The Fem Spot

Oh, the sexist things we say…

Posted in News, Pop Culture by femspotter on March 26, 2011

March 26, 2011

“What would you rather do: make 80 cents on the dollar or have your head cut off?”

Um, those are my only choices? (If that’s true, I’ll cut my own head off.) Quite obviously, I’d rather…make 100 cents on the dollar and keep my head, Bill Maher. Yes, the liberal commentator – in making his morally relativistic point that “degree matters” in the maltreatment of women – posed that question to talk show host Tavis Smiley on Maher’s Feb. 18 “Real Time.” Why? Apparently, according to Maher, it’s important to understand the difference between United States sexism and Muslim-world sexism. We non-Muslim Americans should be patting ourselves on our backs for only hating women…a little.

Smiley replied that sexism isn’t relative: “It’s either right or it’s wrong. It’s either acceptable or it’s unacceptable.” Exactly! Thank you! And Bill Maher was arguing that sexism on the lesser end of the spectrum – such as paying women less money than men get for equal work – is acceptable because it’s not as bad as violence (which we have plenty of in the U.S., by the way). No. NO, NO, NO, NO, NO! He also said that the statement that women are being maltreated in the U.S. is “bull shit.”

And in case you think Maher’s sexism begins and ends with women, think again. He also said a mouthful about how men are universally uncivilized by default: “Civilization begins with civilizing the men. The women are sort of already there.” What?! Been to a sorority hazing lately, Bill? Women are often equally less civilized than what would be desired. Not only can we be equally productive, we can also be equally destructive.

Smiley had the last laugh, however. Maher tried to diss Smiley’s liberalism by saying, “When you tolerate intolerance, you’re not really being a liberal.” (That should be embroidered on a pillow.) But, Bill, you’re the one tolerating sexism – or sexist intolerance: “I mean, in this country, we treat women badly because they don’t get equal pay, or someone calls you ‘sugar tits,’ or something like that.” I guess he doesn’t read past front page headlines. (To be fair to Maher, rape stories usually are buried on page 10.) 

***

***

“One of the things that is troubling is that people see a Natalie Portman or some other Hollywood starlet who boasts of, ‘Hey look, we’re having children. We’re not married, but we’re having these children, and they’re doing just fine.’ But there aren’t really a lot of single moms out there who are making millions of dollars every year for being in a movie. And I think it gives a distorted image that yes, not everybody hires nannies, and caretakers, and nurses. Most single moms are very poor, uneducated, can’t get a job, and if it weren’t for government assistance, their kids would be starving to death and never have health care. And that’s the story that we’re not seeing, and it’s unfortunate that we glorify and glamorize the idea of out of children wedlock.”

Criticizing Portman for unwed motherhood when her real crime is those earings?! (Kidding.)

We’ll get to sexism in a moment, but I’d first like to point out the Republican double standard at work in this Mike Huckabee quote from a radio interview with Michael Medved earlier this month: Republicans champion the likes of Bristol Palin completing her out-of-wedlock pregnancy before completing her high school matriculation, but Natalie Portman – a Harvard University graduate, is the enemy? Now, I would never claim that an Ivy Leaguer is more prepared to successfully handle pregnancy and motherhood than any other woman…I leave that to the conservatives. That is what Huckabee was saying: “most single moms are very poor, uneducated, can’t get a job…” But, married or otherwise, Portman does not consider herself single. So, whether she hires a nanny or not, she and the father of their child purport to be united as parents…ergo, she will not be poor or jobless because she has the help of a supportive partner and thus time enough to work outside the home. And Mikey, single mothers have a job: it’s called “raising a child.” The pay is shit, but it’s nonetheless a JOB!!!

