Roseanne vs. Puerto Rico: A Fight Where All of Us Lose

Because if we’ve learned anything, it’s that we really can pay attention to two awful things at once.

Last week, a few different infographics and tweets started floating around that compared the abundance of media attention on Roseanne’s comments to the dearth of media attention for the new report that showed that over 4,600 Puerto Ricans died as a result of Hurricane Maria. The overall tone of these comparisons was scolding—it implicated both media outlets for covering the deaths so little and Roseanne so much and viewers for caring more about the Roseanne news than the Puerto Rico news. But I’d like to break down this comparison a bit more, because while there are aspects of it I agree with, I think that it also shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the way that our attention spans work.

Agreement point 1: I absolutely agree that the media should have covered the deaths more, and covered Roseanne’s comments a bit less.

This death toll, which is almost equal to the death tolls from 9/11 and Katrina combined, absolutely deserved increased attention, potentially at the expense of coverage of Roseanne’s comment. The fact that Fox News apparently managed to diminish coverage of the Puerto Rico deaths to just 48 seconds out of a day and a half of news coverage is absolutely sickening. It should certainly be a larger part of our cultural consciousness.

Agreement point 2: The disparity between the coverage reflects in some way on our inability to address systemic racism.

As Pete Vernon points out, “We’re comfortable calling individual actions or comments racist, but struggle to paint systemic issues—the criminal justice system or the lack of attention to Puerto Rico, for example—with the same clear strokes.”

I agree to this up to a point—I believe that it is harder for us to come to grasp with systemic racism, because it is a giant problem with few obvious solutions besides “be less racist” and “get into a time machine and prevent colonization.” But I also think that we often give individuals a pass on their own racism because they are either “joking,” deemed too culturally important to lose, or it is too uncomfortable on a personal level to confront them. We’re sometimes willing to admit that a system or institution is racist, but when it comes to applying that same label to individuals within the institution (especially people we care about), we start mumbling.

Counterargument 1: The Roseanne comments are still important, even if they are not as important as the death toll.

One of the things I will go to my grave arguing about is the extent to which the media and pop culture influences and is influenced by those who consume it. While Roseanne’s comments are certainly not as important as the death toll in Puerto Rico, they are still important. First, it’s very important that someone in a public position of power and authority said something terrible and was actually punished for it. When was the last time that actually happened? (Aside from the smokescreen of concern on the right for Samantha Bee saying the C word. We might talk about that later.) I’ve lost count of the number of politicians and other public figures who have said absolutely terrible racist, misogynistic, transphobic, homophobic, anti-Semitic bullshit and had absolutely no consequences happen. I don’t believe that Donald Trump created terrible people, but he sure as hell emboldened them. And every time they have been able to spew their shit in public with no retribution has only emboldened them further. ABC actually punishing Roseanne for her words is actually a very important moment in the current conversation.

Not only that, but her comments, and ABC’s response, bring up a whole host of other questions. This isn’t Roseanne’s first brush with racism and terribleness. (Google “Roseanne + Hitler outfit.” I’ll wait.) Why would ABC, knowing Roseanne’s history, greenlight a reboot of her show? Why would liberal women, queer women, and women of color (looking at you, Sarah Gilbert and Wanda Sykes) sign up to work on a show helmed by a woman who has become increasingly vitriolic, conservative, and hateful over time? Why did anyone think this particular jaguar was not going to eat their face? We need to be having a conversation not only about the people who do terrible things, but the people who enable them. Trump is a ridiculous pumpkin, but there are dozens of people enabling his terribleness. Roseanne would have (hopefully) slowly faded back into obscurity if it weren’t for the popular renewal of her show. Now instead of a shameful historical footnote, she’s a goddamn martyr for people who misunderstand what “free speech” means.

Counterargument two: We should be caring about both things. / Things are only a “distraction” if you let them be.

The thing that ruffled my feathers the most about the infographics was the way that it seemed to scold viewers for caring about the Roseanne comments at all. You’ll see this pop up every once in a while when there is a big pop culture or gossip item. The media will be in a tizzy over the lighter topic, and there will usually be a deeper topic happening simultaneously (because seriously, when is there ever a day where something terrible *isn’t* happening?) Viewers get scolded for caring about the light item, everyone gets called sheeple, and we’re all told to stop getting distracted. I remember this happening when Mike Pence was confronted at Hamilton. Pence was met with boos from the audience and a prepared statement from the show’s creators and stars. Trump, accordingly, lost his damn mind on Twitter, and then Vox scolded everyone for caring about the Hamilton incident more than / letting it distract us from the then-top level scandals of Trump’s various conflicts of interest and “in all but name” bribes he received from foreign leaders staying at his hotel, and Congress still had time to stop some of his more disastrous cabinet nominees. (It was a simpler time.)

But, and this may surprise you, I can care about two things at once. Sometimes I even manage somewhere between “three” and “what feels like goddamn a million” depending on how stressed I am and how much caffeine I’ve had. And just as it is important for Roseanne to be publicly punished for being racist, it was important to see art and artists, (and particularly a form of art where the lead character was being played by a gay, HIV-positive actor) confront Mike “Hoosiers don’t discriminate (except all the gays are evil and we don’t like them, plus Mulan is making girls want to be dudes)” Pence in a public forum. I can, and did, care about both Pence’s Hamilton visit and Trump’s conflicts of interest at the same time. Just because I was laughing at the idea of Pence getting booed by a bunch of theater-goers doesn’t mean that I wasn’t also writing my Congressperson in a vain attempt to keep Betsy DeVos from being confirmed. And again, the more “serious” issues likely should have been receiving more attention. But calling either the Hamilton incident or Roseanne’s meltdown a “distraction” is a disservice to both the events themselves and to the mental acuity of culture consumers.

Counterargument 3: The death toll, while an important news story, also wasn’t something we didn’t already know (sort of).

Now, before you call me a heartless bitch, let me explain. (Though if you call me a heartless bitch, I’m one step closer to getting a blackout on my “woman writing on the internet” bingo card!) The death toll is indescribably tragic. I’m disgusted in our government, in our country, in our response, in everything. I cannot believe that Puerto Rico is about to face another hurricane season and that they still haven’t been given the support they need to recover from the last one. I can’t believe how long it took the president to respond to Puerto Rico. I can’t believe how much less we care about Puerto Rico than we cared about Houston. I can’t believe we left so many people to die.

What I can believe, and what anyone who has been paying attention has always believed, is that the death toll in Puerto Rico is much, much higher than the official 64.

Puh-leaze. Within weeks of the hurricane I was reading multiple articles about how the hurricane itself, and the lack of access to water, electricity, food, and medical care that followed, was resulting in more deaths than could be handled by many local mortuaries, and that many morticians were having to quickly bury or cremate people rather than send them to a centralized hospital for government autopsy (the only way for a death to be counted as an official consequence of the hurricane) because the roads were impassable, the mounting bodies were a health risk, the centralized hospital was overwhelmed, etc. I was reading articles about families having to bury their family members on their own property because they had no way to get them to mortuary services. While we may not have known the exact number, we have known that the death toll had to be in the thousands. After watching the clusterfuck of a response, there was no way that the death toll wouldn’t be in the thousands.

And again, it is important to the conversation to know the exact number. It is important for the death toll to be brought forward in the cultural consciousness once more, because we’ve been doing our best as a country to forget about Puerto Rico and just hope all will be fine the next time it is overtaken by a hurricane. But the report was not a bombshell. Not to anyone who has the awareness to distrust official numbers. So it is disingenuous to imply that caring about Roseanne’s comment’s more than reporting on the death toll means that people did not care about the death toll report. For many, it just meant that people weren’t paying as much attention to a report that was telling them what they already know.

And in all of this, it is important to remember that emotional fatigue is a real thing. I truly do my best to care about as many issues as I can at once. I read internet news, listen to podcasts, and read political and social science books in the precious little free time I have. But while caring about things is certainly not a zero sum game, there are some very real limits to my time, my attention, and my mental and emotional well-being. If you’re a longtime reader, you’ve probably noticed that the last couple months have seen a nosedive in terms of me getting a Feminist Friday post done on an actually freaking Friday. Part of that is scheduling, but part of it is emotional fatigue. Trump has been president for almost two years. I have been screaming into the void for almost four years, and it has been equal parts cathartic therapy and weekly reminder of how terrible the world is. I’m my own production of the Gift of the Magi. Yes, it would be fantastic if people could care about everything all the time. But we have to be patient with others, and with ourselves. We have to be kind to ourselves. We have to acknowledge that it is okay to care about multiple things, and just because someone else isn’t caring in the exact way and amount that you want them to doesn’t mean that they don’t care.

