Friday, November 9, 2012

You say "Feminist" like it's a bad thing...

Oofta (as they say in Minnesota)! It's that time of the semester where the mind ninja of procrastination must duke it out with the samurai of determination in a fight to see whether or not all the writing, projects, reading, and other school-related work of an university senior flying head-first towards the end of fall term actually gets done. As I am here instead of writing one of the ten thousand papers that needs to get done and am yet writing what my professor, Robin, has called "mini-essays" on this blog, it's not entirely clear which is winning at the moment - the ninja or the samurai. I was always a bigger fan of ninjas...

But it's been a busy week - project work, staying up late to watch the election, attempting to write both a novel for NANOWRIMO (national novel writing month), an essay, and my senior paper in the same week (and somehow they are ALL in existence and being written...). And, to top it all off, my birthday's in a little over a week, Thanksgiving is fast approaching, and... this is my 100th post on this blog.
Okay, enough self-congratulation (but man, is that gif perfect). Because this is my 100th post, I thought I'd wander back to an issue near and dear to my heart: feminism, of course.
Let's kick this off with this article I saw from Entertainment Weekly on my Twitter feed today: Jennifer Lawrence: "In Hollywood, I'm obese." After I stopped crying internal tears of dismay that someone like Jennifer Lawrence could ever be considered obese, I began raging at the shallowness of this article. What the hell is this, Entertainment Weekly? "Hollywood" (for which I'm using scare quotes on, for reasons to come) labels Lawrence as too fat and the best you can do is take offense of her mention of Val Kilmer not being skinny enough (not that this isn't an issue for men but this is a distraction in the article) and say, "Well, to her credit, she takes the criticism in stride"? WHAT THE HELL KIND OF STANCE IS THAT? You know who in Hollywood is probably criticizing Lawrence's weight? The media - hence the scare quotes around Hollywood. Lord knows it's not just studio system and people working in the industry saying that - it's definitely the magazines and tabloids as well. It would be a wonderful, beautiful thing if once, just once, an entertainment publication to step up and say, "Well, shit guys, you know what? We fucked up. A whole lot of these ideas and comments come from writers like us, and that's not okay. There's a reason why celebrities are always asked about their weight - we ask them. We comment on it. We speculate on it all the time and pull quotes they say but never really say anything substantial in turn. Instead, we just laugh it off with the detour about Val Kilmer and decide Lawrence is fine because she's handling it all right. And maybe that's not the best strategy."

But of course an entertainment magazine won't do that. For one, it's taking a position on this story and as the news (even if it is celebrity news) is supposed to tell "just the facts" then boldly showing their position might piss people off. Also, adding commentary on this might throw off the very reason people buy magazines - to hear about celebrity gossip, not what people think about celebrity gossip. But I think this kind of sucks. Here we have an article that doesn't tell me anything I I haven't already heard and there's no mention of the broader repercussions involved in this - how fans may be affected when reading that the actress playing their favorite character in The Hunger Games is considered fat in Hollywood, what statements like this do towards actors and women and people buying these magazines. It's an article without real substance, a piece that tells us who and what and where and when but not the most important aspects: how and why.

This could easily turn into me critiquing the world of journalism and I don't want to go down that path (not because I don't want to discuss it - I'd love to discuss it - but because it would be a super massive tangent. And we all know this is going to be long enough without that). But I am being more observant and sensitive about these sort of issues after watching the documentary called Killing Us Softly 4 in my cinema and media history class.

If you are interested in watching it - and I recommend it - you can watch it for free here; just scroll down a bit and the video is there. Thanks to fair use and educational means, you can watch the full movie online (it's about 45 minutes long and full of interesting discussion of advertisements). Jean Kilbourne, the woman who made this film and who is talking throughout it, has made four of these films now - four of them - and as she mentions, things are not getting better, they are getting worse.
(Because Ellen Degeneres is awesome.)

Watching this documentary in class came shortly after discussing how people can get their message heard in the world of new technology and that certain people have the advantage of getting heard over others. The internet equalizes this a little bit but, of course, one has to have access to the internet in order to use it. That's a severe limitation in itself. But those of us with internet have a sort of power, the ability to have access to a number of thoughts and opinions that we may not get from TV or film or news articles. Of course, every opinion has a position and a certain way of expressing itself. And it was my blog I started thinking about as we discussed this in class. I have a special privilege out here, with the time and ability to maintain a blog that actually gets visibility thanks to Google image searches. This post on feminism is the most popular one on my entire blog (by A LOT) and continues to increase in page views. After seeing Killing Us Softly, I can't help but wondering if my words are doing enough.

I want to be resistant, a bit rebellious, to expose what is not generally show in perhaps the most obvious places. But I also don't want to come off as completely overzealous, overly outraged, and overly angry - because in our modes of communication, this sort of message is never well accepted. Which is too bad. Because I think I'm rather good at the overzealous kind of thing. I worry that perhaps I water thing down too much (this is a blog, not exactly a scholarly archive, after all) or that I'm too apologetic or too forgiving over the issues at stake. Because here's the problem: when you step up and say, "Yo, feminism, let's get this shit done," there is a sudden reaction of, "Wait, hold on - what about all that progress we made?"
Progress. Moving forward. Accomplishment. These are things I believe exist but also fundamentally cause issues when talking about anything political. If you would like to have your mind entirely blown, I highly recommend reading The Limits of History by Constantine Fasolt (many thanks to Ben Fink for making me aware of this book's existence). This book, among many things, discusses how formulating something like history itself changes how we thing about the world, the present, the past, and the future and how presenting history in a linear view is problematic. That is a gross simplification of this book - it presents these ideas much more elaborately and poetically - but it'll do for here. The point is, we think of history and time in a very particular way - as moving forward, that the past is unreachable, that we are moving towards the future and either things are getting better or worse.

