Thursday, September 29, 2011

One week's evidence of modern anti-feminism

On September 28, 2011, the New York Times ran an article titled “Rape Definition Too Narrow in Federal Statistics, Critics Say.” The story reported “thousands of sexual assaults that occur in the United States every year are not reflected in the federal government’s yearly crime report because the report uses an archaic definition of rape that is far narrower than the definitions used by most police departments.” Namely, the Uniform Crime Report defines rape as “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will.” Critics of this definition say that it “does not take into account sexual-assault cases that involve anal or oral penetration or penetration with an object, cases where the victims were drugged or under the influence of alcohol, or cases with male victims.”

I read this news story shortly after also reading Catherine MacKinnon’s Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (1989). I couldn’t help but juxtapose the news story with an excerpt from that scholarly work: “Women have been excluded from jobs in male-only prisons . . . because they might get raped, the Court taking the viewpoint of the reasonable rapist on women’s employment opportunities. The conditions that create women’s rapability are not seen as susceptible to legal change.”

In what may seem like a non-sequitur – don’t worry, I’ll tie it back in – I also just finished reading the teenage book series the Hunger Games. In the Hunger Games (a futuristic survival story), the protagonist Katniss hunts to feed her family, and she is a skilled fighter. After escape from what can most concisely be termed evil forces, Katniss returns to her village only . . . to agonize over men. In the series’ second novel, when Katniss isn’t debating which man she should marry, she is asking one of her two husband-candidates to validate her beliefs and actions.

Reader, you’re probably thinking: what on Earth do the Uniform Crime Report, a judicial decision prohibiting women from working in prisons, and the Hunger Games have in common? The short answer is, situation theory. When Catherine MacKinnon writes “the sexes are not equally situated in society with respect to their relative differences,” some might argue, “that’s outdated.” Yet consider the diverse evidence above, collected from sources published in 2011, 1989, and 2008. Violence against women is, as of now, still condoned by lax statutory definitions and paternalistic judicial opinions. In our works of fiction -- which should reflect our highest ideals -- female role models for the next generation succeed only when they fill male roles (hunter, fighter) and remain “measured according to correspondence with man, their equality judged by proximity to his measure.” The male-female gender hierarchy manifests both physically and intellectually. It is, though not overt, ubiquitous.

I believe that modern feminism’s most important task is to communicate this basic reality, one that I myself was skeptical of prior to enrolling in this class. For many, it’s easy to dismiss equality as something that we thank our Grandmothers for – as a fait accompli. Other times, "no structural analysis is possible, because everyone is too busy with self-analysis." (Judith Baer, Our Lives Before the Law.) What Feminist Legal Theory has made me see in almost everything that I encounter, from news stories to novels to conversations with friends, is just how entrenched anti-feminist attitudes are, and just how much they impact all women. Feminism hasn’t reached its goals; at best, it's halfway there.

By way of comments I’d welcome examples of books, TV shows, or practices in mainstream culture that you once accepted as normal, but have realized are anti-feminist since taking this class.


Caitlin said...

I don't know if it is even worth mentioning, because it is so blatantly a further example of MacKinnon's theory, but the Twilight series is a perfect example of furthering the situational or dominance theory for young women and girls. (I've thought this for awhile but it came up again as I read MacKinnon's work.)

Bella, the protagonist, pretty much defines her self worth with relation to the men in her life. She cooks and cleans for her father. She goes to school and lives each moment with the anticipation of seeing her beloved Edward. At one point, her mother even comments that Bella seems to move her body and situate herself always in a certain sort of orbit or relation to where Edward stands in the room. Bella realizes she was incomplete before she met Edward. This creates (or more likely reaffirms) the message young women are fed that they aren't whole until a man loves them, and is completely devoted to them.

While Edward desires Bella sexually, he does wait until marriage before sealing the deal, however, I thought it interesting that Bella immediately assumed Edward's last name and became pregnant--learning as she gestated that even if she had never thought about being a mother, she naturally discovered she loved the child and that she had natural maternal feelings.

I could go on. Needless to say, I would love to read MacKinnon's analysis of how situation and dominance theory can be seen so blatantly in the Twilight books.

P.S. I read the books after noticing that the high school girls I counseled at camp were completely absorbed in them, and answering questions such as, "What one character, living or dead, real or fictional, would you like to meet, and why?" with "Edward Cullen." Unfortunately, the book creates so many false ideas of female worth and value that I really think it is doing additional damage to young women than others might argue.

S said...

Lara Croft, Tomb Raider. In 2006, the Guinness Book of World Records recognized Croft as the "Most Successful Human Virtual Game Heroine." (See Is Croft anti-feminist by virtue of the fact she was designed by men? Hunger Games’ Katniss was created by a woman, and yet the heroine’s need to seek affirmation of herself through men goes to the very heart of what feminism seeks to disrupt. Twilight’s Bella… well, in truth, I never once understood Bella to be a heroine. She is weak and passive. Her world revolves around (admittedly attractive) men; from whom she acquires her sense self.