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured image is of a Perto Rico flag hanging outside a building in New York, by Christopher Edwards, CC BY SA 2.0

Debunking the Roseanne Arguments

Because comparing this absolute unit to Trump isn’t racist (even if it’s insulting).

 

One of the biggest tragedies to befall the media has been the steady rise of false equivalencies presented in the name of “fairness.” After Fox News proclaimed themselves “fair and balanced” (and somehow never had a lawsuit brought against them for false advertising) and began declaiming the “mainstream media” for being biased, so-called “liberal” outlets have been falling all over themselves to prove themselves fair-minded. They also want it to be known that they are totally cool, they didn’t narc on you for smoking that cigarette after 5th period, and they have definitely had alcohol. They’re not squares.

The inevitable result is a decline in the objectivity of the press and a decline in a basic understanding of reality. For example: climate change is a thing. It is absolutely, provably, a thing. It is also provable that humans have had an effect on climate change. That’s just objectively true. Where we have some grey area is the extent to which humans have had an effect on climate change, and the best ways to decrease our impact. So a truly “fair and balanced” debate on climate change would look like this:

Person 1, a scientist with expertise in the field and who definitely believes in climate change: “I believe that if we go to a more vegetarian diet and decrease our reliance on animals for meat, we would reduce our environmental impact by decreasing the CO2 produced by animals and decreasing deforestation that occurs in order to provide for grazing land.”

Person 2, also a scientist with expertise in the field and who definitely believes in climate change: “When you account for things like climate and transportation, a vegetarian diet does not actually have less of an environmental impact for people in many areas where a plant-based diet is not readily available. It’s certainly not a bad idea to try to decrease our meat intake, but I think that we’ll have a large impact if we can continue carbon emission capping programs for large corporations.”

The two people have a shared basis in reality, and a difference in opinion. They can have a healthy, productive debate. Wouldn’t that be nice? Instead, what we usually get is something like this:

Person 1, a scientist with expertise in the field and who definitely believes in climate change: “Humans have an impact on the clim—”

Person 2, who has no scientific background but does run a blog that has been tweeted by the president: “FAKE NEWS. The climate just goes through cycles! WHY DO YOU THINK WE HAVE SNOW?”

One of these people is a scientist, and one of these people is an ignorant fool. But they are presented to us as if their opinions are equally valid. In order to avoid claims of being biased, mean, or stuffy, news outlets have thrown objectivity out the window in order to make two sincerely unequal positions seem equal. In addition to harming the notions of reality and truth, this tactic is pathetic because it just doesn’t matter. Nothing, and I repeat, nothing, will keep fact-phobic conservatives from feeling as if they are the injured, maligned party in a cruel world full of PC police and feminazis. Did any of the journalists who wrung their hands over Michelle Wolf’s “mean” speech pointing out that Sarah Huckabee Sanders lies all the time and also wears eyeliner increase the “extreme conservative/conspiracy theorist” demographic in their readership? Did it keep Trump from calling these outlets “fake news” multiple times? Of course not. They have already been declared the enemy. But they keep trying anyway. This desperate attempt to compromise values and morals in order to seem “cool” affects every outlet from CNN to the ostensible bastion of liberal thought, the New York Times.

I have grown too weary to count the number of times that the NYT has pivoted between doing truly important, hard-hitting journalism and offering a (lukewarm at best) “hot take” in which they turn themselves into metaphysical pretzels to try and appeal to red-state voters who are going to hate them anyway. This takes the form of hiring conservative writers and doing little to nothing to edit their thoughts in the name of “expanding perspectives,” normalizing neo-Nazis in sympathetic “think-pieces” that show that they, too, go to the grocery store, bemoaning the white working class that the Democrats supposedly abandoned while giving basically no shits about the black/brown/anything-but-white working class that has been abandoned by everyone… the list goes on. So when Roseanne Barr proved for like, the billionth time that she was a racist and then finally got punished for it, Richard and I both held our breath for the hot takes, especially from the NYT, on how this is a terrible blow for free speech and is also somehow helping Trump while also killing puppies.

Somewhat to our surprise, the NYT wasn’t… totally terrible. Yet. I’m writing this on Wednesday, and they have two full days to fuck up before this gets posted. (As if I’m going to go back and edit my work to update it. Who do you think I am, someone with more integrity than most journalism outlets?) While they were a bit too sympathetic to Barr and a bit more concerned with how this is going to affect ABC/congratulating ABC for becoming the first major broadcast TV outlet to hire a black woman as entertainment president in the Year of our Lord Two-Thousand-Fucking-Sixteen, nevertheless they were at least willing to go all out and call the tweet “racist,” which is a very low bar that many outlets did not meet.

Unfortunately, many other “hot takes” are trumpeting about how this is a violation of the 1st Amendment, how this is just the same thing as the NFL protest, and on, and on, and on. So I’m going to do my best to slowly and patiently break those arguments down. It’s gonna take a LOT of patience.

First argument: ABC firing Roseanne is a violation of the First Amendment.

My answer: No it isn’t.

My answer, with more detail because Richard is mouthing the words “please elaborate” at me: The First Amendment protects your right to speak without receiving consequences from the government. So ostensibly, if I write a book called Donald Trump is a Cave Troll Who Made a Wish on a Genie Lamp and Turned into an Approximation of a Person, the government could not arrest me. The First Amendment also has some restrictions, like not being able to share military secrets or inciting violence (they don’t enforce that second one particularly strongly, imo). However, if I was writing the same book and suddenly went on a thirty-page tirade about how men should be killed en masse and used sparingly as breeding stock, my publisher would be well within their rights to be like, “Elle, this is weird and violent. We don’t want to publish your book any more, or reward this kind of thinking by giving you money.” My theoretical publisher is a private entity, not the government, and can fire me with cause.

There are obviously some (also poorly enforced) discrimination protections that would hypothetically keep me from being fired just for being a woman, or for having a baby, or for other protected reasons, but “being a violent weirdo” is not a protected status. Neither is “being a racist asshole.” There is a difference between “protection from retribution against your speech by the government” and “protection from all consequences for your words and actions.” We are all entitled to the former—no one is entitled to the latter.

Second argument: This is exactly like the NFL kneeling thing!

My answer: Well… kinda. But not in the ways that matter.

Jack Holmes puts it pretty well:

In truth, the argument applies in both cases: ABC and the NFL can both fire employees for their speech if they think it’s alienating customers. The only difference is that ABC fired someone for free speech that was racist. NFL players are protesting racial injustice in policing and the criminal justice system, but their opponents suggest they are disrespecting The Flag or The Anthem or the armed forces. This is factually untrue, and the difference between the two cases is moral: Those offended by Roseanne Barr’s comments are offended by racism. Those offended by Colin Kaepernick’s silent kneeling have ascribed it a meaning that ignores—and often contradicts—his clearly expressed intention. The repercussions imposed on him are unjust. 

So basically, “You’re not wrong, you’re just an asshole.” Yes, the NFL legally has the right to fire someone for behavior that they think is hurting the brand. (Though their case does have some big old holes in it, labeled “discrimination” and “collusion.”) But Barr was fired for being a racist (or rather, a racist who finally was making enough of the public uncomfortable that her racism was suddenly a punishable offense) while Kaepernick is protesting racism. You’re basically comparing getting fired for resembling a Nazi to being fired for protesting Nazis.

Having the legal ability to punish employees in both cases does not mean that the cases are morally on the same level. There is a difference between “could” and “should.”

Third argument: By firing Roseanne, ABC is showing that they’re intolerant!

My answer: Oh my God, it is OKAY to be “intolerant” of bigotry.