Of course, it isn't quite that simple. As Doctor Who tells us, things are very "wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey." We are still engaged with the past, constantly building upon it, and yet detached from it, as we can no longer see it. We are constantly moving into the future, every second, every millisecond, and yet we're also entirely in the present, unable to know what tomorrow will bring (yay, metaphysics!). So when you start talking about progress, it gets really muddy. Today is better than what? Worse than what? Can you really compare now to the beginning of the 20th century when something like the internet and blogging and computers and TVs and radios were unexpected? But can you also really say that those times were so different, that those people were so different, that they were nothing like we are today? What exactly is progress in the scheme of things like this? Are just living in the Matrix? (Gah, no, not that argument... I can't deal with that argument right now.)

And so, when discussing feminism, it's hard to talk about what's better and what's worse. Yes, of course I am grateful that women can vote and have more autonomy over their lives and that the idea of arranged marriages is considered something from "the past." But at the same time, I want to be clear that it's hard to draw comparisons to the past when it's both the same and entirely different. When people voice objections to how women are currently treated, the mention of "but look how far we come" is both necessary and yet terribly hurtful. Yes, it is important to remember what we have gained, but at the same time, how is that presented? Do we talk about how suffragettes were beaten and harmed during protests? Do we talk about how advertising has completely changed how we think about female bodies? Do we talk about how these representations of women affect BOTH how men and women think and how men are represented as well? Do we talk about racial minorities and how they are overlooked in regards to these issues? Do we talk about GLBT groups and how certain practices of feminism come across as extremely phobic of groups such as transsexuals? We are told we should be grateful - but grateful for what? Sometimes it seems like a distraction from how complicated these issues really are.
It is especially difficult when the history of feminism itself is misrepresented. Two instances come to mind. One is Killing Us Softly itself. Despite the fact that four of these films have been made, there is little more than passing discussion of racial minorities in the US and GLBT groups. Four of these movies and such little focus has been taken? Feminism itself is about equality for all, but it hasn't always been practiced this way. Racial minorities have been greatly overlooked, resulting in the formation of a different movement known as womanism. When the practice of feminism should be bringing people together for the same cause, it is instead fracturing and dividing. Why? Partly because those who get heard the most are middle class white American women (like yours truly, I'm afraid). Also, much of what gets notice and eventually adapted into society are the more conservative sides of feminism, the parts that society is willing to accept because not much has to change in order for these ideas to become actualities. And for this reason, it is much harder for groups like racial minorities and GLBT members to be recognized when society would actually have to do some real changing to treat them equally.

It's not that I dislike what Killing Us Softly is doing; I love it and I don't think there's enough of it in society. But it in itself need to do more. It's time we stop recognizing that feminists exist and recognize that feminism is about more than just one small group - it's much more expansive than that. Or at least it should be.

However, doing this is an uphill battle, mainly because of the second instance where feminism is misrepresented. Watch this awesome video (many thanks to Emma for reblogging this on Tumblr and bringing it to my attention) and see what I mean:

Dude, this guy rocks. But see what I mean about an uphill battle? We're still fighting against the freaking idea that feminists burned bras. I never even knew that it didn't happen - not for sure, at least. I figured it was an over-exaggeration but that the event never occurred? Check it out, peeps - here's the link on Scopes. Just in case you are a skeptic, or you like to fact check (like me). If I were writing and trying to think of a way to prevent a certain plot device from occurring, I couldn't come up with better bullshit than this. I mean, seriously... it's damnably difficult to fight for rights when the people who are fighting for it are represented as crazy extremists.
Now that I've made us all terribly depressed about the state of feminism, let's remember what I said before about progress - it's really difficult to judge. Which means I'm not going to say things are better or worse than they have been or that they're going to get better. I think things can get better, but it's going to take a lot more than me blogging about it - not that blogging about it is bad. It's something. And something is far better than doing nothing at all. But I think it needs to be discussed more. I'm not saying go all out and talk about nothing but feminism, that's not exactly helpful either. No, real, meaningful discussion needs to be had. The Martin Luther King Jr. quote to the right perfectly articulates what I think the problem is - people are afraid to speak up, afraid to be labeled a feminist because of the connotation it carries, afraid because of terms like "feminazi" and the way the media personifies feminists. I admit, standing up and stating you are a feminist can be scary at first; though it shouldn't be, it is. Because challenging the way things are is a bit scary. But do not be afraid; you are not alone.
However, don't take this as me saying you should go out and become and uber-feminist and start a revolution (however, if you do this, you can pretty much count me in). Because while the issues surrounding feminism and the ideas of progress can be very complex, the expression of feminism doesn't have to be. Look at Jennifer Lawrence, not giving a rat's ass as to what anyone in Hollywood thinks about her body. Check out Louise Brealey from Sherlock being an absolutely fabulous human being (many thanks, Paulina, for sending me this article). Feminism doesn't have to be about starting campaigns or protests or revolts. It's simply about determination and being vocal. Like I said, having your voice heard is easier for some than others (and remember, I seem to have an advantage). But that doesn't make it impossible. Speak out - not because you feel you have to be heard or because you want there to be someone listening, but because you would want someone else do the same for you.

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