Bristol Palin – of the pantheon of young women fighting the temptation to choose to terminate their pregnancies so they can get on with their lives unfettered (let me add that this is – quite obviously – a choice that plagues ONLY women) – is somehow heroic to Republicans. But here’s what Palin and Portman have in common: money. Neither is married, but neither is poor. So if there’s glamorizing going on, it’s happening in both places. Not all single mothers are poor, just as not all married mothers aren’t. In fact, as of 1993, only about 40% of the women receiving food stamps in the U.S. had never been married, and a similar portion were currently married, according to a report by the Census Bureau. Ergo, matrimony does not an autonomous mother guarantee. It’s sexist to assume that only the presence of a man makes for a financially stable family.

The real sexism at work here, however, is making this statement targeted at any woman…at all. That’s because it automatically implies that pregnancy is the fault of women and women alone. The last time I checked, pregnancy results from sex/fertilization between lady AND man bits. The instructions that Huckabee and other anti-Choicers (thanks to my girlfriend L***** for encouraging my use of this term) – many of them Democrats – are sending are mixed: don’t have children out-of-wedlock, but don’t terminate your pregnancies either…and don’t come to us for help to feed your unwanted babies once you do as we say (not as we do, sometimes). We won’t let you choose, but we won’t support your forced hand either.

Sure, they’d love us all to abstain from sex…but that’s not really plausible in a rape culture, and one in which we’re constantly bombarded by both temptation (sex sells) and the message that sex is bad for us or morally wrong (don’t teenagers do everything they’re told not to do?). Once there’s a pregnancy and the abstain message is no longer valid, the completion of the pregnancy is a must…which, let’s face it, is often a problem for women alone. I mean, teenage girls lose their scholarships, jobs, families, etc. over pregnancy; yet, in most cases, all a teenage boy need do is deny he’s the sperm (I’d write “father” but that’s really too generous a designation for one who had sex…that one time…and then conveniently “forgot” about it). Huckabee should be commending Natalie Portman’s partner, Benjamin Millepied. He’s there. He’s responsible. He may not yet be married; but he will be a father. Marriage is etched with ink on a piece of paper; parenthood is etched with blood on our souls.

***

“It’s just destroyed our community. These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives.”

Why is it that, whenever there’s an alleged gang rape (as in the November 2010 incident in Cleveland, Texas detailed in this March 8  New York Times article) , people express concern for the accused? True, the accused are not always guilty; and the victim(s) is not always telling the truth. But wouldn’t it be better to reserve comments such as this – spoken by Sheila Harrison, 48, a hospital worker – until the verdict is in. Assuming the accuser is lying is just as bad as assuming the accused are guilty, is it not? 

The fuss over victim-blaming in the aforementioned article reached newsworthy status – and hopefully brought attention to the alleged rape – after Change.org set up a petition to shame the New York Times into apologizing for its story. The specific language in question is as follows:

Residents in the neighborhood where the abandoned trailer stands — known as the Quarters — said the victim had been visiting various friends there for months. They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said.

I didn’t sign the petition. I think this proves victim-blaming – a hot topic in the feminist blogosphere – on the part of residents but not on the part of the reporter. (I myself have been accused of victim-blaming for admitting to a plan to encourage my daughter to avoid drinking from open containers at frat parties in college. I don’t agree with this reaction because I think preventative measures taken to avoid possible sexual assault are appropriate, though certainly not safety guarantees. Unfortunately, if I tell my daughter not to drink from open containers, but then she does anyway…and then she’s raped; it sounds like I should be saying “Well, I told you not to drink from open containers…so it’s your fault you were raped.” It’s never the victim’s vault. This is a tricky situation. I hope we can evolve to be a culture in which women, and some men, don’t have to curb their own behavior to avoid becoming rape victims.)

I agree with Arthur S. Brisbane and his New York Times’ follow-up to the reaction to its earlier article:

My assessment is that the outrage is understandable. The story dealt with a hideous crime but addressed concerns about the ruined lives of the perpetrators without acknowledging the obvious: concern for the victim.

While the story appeared to focus on the community’s reaction to the crime, it was not enough to simply report that the community is principally concerned about the boys and men involved – as this story seems to do. If indeed that is the only sentiment to be found in this community – and I find that very hard to believe – it becomes important to report on that as well by seeking out voices of professional authorities or dissenting community members who will at least address, and not ignore, the plight of the young girl involved.