Here is where we get into that whole “fair and balanced” issue again. Not all thoughts and opinions are on the same playing field. “Global warming is fake” is not an equally valid statement compared to “global warming is real.” Likewise, “it is bad to be racist” and “it is okay to be racist” are not equally valid. Pretending that Roseanne’s tweet is in the same moral realm as the NFL protest, or pretending that negative reactions to Roseanne’s tweets are in the same realm as, for example, negative reactions to pro-LGBT statements, is disingenuous. Again, this is about both morality and humanity. If someone is screaming in my face and I ask them to stop, or find a way to force them to stop, I am not being “intolerant” of their speech. They were screaming at me. It was rude and (probably) uncalled for. It is not small-minded, unjust, prejudiced, or any of the other synonyms for “intolerant” to make someone who is saying hateful things stop saying hateful things. There should be consequences for saying terrible things, in the same way that there are consequences for violating other moral norms. Again, Holmes tackles this pretty well.

“There should be consequences for hateful or racist rhetoric, it’s just it’s the job of private citizens—and companies—to enforce them in the right ways and at the right times. That used to be called having some common decency and moral judgment.”

Now, obviously, this can get us down a rabbit hole of who gets to decide what is moral and what are norms and blah, blah, blah. But if you use “the good of humanity, the promotion of equality and equity, and the ending of injustice” as the lodestones for your moral compass, you should probably do ok.

Fourth Argument: Roseanne didn’t mean anything racist by what she said, she was just trying to be generally insulting.

My answer: Shut the hell up and learn to use Google.

Seriously: go google “Roseanne’s racist history” and “racist history of comparing black people to apes.” I won’t wait, because I have better things to do with my time, but I assume this will suffice for you.

Fifth Argument: People have called Trump an orangutan, which is the exact same thing! Why aren’t you mad about that?

My answer: …*heavy sigh* please re-google “racist history of comparing black people to apes.”

It is a very, very different thing to compare a white person to an ape or monkey and comparing a black person to an ape or monkey. Because of things like “racism” and “history.”

 

That (hopefully) covers it. This shit is exhausting, y’all.

Signed: Feminist Fury.

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Featured image is of an orangutan, not Trump, is by cuatrok77, and is shared under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license.

There Shouldn’t Be an App for That

Because consent is more slippery than a yes/no before-sex contract.

 

I consider myself a generally well-read, up-to-date person. Often this is to my own detriment, as I usually know the exact reason that the world is on fire, or the newest thing that should make me despair about humanity. It also makes me a total buzzkill. Whether I’m explaining why we should stop using helium balloons if we want to be able to use MRI’s in the future, or pointing out that Santa Claus shares a lot of characteristics with abusive partners, I can be counted on to provide an informed, depressing reality check. Which is why it’s actually a little bit surprising that I find out something new and weird about the world that I didn’t actually know. Especially when it’s something that I really should have known. Case in point: someone having the bright idea to create an app for consent. 

Consent is something that is both incredibly simple and functionally complicated. Far beyond the old, over-simplified “no means no,” we’ve moved on to “yes means yes.” Consent has to be affirmative (silence does not equal a yes, only yesses or other signs of affirmation equal a yes) enthusiastic (not the result of coercion, badgering, or other negative action, but rather something the person genuinely wants) and sober (you legally cannot consent if you are under the influence of drugs or alcohol). Admittedly, this can look a little weird in practice, and often requires a lot of communication between partners—a nod can be a yes, as can other body language. Sometimes consent is not a super formal “Is it acceptable if I insert my penis into your vagina right now?” but rather a “Are you ready?” or “Is this okay?” The idea of affirmative consent is new for a lot of people, and many people who haven’t been practicing it can be understandably confused. But that confusion is no excuse for the dumb idea of turning consent into a literal contract.

Reina Gattuso does an admirable job of explaining the many reasons that a consent app is a bad idea, but they really boil down to one point: consent cannot, and should not, be reduced to a contract. Consent is a mobile concept—I can think that I will be okay with something, only to change my minds moments later. I can be okay with something on Tuesday and not okay with it on Wednesday. And while there is nothing wrong with going over lists of activities with a partner and deciding what you do and don’t feel comfortable doing, you should never feel beholden to that list.

I can’t get over the sensation that a consent app serves the same purpose as a non-disclosure agreement—a way to cover the ass of the person doing the bad thing, and not really anything helpful for the person who is likely to be hurt. I can easily see consent apps and consent contracts being used in court to paint a rape survivor as a flip-flopping liar, or used to pressure a survivor to stay silent. Let’s just not, okay?

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured image of “terms and conditions” based on: bfishadow, CC BY 2.0

Things That Make Elle Mad (This Week)

Because even in the low-energy weeks, there’s time for lists.

 

Normally when I do a list post, I at least have the energy to add links about what I’m talking about. Today I don’t. Sorry folks. But to make up for it I’m adding extra rantiness to the earlier ones, and trying to make the later ones short, witty bon mots.

Here’s ten eleven things that are making me mad this week, roughly in order of most-described to least-described.

1. Apparently at least one of the women who was abused by Eric Schneiderman was advised by friends and loved ones not to come forward, because Schneiderman was “too important” for the Democrats to lose. Let me make something very clear—no one is so important that we cannot afford to lose them if they abuse women. No one. If Barack Obama was revealed to be an abuser it would hurt my soul, but I would drop him like the heavy end of a couch if it meant his victims felt safe coming forward. (Barack Obama don’t you dare turn out to be an abuser, my poor heart can’t take it.)

2. Gina Haspel is one of the best case studies in both “women aren’t necessarily feminists, a woman in power is not necessarily good for women” and “criticizing someone while they are a woman is different from criticizing someone for being a woman.” It is not sexist to point out that Haspel oversaw torture. It is not sexist to point out that Haspel destroyed evidence. It is not sexist to point out that Haspel gave wishy-washy, disappointing answers and refused to condemn her former actions during her hearing. It is not feminist to have a torture condoning, evidence destroying, human rights violating person as the head of the CIA, even if she is a woman. Breaking the glass ceiling isn’t worth it if the shards fall down on women and other oppressed groups.

3. We treated Monica Lewinsky really terribly and Town and Country is continuing the process. You don’t disinvite Monica Lewinsky from an event when Bill Clinton confirms he’ll be at an event. You disinvite Bill Clinton. Good rule of thumb from Miss Manners: If there’s going to be an awkward confrontation between two people, you disinvite the person who has credibly been accused of rape.

4. Fox cancelling Brooklyn Nine Nine is the saddest thing since they cancelled Firefly. Fox doesn’t know a good thing when it has it.

5. White people really, really, really need to stop calling the police on black people unless an actual felony is happening. And even then (because in some states just having a bag of weed is a felony) we should think super carefully.

6. No one should listen to R. Kelly anymore. Stop it.

7. I don’t want to read any stories about where Donald Trump Jr. is sticking his dick. Stop it.

8. Donald Trump pulling out of the Iran deal is incredibly, indescribably ignorant.

9. Aaron Persky needs to shut up forever.

10. So does Roman Polanski.

Oh, and

11. “Be Best” is a ri-goddamn-diculous name for an initiative.

 

That is “What is Making Elle Mad Right Now.” I hope it was educational.

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured Image: A feminist blogger “to do” list. Source: own photo.

Toxic Masculinity, Elliot Rodger, and What You Can Do

The actions of future Elliot Rodgers are preventable.

A long time ago, my first foray into screaming into the void came in the form of my own blog. It was, by most measures, not terribly successful. As you may have noticed by my often-rambling posts and my loose relationship with the term “Friday,” I’ve got a tendency to focus on over-long deep dives and a hatred of deadlines. These characteristics often make it difficult to actually finish and publish pieces, and these characteristics are not improved when I am my own editor/boss.

The best thing to come out of that early blog, besides Richard going “hey, wanna also write for my blog?” (seriously, imagining Richard looking vaguely disappointed in me does wonders for my completion rate) was one of my very first, and most disturbing, deep dives—a prolonged piece on Elliot Rodger, his 100+ page manifesto, and aspects of sexism in culture.

At the time, many news outlets were focusing on the more sensational aspects of Rodger’s manifesto, like his declaration that women should either be starved to death in concentration camps or selectively bred, like cattle, to declare Rodger somehow less-culpable by means of “insanity.” But at the time, I had the notion that the explanation was both more simple and more dangerous—Rodger’s actions weren’t the result of a mental illness, but of a cultural one. And the laborious, upsetting slog through his manifesto and his videos confirmed that belief for me. Rodger may have been a few different kinds of emotionally disturbed, but he was, at heart, a product of his culture.

