When saying ‘not all men’ might actually be constructive

635947305183822375-368317176_notallmen2

‘Not all men’ is one of those phrases that has become a shorthand for something wider. In this case it is the tendency of discussions of women’s experiences to be derailed by men wating them to be about their response to it:

…the people saying [‘not all men’] aren’t furthering the conversation, they’re sidetracking it. The discussion isn’t about the men who aren’t a problem….Instead of being defensive and distracting from the topic at hand, try staying quiet for a while and actually listening to what the thousands upon thousands of women discussing this are saying.

However, I do feel that with regards to the tape of Donald Trump more or less admitting to sexually assaulting women, it might help to get to the point rather than deflecting from it.

A key part of Trump and his surrogates attempts to justify these comments has been to essentially say ‘he’s a guy. What did you expect?’

Trump himself characterised it as ‘locker room talk‘. One of his sons said it was “what happens when alpha personalities are in the same presence.” And actor Scott Baio said “Ladies out there, this is what guys talk about when you’re not around. So if you’re offended by it, grow up. Okay?”

At which point it becomes a rather salient to note that ‘not all men’ say the kind of things Trump did or do the kind of things he described. The most eloquent itteration of this point came from American football Chris Kluwe, who wrote an open letter to Trump:

I was in an NFL locker room for eight years, the very definition of the macho, alpha male environment you’re so feebly trying to evoke to protect yourself, and not once did anyone approach your breathtaking depths of arrogant imbecility. Oh, sure, we had some dumb guys, and some guys I wouldn’t want to hang out with on any sort of regular basis, but we never had anyone say anything as foul and demeaning as you did on that tape, and, hell, I played a couple years with a guy who later turned out to be a serial rapist. Even he never talked like that.

We are not talking about the difficult stuff here. Clearly heterosexual men are going to notice how attractive or otherwise a woman is. Evolution has hardwired us to do that. And it is hard to stop that awareness subconsciously bleeding through into our decision making. Indeed, it is so hard that there’s a school of thought backed up by strong academic research that rather than trying to avoid it, we should design systems that negate the impact of the resulting prejudices. The archetypal example is having musicians audition behind a screen.

But what Trump is exhibiting isn’t the hard stuff. In the video, he says that he “can’t help” kissing beautiful women he sees but unless he has a psychiatric disorder he in fact can. Doing so requires a conscious decision on his part, as does recounting it later.

In his response to the video, Trump noted that he is not perfect. Well no one is. But plenty of men manage to imperfect without committing sexual assault. It’s not not something being a man compels you to do. Gender is not destiny. Being a man does not compel you to behave that way. The existence of men who don’t proves that. Trump had a choice and he made a terrible one.

Not all men attack women and then brag about it. If you do, that’s your fault and your gender is no excuse.

The very partial redemption of Steven Moffat

StevenMoffatBBCinterview

We learned last week that Steven Moffat is stepping down as Dr Who showrunner. Many Whovians couldn’t be happier about this fact. John Elledge in the New Statesman notes that:

In online geekdom, the reaction to Friday’s news that the next series of Doctor Who would be his last was reminiscent of the bit at the end of The Return of the Jedi, where all the Ewoks start dancing. A substantial chunk of the fandom wasn’t just happy Moffat was going, they were crowing: it was less like a TV writer changing jobs and more akin to the fall of a dictatorship.

Cleary the nub of this is that many people think the show has gotten worse since Moffat took over showrunner. But if that was all there was to it then I doubt the criticisms of him would be quite so ardent and personal.

Elledge’s theory appears to be that the problem is that Moffat comes across as prickly and condescending in public appearances. That probably doesn’t help but I think that’s not quite it. Being able to warm to someone who’s prickly and condescending is after all a precondition for being a fan of a show whose central character is an often overbearing god like creature.

More important is probably the sense that Moffat is a mysoginist whose female characters are ill served by his writing. My defence of him on this point is going to be very half hearted indeed.