It should have struck the writer, and subsequently his editor, that the story “lacked balance.” But prior to that, it should have been obvious to Cleveland community members that rape is not justifiable, EVER! – and certainly not in cases where an 11 year-old girl wears make-up.

Again, reserve your judgement. It’s okay to express sadness for all involved, but not at the expense of the accuser.

Hmmmmm…………..

Up next, from comedian Bill Maher:

“What would you rather do: be gang-raped at age 11, or have your head cut off?”

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Fem’s “Top Ten” (English language narrative feature films of 2009)

Posted in Film and Television by femspotter on January 3, 2010

January 3, 2010

Last year, 2009, was a great year for women’s issues in English language cinema. Though mainstream critics may have missed the boat on most of them, I hereby take it upon myself to rate 10 films on two scales: 1. relevance to contemporary feminism and 2. cinematic achievement. Each scale allows me to designate films 1 – 10 and then add the two numbers together for a final total, which determines placement on the list. With this system in play, I present a “Top Ten” ranking that includes fair to outstanding movies that American audiences witnessed in 2009. An asterisk (*) denotes a film that would appear on a “Top Ten” list based solely on criterion 2.  I’d like to point out that I am not a real film critic – as in, even though I’ve studied film, nobody pays me to see and write about movies, for shame! – so I’ve seen movies on my budget. If I’ve missed any that you think belong here, let me know and I’ll look for them on DVD or consider amending the list.

Keep an open mind and enjoy!

10.  The Proposal (1:5, 2:2 = 7)

Crazy am I? I did not thoroughly enjoy this silly film when I sat through it with two new girlfriends last spring; however, I did stop and think about something the moment the film’s protagonist (Sandra Bullock) admits to crying in the bathroom after a messy, public argument with a subordinate colleague. That sounded to me like something I might have done. To avoid showing any signs of weakness, I would have hightailed it to the ladies’ room where I’d be free to be…well, a lady. Let’s face it: sometimes women do need a good cry. Crying relieves tension and stress and helps to clear emotions from our minds so that we can be more like…well, men. Bullock’s character is no exception. She’s a woman trying to adapt to a “male model of careerism,” the model that predates the Second Wave of Feminism. But the question that I pondered during the latter half of this movie, chuckling here or there, I admit: why are women adapting to male careerism rather than working to make the workplace adapt to us?

This isn’t always the case, at least not in the United States. We have achieved maternity leave and pay. In some if not most cases, we’ve worked toward equality of treatment and pay on the job. But that still leaves the crying: every working girl knows that she can’t cry at work either because she once did (guilty!) and then found herself subsequently ostracized for it, or because she’s seen it happen to somebody else.

The bathroom is for doing things we hide from public view and crying is something that we believe belongs out of sight and out of mind. But if you’re used to work bathrooms with rusty sinks, musty smells and nowhere but the toilet to relax, why should your temporary moment of emotional relief be sequestered to a 3 by 5-foot area that faces a sign reading “If you sprinkle when you tinkle…”? Some offices now have nap rooms. Perhaps they should also have cry rooms.

9.  Observe and Report (1:6, 2:2 = 8)

Moderately humorous at times, but overall a painful examination of naked male insecurity, I point to this film solely for the “date rape” dilemma that ensued following its release into theaters. (For clarity, I don’t think this instance counts as a date rape – which is an ambiguity intended by the filmmakers, I suppose – because the man involved is clearly not able to distinguish that the woman is under the influence of drugs and alcohol and not consenting to their sex for two reasons: 1. he’s deranged and 2. she yells, “Why are you stopping, motherfucker?!” in the middle of it all. It’s a disgusting scene nonetheless and certainly NOT funny.) Here’s the setup: a woman agrees to go on a date with a man she barely knows and while having dinner consumes much alcohol and some of his prescription anxiety medication, of her own volition. She subsequently vomits and he, reacting to this ugly display, affectionately kisses her and tells her he accepts her just as she is. Cut to: he’s humping her while she’s passed out, he pauses when there’s no reaction, she awakens and insists he keep going and…the scene ends. Yuck!