He had been taught that women, and specifically sex with beautiful women, was his due in life. He had been taught that virginity was shameful. He was taught that he was special, and that he should be treated as such. He was taught that his narcissistic view of the world was the right one. He was taught that money would solve all of his problems. He was taught that his feelings and thoughts were more valid than those of women. He was taught that any rejection by women is the cause of great distress. (Seriously, he apparently cried for an hour in a bathroom stall after he said “hi” to a hot girl and she didn’t respond. I’m so not even making this up.) He was taught that his actions have no real consequence, and that he could get away with assaulting women. He was taught that women were lesser than him, no better than “beasts.” He was told that he was a “gentleman,” and that he should be rewarded accordingly. He was taught that there is something wrong with women, and something wrong with the asshole “alpha males” they supposedly flock to. He was taught that other men were being given things that he deserved more.

Elliot Rodger was a product of toxic masculinity.

It was in reading his manifesto that I first began truly understanding and appreciating the multitude of meanings behind that phrase. The way that it implies both danger and disease. The way that it implies harm both to the infected and the people around the infected. Toxic masculinity is like nuclear waste—dangerous in small doses, deadly in larger ones, and capable of harming both the first person to come into contact with it and all of the people that come into contact with that person. In my mind I start seeing the world as if I’m Roddy Piper in They Live—when I have my sunglasses on, I can see the neon green taint of toxic masculinity on teenagers joking about “no homo,” on message boards, on the survivors of domestic or sexual abuse. I can see men glowing a sickly chartreuse, eating themselves up from the inside at the same time that they infect the world around them.

When I first wrote about Elliot Rodger, I assumed that I was already as outraged, and as burned out, as I could get. Now I look back on that time with a sad smile, because 2018 Elle can’t help but think that 2014 Elle was still sweetly idealistic and naïve. I ended my original post on Rodger thusly:

I wish I had some nice, neat way to wrap this all up, but I really don’t. My outrage is too strong for that. Seeing the ways that seemingly innocuous “nice guy” rhetoric can snowball into murder, seeing the ways that the indignant and apologetic “not all men” battle cry can be used to cover up the obvious and self-professed motives of a killer, and even briefly scrolling through the stories on “When Women Refuse” is enough to make me despair about the world. All I can do is hope that the things that I write, and the things that others who are much more eloquent than myself have written, can spark a thought, a conversation, or a movement. The actions of future Elliot Rodgers are preventable. If we can create a culture where sex is neither an assumed privilege nor a badge of honor, where a woman’s right to decide her own desires and sexual partners is respected, where women are allowed to voice their grievances without being interrupted, and where women are seen as equals, not as transactions, then there may be some hope for us yet.

The actions of future Elliot Rodgers are preventable.

The actions of future Elliot Rodgers are preventable.

The actions of future Elliot Rodgers are preventable.

That line jumps out to me again and again. Because I was so right, and so wrong, at the same time. The actions of future Elliot Rodgers were preventable. We just didn’t fucking do it.

The pickup artist forums of Rodger’s time have turned into the “incel” forums of today. (“Incel” is an absurd made up word that means “involuntary celibate.” It’s used by misogynists who think that women literally owe them sex, and that the fact that they aren’t getting their dicks wet is the highest treason possible. I will never use that term again after this point in the article, because I think of it the same way I think of the term “alt-right”; I refuse to use the terms that bigots came up with to keep themselves from sounding like bigots. So they’ll be “misogynists” and “Nazis” respectively from here on out.) A brief perusal of these forums shows virulent misogyny, bewildering levels of entitlement, and a frightening commitment to violence and violent language. Rape is frequently advocated. Women are frequently denigrated. The “Stacys” of the world, aka women, are purposely going out with the “Chads” of the world, aka “normie” guys who are alpha males and not this particular brand of misogynist, and that is just super unfair. It’s so unfair, in fact, that people should probably die because of it.

That seems to be the thought process behind Alek Minassian, who praised Elliot Rodger as the “supreme gentleman” and promised a misogynist rebellion shortly before using a van to kill and injure people.

Alek Minassian is the future Elliot Rodger that four years ago I was hoping we could stop. We obviously didn’t. If anything, things have gotten worse. Even our president is a sexual predator. There’s not a lot of difference between “grab ‘em by the pussy” and the vitriol spewed on these misogynist sites. #MeToo is happening, but there also already a slate of fawning articles wondering when the men who were temporarily deposed by #MeToo can make their “comeback,” as if they were caught doing coke at a party and not, you know, sexually harassing and assaulting women. If I had a nickel for every time a respected news outlet wondered if feminism has gone “too far,” I wouldn’t have student loans anymore. Gamergate has permanently changed the landscape of gaming, game journalism, and even the goddamn sci-fi awards, all for the worse. I thank my lucky stars because I have been a woman blogging about feminism on the internet for four years, and I have yet to receive my first rape threat for doing so. I’m basically the only female blogger I know who can say that, and I know it is a matter of time and google algorithms until it happens to me as well.

The only positive difference between today and four years ago is that this time, news outlets are actually acknowledging Minassian’s misogyny and toxic masculinity, instead of just wondering if he’s mentally ill (which, for the record, is not a significant contributor to violence, so stop blaming mentally ill people every time someone goes on a shooting spree).

That difference is the only reason I can end this post on a somewhat hopeful note. Because unlike issues like gun control or SESTA, toxic masculinity is something that literally every one of us can help fight against. This is not in the hands of an inept Congress. While the patriarchy is strong, MRA’s don’t have quite the political reach of the NRA. This is our culture, and we can take it back. This is especially important for parents. We’ve already fucked up our existing generations, and we’re gonna have to do a lot of work to fix them. It’s easier if we can start when they’re young and haven’t learned toxic masculinity yet. So to that end, I’m going to leave you with ten things you (yes you!) can do. Start today.

  1. Stop buying into bullshit gender binaries, especially ones that claim men can’t be emotional, weak, or have associations with traditional feminine qualities.
  2. Encourage men and boys to consume more “girl-focused” media.
  3. Don’t segregate children by gender for every damn thing. Encourage non-gendered friendships and play.
  4. Abandon terms like “real men.” Even if it is being used in supposedly helpful ways, like “real men respect women.” There is no such thing as a “fake man.” At least not until the robots take over, and that’s an entirely different conversation. Let’s just give up on that whole concept of policing what it means to be a man, shall we?
  5. If you’re a man, do your best to unlearn gender norms that hurt you, even if, again, they are supposedly positive. You don’t have to be the bread winner. You aren’t “babysitting” your kid, you are raising your damn kid. You don’t have to pay for dinner (unless your partner is making 60% of what you do because of the pay gap. In that case, yeah, keep paying for dinner.)
  6. Work to dismantle the value system around virginity. The fact that guys who are virgins are failures and that girls who are no longer virgins is sluts means that guys and girls are constantly in a sexually-based conflict in which the rise of male value implicitly comes with the diminishing of female value. Stop it. Encourage healthy, consensual sexuality for everyone. Virginity is great if people want to be virgins. Not-virginity is great if people want to be not-virgins. The end.
  7. Please, for the love of God, abandon language like “don’t be a pussy.” Anyone who has seen a childbirth video knows that the vagina is basically the strongest thing in the world. I’m not telling you to “reclaim” the word pussy, because I’m a little skeptical about the idea of “reclaiming” words, but at the very least it shouldn’t be a phrase that means the very opposite of what it should. While we’re at it, let’s get rid of phrases like “that takes balls” and “ball busters.” Let’s just get rid of cisgender-normative genitalia phrases in general, shall we?
  8. Stop assuming the worst about men, even when it’s a convenient excuse. I’ve known plenty of boys and men in my life. Weirdly, none of them have been sex-obsessed maniacs who can’t control themselves around a woman’s bare shoulders. They’ve also all been passable at doing laundry, keeping track of appointments, talking about their emotions, and communicating clearly. It’s like men aren’t all latent rapists lying in wait, or totally inept at household tasks and emotional labor. Weird.
  9. Call people out on their shit. Is someone around you buying into outdated stereotypes? Is someone telling a rape joke? Is someone complaining about “blue balls” because they haven’t been graced with sex yet? Is someone complaining about being in the “friend zone”? Tell them to knock it off.
  10. Encourage male friendships and male affection/diminish the association of weakness with homosexuality. I can hug any of my girlfriends pretty much any time I want. I can hug any of my guy friends almost any time I want. It’s a fantastic world of hugs. But for a lot of guys, simple affectionate contact is seen as suspect, especially with other men. They live in fear of being called too sensitive, or being called homosexual. They have to hedge acknowledgements of platonic love with “no homo, bro.” Men, I have to conclude, are often really fucking lonely. Let them be friends. Let them hug.