I’m not prepared to follow Elledge in dismissing Moffat’s habit of making comments about women that are some combination of boorish, demeaning and stupid simply as a communication error. It is that but it’s also a substantive problem. Someone in a position of power both in the workplace and in popular culture should be not be saying things like:

There’s this issue you’re not allowed to discuss: that women are needy. Men can go for longer, more happily, without women. That’s the truth. We don’t, as little boys, play at being married – we try to avoid it for as long as possible. Meanwhile women are out there hunting for husbands.

You tend not to find anything that crude in his writing. Nonetheless, a kind of ‘everyday sexism’ permeates his work. Taken individually his female characters are admirably strong and capable. But taken together they start to look like a collection of either fantasies or jokes rather rounded human beings. And it’s rare for them to attain the depth or complexity of their male counterparts.

Compare, for example, Rory and Amy. His character is very well drawn and it’s genuinely moving to see the steal emerge from inside a man who initially seems a bit of a wet blanket. But despite having more screen time and a bigger role in the plot Amy has nothing like that. She’s as generically feisty in her final episode as in her first.

The most credible defence of Moffat that can be offered on this point is that:

…you can genuinely see him responding to his critics. He didn’t cast a female Doctor (and thank god, given how he writes women); but he did cast a female Master, and he’s repeatedly established that a female Doctor would make perfect sense within the fiction.

The change goes broader than that. Writing female characters remains one of Moffat’s weaknesses but he has definitely gotten better of late. Clara’s initial arc was terrible: she was little more than a problem to be solved. But in the next two series she was given space to develop to the point where she was as near to the Doctor’s equal as any human is ever going to be. She can pass for him, call him out when he’s in the wrong, and eventually sets off in a TARDIS for adventures of her own. Most importantly by having Clara’s exit flip the dynamics of Donna’s, Moffat acknowledged that the show has often mistreated its female characters. Sure you can dispute whether Moffat is in any position to lecture Russell T. Davies on feminism, and he still screws ups with things like giving Clara a controlling dick of boyfriend who no one ever seems to notice is a controlling dick. That kind of thing is undoubtedly a step backward but it seems like there have been more steps forward in Moffat’s recent work.

There’s of course, no one individual empowered to forgive sins against women. And if there was it would not be a man. And there’s certainly an argument that he doesn’t deserve it. The women in his stories have gotten better but that doesn’t make them good. He’s arguably only done that under pressure of public slating. And I have no idea whether he’s making the same kind of efforts as an employer and a public figure that he is as a writer. Nonetheless, any evaluation of him does at least need to acknowledge these efforts.

 

Equality in a galaxy far far away [Spoilers]

ReyTFA.jpg

[Spoilers] The Force Awakens suggests that Hollywood is gradually learning that women can be heroes too.

In the run up to the release of the Force Awakens, a video popped up of all the lines from the original Star Wars trilogy spoken by women other than Princess Leia. It lasts barely a minute. The tendency of genre cinema to sideline women is not exactly unique to Star Wars. If you look at the top ten highest grossing films of the year at the US box office from the turn of the millennium onwards it is not until 2012, that a non-comedy with a female lead was among was them. In that year three films made it including the Hunger Games. Its sequel would go on to be 2013’s top grosser. The last time a female lead film managed that was the Exorcist in 1973.

Fortunately, 2012 does not look like an anomaly. The trend has been moving in the right direction for a while now. Star Wars itself was one of the first signs of this.  The frankly rather weird golden bikini scene in Return of the Jedi not withstand, Princess Leia was much tougher and more resourceful than the average female sci-fi character. She was allowed to, for example, take charge of her own rescue from the Death Star. She forms one of sci-fi’s triumvirate of iconic strong female characters: the others being Ripley and Sarah Connor. They were important characters not just in on and of themselves but as reference points for future writers looking to create tough female characters – indeed Riply and Alien probably only got made because of the post-Star Wars sci-fi boom. But these three characters were only a first step. They were still tiny minorities in their films cast. And only Ripley was a protagonist; Leia and Sarah Connor still fitted into the traditional love interest/damsel in distress role albeit in a decidedly non-traditional way.