Do I detesteth too much? I think not. While this scene would be more compelling as a date rape admonition with one of two additional factors – he’s cognisant that she’s in no condition to give consent or she tries to fight him off – it still serves to warn viewers against the dangers of abusing drugs and alcohol at all, let alone in close proximity to somebody you don’t know well enough to trust with your safety. Take heed, ladies. Avoid this scenario at all costs. We have to try and protect ourselves from idiotic men and would-be rapists. We owe ourselves that much and more.

On the one hand, I recommend women see this film/scene for its sobering ugliness; but on the other hand, I think these filmmakers should be forced to clean toilets with toothbrushes for trivializing an issue that IS a serious problem in the U.S. AND EVERYWHERE ELSE!

8. Away We Go (1:5, 2:5 = 10)

Maya Rudolph, John Krasinski and Maggie Gyllenhaal in Away We Go

This is a film about parenthood and more specifically, motherhood. It is primarily a woman’s story and one that involves the searching for home and identity before the birth of one’s child. As seen through the eyes of its unconventional lead (Saturday Night Live alum Maya Rudolph – charming!), existing mothers are either disinterested in their children, detached from reality, obsessive-compulsive or long-suffering. She doesn’t want to be any of these mothers and searches for a way to balance self and motherhood. This is a must-see for any woman grappling with the idea of who we women become as we become mothers and what are the most important things we take with us as components of our identities as we travel through life.

7. Sunshine Cleaning (1:7, 2:5 = 12)

For this touching odyssey of two underachieving sisters going into business for themselves, filmmakers interviewed two real-life women business owners about the realities of crime scene cleanup…and those women confirm that Sunshine Cleaning got it just right. The biggest battle women face in life is perhaps the one we face when looking at ourselves, honestly, and accounting for our choices or lack thereof. Does the former cheerleader turned single mom and maid (Amy Adams) want to rely on the approval of a married man, her lover, as the sole support for her fragile ego? Does her pothead, deadbeat sister (Emily Blunt) want to always cower in the shadow of their dead mother? No and no. And the way out is to stand up tall, dig their heals in and make lemonade from some very sour lemons.

True, crime scene cleanup is not the most glamorous profession – in fact, it may be the least glamorous profession there is. But this film reminds us feminists that good business practices and a strong work ethic can help us distinguish ourselves as conquerors of our American Capitalist economy. Remember to support women owned and operated businesses whenever possible to help empower the women in your immediate locale.

6.  *Inglourious Basterds (1:5, 2:8  = 13)

Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to create an epic poem of a movie about Nazi Germany. I loved nearly every moment of this witty, at times intentionally campy and spirited tribute to…well, itself: epic cinema! While female director Kathryn Bigelow turned out a more conventional war narrative in 2009 that has people talking “Best Director” Oscar for the first woman ever (The Hurt Locker),  it is the unconventional spirit of this war narrative that forces me to think about the way our culture glorifies and skews violence. And speaking of unconventionality, get a load of the women in Inglourious Basterds: they are forces to be reckoned with! At once full of sly vengeance and a commitment to ending violence, these women in disguise (adeptly portrayed by Melanie Laurent and Diane Kruger) are essential players in a cruel and gratuitous game, in much the same way their warrior predecessors like Boudica and Joan of Arc were before them. In short: never underestimate a woman’s ability to fight for a (noble) cause.

Melanie Laurent in Inglourious Basterds

5.  *Avatar (1:6, 2:8 = 14)

Also on the subject of women and the war/peace effort, this bold and visually hypnotic fairytale focuses on a fictional alien goddess-worshiping, spiritually matriarchal culture where men and women fight, hunt, harvest and pray together as equals. It’s beautiful! And as for the human world that Director James Cameron presents: women may not be calling all the shots there, but they do harness their own moral agency in science and diplomacy.