Croft, on the other hand, arguably manifests a greater sense of self absent men than Katniss and, most certainty, Bella. Perhaps this is a byproduct of two things: the medium by which Croft was created, (video games) and men. Video games do not lend themselves to the same story-line creation and development as books do based on the fact that games are limited in their scope. However, when the two Lara Croft films were released, there was plenty of opportunity for the writers to make Croft into a woman that seeks affirmation in men. Did this happen? Nope.

Grant it, there are Croft’s relationships with her father and her occasional male lover in the films. However, I see these relationships distinct from Katniss’s and Bella with their respective men. Croft’s father-daughter relationship is just that: paternal. Her male lovers, are just the "bone" Hollywood believes it needs to throw out to American audiences so they are satisfied in their move-going experience. Remember: sex sells. Also, since men were those responsible for creating Croft’s most generous (by traditional American notions of attractive) figure, I firmly believe that Croft’s male lovers were included to satisfy the fantasies of the millions of male gamers in the world that want Croft.

Why is it that a female character designed by men appears to be more in line with the tenets of feminism than female characters created by women? Is it because males are divorced from the gendered notions women are raised with, and therefore divorced from its baggage that manifests unconsciously in books and other mediums in the form of women seeking affirmation in men (i.e. Katniss and Bella)? Or is Croft simply the male epitome of a hero, only in the most pleasing form to look at: the generously crafted Croft? Gammers do spend a lot of "man-hours" in front of their computers playing Tomb Raider.

Ringo1985 said...

At the risk of sounding cliche, I would like to use this comment to discuss the sexist ideals that permeate and overwhelm the one childhood fantasy world we are all likely to be familiar with-the world of Walt Disney. Although some of the Disney characters predate any significant feministic discourse, the fact that we see the same dominant plot interwoven throughout every single Disney reminds us that feminism still has a long way to go.

We can start with Snow White, the fairytale that precedes the entrance of mainstream feminism in the national conscious. Since this movie was made in the 1930s, I shall simply use this movie as a frame of reference to show the progress that Disney has NOT made with respect to neutralizing gender roles.

In Snow White, the damsel in distress is cast out into the woods by her evil stepmother. This evil stepmother, besieged by her jealousy of Snow White, constantly consults a mirror and asks: "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?" Throughout the movie, Snow White repeatedly encounters circumstances where she takes on the traditional domesticated role. When she finds refuge in the home of the Seven Dwarfs, Snow White becomes the sole caretaker of these men. As if that wasn't enough, before Snow White stepped in to clean up the house, the Dwarfs' home was an utter mess, and in dire need of the touch of a woman (ie: Snow White.) Lastly, Snow White comforts herself with the age old adage/song "Someday my prince will come." Snow White needs a prince to rescue her from her strife, and awaken her from her deathly slumber. In fact, Snow White is unable to live in peace until her prince has arrived and saved her.

One would expect this theme, the lost princess without a mother and a father who doesn't understand/care about her, would transform and adapt with time. Sure, there are fairytales that don't need to change with gender norms for the sheer fact that these are children's stories designed to play out in an imaginary world. However, when Disney, a company that has transcended its boundaries from an entertainment industry to a cultural icon, bombards young girls with images such as Snow White, Cinderella, Ariel, Belle, and Jasmine (to name a few), young children in their formative years probably don't get the memo that no one has breast like Ariel or the bodily proportions of Jasmine. These skewed body images, combined with the idea of a "prince charming", serve to reinforce the image in young girls that they need their bodies and men to look and act a certain way.

Fast forward to 1989 when the Little Mermaid was released. I remember being awe struck with her vibrant red hair and fabulous chest. In fact, I had Little Mermaid bed sheets with Ariel, her boobs, and Prince Eric, all over them. My mother was probably somewhat aware of the effects this could have on me in the future- as a child of the 1960s, my mother was no stranger to progressive gender politics. However, I was allowed to watch Disney movies galore. Never once did I even think about the high expectations Disney sets for children until I reached high school.

Obviously, one cannot simply blame Disney for the distorted images they have inundated children with for years. The role of the princess and the damsel in distress fulfill a role in our society-if they didn't, Disney wouldn't be profiting from their representation. Fortunately, Disney has made some strides towards a more representative demographic, although this has largely been geared towards racial consciousness (ie: Arab Jasmin, African American "Princess and the Frog.") But, it wouldn't hurt Disney to be more creative with their characters and challenge the status quo a little, even if in a subtle matter. I'm not suggesting that Disney have two princes marry, or allow Nala and Simba to decide to abort their lion cub. But I think that minor advances can be made, and who else better to be delegated this task than Disney?

Girl Talk said...

The previous commenters have discussed the first examples that come to mind of books/movies that I now realize are pretty anti-feminist, so I would like to focus on a future Pixar movie that has generated a lot of hub-bub because it is the first one of their movies that features a "strong female lead." The film is called "Brave" and it comes out in June. It features a "feisty tomboy heroine," who interestingly is named Princess Merida. She's been described as an "athletic feminist princess." What about her is feminist? That she's a princess who refuses to stay in the castle waiting for marriage suitors? I just find it interesting that the media is making such a big deal over the fact that there is a female lead character.