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured image is of a warning sign reading “TOXIC” and showing a human figure in distress after consuming something presumably toxic. Michael Smith, CC BY 2.0

When Character Descriptions Should Exit, Stage Left

Screenwriters. Dialogue yes. Characters not so much.

 

Hey loyal readers (yes, both of you, I see you!), sorry for my prolonged absence. Life refuses to cease happening, even when I’m really, really busy. Totally unfair. To make up for it, I’m going to babble about female characters in movies! (Which I was going to do anyways, but now it sounds like a treat. That’s called “salesmanship.”)

In my last roundup post I mentioned the “describe yourself as a male author would” trend, and my adoration for it. This week, Vulture is helping me up my game by providing 50 actual descriptions of female characters from (primarily male-written) screenplays. And…. wow. We have got ourselves some sexism folks. And some weird obsessions. But first, I want to take you back a bit, to the Long Long Ago, when Richard and I were on This Week in Tomorrow. You may remember my insanely long posts on Joss Whedon, and how I started by taking umbrage with his script for Wonder Woman. The script started off on literally the wrong foot, focusing on Steve Trevor as he crashed into an island, before revealing a character known as “The Girl,” followed by a sexualized, primitive-esque description of said Girl. (Who, remember, is Wonder Woman. Like, our main character.):

To say she is beautiful is almost to miss the point. She is elemental, as natural and wild as the luminous flora surrounding. Her dark hair waterfalls to her shoulders in soft arcs and curls. Her body is curvaceous, but taut as a drawn bow. She wears burnished metal bracelets on both wrists, wide and intricately detailed. Her shift is of another era; we’d call it Greek. She is barefoot.

I made a lot of fun of this description, and all of the descriptions after it, (did you know that absolutely every character in that movie is beautiful? I mean all the female characters, obvi.) but little did I know how… average… they really are in the film industry. Because hot damn, do male writers like their semi-pornographic character descriptions.

James Cameron made me very, very uncomfortable, both because his description of Neytiri made me realize how young she was supposed to be (18? Are you freaking kidding me? Were you trying to go full Pocahontas and make her 13 but just couldn’t do it?) and because of how clearly it seems that James Cameron has been thinking about sex with blue catgirl teenagers:

Draped on the limb like a leopard, is a striking NA’VI GIRL. She watches, only her eyes moving. She is lithe as a cat, with a long neck, muscular shoulders, and nubile breasts. And she is devastatingly beautiful — for a girl with a tail. In human age she would be 18. Her name is NEYTIRI (nay-Tee-ree).

Yep, beautiful except for that tail. The tail is definitely a turnoff, and not clearly a turn-on. Also, the description of her breasts doesn’t even make sense. You’re either saying she has sexually mature breasts, or sexually attractive breasts. Which, yeah. They’re breasts. That’s kind of their gig. You could have gone with like, actually describing them (which is still icky but at least makes sense) or just say what you’re obviously trying to say, which is “SHE’S LEGAL I PROMISE.”

Or we have the description for Margot Robbie’s character in Wolf of Wall Street:

We see NAOMI, 24, blonde and gorgeous, a living wet dream in LaPerla lingerie. Naomi licks her lips; she’s incredibly, painfully hot.

The only thing that should be “painfully hot” is touching a working stove. But the “winner,” both for creepiness and for bringing back a racist word I thought for sure died during Reconstruction, is Quentin Tarantino in his description of “Jungle Julia” from Death Proof:

A tall (maybe 6ft) Amazonian Mulatto goddess walks down her hallway, dressed in a baby tee, and panties that her big ass (a good thing) spill out of, and her long legs grow out of. Her big bare feet slap on the hard wood floor. She moves to the cool rockabilly beat as she paces like a tiger putting on her clothes. Outside her apartment she hears a “Honk Honk.” She sticks her long mane of silky black curly hair, her giraffish neck and her broad shoulders, out of the window and yells to a car below. This sexy chick is Austin, Texas, local celebrity JUNGLE JULIA LUCAI, the most popular disc jockey of the coolest rock radio station in a music town.

Of course he mentioned her feet. Of course. And of course he compared her to multiple animals, and brought back the “M” word, and called her “Amazonian” for being tall. Of course he had to mention her ass, and even enter a parenthetical about it. Of course he called her a “chick.” What does a “giraffish” neck even mean? Shouldn’t that mean its abnormally long? Is that also supposed to be sexy? I need about a million showers, and to never read these words again.

The one saving grace of these descriptions, and of the Whedon descriptions, is that they at least don’t try to underplay the beauty of the character, or act as if the woman is unaware of it.

The “Obliviously Beautiful” trope is common enough it gets its own TV Tropes page, as well as about a million songs.  With this trope, the character is somehow unaware of her beauty, or could be more beautiful if she tried, or something. There’s some weird moralizing attached to this trope– it is as if we are supposed to like the character better, or think she is a better person, because she is either unaware of her beauty or doesn’t try to be beautiful. Or even as if her beauty is enhanced by not being aware of it. As opposed to all of those self-aware skanks ruining their good looks by thinking about them, or something? A bizarre number of the scripts follow this theme.

Sarah Connor, in the first Terminator film:

SARAH CONNOR is 19, small and delicate-featured. Pretty in a flawed, accessible way. She doesn’t stop the party when she walks in, but you’d like to get to know her. Her vulnerable quality masks a strength even she doesn’t know exists.

Lisa Cohen in Margaret:

On LISA COHEN, just 17. Not the best-looking girl in her class but definitely in the top five.

(Insert obligatory Flight of the Conchords reference here)

Helen Tasker from True Lies:

To call her plain would be inaccurate. She could be attractive if she put any effort into it, which doesn’t occur to her.

… Right. I’m sure that any woman, in the beauty-obsessed US, simply didn’t have it “occur” to her that she could be attractive. That’s definitely the issue.

Summer, from 500 Days of Summer:

SUMMER FINN files folders and answers phones in a plain white office. She has cropped brown hair almost like a boy’s but her face is feminine and pretty enough to get away with it.

(Who knew you had to be pretty in order to “get away” with short hair? All this time I was assuming that you could just do what you wanted with your hair, but apparently there are standards. Next time I get a pixie cut I’ll make sure to stamp “not a boy” on my forehead, since I don’t know for certain if my features are feminine enough to support that haircut.)

They even have to downplay Princess Buttercup from The Princess Bride before building her back up:

Buttercup is in her late teens; doesn’t care much about clothes and she hates brushing her long hair, so she isn’t as attractive as she might be, but she’s still probably the most beautiful woman in the world.

Damn, if she’s already the most beautiful woman in the world, I’d hate to see what she looks like if she is as attractive as she “might be.” She might turn out “painfully hot,” like Margot Robbie.

All of this seems to be done to make the character seem more “realistic” to the audience (as if they are not still being played by amazingly beautiful movie stars.) As Kyle Buchanan and Jordan Crucchiola put it in the same Vulture article,

Many screenplays try to hedge their female character’s beauty, lest she seem so gorgeous as to be unattainable. Perhaps the woman doesn’t know how pretty she is, or there’s a slight imperfection added to make her relatable. The exact calibration of these female characters’ beauty begs a reference to Goldilocks: They’re hot, but not too hot.

Why, you may ask, am I harping so much on these character descriptions? I’ll tell you.

The way we write about women shapes and is shaped by the way we think about women. Some of the most iconic women in movies are introduced, not via their personality or their attitude or their bearing, but by their beauty. Beauty that is either nearly pornographic, or is undercut and underplayed in some vain attempt at “relatability.” It’s important to remember, that these descriptions aren’t just the first appearance of the character in the film; they are the basis on which the director, actors, stagehands, everyone who works on the film, start to  get their idea of the character. What is she like? How does she carry herself? What are her concerns? And I don’t know about you, but I’d have a hard time trying to get to the “heart” of my character if most of what I knew about her was “she’s pretty, but not like, too pretty, you know?”

