Romance and Representation in “Insurgent”

Ah! Summertime! The time when the school semester is over and a person gets to actually choose what books they read. On my list for summer 2014 is the “Divergent” trilogy and I just recently finished the second in the series, Insurgent. (For the record, I haven’t read any of Allegiant nor have I seen the film adaptation of Divergent).

The “Divergent” trilogy sits amongst a collection of young adult science fiction novels (like “The Hunger Games” and “The Mortal Instruments,” for example) that recognizes the importance (and marketability) of young female heroines. However, on the feminist blogosphere at least, fan-girling over the likes of Tris (“Divergent”) and Katniss (“The Hunger Games”) hasn’t come without careful analysis of what’s missing from these series. While the predominately male-dominated world of science fiction has made space for these ladies, we are a still a far way off anything resembling fair representation. Namely, Tris and Katniss are able-bodied, cisgendered, straight, and white (whiteness is debatable for Katniss, but the movie adaptation portrays her as so). Max Thorton from Bitch Flicks points out that

“Just because straight white pretty cis girls are beginning to be represented in specific (or rather, in one specific niche that is still derided in male-dominated geek culture), we can’t assume that this means the trend will continue in the right direction without some very real, tireless, and vocal work on the part of us consumers.”

 Badass lady heroines like Katniss and Tris are absolutely a step in the right direction. But until we are also seeing non-white, dis/differently-abled, trans*, and queer girls kicking ass on screen, we still have a long way to go. (More on this here, here, and here).

(Note: my mom read this and immediately thought of Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy.” Larsson’s books aren’t really young adult oriented and they’re definitely not science fiction but Lisbeth is such a fantastic queer ((and potentially dis/different-abled)) heroine that I couldn’t not mention her here!)

Maybe that’s one of my favourite things about series like “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent.” I can love them so much while simultaneously critiquing them and using them as a starting point for broader conversations about popular culture. One topic that I’ve been increasingly interested in while reading both Divergent and Insurgent is the development of Tris’ relationship with the story’s central love interest – Four. 

Tris and Four’s relationship changed a lot between Divergent and Insurgent. In her review of the film, Bitch Flicks’ Amanda Rodriguez notes that the main character, Tris, 

“gets rescued a lot, mostly by her love interest, Four… This made me roll my eyes a lot because I didn’t pay $10 to watch a young woman lead be so dependent on a dude for her survival.”

I’ll admit that this is a frustrating element of the first book and I expect that the movie simplified the damsel-in-distress trope even more for the benefit of Hollywood.

However, all of that changes in Insurgent. Firstly, the theme of “rescuing” stood out in the novel for other reasons. The most important rescue in the book happens when Tris’ nemesis, Peter, rescues her from certain death. Despite their personal hatred for each other, Peter saves Tris in order to pay the debt he owed her for saving his life earlier in the book. This stands out as far more thematically important (to me, at least) than any lifesaving being done between Tris and Four.

Secondly, the resolution of the story’s central conflict depends on Tris going against Four’s wishes and undermining his authority as a community leader. This allows Tris to emerge as a political actor in her own right, separate from Four and many of the other characters. Not to mention, it is her best friend, Christina, with whom Tris ends up saving the day which equals a lot of awesome girl power.

What I liked most about the way Roth developed Tris’ decision to undermine Four was how explicitly she allows the reader to see Four attempting to control Tris, and Tris directly defying that control. More than once, Tris is determined to put herself in harm’s way for the good of her allies and Four tries to deter her through guilt. He uses their relationship as a means of control by telling her that “if you do that again, you and I are done.” (page 260) Eventually, he even puts the blame for himself being in danger on her by saying, “You die, I die too… I asked you not to do this. You made your decision. These are the repercussions.” (page 338)

It wasn’t a side of Four that I was a huge fan of. But what I did appreciate was the way that Tris ultimately responds. She calls him on using the fate of their relationship as a way to control her at the end of the novel:

“You tell me you love me, you trust me, you think I’m more perceptive than the average person. And the first second that belief in my perceptiveness, that trust, that love is put to the test, it all falls apart…. So you must have lied when you told me all those things… you must have, because I can’t believe your love is really that feeble.” (page 503)

In the end, it is Tris’ belief in herself that triumphs and that is the reason that her and her allies end up being successful. My favourite line in the whole novel is when Tris says to Four: “I am exactly who you think I am” (page 503).

