture, and how it impacts upon every moment of women’s lives. It is the carelessness and nonchalance with which these extreme acts of violence against women are represented that disturbs me. Women’s pain should not be a mere plot device for the growth and heroism of the male lead. I can’t believe that this still needs to be said. It is the ‘business as usual’ treatment of it that is so wrong. I mean, I love Outlander more than life itself, but the fact that Claire is in constant danger of rape and sexual violence a thousand times during the first season reads as a shortcut to create narrative tension/suspense/ opportunity for Jamie to heroically rescue her. I think Outlander does a great job in providing an empowered and powerful feminine perspective, but it frustratingly falls back on worn out, clichéd tropes like this too often and I sometimes find this disappointing.

There are shows that do a great job deconstructing and critiquing this violence. For me, The Fall is a brilliant example. Detective Stella Gibson, magnificently played by Gillian Anderson, articulates a powerful critique of rape culture and VAW. In monologues that launch an incisive critique of issues like slut shaming, fetishisation of women’s suffering, and discrimination against sex workers, Gibson gives voice to a perspective that refuses to treat these acts of violence as normal, or defendable.

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Stella Gibson telling it like it is

Orphan Black is another smart show that really delves into important issues like the control exercised by patriarchal institutions over women’s reproduction, and how this control supports women’s oppression. Furthermore, Orphan Black is hopeful because it represents a group of women coming together in order to challenge this power, and to support one another – The Bletchley Circle is another great example of this collective power as well. This alternative narrative of women’s collective agency in the face of oppression is one way that the representation of violence against women can begin to unravel, pushing women’s narratives into new territories.

When is a Girl “Good Enough?”: Quote of the Day

Valerie Walkerdine writes that in girl’s narratives the prince’s arrival is ‘attractive precisely because it is the getting and keeping of the man which in a very basic and crucial way establishes that the girl is “good enough”…It is because getting a man is identified as a central resolution to problems of female desire that it acts so powerfully.’

Source: Walkerdine, Valerie. 1990. Schoolgirl Fictions. London and New York: Verso, p.99.

Documentary Recommendation: Don’t Need You – The Herstory of Riot Grrrl

Fantastic documentary about the Riot Grrrl movement available to watch on YouTube. I showed a clip from this documentary to my students in our discussion about the political importance of love between women. The women and men interviewed in this documentary provide some great insights into the period during which Riot Grrrl emerged, as well as its relevance for women today. I love the vitality, the rage, the politics, the love, and the creative practice of Riot Grrrl.

“My Ovaries Just Exploded!”: Fangirling’s Unruly Language of Desire

Declarations of ovary explosion, uterus throbbing, and being ‘PREGNANT, LITERALLY PREGNANT!’ are part and parcel of the online fangirl lexicon. These ecstatic utterances often refer to the enjoyment experienced at the sight of a text’s handsome protagonist in a state of undress, or doing something completely adorable like weeping silently by a campfire about his lost love a la Jamie Fraser of “Outlander”.

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Jamie Fraser says goodbye to Claire because he’s legit perfection, then cries by the campfire because he loves her and misses her. It’s cool though, she comes back and everyone’s like YAYYY

These declarations of fangirl feeling are also present in non-heterosexual representations of love, sex and desire, and I’ve noticed this happening particularly in relation to both slash and femslash fictions. Within the imaginary zone, women viewers and readers have crafted a language that allows them to speak with one another about their erotic imaginations, sensuous responses to fantasy, and their sexual desire.

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Dean Winchester gets it

Wherever this energy is directed, whatever object it takes, fangirling is so belittled because it is an often unruly expression of women’s desire, which patriarchal culture regards with contempt. Because patriarchal culture is dedicated towards fulfilling the needs, desires, and agendas of men, women are given far less space to articulate anything that challenges this prioritised language of desire. The unruliness suggested by coupling women’s pleasure with words like explosion, throbbing, pulsating, dancing, smouldering etc., gives this fangirl language a resistant edge that creates an alternative space of articulation. Resisting cultural prohibitions against women expressing desire (because it makes you look like a slut, because it’s not feminine, because it speaks of a desire that patriarchal culture does not approve of/want to fulfil and so on), this online communication seems to be looking for ways to push against or exceed the bounds of acceptability. I think this is why the language is so gleefully excessive, aggressive, playful, exuberant, and celebratory. It provides an oppositional counter to the idealised feminine sexuality that is demure, compliant, accommodating, and secondary to male desire. It puts women’s desire and a female gaze front and centre, without shame, and allows us to express things that ordinarily go unsaid.

‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and the Policing of Women’s Erotic Imagination

‘Actually…I really liked the Fifty Shades of Grey movie,’ confessed an academic colleague of mine (who shall remain nameless). She followed this statement up with: ‘but you’re the only person I could tell that to,’ because street cred. I think she could tell me because I watch and write about screen media that a lot of people consider to be ‘bad’ taste or ‘poor’ quality – basically, I live for the CW network’s teen TV programming. I have not read the Fifty Shades books, but from what I understand from romance scholar friends of mine, the film is infinitely less fucked up in its sexual politics than the novels. Yes, the narrative of this film is very troubling to me, and at times deeply upsetting and offensive. I liked aspects of the film – in particular, the soundtrack and Sam Taylor-Johnson’s construction of a slick visual style, as well as surprising elements that I thought I’d never see in such a mainstream Hollywood film (female pubic hair! The use of condoms!). I thought that Dakota Johnson’s performance as Anastasia brought strength, wilfulness, and complexity to the character. I liked that the sex was consensual and clearly enjoyed by the heroine, which frankly I was not expecting having heard so much about the books. In fact, the sex was the least problematic aspect of the film, at least for me. On the other hand, the eroticism was sometimes a little lost on me, I think in part due to Jamie Dornan’s too-cold performance as Christian, and the profound, peculiar absence of a desiring female gaze built into the structure of the film image. For me, the worst part about the film is its representation of male stalking, control, and emotional manipulation as somehow sexy and oh-so-romantic. Please. This is the abuse of women within patriarchal culture.

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Anastasia and Christian in ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ (Taylor-Johnson 2015).

However, there is a big difference between deconstructing, debating and opposing the sexual politics of the narrative on the one hand, and shaming or belittling women who enjoy engaging in its fantasy on the other hand. This is obviously a narrative that many women are enjoying engaging with. From my perspective, we do an immense disservice to women spectators when we assume that they are unable to tell the difference between fantasy and reality, and that they cannot extricate themselves from the ‘magic spell’ of the mainstream media image. Women are not being asked ‘why do you like this text?’, they are simply being told ‘you should not like it, shame on you.’ The embarrassment felt by my colleague in her enjoyment of the film, her instinctual understanding that she should not disclose it to other academics, illustrates how this shaming works in action. The deprecation of this so-called ‘mommy porn’ suggests a policing of women’s engagement with their own erotic imaginaries and erotic texts – you are only allowed to erotically fantasise in certain ways and about certain things, otherwise you have poor taste/are not feminist enough/are a dupe of mainstream media/should be ashamed of what you find sexy. The discourse around the text as inauthentic – a bedrock of women’s ‘false consciousness’; an ‘incorrect’ representation of ‘real’ BDSM practice etc. – relies on a sexist binary opposition between (masculine) realism, authenticity and precision as opposed to (feminine) fancifulness, fantasy and the unrealistic. Furthermore, this policing is concerned with whether or not women will see the fantasy narrative and then want it to happen in their own lives – and therefore, that this erotic tale is fundamentally harmful to women viewers. As I suggested in my post about Outlander last week, it is entirely possible for women viewers to enjoy aspects of a text while also problematising, disliking, critiquing, and rejecting others – this is what being an active, critically engaged, complex spectator means. Should we demand better, more diverse, and more feminist screen images of women’s eroticism, sexuality, and fantasy? Absolutely, emphatically yes! On the other hand, Fifty Shades does not herald the ‘end of feminism’ as some have ludicrously argued. It is a fantasy, an erotic narrative that has captured the imaginations of many women. It is just one story among many. The work now is to create even more expansive spaces for this imagination to continue to grow and explore new territories of desire.