More recently this trend seems to have accelerated dramatically. Women have moved from being supporting to lead characters. They save the day and may be helped or hindered in that mission by male supporting characters. The Hunger Games is probably the most prominent example of this but it extends to its imitators and now even into superhero films a domain in which there’s previously been great resistance to female leads. Ripley no longer seems so singular.

And fittingly the franchise that gave us Princess Leia has now joined that trend. When the Force Awakens begins it doesn’t seem that way. It first looks like Oscar Isaac’s dashing fighter pilot will be the hero. Then it appears to be Finn – the renegade stormtrooper played by John Boyega. But then Rey and Finn meet for the first time and it becomes clear that Abrams and Lucasfilm are doing something else.

Obviously the fact that such a massive franchise has as its two leads a woman and a person of colour is encouraging.* But what caught my attention was the film having a joke at Finn’s expense for mansplaining. He initially spots Rey as she is struggling with two thugs trying to steal BB8 and he rushes over to help. But before he gets there she’s already put her opponents on the floor. Then when stormtroopers show up and start blasting, he grabs her hand to dash away. This leads her to object that she “knows how to run” and it becomes apparent that his holding onto her is actually slowing them down. Then when Tie Fighters start attacking them from the air, she then has to lead him to the ship that will take them to safety!

I liked this scene because of its subtlety. Of late there’s been a lot of talk of ‘Everyday Sexism’. This seemed like an example of Everyday Equality. It wasn’t showy, preachy or given much weight but it nonetheless still made a point about the daftness of a man assuming a woman isn’t as capable as you are. And where better to place that than in a film with a disproportionate appeal to boys!

As the films progresses, it becomes an apparent that Rey is the hero and Finn is the love interest. She defeats Kylo Renn not him and in the final scene she’s the one who goes off to become a Jedi. But apart from the scene I describe above her being the hero and a woman is not really stressed. The film doesn’t high-five itself for having a female lead. It’s treated as normal – as someday it hopefully will be.

Indeed, I would suggest that Rey is excellently placed to be a role model for young fans. In contrast to the heroine of the original trilogy she’s not a princess but a very ordinary person – a scrap metal scavenger in fact – which should make her more relatable. I also imagine that she will ultimately be more impactful in this regard than the Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen. That’s partly a function of the fact that Star Wars reaches children whereas the darker Hunger Games is not called ‘young adult’ for nothing. And Katniss is sometimes a difficult character to like – which is both intentional and a valid depiction of someone dealing with trauma. But nonetheless more people are probably are going to wind up dressing up as the more consistently appealing Rey.

My sense is that we’ve now probably reached a tipping point with female heroes. The Hunger Games has demonstrated beyond doubt that have a women in a lead role is not going to scare away audiences. Indeed, surprise surprise if casting choices don’t send women and girls subliminal messages that genre films aren’t for them, then they will start watching them and thereby grow the studio’s revenues.  An observation that’s going to become all the more obvious if, as seems quite possible, the Force Awakens goes on to become the highest grossing movie of all time.

I suspect that therefore the battles for feminists going forward will be on slightly different terrain. Firstly, there’s the question of what kind of female heroes Hollywood gives. Katniss and Rey are encouraging examples. But there are more concerning ones. In particular, the year’s other super huge hit at the US box office, Jurassic World took its heroine on an appropriately prehistoric journey. Through confrontations with dinosaurs, children and Chris Pratt’s macho man she discovers that despite her successful career she was a failure as a woman on account of her lack of procreation. Given that the audience probably didn’t notice she was the lead and that the Pratt centric marketing campaign did nothing to point it out to them, this example probably won’t way too heavily on producer’s minds. But nonetheless it is something to be vigilant for.