And to me, the ones that try the “Obliviously beautiful” route are almost worse. The porny ones are at least aware of the objectification they are taking part in. The oblivious descriptions are trying to have their cake and eat it, too. Oh, she’s beautiful, but she doesn’t know it. Or she’s not as beautiful as she could be. It adds even further restrictions on how women are supposed to look and act; we’re supposed to be beautiful, yet so humble or so stupid that we don’t realize it. We are only relatable when we are unselfconscious about our appearance (yeah, good luck with that) but we are not actually allowed to be ugly or even unalterably plain. 

In almost every case I listed here, the actress who was given the role imbued their character with energy, tension, and dare I say, pizzazz. But that likely has much more to do with the skills of the actresses than the quality of the character descriptions they were given. I would love to see these skilled actresses get handed scripts where their character is introduced with complexity and not just sex appeal.

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured image is a close-up of the description of Wonder Woman from the script.

Think Happy Thoughts

Because roundups are objectively good, people.

 

I can’t tell if people are more tired out/bored by my insanely long rants or by my ridiculously short roundups. So in the name of science, I’m doing another roundup. Yep. This is a science experiment. This has absolutely nothing to do with sleep deprivation. Science.

Because she’s probably slightly concerned for my blood pressure in the Age of Trump, one of my friends suggested that I do my roundup this time about things that actually make me happy. I stared at my screen for way, way too long before I started thinking of things that made me happy in recent culture.

1. Rachel Bloom’s “Ladyboss.” Rachel Bloom is a goddess among women who has accomplished enough in her 31 years that it makes me feel kinda intimidated. All of the music from her amazing show (that I didn’t give proper credit to at first because of its title) Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is amazing, but I’m equally fond of the songs she has on her youtube channel racheldoesstuff that are unrelated to the show. One of them, Ladyboss, perfectly encapsulates the combined confidence and self-doubt that comes from being a woman in charge, as well as the constant tightrope walk of “boss-ness” versus “culturally demanded femininity.” And really, is caring if someone thinks you’re a bitch internalized misogyny?

2. The “describe yourself like a male author would” Twitter thread/trend. It’s so good. So pure. And so indicative of how tired women are of being reduced to T&A when we’re described in literature. True story, I once reviewed a short story collection that had nine stories in it. Every woman, in every story, had her ass described—in detail—as part of her character description. My own attempt: “She was Amazonian, in that she was very tall, and when you saw her from far away it seemed like she didn’t have any boobs. She was log-shaped, so it was hard to tell if she was sexy or not until you were closer, and you realized she did, thank God, have breasts. And kind of an ass.”

3. New York passed a law that forces convicted domestic abusers to surrender firearms and forbids them from obtaining or renewing a firearm license. I’ve written before about how gun control is a feminist issue, and particularly the way that guns ensure that domestic violence situations have an increased risk of fatality. Laws like these go a long way to helping address at least that issue.

4. Finding out that Jordan Peele is attached to a project that will revisit the Lorena Bobbitt scandal, and actually address the domestic violence that was a major underpinning of the incident (and that no one talked about because ha, she cut off his dick and their last name is “bob” it. Get it?)

5. Janelle Monáe’s new album and new music videos. Because she’s Janelle effing Monáe.

It took me longer than I would have liked to come up with five things that made me happy, but I finally did it. So what is making you happy these days? What is keeping your spirit up in the Age of Ultra-Stupid? Sound off in the comments. Or, you know, just keep basking in the thing that makes you happy. Whatev.

Signed: Feminist Fury

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This post’s featured image is a screenshot of a tweet by Whitney Reynolds reading “new twitter challenge: describe yourself like a male author would.”

FOSTA and SESTA, and Why You Shouldn’t Pass Legislation Without Talking to the People it Will Affect

The road to hell is paved with good intentions sex work shaming

 

So I had every intention of doing a deep dive into the recent passage of the FOSTA/SESTA legislation. Then I fell asleep in front of my laptop while writing said deep dive. So instead you’re going to get bullet points, and links. Because this truly is important, and it truly is going to hurt at least a million women (and likely many men) who are engaging in consensual sex work. Not to mention members of the LGBT community, individuals who engage in online kink, and apparently even people who want to say “fuck” on Microsoft products. (Note to self: don’t save first drafts to One Drive, or else I’m fucked.) Also it kinda takes the whole concept of internet freedom and takes it out back for some Ol’ Yellering.

So the basics:

The phrase “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” is exemplified by the recent FOSTA/SESTA legislation.  The Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA) both have the aim of ending online sex trafficking by targeting the sites where trafficking enticements and advertisements might happen.

The legislation may or may not help the roughly 6,000 cases of reported trafficking that occur each year. Research is still conflicting about whether this type of action helps decrease trafficking by making it harder for traffickers to find customers, or if it just makes trafficking harder to track and address as it goes underground.

The legislation definitely will hurt roughly one million sex workers who rely on internet resources to advertise their services safely, screen their clients, warn one another about bad clients, seek out clients from a safer indoor location. One study by Baylor University found that escort ads reduced the female homicide rate by over 17%. It’s fairly hard to argue for any legislation that has a net effect of raising the female homicide rate, even if it has ostensibly good intentions.

Because of the breadth and vagueness of the law, many sites are going to close up shop due to the fear that they might be swept up in the legislation, even if they were not initially targeted. Kink sites, dating sites, and social media forums are all going to be either tightening restrictions or closing up shop. This has a quelling effect on many online industries, not to mention freedom of speech and any marginalized person who relies on the internet to be a safe space for them to explore their identity or their sexuality.

The bill has the potential to change online freedom of speech as we know it, and could even lead to the downfall of user-influenced sites like Wikipedia.

So read the links I post. We are unfortunately past the “Call your Congressperson” stage, as the bill has passed both the House and the Senate, and there is little chance that the Hypocrite in Chief won’t sign it into law. But laws can be overturned, and a groundswell of public opposition might make politicians think twice, and might make online sites less scared.

 

 

 

 

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured image of classified ads in a newspaper: Ian Lamont, CC BY 2.0

Loving Pop Culture When Pop Culture Doesn’t Love You Back

A deep dive into Ready Player One and the ways we cater to specifically male nostalgia.

As a woman and a feminist, my relationship with pop culture is inherently going to be a love/hate one. Partly because pop culture keeps screwing its representations of women, gender relations, sex, etc., but primarily because for most of my life (and still for a lot of the current period) pop culture wasn’t created for me. Pop culture was largely created by and for men, and if women happened to also like it, great, bonus viewers without trying! Or small subsets of pop culture would be created for girls and women, but rarely with the care and attention that was given to content created for men and boys, and our relationship with pop culture was not granted the same respect.

I’ve been thinking about this uneven relationship a lot lately. In part this is because of the way that the box office and critical reception for Black Panther and A Wrinkle in Time have essentially been pitted against each other: as if the fact that they were both created by black directors with primarily or largely black characters overwhelms the fact that they were created on different budgets for different audiences. It’s also in part because of the upcoming release of the film version of Ready Player One, and because of a recent video essay about that film by Lindsay Ellis.

I’m going to use the latter to dive deeper into what it says about catering to men’s versus women’s nostalgia, because a critical discussion of the comparison between Black Panther and A Wrinkle in Time is just going to give me a headache right now. Go see both movies. Yes, A Wrinkle in Time is supposedly not good and isn’t faithful to the book, but you know damn well that five years from now, “movies based on books that aren’t faithful to the book do poorly” is not going to be the narrative around its failure any more than the narrative around Catwoman’s failure was “movies with shitty scripts do poorly.” The narrative will be “major movies entrusted to black lady directors with ladies of color in the cast do poorly.” So go see the damn movie so we don’t have to have that exhausting and incorrect conversation.

Anyway, I first read Ready Player One at the request of a friend. He’d said he really liked the novel, but that something had felt off about it, and he wanted my opinion on it. I read it over the course of a plane ride, and texted him when I had landed. I don’t remember what exactly I said, but it was something to the effect of feeling as if the book was supposed to have been written for me, but that something had gone wrong in the process. The uncertainty was akin to feeling the whoosh of a metaphorical arrow as it went past my shoulder—I was close to the target audience of Ready Player One, but not quite there.

