Two excellent posts came across my dash in the last week, breaking through the dominant discourses of the things we take as normal in our everyday lives, and boldly forcing us to realize just how artificial, how inappropriate and even disturbing those norms are.
*First, the subject of how women are described in obituaries & in other news reports. Numerous blog posts, forum discussions, and even full monographs have pointed out that all too often, obituaries and other descriptions of women in the news media describe an individual by her identity as a daughter, a wife, a mother, a homemaker, describing her cooking, her hospitality, her feminine hobbies, and the like, or even devoting more space to describing the career and societal contributions of her husband or father, rather than her own. By contrast, a man’s obituary generally emphasizes his career, his political activity, or contributions to knowledge. And yet, we read these obituaries, biographies, and the like, and a great many of us, I would wager, never really gave it a second thought.
Misandrist Obituaries by Kathleen Cooper pokes fun at the whole thing, but with a very serious underlying message, displaying boldly, by example, what no description about the problem could ever do as sharply.
Clementine Churchill’s husband, Winston, son of the famous American socialite Jennie Jerome, has died at 91. Sir Winston was an accomplished amateur painter and famous for his tea-cakes.
Rosalind Franklin’s lab partner, James Watson, has passed away at 98. For many years a scientist, his true calling was home cooking and he was said to make a wonderful macaroni and cheese casserole.
Incidentally, though not of direct relevance to this blog post, did you know that Marie Curie’s papers are still radioactive today, 100 years later? I had no idea.
Seeing these twisted obituaries, does it not become so much more obvious the bias inherent in how we characterize and describe women in media and in history? It’s one thing to simply say “women should be described as individuals in their own right, and acknowledged for their own individual careers and contributions, and not described or known chiefly for who their husband or father was,” but, to see it played out in this way is, I think, wonderfully stark, clear, and effective.
*Second, scantily-clad babes in video games. If you’ve never understood why people might find Lara Croft, or the beach babes of Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball, disturbing, or, if you think you kind of get it intellectually, but just don’t get that gut reaction against it, maybe this image by DeviantArt artist Ulysses0302, or the expanded series of images of “Larry Croft” seen here on Tumblr will help you:
This goes back to my post almost exactly two years ago on “Gratuitous Sexiness in Comics.” The Hawkeye Initiative has become very popular for its satirization of the absurd poses women are drawn in in comics. It does this showing the male hero Hawkeye in those poses and therefore showing how ridiculous these poses are. Well, I apologize to rag on the Hawkeye Initiative again, but you’re putting a man in women’s poses to show how ridiculous those poses are for women? Seems a bit too roundabout and diluted. Having a male looking or acting feminine is enough of an absurdity to begin with (within sexist normative gender discourses), that it doesn’t really properly highlight the absurdity of the females’ poses for females, but only highlights how absurd they are for males. Of course it looks ridiculous for a man to be in a female pose – he’s not a woman, after all!
Which is why I think that something like “Larry Croft,” which breaks out of the “male fantasy” mode entirely, and shows what a video game character might look like if games were truly, thoroughly, created from the approach of a straight female sexual fantasy, or, a gay male fantasy, is so much more effective. Women who read comics and play video games are engaging with media created (often) within a discourse of male fantasies. And I, like most men, on the surface of the thing, didn’t really appreciate why these images should be so disturbing or disgusting to so many women. Sure, they’re sexualized, but, whatever, right? Wrong. These images of an imagined alternate universe Tomb Raider, starring Larry Croft, show us boldly, directly, explicitly, what hypersexualization looks like when it’s on the other foot, and for me at least, it’s rather effective at eliciting that gut response, and helping me realize even more fully than before, just how artificial, unnecessary, excessive, and disgusting hypersexualization is in so much of our popular media.
Finally, there’s this lengthy post from the Feminist Current, entitled “Feminists are Not Responsible for Educating Men.
I have tried many times to respond to this, writing and then deleting many drafts, and I really don’t know what to say. This is very much something I’m still struggling with, struggling to figure out what to think, how to believe about it, and I’m sure that no matter what I say, I’ll get some angry feedback. Still, here’s an attempt to say just a little about one side, one aspect, of this very delicate issue.
When you learn something, when you discover or realize something, does it become your obligation to tell everyone else about it? Certainly not. If I sit in my room, and spend the day not explaining to someone else about Eurocentrism, Orientalism, and imperialism, let’s say, that’s not a moral failing on my part. And, likewise, if a feminist spends his or her day doing anything other than devoting all his or her time to explaining feminism to others, that’s not a moral failing on their part. That’s not a failure of that person to live up to their obligations or responsibilities.
But, if I go around yelling at people for their arrogance in daring to not know about the plight of the Okinawan people, or about the illegal takeover of Hawaii, is that right? Is that appropriate behavior on my part? “Hey, I just read this article, and learned about a terrible wrong in the world. How dare you to have not read it already?”
So, are we each of us obliged to seek for ourselves to educate ourselves about various issues (including feminism), that is to say, are we obliged to not sit passively in our ignorance, expecting others to educate us? Absolutely. But, one of the most fundamental concepts in feminism, or indeed in (anti-)Orientalism, Eurocentrism, racism, post-colonialism, whathaveyou, is the power of discourse to normalize socially-constructed and artificially imposed ideas – the power of discourse to make us think that all sorts of things in our society are normal, are natural, are automatically just the way it is, and the power of discourse to hide from us that these are assumptions which can be or should be questioned. Michel Foucault, Antonio Gramsci, any of these people will tell you, it’s not so easy to simply pull the scales down from off your own eyes, to pull the wool from before your own eyes. You need to question assumptions. But before that, you need to learn that you need to question your assumptions – and this is not something that is taught in our high schools, in our public education system. It is something that, I think, I hope, maybe, is starting to become more widespread in required courses in undergrad, but it is something that I, personally, was never really exposed to at all until graduate school, and so angry as I may be that the vast majority of people on the street know nothing about questioning their ethnocentric attitudes, I don’t exactly blame them.
So, my very sincere thanks to Kathleen Cooper at The Toast, to the blogger behind Video Games Made Me Gay on Tumblr, and Ulysses0302 at DeviantArt, for these great resources boldly breaking the mold and helping viewers/readers realize the artificiality and the assumptions inherent in what we might otherwise take for normal.