Tag Archives: blogging

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.

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.

The Politics of Fangirling Part II: A Podcast about Outlander

In this podcast, romance scholar Jodi McAlister and I discuss fangirling as political practice, feminism, and women’s pleasure on “Outlander.” Topics include: women’s spectatorship and fan practices; the representation of sex, desire, and love; sexual politics and violence; patriarchal visual culture; representations of the wounded male body; why Jamie Fraser is the ultimate TV boyfriend. Have a listen and let us know your thoughts!

https://teenscreenfeminism.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/teenscreenfemoutlanderpodcast.mp4

Download this podcast for free on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/au/podcast/politics-fangirling-part-ii/id1011011620?i=345426742&mt=2

(Warning: explicit content discussed and strong language deployed liberally and with great relish in this podcast. Also spoiler alert for episodes 1-11)

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Jamie Fraser, taking a moment to bask in the glory of his hotness while he shovels hay

To find out more about Jodi McAlister, check out her writing at Momentum Moonlight: http://momentummoonlight.com/ and follow her on Twitter: @JodiMcA and @JodiGetsBold

‘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.

The Politics of Fangirling: On Watching Outlander

Fangirling, for the uninitiated, is a practice of fervently loving something, usually a text like screen media, music, an aspect of celebrity culture, writing and so on. There is a kind of rapturous involvement with the loved text, an envelopment in its pleasures and an unashamed expression of delight in this. A lot of mainstream discussions of fangirling deprecate this experience through a sexist characterisation of girls/women as hysterical, excessive, obsessive, and expressive of ‘abnormal’ desire – think of the disparagement of One Direction fans, or Twilight afficianados, or girls/women expressing desire of any kind, really. In essence, fangirling is really a way girls and women have found to express some measure of desire and pleasure within the public discourse, and to me, this is always a good thing because we need to claim more spaces for this. Within my own experience of fangirling, there is always an enormous amount of enjoyment and delight. But at the same time, this delight is always compromised by aspects of the text that represent women in ways that disturb, offend, and sometimes disgust me. After all, these images are created within patriarchal visual culture, so even ‘well intentioned’ texts will inevitably twist towards sexist clichés, tropes and narratives that rely on the subjugation of the female figure. The fangirl, then, is confronted with a very complicated experience of visual culture and the pleasure she takes in it.

A few weeks ago I fell deeply in love with Ronald D. Moore’s television series Outlander. A kind of historical romance/science fiction hybrid set in the Scottish highlands, the series presents spectators with a lush landscape, a strong and complex heroine, and a variety of hot Scotsmen in kilts (and out of their kilts). In other words, perfection. Jamie Fraser, man of all Outlander fan’s hearts, is first presented to us half-naked and injured, his muscles licked by golden firelight and candlelight. The representation of this wounded, exposed hero is not evidence of the male body being subjected to a sadistic gaze. Instead, I think that it creates a space of openness to a desiring female gaze. Challenging the hardness and impenetrability that usually constitutes representations of hegemonic masculinity, women characters and viewers of Outlander are invited to gaze upon Jamie’s body, and to enjoy it.

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Claire tends to Jamie’s injuries (again).

I devoured the first eight episodes and eagerly awaited the series return a fortnight ago. And then, a kind of unforgivable thing happened. In episode nine, Jamie pins Claire down on the ground and beats her with a belt as ‘punishment’ for her disobedience. This is not consensual play, and it’s certainly not sexy — it’s straight-up domestic violence. Disturbingly, he excitedly pants in her ear that he is enjoying hurting her. What is a woman viewer supposed to do with this scene, which is obscenely played for laughs, as if this is kind of funny? Do we reject Outlander, for its bullshit portrayal of violence against women? I am a feminist screen theorist, and I know that this retrograde representation of sexual politics is worse than terrible. It’s not excusable (don’t get me started on the ‘but it’s historically accurate’ line of reasoning, because lol no). While Jamie does recognise the grave error of his actions and begs his new wife’s forgiveness, viewers cannot just forget that the beating happened. And yet, I like many others, kept watching. In the next episode, luscious imagery of Jamie tenderly caressing and hungrily going down on Claire nevertheless made me quiver with absolute delight. Furthermore, I was very impressed when Jamie realised the full horror of his actions in episode 11 and began examining his privilege and how it has hurt his wife. This is good, and it’s very important — it demonstrates that the show is willing to reflect on oppressive gendered power relations and call them out in meaningful ways.

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Outlander, season one episode nine.

Oscillating between my outrage at aspects of this text, and my love of its clever moments that undermine gender expectations, its visual textures and sensuousness, I (and many other women, I suspect) struggle with how to approach this narrative. I don’t really have an answer as to how to approach it – sometimes I think ‘boycott! Death to the patriarchy!’ But other times I think if I do that, I will literally have nothing to watch.

If images of women and the position of women spectators is always compromised within patriarchal visual culture, then perhaps it is the gaps, the moments, where another possibility can be perceived and occupied, if only fleetingly. Is this what fangirling is? Perceiving and occupying those intervals of resistance and potential where things could be otherwise? For me, it seems that this may be so. So, in amongst Outlander’s sometimes-disturbing representation of sexual politics, I think my delight lies in its little pockets that turn those politics on its head. My pleasure is in the moments where an alternative, even oppositional representation of gender relations is offered. This is a complex terrain to navigate as a woman, and as a feminist. Fangirling as a politics of resistance, even micro-resistances, is important because it can push against the boundaries of patriarchal visual culture and bend it towards alternatives. Perhaps it is small, gradual, even imperceptible if we’re not paying attention – could it, or is it, creating change for girl and women spectators?