Thursday, June 23, 2011

Something Positive: Miss America

Now, I'm not a huge fan of beauty pageants in general. The swimsuit portion alone is enough to make me gag. Overall, I have a problem with giving women scholarships just for being pretty and feminine. But I have noticed one thing about the Miss America pageant that I actually like:

The question portion has become political.

No more "what's your favorite book?" stuff, no more vague questions that can be easily answered with "world peace" or "help feed the starving orphans." This year's questions focused on specific political issues, and were actually a little tough to answer. Our new Miss America came out in support of medicinal marijuana, and didn't outright oppose recreational use - she said she didn't know whether she supported it because it is addictive and causes problems for some families, which is fair enough, but the fact is she did not say something blatantly anti-drug. Last year's Miss America said birth control should be free and available to all women. I've been happy to see that at least one part of the pageant makes women use their brains rather than just their tits and smiles to win over the judges.

Of course, I would probably get really pissed off if, in the future, they crown a girl who rails against gay marriage or abortion. But in the past two years they've crowned women who have expressed liberal sentiments, and that's saying something. I'm also glad that, in the past, the question portion has helped to expose and draw negative attention to the ignorant, and often downright moronic answers some of the girls have given, which shows that we do, in fact, want a Miss America with a brain as well as beauty. Now if only her intellect was more important than her appearance.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Dichotomies of Femininity in American Musical Theater

Since the birth of the American musical in the 1930's, there have been many shows which demonstrate dichotomies between female characters, mainly those relating to femininity and sexuality. The shows that come to mind first, at least for me, are Anything Goes, Once On This Island, and Avenue Q. In each show, two female characters are portrayed as being vastly different in terms of their behavior and personality traits, and these differences are often highlighted by gaps in socio-economic status, race, and the pitch and range of their singing voices.

I'll start with Anything Goes, the oldest of the three; this analysis is going off what I remember of my experience with the 1962 and 1987 versions. The show it set in the 1930's, and two leading ladies in the show are Reno Sweeney, a night club singer with a shady past, but who now uses her act to evangelize with her troupe of "angels;" and Hope Harcourt, a wealthy young woman engaged to Lord Evelyn Oakleigh. The two women are connected through Billy Crocker, a friend of Reno and Hope's former lover. Reno expresses that she has feelings for Billy, but Billy only sees her as a friend - perhaps because she lacks dainty feminine qualities most men found desirable in that time period. Reno is, in fact, loud, has an attitude, and despite her evangelical activities is the sexual character in the show; whereas Hope is the virginal one, the innocent, feminine one, and the one destined for marriage. The two vocal styles are vastly different as well, Hope's voice is more traditional, almost operatic, and her range is much higher than
Reno's, who still hits some high notes but in a more modern, belting style (bear with me, I'm not a theater major).

These women represent a classic virgin/whore dichotomy, which is best illustrated in two duets: "It's DeLovely," sung by Billy and Hope; and "Let's Misbehave," sung by Reno and Evelyn. Reno is also used as a sexual pawn in order to break up Evelyn and Hope, so Billy can be with Hope. There is another related dichotomy, and that is between ladies who are marriage material (Hope), and women who are just seen as dating prospects or objects of sexual desire (Reno).

Fast forward to Once on This Island, a show that opened in the early 1990's, but it's a little unclear when the story is supposed to take place. Or where, for that matter. My guess would be the 1950's, and I'm fairly certain it takes place on the island of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. What is clear is the racial and economic tension between the two sides of the island: on one side, the people are poor and "black as night." On the other side, the people are rich and have lighter skin, as they descended from the French colonists and their slaves - one song, summarizing the history of the island, mentioned a rich white man who married a pale, blonde woman but had sex with the black peasant girls who served him.

The protagonist, Ti Moune, is a young, black girl on the poor side of the island. She is sweet, innocent, and naive, and longs to travel beyond her village. When Daniel, a rich man from the other side of the island, crashes in her village, she tends to him, keeping him alive, demonstrating that she is also very loving and selfless. When Daniel returns to his side of the island, Ti Moune decides to journey there herself to be with him. The two of them have a relationship, and people gossip about them, implying that she is a slut. While she is sweet and innocent, she is assumed to be inherently sexual by the townspeople, and it is implied that she is, in fact, having sex with Daniel. It is true that intersectionality theory is critical to the full analysis of gender within this show, because the racial differences skew the sexual dichotomies. While pure of heart, Ti Moune is arguably sexualized because of her race, and the virginal woman is Andrea, Daniel's wealthy and fairer-skinned fiancee. Before Ti Moune meets Andrea, Daniel sings to her about how wonderful and fascinating she is - and that "some girls you marry, some you love." Again we see the marriageable vs non-marriageable dichotomy illustrated in this musical. Daniel loves Ti Moune, but he must marry a certain "type" of woman.