I pondered those feelings for a while, and to be honest I’m still untangling them. But the end result was this: the book wasn’t written for me. It wasn’t really written with a female audience in mind, period. It was written by a well-meaning man (I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Ernest Cline in person and can confirm that he is a very nice, very (ha) earnest geek) who included women and people of color as an afterthought, or as an intended bonus that he didn’t really think through. Ready Player One is, in its purest form, the distillation of the white, straight, cisgender male geek experience. The fact that my own life experiences have overlapped with that experience enough for me to also enjoy the book is an unintended bonus.

Better people than me have written on the problems with the characters of Art3mis and Aech, including Beth Elderkin and Lindsey Weedston.  But I will summarize.

The main character, Wade, is the Nice Guy in his truest form. (Don’t take my word for it, he even calls himself “a really nice guy” in the book.) He’s the poor, unpopular kid who everyone overlooked until it turned out he was super awesome, and that his very particular skillset, which would win him no prizes in the real world, is actually way important in the virtual world. He is the geek made good. He is literally the White Knight—his username in the OASIS is Parzival, one of the Knights of the Round Table.

And like most nice guys and white knights, his shine comes off the more you get to know him. He cyber-stalks Art3mis before ever meeting her. He objectifies Art3mis at the same time he idolizes her for “not being like other girls.” When Art3mis turns down his affections, he moves on to actual stalking, including having his avatar hold a boombox up to her window. When he finally finds out her big secret (*spoiler*) that she has a birthmark on her face, he is manly enough to “overcome” her disfigurement and love her anyways. And then I threw up a little in my mouth.

Art3mis, meanwhile, comes so, so close to being something besides a quest object, only to fail, hard. She starts off as a fully realized character—a fellow searcher who has her own active social media life, and at the start of the book, she is actually better at questing than Wade is. However, all of this character development quickly falls apart. Wade soon shows her up at questing, firmly slots her in the role of love object and supporting character, and makes her a trophy just as much as the keys and eggs of the OASIS. At the end of the story I find myself really wishing that Art3mis had the powers of the actual Artemis’ (you know, the virginal goddess of the hunt) and could turn Wade into a deer that got ripped to pieces by dogs. Come on, it’s a little violent, but no one would have seen that ending coming.

And honestly, Art3mis gets a boat load of character development compared to Aech, Wade’s best friend who we find out (way, way late in the book, spoilers again) is not actually the Caucasian male that Aech presented as in the OASIS, but is actually an overweight, black, lesbian woman. (I honestly don’t know if the lesbian part was added to be part of the tokenization trifecta, or so that we could have a super awkward exchange where Wade realizes that he’s been talking to Aech for a long time about how much he likes certain girls, but it’s totally okay because Aech also likes girls.) We get a brief moment of a really, really interesting idea with Aech—she reveals to Wade that she presents as a white male because she is more likely to get respected that way, even in the supposed equalizing utopia of the OASIS. For every female gamer who has ever created a male character in an MMORPG in order to avoid getting sexually harassed, this is a familiar concept with huge implications for the world of Ready Player One. What does it mean for the promise of technology if technology only replicates oppression instead of solving it? How might the perceived perfection of virtual reality lead to more internalized misogyny, homophobia, racism, and fatphobia?  Is there a way for a virtual world to truly be “better” than the real world? How could we use virtual reality to help us gain empath—oh, we’re only 50 pages from the end of the book? And we’re literally never going to address any of these topics, and we’re only going to vaguely continue addressing the fact that Aech is an overweight black lesbian? Oh, ok. Cool. Never mind.

And again, don’t get me wrong—I still do like a lot of the book. It is fun for me as a geek to indulge in this nostalgia-fest. But that is because, like Art3mis in the novel, I have grown up to enjoy pop culture that is filtered through a male lens. Beth Elderkin explains,

Ready Player One suggests that nostalgia is universal, how similar interests can bring strangers together, but all of that nostalgia is filtered through a distinctly male lens—and not just because Cline insert a lot of his personal fandom into the story. In the book’s world, OASIS co-creator James Halliday created the contest that the entire world is obsessed with, so everyone’s nostalgia is filtered directly through him. (“The only thing Anorak’s Almanac seemed to indicate was that a familiarity with Halliday’s various obsessions would be essential to finding the egg. This led to a global fascination with 1980s pop culture.”)

This framing leaves little room for women to desire anything that doesn’t also reflect what men want. Just like the game, Art3mis is a character created around male interests; she can’t be anything other than a trophy because there’s no room in the story for her own interests (you won’t find her watching Sailor Moon or Jem and the Holograms, but she sure as hell likes John Hughes). If your entire world is centered around the obsessions of one man—first James Halliday, followed by his protégé Wade Watts—what purpose do you serve that doesn’t also serve his needs?

I enjoy the book because I enjoy a lot of the things that the book’s male author, and his male protagonists, enjoy. I genuinely enjoy Monty Python, old-school arcade games, Star Trek, Japanese robot anime, etc. But that isn’t all that I enjoy, and it’s not all the nostalgia for the 1980s that is possible. It’s just the specifically male nostalgia. And again, trying to give all possible credit to Ernest Cline, I don’t think that he wrote this book with the specific intention of discounting women or female nostalgia. I think in his own mind, he really wrote a book about “universal” nostalgia. But in the same way that medical practices are androcentric, making the male body the norm, popular culture and popular nostalgia is androcentric too, making make interests and desires the norm. If a male author doesn’t question this androcentrism, it feels totally normal and reasonable for that author’s experiences to seem universal, even when they aren’t.

This hit home when another friend showed me a satirical Youtube video, “Ready Player One for Girls” by Jenny Nicholson. Nicholson explains that since she’s not a man in her mid to late thirties, “all of these super obscure 80s references” went over her head. Luckily, she was able to get the Ready Player One girl translation (complete with sparkly pink cover) with nostalgic pop-culture references that she could understand. She reads a few “passages,” essentially recreating the text of Ready Player One but with girl-centered references instead of guy-centered ones. Gail Carson Levine, Stephanie Meyer, Teen Witch, Legally Blonde, Gary Marshall movies, and Lady Lovely Locks all get shout outs. (Also, I may have exclaimed out loud in joy because someone besides me remembers Lady Lovely Locks.) As do Rainbow Brite, Sailor Moon, My Little Pony, and Neopets. Nicholson hits on one of the core attributes of Ready Player One when she exclaims “reading lists of things I recognize is pretty fun.” Later, the main character hits a virtual reality nightclub on a steed that combines She-Ra, Jem and the Holograms, hit clips, friendship bracelets, and Lisa Frank.

When I first started to watch the video, one of my instinctive thoughts was “this is so ridiculous.” And then I examined that thought. Because it is only as ridiculous as Ready Player One. It is the exact same concept, only filtered through female nostalgia instead of male nostalgia. But even as a woman, I have been taught that the properties women are nostalgic for, or even women’s inclusion in nostalgia, is ridiculous. And when this nostalgia does happen, it is rarely accepted or successful.

The female-centered Ghostbusters film, despite being a pretty decent flick, broke the internet and enraged the fanboys. My Little Pony succeeded on a massive scale, but a large part of that is due to its unexpected male audience. Nostalgia revivals like Gilmore Girls and Fuller House have had to flee to Netflix, whose algorithms are seemingly a bit gentler regarding female viewers than the strict Nielsen ratings. The Jem remake resembled its original so little and was so obviously broken that it was yanked from the theaters within a couple of weeks. The Powerpuff Girls reboot was a half-assed dumpster fire that didn’t seem to understand why the original worked. And the upcoming Heathers reboot looks like it’s going to be what happens when you take one of the least nuanced storylines of recent South Park memory (sometimes people who care about being PC can become oppressive themselves!) and then make a show about it where we’re supposed to root for the poor cisgender white people who are afraid of all the mean homosexuals, genderqueer people, and women of color.

Even when girls are present in properties that run on nostalgia, they are often sidelined either in the property itself or in the marketing. Paul Dini has acknowledge that networks frequently dismiss or actively avoid girl-centered storylines in superhero properties. While shows like Stranger Things have female characters that are actually well-written and complex, they’re still effectively sidelined for male storytelling. Hell, even when the nostalgia-fest is about them they don’t get any due. One of the most nostalgia-friendly, ‘member berries downing movies of the last decade, Star Wars: The Force Awakens has a female protagonist. That’s not just my opinion, that is literally how the movie works. But Rey was frequently sidelined in merchandising, to the point that she wasn’t even included as a figure in the branded version of Monopoly that they released.