This side of Tris is amazing. It’s not just her determination to protect her family and her community that I so admire, but her fierce trust in herself. Despite whatever tired romantic tropes get dredged up in Divergent, Tris and Four’s relationship in Insurgent carries one message to the girls and young women who are reading: Boys are awesome and fun. However, as soon as they stand in the way of our goals, our sense of self, and our ability to be agents in our own right? Well, then they can fuck right off.

This is something that I enjoyed about Insurgent a lot. However, I have to ask myself why it is that Tris gets to be the feminist heroine and why her relationship with Four can be highlighted in exciting ways. Tris gets to be read as “non-traditional” because she’s a teenage girl with qualities like bravery and power that typically aren’t associated with girls in pop culture. Four can be a “non-traditional” love interest because he admires Tris for qualities like strength and determination as opposed to beauty. But Tris and Four are still traditional enough. They’re still white, cis, straight, and able-bodied. It is only because they didn’t rock the boat too much that they were allowed to achieve the ranks of mainstream popularity.

If you read Insurgent you might have noticed Lynn admitting to being in love with Marlene (another woman). But, this is as Marlene is dying. As a consequence the reader’s awareness of Lynn and Marlene’s romantic relationship ends as quickly as it began. That it is Tris and Four’s relationship that I focused on in this post, and not Lynn and Marlene’s, speaks volumes to where power structures continue to play an enormous role in the production of popular culture. We’re going to need to rock the boat a lot harder if we want that to change.

Image credits: skreened.comdivergentthemovie.comthe-antisocial-hipster.blogspot.ca

 

 

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An Ode to Killjoys

Being a feminist killjoy is something that I’ve reflected on a lot, and held close to my heart, ever since reading “Feminist Killjoys” from Sara Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness in Women’s Studies 101. Ahmed has written an inspiring amount about being a killjoy and her words have done a lot to transform something that I had once felt shame about into a label I wear with pride. Here is her definition of “feminist killjoy” from The Promise of Happiness,

“The feminist killjoy ‘spoils’ the happiness of others; she is a spoilsport because she refuses to convene, to assemble, or to meet up over happiness. In the thick sociality of everyday spaces, feminists are thus attributed as the origin of the bad feeling, as the ones who ruin the atmosphere…”

But Ahmed asks us to wonder if it is the feminist killjoy who caused the bad feeling, or if she merely pointed out a bad feeling that already exists. Ahmed tells a story of sitting around a dinner table and voicing her disagreement with a problematic remark made by a family member. The mood instantly changes and becomes negative. Was it the killjoy who changed the atmosphere by challenging the remark? Or was it the maker of the remark (or the remark itself) which brought the negativity forward?

In my own life, moments of killing joy are some of the most authentic I’ve ever experienced. But I’m also aware that being a killjoy can be difficult. It can exhaust us, sadden us, silence us, or even make us unsafe. At the very least, it’s disheartening to notice “people’s eyes rolling as soon as [we] open [our] mouth[s]” and to feel that we have “ruined the atmosphere by turning up or speaking up.

When I get caught up in feeling shame for being a feminist killjoy, it can take a lot of strength to fight the instinct to apologize. Often, that’s a battle I don’t win. I call out an oppressive remark, the mood becomes negative, and I shoulder the blame for the gloomier atmosphere. I feel myself teetering uncertainly on the thin line between socializing “like everyone else” and being true to my ethics. I’ve taken up too much space in the conversation with my negativity. So I apologize.

What happens when we start apologizing for other people? When we try to dilute our killing of joy by playing down the negativity of what we find to be problematic?