Again we see class coming into play. Both Hope and Andrea are both the wealthy, asexual, and marriageable characters in their respective shows.

Finally, there's Avenue Q, the most modern of the three shows. This show is also a special case because of its satirical nature, and the fact that two vastly different female roles are played by the same actress - when the two characters are on stage she'll operate one of them, but do the dialogue for both. It's a little bizarre to see her switch between the two roles so rapidly. The female lead is a sweet kindergarten teacher named Kate Monster. Then there's Lucy the Slut, whose name says it all. While Kate Monster does have sex with Princeton (the male protagonist) once, she still mostly embodies the innocent side of the sexual spectrum, opposite Lucy. Lucy is not only easy, but she's sexually aggressive, whereas Kate is more passive - she's drunk the one time they have sex. Lucy is also kind of a bitch, who deliberately tries to keep Kate and Princeton apart during the second act.

In this we see more modern dichotomies, which may be in a satirical context, but are rooted in real ways in which we label women. There's the bitch/sweetheart dichotomy, which was sort of in Once on This Island to a lesser extent, and basically means that if a woman isn't a perfect angel, she must be pure evil. There is a virgin/whore dichotomy, though Kate embodies a less extreme part of the "pure" spectrum - she's not chaste and asexual, but again, she only has sex once, and she's very passive. We see another dichotomy, and that is where a woman is either extremely emotionally invested in a guy, or she's cold to him and just using him for her own benefit.

There's another reversal in Avenue Q: hair color. In shows such as Chicago and Grease, the more innocent character is typically blonde, whereas the more sexual character is brunette. We even see this in modern pop culture, such as Taylor Swift's "You Belong With Me" video (don't get me started on that one). In Avenue Q, Lucy the Slut is blonde and Kate Monster is brunette. The hair colors of these characters are used to instead highlight (no pun intended) Kate's down-to-Earth personality against Lucy's identity as the male fantasy.

Of course, the shows analyzed above are in no way the "best" examples or the most classic, they really were the first that came to mind and the relevant shows I happen to know best. I almost covered Wonderful Town as well, as the two women being sisters makes it another interesting case, but I figured 3 was a good number. I've only seen the movies for Chicago and Grease, both of which are somewhat different from the original Broadway shows, but those two definitely have virgin/whore, bitch/sweetheart, feminine/not-so-feminine, etc. dichotomies in them. Wicked is another great example, with Glinda being blonde, rich, feminine, desirable, "sweet," and of course Popular, but the complete opposite of Elphaba. If you look hard enough, you can even see the polarization of femininity between Grace and Miss Hannigan in Annie. You don't, however, see these dichotomies in every show, especially shows that focus on male characters and don't have a lot of female characters, such as the Book of Mormon; or shows with more then two leading ladies such as A Chorus Line, or even American Idiot, where there are multiple female archetypes.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

"Women DO Lie!"

Today I found this article highlighting the problem of women lying about rape. Not a new sentiment, it's something that's become increasingly prevalent since the Duke case. It's the reason a former friend of mine basically disowned me, he thought I must be lying and abusing the legal system because my situation didn't follow the classic formula for a sexual assault case. I hate articles like these, and my first reaction is usually unintelligible rage followed by feeling totally depressed.

It's really hard to articulate why articles and blogs like that piss me off, but I'm going to try. First, I have to point out that the person writing the above article is the mother of a boy who was accused of rape. Of COURSE she's going to think he's innocent, of COURSE she's going to instinctively think the girl is just a lying psycho bitch, because there's no way her son could do something about this, she raised him better. The reality is, an abuser is hard to spot, and most people who commit abuse pass themselves off as perfect angels, fine upstanding citizens, men who would never hurt women either. And it's easy to pretend to be a "feminist's dream," we're kidding ourselves if we think misogyny is always obvious.

Not that I think the boy mentioned in the article was guilty. I have no idea. I'm not an idiot, I know false rape accusations do happen, every crime can be falsely reported. BUT it doesn't matter, even if there are cases where a man is falsely convicted of rape, that's no reason to start demonizing every woman who says she was raped.