This trend of exploring female agency is not new for Cameron, who brought us the adventurous heroics of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor in The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s Lindsey Brigman in The Abyss (1989), and Jamie Lee Curis’ Helen Tasker in True Lies (1994). In fact, when I think of these movies, I don’t think of Arnold Schwarzenegger saying “I’ll be back;” in fact, I don’t think of men at all. I think of Hamilton doing pull-ups, Mastrantonio volunteering to drown in an aquatic vessel filling with freezing water, and Curtis doing a wacky strip tease thinking she’s a spy. These are fantasies I enjoy participating in: I’d love to save the world, save the man I love or at least spend 24 hours thinking I’m clever enough to master international espionage. And in real life, I take this fantasy, this agency, and apply it to the things I can change: the lives of the people I know and love. Kudos to Cameron for injecting feminism into the action film genre that’s generally devoid of interesting women.

As for female agency in Avatar, let us not forget that Sigourney Weaver’s Dr. Grace Augustine and Michelle Rodriguez’s Trudy Chacon say “No” to the carnage of this alien culture and fight to preserve it. And on the side of the Na ‘vi, Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri adopts a foreign soldier and teaches him to respect life rather than destroy it. And he, in turn, respects her life and her choices. She tells him he can choose a woman as a lifelong mate, and he responds, “But she must also choose me.” If only this were the way all men looked at women’s choices…

4. *Bright Star (1:6 2:9 = 15)

Edie Martin and Abbie Cornish in Bright Star

Of course, not every film can be a landmark feminist achievement like Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993). But Campion has done again and again what so few filmmakers can: understand and visualize the female condition. Bright Star is no exception. Rather than telling a straightforward narrative of revered poet John Keats, Campion tells the story – or rather maps the emotional landscape – of Keats’ great love, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish in a breathtaking performance). This isn’t your typical love story; this is instead a flight of fancy wherein a passionate girl designs and wears elaborate fashions that depict her sense of self, and secludes butterflies in her bedroom, where she daydreams and cries and pines the days away. What teenage girl didn’t endure this experience…or what felt like this experience? And Keats almost becomes irrelevant…he might as well be David Bowie (to me) or Justin Timberlake (to somebody else), etc. At once, Bright Star is a romance AND an exclusive journey into the soul of a prurient teenage girl. Nobody visualizes female sexuality like Campion!

3. *Julie & Julia (1:10, 2:7 = 17)

Further proof that he needs to retire, Roger Ebert chastised the characterizations of the husbands of Jule Powell and Julia Child in his review of this film.  “Both husbands are, frankly, a little boring,” he wrote. “They’ve been assigned their supporting roles in their marriages and are reluctant to question the singlemindedness of their wives…if the men had been portrayed as more high-spirited, (the film) might have taken on intriguing dimensions.”

Well, Mr. Ebert, I (respectfully) disagree with you on several points. The husbands aren’t boring; they’re just NOT in a movie ABOUT THEM. Quelle suprise! This is a movie, as the title clearly states, about Julie and Julia. This is a movie about women finding their identities from what you so patronizingly refer to as their “singlemindedness.” And yet, to Director Nora Ephron’s credit, I do know what each husband does for a living and what he is passionate about. She didn’t even have to give us that. We female film audiences have sat through many a good movie with poorly (under)written female characters. We’re entitled to a movie about real women now and again, don’t you agree?

And you can’t ask for a better, more sensitive, more nuanced portrayal of a supportive husband than that given by the great Stanley Tucci as Diplomat Paul Child! I hope he gets the Oscar. So there: the Oscar winner I’d like to see come out of this movie is one of your “boring” husbands!

Julie & Julia is about two women who discover their strengths and generate feelings of self-worth, ironically, in the kitchen. Julia Child can’t have children – that is her great sadness – but she leaves her mark on us in other ways. We love her joy, her bliss: her loves of food, wine and sex! And Julie Powell’s sadness comes from feeling like she’s a 30-year-old failure. “Will I be a writer?” she asks herself. “You are a writer.”

Just because nobody pays me for this blog, doesn’t mean I’m not a writer. I am a writer. This is the identity I create for myself.

