Friday, September 27, 2013

Shakespeare, Benevolent Sexism, and Female Superheroes

Here were are again: another feminist post to add the rapport on my blog. However, this post isn't going to be easy to write. Not only do I have to make my typical highfalutin jumps between things, I also have encounter a critical adversary I'm reluctant to recognize, akin to that messy post I wrote about people's hatred of Benedict Cumberbatch. It's not that extreme, but it's still going to be tricky to talk about.

I've been seeing this post of Tom Hiddleston going around rather frequently, a gifset from an interview he did at some point (though the interview never seems to be linked). It's labeled as: "[about romance] 'Do you think Shakespeare would be disappointed with this generation?'” and includes these captions:
However, when I saw this post the other day, the person who had reblogged it added this comment:  "…..does he really think Shakespearian drama respected women?" They also included these tags: "I mean just watch Taming of the Shrew or Merry Wives of Windsor or Richard III or Hamlet or fucking anything like the most women are respected are in the 2 plays about women crossdressing-- 12th Night and As You Like It and Macbeth because Lady Macbeth is not to be fucked with"

This gets complicated fast. In the gifs, Hiddleston expresses some reservation about current romantic practices but doesn't talk directly about Shakespeare. I don't claim to know his opinion on Shakespeare's portrayal of women. I don't claim to know my opinion on Shakespeare's portrayal of women either. I mean, history-wise, Shakespeare was making women pretty kick-ass. Obviously, The Taming of the Shrew is problematic (until you've seen it performed with a feminist twist - oh my God is it BRILLIANT (good work, Propeller, I'm still awed by you)) and it's terribly annoying and frustrating and distressing, to say the least, that so many wonderful female leads die in his plays. Also there's the issue of not many female parts to begin with. But considering that women weren't allowed to be actors at the time, perhaps this was a situational and historical limitation. His characters are fairly complicated (okay, so Much Ado's Hero isn't really - you win some, you lose some) and they do have quite a presence. But then there's the issue of what is said about women and how plays end for them and whether Shakespeare was really being a trickster or an asshole when he left Anne Hathaway his second best bed when he died. The world will never know and there's hundreds of different ways to interpret the plays. If you're curious about reading more, this article from the Guardian is a decent place to start. But I'm going to table this argument for now because it could continue (and may very well continue) for the next couple of centuries. Instead, I'm going to go into much more unfortunate territory - namely where my mind went when I saw this Tumblr post.

Let me set the stage for you: I'd recently been coming off my "gah, everyone hates millennials and what is going on with my life!?" stage in which I'd been immersed for the better part of the last few weeks. I was reading Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In (which is a marvelous read for anyone interested in women and work). I'd recently read a section of the book that discussed benevolent sexism (the rough and dirty definition: acts that are positive towards women but treat them as unequal, such as believing that women need protection or are weaker than men). I've been listening to a lot of Disney music and trying to reconcile my love of Disney princesses with my beliefs about how women are portrayed in film. And so, I saw this post in a way I'd never seen it before.

For some reason, the word choice of princess confused me. Along with the comments from the Tumblr reposter, I suddenly saw the entire post as a sort of benevolently sexist thing. It was a momentary deluge of overreaction - I was taken off-guard and now I don't quite know how I pulled together all the loose ends that I pulled together in that moment (and now as I write this while drinking a hefe weissbier, I really don't know). However, my overreaction occurred for two reasons: one, I'm terrified of benevolent sexism, and two, I continue to be convinced that everything I love is going to be destroyed.

First off, the benevolent sexism. I honestly think I might find benevolent sexism harder to deal with than overt sexism. At least when it comes to overtly sexist behavior or comments, you can argue back against it. It's clearer how it's wrong. But benevolent sexism is finely engrained in our culture, so much so that it's harder to combat. Women are physically different than men so it becomes harder to argue that they are just as strong and as capable when science and physiology can be badly used to prove otherwise. I recently saw a post on Tumblr that called out the issue with girls saying they wanted to be treated as equals only to say they can't get hit because they're girls. Which then prompted the response of a very angry person saying you shouldn't be hitting people in the first place.
This perfectly sums up the issue with sexism that is so much a part of the world around us we forget to question it. Instead of recognizing that we shouldn't be hitting people in the first place, we jump to presume that women are asking for special treatment. Then with benevolent sexism, there's the prevailing belief that women need special treatment because they are lesser. This is far different from recognizing that women have disadvantages in our society but working to lessen those disadvantages, not make them more extreme. In retrospect, I don't think that Mr. Hiddleston is being even the slightest bit sexist - it would seem to him that princess connotes respect and strength, not the tainted image I have thanks to people reading princesses as helpless in fairy tales and making everything princess related pink. Considering that I don't actually know Mr. Hiddleston I could be wrong, but considering he's talking about respect and meaning here and he has a reputation of being a being a pretty feminist-friendly dude, I'm going to label my momentary reading as wrong and a result of being already amped-up feminist princess stuff (how exactly I've reached the point of spending half of my free time theorizing about Disney princesses, I'm not really sure) and also point number two from above - the fear of things being destroyed and that nothing is sacred.