The next big step will I suspect be to start casting women in a wider and less clichéd selection of supporting roles. There are signs of this in the Force Awakens. We see a woman playing a menacing commander of the First Order and another mo caps the wizened voice of history. And of Carrie Fisher is now playing not Princess but General Leia. Nonetheless, when it comes to roles like villains, soldiers, mentors, thugs etc choosing men still seems to be the reflexive choice of casting directors. As long as that continues we will see many great female characters submerged in otherwise heavily male casts.

Nonetheless, the Force Awakens is clearly a step forward. It creates space for women both in its lead role and in supporting ones beyond those that would traditionally be given to women. And it allows those characters to be proper characters rather than stand-ins for their gender. I therefore think it is not only a good film but a film that will hopefully do good as well.

 

 

Note: At the risk of stating the obvious, I’m a man writing about the depiction of women. I don’t think that’s something men shouldn’t do – clearly because if I did I wouldn’t have – but it does mean that even more than usual this post is subject to someone coming along with a better arguments.

 

*If we count Oscar Isaacs – who’s Hispanic – as the third lead then even more encouragingly it’s a woman and two people of colour.

Despicable Her

Gone Girl is emphatically not a feminist film

Disclaimer 1: Spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, oh and spoilers.

Disclaimer 2: I’m writing here about the film rather than the book – which I have not read – and fully accept the issues around them may be different.

David Fincher’s new film Gone Girl has been hailed by some a feminist film. I find that first label very surprising indeed because its female lead, Amy Dunne played by Rosamund Pike, is a woman who was described by someone interviewing Flynn as “in some ways a men’s rights activist’s perfect affirmation — she fakes victimization, she fakes rape.”

Now it is often suggested – including by the women who made the statement above – that to focus on this misses the point of Gone Girl. There are two arguments as to why this and I don’t think either of them is convincing.

Flynn has argued that Amy is “not a particularly flattering portrait of women, [but that’s] fine by me. Isn’t it time to acknowledge the ugly side? I’ve grown quite weary of the spunky heroines, brave rape victims, soul-searching fashionistas that stock so many books. I particularly mourn the lack of female villains.”

Which is fine and I agree as far as it goes. Our culture could do with more Cersei Lannisters or Talia Al Ghuls. However, there are plenty of ways to be villainous. Therefore, it really should be quite possible to create a female villain without relying on tropes that reinforce the suspicion of victims of violence.

The second argument is that Amy is a feminist character because her actions are explicable because of the patriarchal world she inhabits. Flynn has argued that: “I don’t write psycho bitches. The psycho bitch is just crazy – she has no motive, and so she’s a dismissible person because of her psycho-bitchiness.” That people seem to agree with her appears to be down to a single passage of the book which is recreated in the films. In it Amy lashes out about Cool Girls:

Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.

Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men — friends, coworkers, strangers — giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much — no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version — maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain.

It’s an impressively punchy piece of writing. But nothing in it nor in the rest of the film makes Amy explicable. Yes, her husband cheats on her with one of his students and is generally a bit of an arse. However, framing him for murder rather than divorcing him seems such an extreme overreaction that – derogatory language aside – “psycho bitch” still seems a pretty apt term.

The impression of her as an inexplicable sadist is added to by how she treats the other men she’s been in a relationship with. We only get the perspective of the man she accused of raping her: that she did it because he resisted being controlled by her. As for the man she kills and blames for her abduction, on paper he’s a stalker who’s using Amy’s need to be ‘dead’ to lever her back into a relationship. However, Neil Patrick Harris’ puppy like performance makes him seem pathetic and that makes Amy’s behaviour hard to empathise with. She ultimately winds up seeming no more relatable than someone like Hannibal Lector. I found it impossible at either a logical or emotional level to connect the ordinary slights, setbacks and humiliations Amy suffers with her extraordinary cruelty.

In fact, I found very little in Gone Girl which could be described as feminist. Sure you can construct a feminist reading if you want to.  But doing so requires looking beyond the broad thrust of the movie. It only works if you home in on the static and not the transmission.

Is the Big Bang Theory sexist?