2.  *Precious (1:10, 2:8 = 18)

The very fact that Director Lee Daniels had to go outside of traditional casting methods to find the right actress (Gabby Sidibe, a bright, shining beacon of realism) to portray a morbidly obese black teenager, pregnant with her own father’s second child, goes to show you that Hollywood has it all backwards when it comes to women. Not only could I not get enough of peering into Sidibe’s stunning yet stoic face, but I left the theater wishing there was another movie playing that could move me in the same way: force me to look at real women squarely in the eyes and accept us. For that’s what Clareece ‘Precious’ Jones does: she goes from looking in a mirror and seeing a white, skinny, conventionally beautiful teenager (her fantasy self) to looking in the mirror and seeing a strong, black, finally literate teenager (her real self). This film took my breath away!

The film also demonstrates how misogyny and racism often work hand in hand to hurt women. There are truths about the black, Harlem culture revealed in this story and the way the women therein are taught to (de)value themselves (i.e. the number of children you have denotes self-worth, there’s no possibility for survival/advancement beyond the welfare office, etc.) that form the backbone for a formidable thesis: illiteracy, poverty and self-hatred form a cultural cycle that is nearly impossible to break. Just look at the shocking, albeit beautiful, posters for the film:

The first image shows how the sexual identity of Precious has fallen prey to a violent man, her own father – as well as her own jealous mother. The second image invokes thoughts of pre-Civil War southern (U.S.) black domesticity. And finally, the third image sets us, the viewers, free. Precious will grow; she will change; she will fly. And we get to go on this journey with her. (Note: Precious is the film adaptation of the novel Push by Sapphire, which may be worth reading for additional thematic material not found in the film.)

1.  *Coraline (1:10, 2:9 = 19)

When I was a girl, I was sometimes unhappy. I was not unlike Coraline, but it wasn’t just my name that people misunderstood: it was my frustration at being born with a perception that didn’t match those in my immediate locale. That’s why, when I went to see Coraline in theaters last February, I wept like a baby when a little girl, not unlike me, crossed into a (dream) world where women are as beautiful as they imagine themselves to be and parents seem interested in the life of their child, only to find out that in order to stay in this fantasy place, she has to sew buttons over her eyes. In other words, she has to blind herself to the fantasy in order to live it. There’s nothing like showing somebody a wonderful world of options and then taking all options away except one! That’s cruel and unusual punishment.

Coraline is adapted from a novella for youth by Neil Gaiman, but much of the visual artistry is the brain child of the filmmakers who rendered stop-motion animation flawlessly to create a female-identified real world and a female-identified, even vaginal, alternate universe. In the former, Coraline and her parents rent an apartment in a grand, pink Victorian house. There’s a black cat (a pussycat) always watching her, two old ladies, hard of hearing, living in the basement, a talkative boy whom Coraline detests, and a circus performer with a collection of mice living in the attic.  These creatures are present in the alternate world but, like Coraline’s father, the men are rendered dumb, even absent, while the women reach their former glory as vivacious Vaudevillian starlets and the mother, “the Belle Dame,” rules with an iron fist.

You're a long way from home, Coraline Jones.

You're a long way from home, Coraline Jones.

At first Coraline is tempted to travel the vaginal tunnel to eat the tasty food prepared by her “other mother,” to wander the ovarian gardens with her “other father” who gives her the time of day… But once the buttons come out, she knows something is wrong and she decides that disinterested parents and gray clothes are better than a fate of self-induced blindness, when one can’t see the things one wishes were true when they ARE true and right before one’s eyes.

This story hit me like a ton of bricks. What we women want are choices. What we NEED are choices. Coraline represents what girls have historically suffered: knowing there’s more to life than what they’re offered, but feeling powerless to achieve the more. Coraline is the reason we founded feminism and she’s the reason why feminist empowerment, the agency to find and seize our choices, is the most important thing that we can inspire in our daughters and the women we know who aren’t already empowered to choose the things they want in life.

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