Let me explain. I came across an article about why we need female superheroes through the Lean In group on Facebook which stated that Stan Lee doesn't think we need female superheroes. Which kind of killed me. If there is one thing we most definitely need, it's female superheroes. There's many reasons why female superheroes haven't gotten their own films: there aren't that many of them to begin with, they're sometimes poorly written (but hey, so are some of the male ones and THEY STILL GET FILMS), somehow the whole idea of writing a well-rounded character gets distracted by the focus on sexiness and objectification, and there's this issue with female characters and Mary Sues, which this blog post talks about really well. Regardless, it's no excuse to say it's completely unnecessary.

Let me be honest: I really like Stan Lee. I like him a lot. He's created some amazing comics and he seems like a pretty cool dude. So to hear that he said that made me feel crushed Really, really crushed. Like David Tennant standing in the rain crushed.
In a world full of cynicism, apathy, and general distrust, it's had to have role models. It's harder when you have fewer female role models because of fewer women reaching the top (ie: glass ceilings and read Lean In). It's even harder when your male role models say things that you are completely against and delegitimize you. It's just kind of... well, I can't quite put it into words. See above gif.

Perhaps this is why I reacted so extremely to the Tumblr post. I live in perpetual fear that the people I admire are going to say something that is either taken the wrong way or expresses some sentiment that I can't reconcile. I think of Jeremy Iron's statement about gay marriage which was strangely phrased and seemed incredibly negative. I think of Martin Freeman's misquotes that I wrote about a while back and my personal dealings with admiring Stephen Fry but deeply disagreeing about his view of boycotting the Olympics. Deep down, my fear is that everything will end up like my appreciation of Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa where I really struggled to like them as athletes when what they were good at had become dependent on using steroids which I saw a mark of their character. I'm afraid that my appreciation for people like Fry will become marred by the fact that I disagree with things he has said that expresses his character since I don't actually know him personally and have no personal idea of what he's like as a human being. I suddenly find it hard to like Irons when he said expressed unclear opinions about gay marriage. I still feel like little eight-year-old me trying to understand that people have faults but that some faults are really, really hard to deal with.

But lo and behold if Tumblr didn't have a response for me on all of this:

Internet, I see what you did there. Of course people say things that are problematic; I certainly have. Sometimes I look back through old blog posts and cringe out of my mind.

I certainly don't expect my favorite people to be perfect. That would be weird and wrong. But there are certain shortcomings that seem uncharacteristic and difficult to reckon. Tomorrow, if one of my favorite actors were to say something very, very racist or homophobic, I'd be reeling. Misunderstandings are simple - I fairly easily brushed away the issues with Freeman's misquotes. I can deal with not agreeing on Stephen Fry's opinions with Russia. However, I'm still grappling with Iron's odd interview reaction about gay marriage. There's a struggle here - we want to hold people accountable for what they say, but we also believe that people's opinions change as they grow as people. I think of Ralph Waldo Emerson quote from his essay "Self-Reliance" which gave me utter encouragement in high school when I felt like the world's biggest hypocrite:
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — 'Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.' — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.
(Because I want to avoid spiraling into a philosophical crisis, I'm going to completely sidestep how all of this gets infinitely more complex in the realm of politics where being held accountable for words is a major conundrum. I would like to recognize this factor though and marvel at how in the world I came to be discussing Syria, reading Machiavelli's The Prince, and dwelling on Henry V and Coriolanus all at the same time. I think I've made a terrible mistake.)