A couple weeks ago, I had a conversation with a friend that stayed with me for many reasons. She explained to me that she had been told by a supervisor at work that she should be careful about how she dressed. Her supervisor was worried that if she looked “too good” she would distract men and make women jealous. Only a few weeks later, another friend explained her experience of being singled out in a room of co-workers (as she was the only Black person in the room) when someone made a joke about Black women being “easy.”

What connected these two stories for me was the ways that both of my friends started telling them. The first friend began with “I really don’t think this guy is sexist, but…” and the second started with “not to say this person is racist, but…”

What my friend’s supervisor said is sexist. The joke my friend’s co-worker made is racist. Whether or not we want to go ahead and use this as evidence of one being a racist or a sexist, these are both clear examples of the kinds of racist and sexist microaggressions that are so hard to quantify, yet so impactful in perpetuating structural oppressions.

Despite this, both of my friends started their stories by apologizing for someone else and by taking the responsibility for killing joy on themselves. It is as if the commenters weren’t the source of negativity, but that my friends were for pointing out the sexism and racism inherent in their remarks.

This post isn’t a criticism of my friends, or their choices made in telling their stories. On the contrary, it’s an expression of the empathy I feel regarding their instincts to apologize for being killjoys. For that reason, I want to say to my friends, and to all of us who’ve felt the same:

Killing joy is kick ass. It’s the kind of truth we deserve. I will always love you, honour you, and cherish you for all the joy you kill because that is what is required for us to led authentic and whole lives. We kill joy and space is made for our experiences to be validated. That is space we are all deserving of.  

images courtesy of: feministdisney.tumblr.com and www.etsy.com

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We Weren’t Born This Way

Pragya Sharma is a contributing member of the F Word Media Collective. 

Kim Kardashian isn’t a woman who’s known for her politics.  Instead, she’s known for a well-timed sex tape that catapulted her into fame; a reality television show with her family; extravagant weddings followed by failed marriages; and a relationship with Kanye West.  So, it surprised me when I heard that she posted an essay on her website yesterday, detailing how having a half black child has changed her perception on racial politics in America.  What also surprised me was that instead of accepting that people’s political positions change, prominent websites and commentators have been ridiculing and shaming Kim for not “seeing” race earlier than she did.  Even feminist websites like Jezebel which admittedly aren’t known for their kindness, are mocking Kim for finally realizing that, in her words, “racism and discrimination are still alive.”  

For everyone that’s shaming Kim for making a public post on racism: when did you learn that racism exists?  Were you born with an intricate understanding of white supremacy?  I know I wasn’t.  Despite being raised in an Indian family in the Canadian prairies, I was taught that racism does not exist.  I, like most people in the Global North, had been fed the myth of meritocracy from the moment I was born.  I held on to this myth so strongly that even when my mom was sure she didn’t get a job because of her accent, I rolled my eyes and told her that she probably just messed up the interview.  I couldn’t believe my own mother’s experience because I needed to believe that I could be successful in this world if only I tried hard enough.  And that’s me, a brown woman, who doesn’t really benefit from ignoring the impact of white supremacy in my life.

The anomaly, then, is when we have a major celebrity acknowledging racism.  Combine that with our culture’s obsession with perfectionism and complete utter lack of accountability, I can’t help but wonder if Kim’s post is kind of amazing.  I mean, she not only talks about racism, but she admits that she was wrong when she didn’t see it as a problem in the world and admits she was wrong in not recognizing it as something she’s responsible for combating.  Let’s put it this way: A celebrity who’s constantly criticized for what she wears, what she says, what she doesn’t say, who she marries, how she marries them, how she lives and how she breathes, not only acknowledges that she made a mistake, but publicly declares that racism is a big deal and that she’s responsible for doing something about it.  And what do we do?  Mercilessly mock her.

Seriously?  How can we possibly expect those that benefit from white supremacy to ever change anything when all we do is mercilessly shame them when they start to shift their consciousness?

(And don’t even get me started on the misogyny in all the commentators who brush her off as incapable of thinking of anything other than fashion.  Someone who’s built a multi-million dollar empire around a sex tape ain’t no fool.)