Once again we've become a culture of extremes. It seems people either think the victim should always be believed, or that the legal system needs to take the man's side and be very skeptical of every accusation, because women are evil lying bitches who shouldn't be taken seriously.

And I will say, for the record, that I am sympathetic to men who have been falsely accused. As in, they've done nothing at all. It does make me angry when false accusations are made because they chip away at the validity of real rape reports. The more false rape accusations are made, the less people will believe real victims. The more women know about the growing cultural skepticism surrounding rape, the less likely they will be to report sexual assault should it happen to them. Skepticism may result in victims of rape or sexual assault being unfairly labeled as liars and losing their support networks.

It also saddens me that this whole "too many women lie about rape" mentality is causing people to demonize feminism as a whole, especially its work regarding rape prevention. It's a shame that people think female empowerment is to blame for every evil crime committed by a woman.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Adventures in Street Harassment

Guess who experienced street harassment today. That's right, I did!

The experience: I was walking down the sidewalk, music from Sucker Punch blaring in my ears, and I see these two guys coming towards me. I made eye contact, and soon I noticed that one of the guys was talking to me. I never actually knew what he was saying, but I'm not an idiot, I know harassment when I see it. The "you and me" gesture, the intimidating body language, the sexual tone of his voice. I tried to stare dead ahead, with an emotionless expression, trying to ignore him. I was desperately trying not to let him have that power over me. Even after we passed each other, I could hear him yelling after me. For a moment I was afraid he might turn around, come towards me, and either follow me or try to grab me.

It sank in as I boarded the bus, what had just happened. The loss of control, the power he had exerted over me. I couldn't help but feel upset, especially considering my abusive past. What may have upset me the most was knowing that if I told someone, he'd likely brush it off, or worse, blame me for it. "Look at you, wearing a skirt, all dolled up, what did you expect? If you don't want attention, don't dress like that."

Luckily, the guy I told did not react that way. Thank God he's not that kind of person. Still, too many guys treat street harassment like it's either no big deal, just something that happens and we need to learn to let it go, or it's the woman's fault. Or worse, that I should take it as a compliment. I'm sorry, but it's really hard to feel good about myself when all I feel is a loss of power.

Again, let's examine the gender politics at play. Women do not compliment other women on the street, nor do men compliment men, and you'd be hard pressed to find a woman yelling after a man "daaaayum daddy you so sexy!" Men are the ones coming onto women on the street, asking for their numbers, asking for dates, making sexual comments, demanding that they smile.

Sure, sometimes strangers talking to each other isn't such a bad thing. Certainly it's fine at clubs and parties as long as the one striking up conversation or flat-out hitting on someone takes rejection well (i.e. doesn't get belligerent, accusing the rejector of only wanting jerks or bimbos), and random conversation is prevalent at anime conventions, or among people of relatively same age waiting in line for something at any given event. And certainly an actual compliment like "I like your shirt" or "your hair is cool" can be perfectly innocent and conversational if said in the right tone of voice.

Street harassment is a way for men to put women in their place. It makes the public sphere a hostile place for women, and sexualizes them, sending them the message that the only role they can hope to fill in the public sphere is that of a sexual object for men's pleasure.

And make no mistake, every woman is at risk for street harassment. It's not just pretty girls who wear short skirts, although wearing skirt does put one at greater risk. Other "risk factors" include riding a bike, jogging, carrying food, and not smiling (seriously, commanding me to smile is only going to piss me off, and if I do smile it's because I'm using laughter as a coping mechanism). Street harassers will look for any excuse they have to talk to a woman, will comment on anything they can. It's usually not about getting a date; street harassment, like rape, is about a man exerting power over a woman. And I'm going to run the risk of sounding "too dramatic" and say that more severe instances of harassment do feel like a spiritual form of rape. It's a violation of one's right to merely "be" in the public sphere.

The Politics of Holding Doors

A lot of people don't really understand why I don't usually like it when guys hold the door for me. They think I'm being overly sensitive, that they're just being nice. I know that, most of the time, they're only following gender roles.

Let's get this whole thing straightened out once and for all. Holding the door for someone who is right behind you is fine. That said, if I hold the door for the person behind me, I expect that person to go through the goddamn door. I can't stand it when the person behind me happens to me a man, and he just gets all nervous and insists I go through first while he holds the door for me. I have to wonder, is it really that emasculating to let a woman hold a door for you?