The issue remaining is that, yes, people say problematic things and, yes, they definitely have the opportunity to rephrase and change their opinion on them, but the issue with our dealings with language and our ability to pull out quotes and ideas from the vast memory of the internet is both a miracle and a curse. For example, what The Daily Show does with digging up old clips to make fun of political issues but also draw attention to disparities I think is usually positive. In a culture that loves to hate, it can easily be used to unnecessarily tear someone apart. While I feel like I completely over-analyzed the gifset when I saw it with those opinions, it's very much how media presents issue to us - framed in a certain way to cause us to draw a certain conclusion. And while the Tumblr user who posted this didn't intend to do this and was simply expressing their opinion on the post, it would be a much different situation if this was done by, say, The Daily Mail. But misconceptions are easy to start, especially on a post that gives a brief response and no source. Clearly my research-y side is taking over, but all too easily do people jump to conclusions about someone's response - as I did - because of how something is posted or framed.

Hopefully this begins to clarify why the suggestion that Hiddleston could have said something that could be read as benevolently sexist (caused by my certain skewed reading) gave me a sort of anxiety. I've grown used to people professing such beliefs and to hear someone not say them makes me nervous. Fans often joke that seemingly really nice people are actually puppy kickers or serial killers just because we've grown so used to people in the limelight having cataclysmic flaws or expressing disagreeable things. When they don't do that, we begin to get nervous that they're just hiding it and we keep looking for it, digging for it, even when it really may not be there. These issues exist in culture but perhaps not in specific people's sentiments. But we can't believe it because we've grown so used to having to explain that yes, women do sweat and yes, women do poop and yes, women actually have the same physical and emotional ranges at men. Being called a princess can't be a compliment because we've always heard it used as a weakness. So this... this seems unusual. Not the norm. I'm used to hearing it used endearingly and condescendingly, not endearing and respectfully.

Because I feel like I'm now just throwing words against the wall and not making much sense, let me use a personal example to articulate my point. Last year before I graduated, I was studying with a guy in one of my classes. It was later at night and the sun had already set when we finished up our study session and we about to depart the cafe we'd been working at. He offered to walk me home even though it was in the opposite direction he was headed which I kindly refused. But it confused me. At first I was kind of upset that he thought I couldn't handle walking home by myself on a school night at ten or eleven o'clock or whatever it was. I did this on a fairly regular basis and considering I didn't live that far off-campus, I was unperturbed. But he didn't know exactly where my apartment was and, yeah, terrible things happen on campus all the time, even early in the evening. It was most likely a gesture of him being nice and accounting for the fact that the world is a rough place rather than assuming I couldn't handle walking home in the dark. If you haven't noticed by now, I'm very good at overreacting to miniscule things (why else do you think I continue to have blog posts? :P)

It's tough. We've been told that chivalry is dead but we've also been told that chivalry is degrading but we've also been told that chivalry is sexy. Ultimately it's of all of these things. Certain aspects of chivalry are gone that would be kind of excellent to bring back - the respect part please. Definitely that. And giving and receiving chocolate. I'm totally cool with that (wait, that's not part of chivalry you say? My mistake). Certain aspects should stay dead, or die for good - because if you think I'm too weak to take you on, you should know the pen is mightier than the sword and I happen to have been trained at the Joss Whedon School of Badassery. And really, we could all do with people being kinder and more polite to each other - be chivalrous to everyone, not just because of their gender! But wait, that sounds familiar...
Oh. Right.
Well, there you have it. Tom Hiddleston is still probably a wonderful human being and I'm still befuddling myself. Good work, team, let's call it a wrap.

But truly, I do find it hard to grasp these things. I'm a feminist, I believe in equality, but I see it so rarely practiced by men that I get kind of skeptical. And then when someone points out how they could actually be not as feminist, I leap to it even though I dread to because it's so common. I'm not a misandrist; I just don't assume that men are feminist. Which is a major problem. (Remember that part where I said I say problematic things? Bingo.)

Patriarchy just... why?

On the bright side I did come across this really awesome quote on Tumblr, originally posted by sinkorswimbullshit:
My mom told me to “find a man who respects you like a sea captain respects the sea.” A man who looks at you with awe and reverence but knows you are a force of nature. I like that.
I like that too.

I've got no way to end this post; take this song from the Red Hot Chili Peppers that I've been obsessed with since my senior year of high school and has been stuck in my head for the past week for no apparent reason:

No comments:

Post a Comment