TBBT_6x03_Penny_and_Amy

The contrast between Amy and Penny has always bothered me but I couldn’t work out if that was me over-analysing things.

would probably argue that there is something in my unease. She’s branded Sheldon’s love interest Amy Farrah Fowlet as one of the 10 most sexist characters on TV:

The conceptualization of Amy’s character could have been awesome. I love the presence of female characters with a science background who can hold their own. As  noted by Michelle Haimoff in 2012, Amy is accomplished but undatable “while Penny, the hot waitress, is the one the male characters lust after.” The science geek stereotype is old. So is the she’s-hot-so-she-must-be-dumb stereotype. And what’s with not giving Penny a last name? Isn’t her character worthy of a full identity?

The lovely thing about creating television is that you can make people whomever you want them to be without real world consequences. Scripts don’t need to follow any rules. It’s pretty lazy to apply gender biases and stereotypes to fictional spaces if those biases and stereotypes aren’t providing alternatives to the status quo. I promise, it is possible to write female characters who have experiences that aren’t based in misogyny.

Charlotte Church is worth listening to, even if you don’t like her music

_64475239_64475238

As neither pop nor cutesy classical are really my thing; Charlotte Church’s career has not made much of an impression on me. While I noticed (and was impressed) by her appearances on HIGNFY  and at the Leveson Inquiry – whose cast lists overlap rather strikingly – but generally I’ve found her pretty ignorable. Had Buzzfeed not done an article on it, I wouldn’t have noticed that she was delivering the John Peel lecture.

However, I’m glad I did. While recent precedent might lead us to doubt the value of musicians discussing sexism in their industry, her lecture was actually rather enlightening. It is striking to hear it spelt out how the sexualisation of female artists is the product of a commercial imperative not a sign of liberation:

When I was 19 or 20, I found myself in this position, being pressured into wearing more and more revealing outfits. And the lines I had spun at me again and again, generally by middle aged men, were: “You look great”; “You have a great body, why not show it off?” Or, “Don’t worry, it’ll look classy. It’ll look artistic.”

I felt deeply uncomfortable about the whole thing, but I was often reminded by record company executives just whose money was being spent. Whilst I can’t defer all blame away from myself, I was barely out of my teenage years and the consequence of this portrayal of me is that I am frequently abused on social media, being called “slut”, “whore”, and a catalogue of other indignities that I’m sure you’re also sadly very familiar with. Now I find it difficult to promote my music in the places where it would be best suited, because of my history.

And Church does a surprisingly good impersonation of a Guardian columnist:

Canadian electronic artist Grimes, whose third record Visions was met with universal acclaim says, “I don’t want to be infantalised because I refuse to be sexualised.”

To my mind, what this industry seems to want of its women increasingly is sex objects that appear childlike. Look at the teddy bears everywhere. The Britney Spears Rolling Stone cover with the Teletubby from 1999. I state again: Lolita.

The terrifying thing is, the target demographic for this type of music is getting younger and younger. Jennifer Lopez seemingly trying to engulf the camera with her vagina on Britain’s Got Talet earlier this year is a mild example of how frequently carnal images creep into the realm of what is deemed OK for kids.

But ultimately it does not need to be like this. Sex can be art. Look at Bjork’s The Patene, a highly sexual and sensual record by a woman entirely in charge of her career and sex. The same can be said about almost every Prince record, and should be. Both are artists, adults and human beings, intelligently addressing a human subject, not exclusively a male one.

And for a final bonus here is her trashing of the repulsive Robin Thicke:

And so, to Blurred Lines, which many in this room have no doubt added to their playlists. The Blurred Lines video, which had the biggest part in jettisoning a song by a mediocre artist into the biggest track of the year, was on YouTube for just over a week before it was taken down and remains on Vimeo without any age restrictions. The indefensible Robin Thicke stated in an interview with GQ that his intention was to do everything that is completely derogatory towards women because he respects them so much.

He continued saying, “People say, ‘Hey, do you think this is degrading to women?’ I’m like, ‘Of course it is. What a pleasure it is to degrade a woman.’”