I also hate when a guy rushes ahead of me to get the door, just so he can be a gentleman. Sorry, but it's not polite to treat me like some frail being who can't push a door open by herself (it's one thing if I'm carrying a fuckton of luggage or something, but this usually happens when I'm completely unburdened).

Finally, I get annoyed when a guy stops to hold the door for me even though I'm still 50 fucking feet away from the door. Great, now I feel like I have to hurry up, or I'll feel guilty for taking up so much of his time. Really, I don't need that much kindness, go ahead with your day, seriously, I can handle the damn door myself.

Let's examine the gender dynamic, shall we? Guys rarely hold the door for other guys, women rarely do it for other women, and most men shudder at the very idea of letting a woman hold a door for them. Door holding is almost always a gesture done by men for women, and it sets up a power dynamic. Holding a door for a woman does not give her power, but rather puts her in a subordinate position where she's being taken care of; the guy is doing the muscle work.

If a guy is just trying to be nice, that's great, and that's usually only the case when he happens to get there first, I'm right behind him, and he lets me get the second door if there is one. If he's just trying to "be the man" in the situation, or prove his manhood, I get a little pissed off.

Yoplait's Pulled Ad

Recently, Yoplait agreed to pull one of its ads after the National Eating Disorder Association raised concerns that it triggered and encouraged disordered eating. I'm sure plenty of you have seen it, it's the one where a perfectly slender woman is standing in front of a fridge trying to justify eating a piece of cheesecake (saying she'll only have a little, exercise it off, she's been a "good girl," etc.), and another slender woman pulls out some cheesecake yogurt, saying that she's been waiting for it all day.

I first heard about this on the Huffington Post, where the comments were mostly from people who thought the whole thing was ridiculous. No, not the commercial, the fact that it was pulled. People were being "too sensitive," "every woman does that," just because it hurts a few people doesn't mean it shouldn't be shown, and my least favorite, "maybe more women should do that."

Why yes, many women do go through that thought process. Many women do obsess over what they eat; it's taken for granted as a part of womanhood. But it's also disordered eating. Just because an unhealthy relationship with food is normal doesn't make it any healthier.

The fact is, Yoplait and other food companies both prey on women with that mindset, and they encourage it in other women in order to sell their products. You see it in other commercials, like the ads where a woman wrestles with her dessert cravings, only to instead chew a stick of gum. There are ads for low-calorie desserts that say "hey look, now you can eat [cookies/ice cream/cake/pudding/whatever the fuck else] and STILL be a good girl!" as if "good girls" don't typically eat those foods.

I'll be honest, that was a big part of how I developed a disordered relationship with food a couple years ago. It wasn't that I wanted to look like a supermodel, but that I was bombarded with media messages - in commercials as well as "healthy eating" articles in magazines - that encouraged me to obsessively restrict my diet in the name of "health." Even WebMD had me convinced that any fat on my stomach was bad for me and that I needed to lose weight. For the record, I was 115 lbs at the time, smack dab in the middle of the healthy weight range for my height according to the BMI scale - which is a bullshit method anyway.

That's another major problem, people - mostly women, but men as well - assign morality to eating behaviors. Who hasn't wondered if they should be "good" and get a salad or "naughty" and eat real food. Let's be real, a bowl of lettuce is a good side dish but is hardly enough sustenance to be considered a meal, unless it comes with a decent amount of grilled chicken. People also tend to sexualize women's indulgence in certain food, namely chocolate - the idea is that it's "bad," but it's soooo good. Thinking about food in terms of morality is not healthy.

And yes, this country has an obesity problem. The problem comes from our culture of extremes, where we have this one limited idea of what a "healthy lifestyle" is, and it's not really appealing to most people, so many people decide being healthy isn't even worth trying. The answer isn't to encourage more people to obsess over what they eat and develop disordered eating habits, but to assure people that moderation is okay, that there are ways to exercise that are actually fun.

I hope this sets a precedent, and that other companies will reconsider using such a harmful method of advertising to market their products. And I hope that we find a way to empower women to, at least once in a while, eat the damn cake.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

"Encouraging Bad Behavior"

Last night, as I was perusing one of my favorite websites, Dear Blank Please Blank, I came across this:

"Dear colleges,
Please stop letting girls who got pregnant at 16 go to college for free. You're encouraging bad behavior. Reward the people who were responsible and DIDN'T get pregnant in high school.