I am so pleased to share this podcast interview that I recorded with Megan Falley and Olivia Gatwood about their interactive feminist spoken word poetry show, Speak Like a Girl. Megan and Olivia also performed two of their incredible poems on the podcast, which was so cool! We discussed poetics and politics; their amazing work speaking out about rape culture; reclaiming ‘girl’ as a powerful subject position from which to speak and act, and so much more. Thanks to Megan and Olivia for their insight, wisdom, and wonderful words. It was a pleasure to speak with you! x
About seven minutes into this magnificent film, Channing Tatum’s character, ‘Magic’ Mike, starts dancing to the song ‘Pony’ by Ginuwine. He’s in his workshop, sawing and melding while sparks fly out around his body, glittering across his exposed, greased-up, and obscenely muscular arms. Mike dances and grinds for several minutes, directly performing to the camera, before suggestively and languorously smiling at the spectator as he writhes and reclines on a table. It’s all very phallic and performative. My sister turns to me and exclaims ‘oh my god he’s so hot, I can’t handle it.’ This early scene sets the tone for the entire film – it is pure and often outrageous spectacle, performed to glorious excess. And this performance is gleefully engineered for the female gaze. It is a celebration of that gaze, its importance and its potential power. I spent the entire film grinning and laughing with absolute delight at its extreme pleasures, its nonsense, its intensity of affective engagement.
In another equally insane and spectacular sequence, Richie enters a gas station and breaks into a spontaneous performance. Cheetos hail down upon him (yes, really) and ice water streams down his body as he strips for a rather surprised female gas station attendant.
As you can probably tell from these brief summaries, this is not a film heavy on plot or about narrative action; rather, it is about the performative excess of male bodies presenting themselves for a variety of desiring gazes. These perfectly sculpted men, slicked with sweat and often covered in glitter, and clad in diamante-encrusted g-strings, present their bodies for masses of appreciative women in various settings (the expected strip clubs, but also women’s homes, the gas station, workshops etc.). Furthermore, they perform for all sorts of women – women of different shapes, ages, and colours – and we see this wonderful variety of women’s bodies experiencing pleasure, being thoughtfully attended to, and respected. I love this. It says: you don’t have to conform to this strict set of rules of ‘ideal’ femininity (i.e., white, slender, dressed in ultrafeminine accoutrements) in order to be granted permission to assume a desiring position. You can be whoever you are and our performance is for you and your pleasure, however you take it.
These women are referred to as ‘Queens’ throughout the film, and the characters constantly remind us of their aim to ‘worship’ women. Mike even exclaims, ‘yes, my god is a she!’ Ken advises one woman that ‘if [your husband] isn’t gonna worship you, there are plenty of guys out there who will.’ The men reiterate that women are to be ‘worshipped’ and ‘exalted.’ I 100% question this whole discourse of women needing to ‘be reminded how beautiful they are’ (direct quote) as some kind of magical antidote for dealing with living in a woman-hating culture, but in the moment of my viewing, I have to admit that found it refreshing. Perhaps this is because we are so overwhelmingly bombarded with messages about everything that is wrong with our bodies, what we must tame, manage, cover up, get rid of/supplement etc. in order to be ‘acceptable’ or ‘desirable’ or even worthy of simply being represented, acknowledged, and seen. Andre remarks that he thinks about how the women he performs for ‘have to deal with men in their lives who, every day, don’t listen to them. They don’t ask them what they want. All we gotta do is ask them what they want and when they tell you, it’s a beautiful thing, man. We’re like healers or something.’ These men take it upon themselves to listen to and then perform for women’s fantasy and pleasure. While the film calls us to light-heartedly laugh at this hyperbolic claim of being ‘healers,’ there is nevertheless a sense that this fantasy and spectacle at least temporarily alleviates the sense that we live in a culture that is actively disinterested in our desires and what we take pleasure in.
Furthermore, and very obviously, they present themselves for a desiring female gaze. The mise-en-scene and cinematography engineer the possibility of this gaze: hot pink spotlights shine on their figures, drawing attention to them; the framing is often in close-up or extreme close-up, encouraging a close intimate mode of looking; and the camerawork deploys a lot of panning shots back and forth across their figures, which I think promotes a caressing, tactile form of viewership. I also think it’s important to note that the film doesn’t really turn that gaze back on the women characters: there are no lingering, eroticising shots of women’s bodies. These are reserved solely for the ‘male entertainers.’ While the male characters certainly remark upon the attractiveness of some of the women they encounter, it is never really taken much further than that. Zoe, the character positioned as Mike’s potential love interest, is bisexual and ‘not really going through a guy phase.’ I was so pleased to see that the film did not try to recuperate her orientation for a heteronormative outcome by having her end up in Mike’s arms at the conclusion of the film; she certainly enjoys his obscenely erotic display in the final dance number of the film, but this is as far as it goes. This was so surprising and refreshing, because we usually see mainstream media either fetishising, chastising, or ‘redeeming’ women characters who do not conform to heteronormativity. Even more love for this excellent film as a result. This is a sublime work of visual excess that turns many sexist tropes of erotic display on their head to create something very pleasurable and very entertaining, and in many ways, very refreshing in terms of its sexual politics.
PS Channing Tatum is a cinnamon roll and I love him.
In this podcast, Dr Jodi McAlister and I discuss the wonderful world of fandoms and fan practices, particularly those that appeal to girls and women as a way of exploring desire and agency. Some of the topics we chat about include: shipping (shipping against the grain or with the grain; anti-ships) ; fan fiction (smut, fluff, alternative universes, and tropes); creating GIFS and fanvids.
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.
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.
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.
In this podcast, I chat with PhD candidate Jessica Ford about quality television’s gender problem: why are women’s shows so routinely excluded from the “quality” paradigm? what kinds of discourses of taste and value arise as a result of this? and are there television series that display a ‘feminist sensibility’ that challenges this dominant way of thinking about value and quality?
This week’s podcast discusses the trope of virginity loss in girls’ coming-of-age narratives. We discuss the history of virginity loss narratives, and how they have become so entwined in how our culture thinks about girls’ worth, value, and sexuality. Jodi McAlister and I discussed: what “counts” as virginity loss within a culture organised according to adult patriarchal agendas and desires? Where does girls’ pleasure figure into this paradigm? And are there any shifts occurring in narratives about girls and virginity, particularly in film and television towards another way of thinking about female bodies, sex, and pleasure?
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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.