We can even see this in one-to-one comparisons of similar properties. The Xena reboot that promised to feature an explicitly queer relationship between Xena and Gabrielle died before it could live, even though we got two goddamn Hercules movies in the same year. We had at least four dudes play Batman before we got a Wonder Woman movie.* People who were born when the first X-Men movie started to kick off the superhero renaissance will be old enough to vote before we get our first female-led, solo Marvel movie.

All of this emphasizes the idea that mainstream pop culture is not really meant for or aimed at women, but two of these in particular, the Ghostbusters film and the studio execs actively fleeing female audiences, point to something else that is equally insidious: things are considered worse when girls and women like them.

Marykate Jasper had an interesting article comparing Ready Player One to Jupiter Ascending. Jasper does not defend Jupiter Ascending for being a good movie (it’s not) but her argument was that it was just as trashy and wish-fulfilment-y as Ready Player One, but that it was taken way less seriously and given much less credit because it fulfills the escapist fantasies of girls instead of boys. Back on our old site, our guest writer Amelie was making that point before it was cool: 

These outrageous action sequences are not unusual for American cinema, but it is unusual for them to occur in a movie written for a predominantly female audience. Generally, the blockbuster-level special effects are saved for “gender-neutral” movies containing approximately one female character (let’s call her “Princess Leia”) who is routinely subjected to the male gaze through costumes and camera angles.

But the multi-million dollar special effects budget of Jupiter Ascending was spent on women. Watching it, I experienced flashbacks to my teenage years lurking on internet forums like DeviantArt, Gaia Online, Quizilla, and fanfiction.net, where creatively-inclined teenaged girls congregated to experiment with writing and wish-fulfillment. Jupiter Ascending does not differ extensively from what I saw posted on these sites. There was the everygirl self-insert character who was propelled from a humdrum existence to extraordinary circumstances. There was the love triangle, where the protagonist had to choose between two archetypes—the awkward but heroic spacedog Caine, and a dangerously smooth Space Prince played by Douglas Booth. The dialogue contorted itself to reveal a tragic backstory for nearly every named character. Plot developments followed one another with the awkward and incongruous charm of a teenager experimenting with the basic mechanics of storytelling. And while Caine reigned supreme over most of the action sequences, all of this was to make him a more desirable love interest; the actual plot mechanics revolved around Jupiter’s decisions.

Ultimately, this is what I found the most impressive about Jupiter Ascending. The outcome is decided by protagonist Jupiter Jones—and no one else. Jupiter decides the fate of the earth, and at a stereotypical moment of dialogue (something along the lines of “You can’t! It’s too dangerous!”) tells her love interest “This is my decision.” From the moment she comes to grips with her new identity as Space Queen, Jupiter exercises her agency. She actively pursues a romantic relationship with Caine. She brokers her own (disastrous and unfulfilled) marriage contract. She negotiates with the lead villain, Balem Abrasax, for the release of her family. She demands, repeatedly, to be taken home to earth. And near the movie’s end Jupiter grows into her role as action hero, scaling a burning building and repeatedly whacking Balem Abrasax (played by Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne, whose bizarre performance deserves its own review) with a metal rod. The script of Jupiter Ascending has many flaws, but it never doubts Jupiter’s desires or her agency. Jupiter Jones wants to save the earth—and then she wants to go home and be with her family.

To be totally honest, the plot of Jupiter Ascending is pretty much equal in wish fulfillment, bizarre plot, and special snowflake characters when compared to Ready Player One. And while Jupiter Ascending relies on aspects stolen from almost every sci fi story and fairy tale that has come before it, it at least has the decency to leave this in the realm of homage, instead of literally saying “hey, remember Power Rangers? Aren’t Power Rangers cool? I have Power Rangers in my movie.” But Jupiter Ascending is going to be remembered as an incredibly expensive flop, while the buildup around Ready Player One has already basically guaranteed that it will at least make its money back. And as Amelie pointed out, at least in the very expensive flop, the female protagonist had some damn agency.

This discussion of things being worse because girls like them is central to a recent video essay by Lindsay Ellis that reexamines Twilight. While I personally think that Ellis glosses over some of the more legitimate reasons to dislike the franchise (namely the way it romanticizes a deeply unhealthy and abusive relationship and emphasizes an abstinence-only message where the woman is mindlessly needy and the man has to be stoic and deny her desires) she makes some excellent points about the overwhelming hatred aimed at the book and its fans. (She also takes some swipes at Ready Player One. Look at me, pulling strings together. It’s like I know what I’m doing when I write things.) She points out that as a culture, we have extra disdain for teenage girls and basically anything that they like, and we actively encourage girls to distance themselves from one another in order to be respected.

I will admit to being one of the people that Ellis discusses, a young woman eager to distance herself from a cultural phenomenon that was unapologetically embraced by teenage girls. I’ve had to process a loooooot of internalized misogyny that stems from early experiences of being shunned and misunderstood by the “popular girls” and feeling as if I didn’t “fit in” as a girl. Now I can recognize this as early signs of rebellion against gender norms, but for a long time, it was “not-like-other-girls-itis” where I disliked what I couldn’t understand within my own gender. So while I do maintain that while a good portion of my disdain for the book series comes from a legitimate place (the writing is bad, the pacing is terrible, and again, the aforementioned serious, serious problems with the relationships it portrays) I can and do admit that I was likely more vicious towards it than I would have been towards male-centric books of equally poor quality. Both because I was trying to distance myself from other girls, and because I was fairly ashamed that of all the quasi-trashy supernatural romance novels that were aimed at young girls, it was the worst of them that exploded into popularity and became representative of What Girls Like. (There are so many better quasi-trashy supernatural romance novels. I have read them.)

So where does this leave us? Well, depending on who we are, it leaves us with a few tasks.

For audience members of all gender persuasions, it means we have to come to an agreement: we either have to universally raise our standards on pop culture and dismiss wish-fulfillment quasi-trash of all types, or we have to agree to be kinder to the work of that type that features and is aimed at girls and women. We have to be equal opportunity consumers of mindless entertainment. It also means we need to show up, and show demand, for things that cater to traditionally female interests. We also have to stop demeaning female fans, especially teen girls, for being passionate about things.

On the production side, it means that media organizations need to start cultivating female fans. Not just creating things that will only appeal to a narrow spectrum of girls, or things that will appeal to girls by default, but start actively courting a broad female audience in the same way that a broad range of men and boys are appealed to in various media creations.

Girls should have their Ready Player One. Girls should have their Transformers. They should be able to have debates over who was the “best” cinematic Wonder Woman, or the best incarnation of a female-led spy franchise. They should be able to quote the movies they watched as teens and have an entire room say the next line to them.

They should be able to love, and be loved by, pop culture.

Signed: Feminist Fury

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*For you nitpickers, four discounts West and Affleck because they were roughly contemporaneous with Carter’s and Gadot’s Wonder Women, respectively.

Featured image is a collage of 80s nostalgia figures Rainbow Brite, She-Ra, and Jem and the Holograms. All characters belong to their original rights holders.

Things I Read This Week That Made Me Go “Interesting!”

I hate the word listicles. Don’t use the word listicles.

So this has been an insane week for me, complete with power outages, sickness, and people-I-thought-were-burglars-but-were-just-unexpected-visitors-for-my-neighbor. Oops. So long story short, I didn’t really ever have the time to sit down and write a post. I did, however, have moments were I was trying to find something to write about, and mostly just found interesting things written by other people. So here are a few of those things. Lists are cool, right? Listicles? I hate that word, forget I used that word. Titles are links, because we live in a glorious age.

1. “Headless Women” Project Shows How Often Women Are Dehumanized on Movie Posters

2. How Would Snape Have Treated Harry Potter If Harry Had Been a Girl?

3. ‘Mallory Is Not Gone’: Daniel Mallory Ortberg on Coming Out As Trans

4. The ‘Lame Bitches’ Were Right

5. Shattering the Myth That Women Rappers Are More Expensive to Sign Than Men 

6. It’s Cool That Kristen Wiig Is Cheetah, but Were There No Women of Color Available?

7. Here’s the Academy Award Acceptance Speech Barry Jenkins Would Have Given

That’s it for this week, folks. Tune in next week, when my life will hopefully be less on fire, and I will probably have finally binged all of the new Jessica Jones and I can write about a fictional character whose life is on fire instead.

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured Image: A feminist blogger “to do” list. Source: own photo.