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“The Bachelor,” otherwise known as: “Day-Old Cheese Pizza”

I have a confession: I watched this most recent season of “The Bachelor.” I have a gut-wrenching instinct to apologize for this because, “as a feminist,” I should be ashamed of watching something so terrible, right?

Too bad, “as a feminist,” I’m also learning how not to apologize for doing something people think I shouldn’t do. Too bad shame isn’t useful and learning to resist it is an invaluable part of my feminist journey to be a whole and happy human being. So here’s to empowered engagement with all of the horrible things patriarchy, capitalism, and oppression throw at us! I watched the whole season of “The Bachelor” and I’ve got a thing or two to say about it.

If you’ve heard anything about Season 18 of the show, you’ve probably heard all the talk about the bachelor himself, Juan Pablo Galavis, being a total jackass. Unfortunately, there’s a pretty good chance this is true. There are, for example, the homophobic remarks, the slut-shaming, and the other generally offensive things he’s decided to say to women.

But that’s not what I want to write about. While all of the above is totally gross and horrible, we have to take in to account that Galavis was the star of a reality television show, meaning, what we saw of him may not actually be a reflection of reality. It is also absolutely necessary to ask ourselves what it means for Galavis to be the first Latino bachelor to star on the show. Whether conscious of it or not, how did racial stereotypes of Latin American men as “macho womanizers” seep into the producers’ editing of the show? Despite being blonde and blue-eyed in true all-American fashion, Galavis’ Venezuelan accent marks him as “foreign,” as not/un-American, and it would be naive to think that this didn’t mediate the way he was perceived by both producers and audiences.

There may be a variety of reasons that the producers of “The Bachelor” had an interest in making Galavis the bad guy. However, the reason that stood out so starkly in the show’s final episode was that Galavis refused to buy into the premise of the show the way everyone expected him to.

On the show’s final episode, all the contestants get back together to discuss the highs and lows of the season. Galavis entered the stage to a chorus of booing. The show’s “winner,” Nikki, didn’t get the same negative reaction but that’s because, apparently, we’re all just supposed to feel bad for her. We’re supposed to feel bad not because she ended up with a (potentially) slimy guy like Galavis, but because Galavis didn’t ask her to marry him. To the outright horror of the shows producers and “Bachelor” fans far and wide, Galavis ended the season by telling Nikki that he didn’t want to propose because he wasn’t 100% sure he loved her. HOLD. THE. PHONE. HOW DARE HE??!??!?!?

Oh… wait… wait no. No, that’s actually a totally reasonable thing to say. Unless you’re the star of a show dedicated to making happily married folk out of conventionally attractive white people who’ve spent 2 months going on lavish and unrealistic dates involving 25 other people, of course.

The major issue here, was that Nikki had told Juan Pablo that she was in love with him several months earlier. “The Bachelor”’s host, Chris Harrison, was visibly distressed by this shocking turn of events. He spent the better part of his interview with the couple trying to coerce Juan Pablo into confessing his eternal affections. At one point, Harrison admitted, “I don’t know what I’m looking at.”

I don’t know what I’m looking at.In Chris Harrison’s world, any relationship that isn’t on a fast track to heteronormative monogamous marriage is a relationship with no name. 

I’m not naive. It’s not like I’ve ever expected anything radical or progressive from a reality show that buys into so many toxic notions of masculinity, femininity, marriage, family, and love that I wouldn’t know where to begin to catalogue them all. But I guess I just thought they’d try to do a better job of hiding it. I guess I expected them to spout propaganda about the inclusivity of “The Bachelor,” to claim that it tells the stories of real lives and real relationships. I honestly didn’t expect Harrison to be so glaringly obvious about the fact that it’s all a contrived fantasy. 

Because, really, which one of these resonates more with real life: falling in love and getting married after knowing someone for 2 months or falling in love in different and complicated ways and having to navigate the rocky terrain of human to human connection in an imperfect and messy way? I don’t know about you, but I’m voting for the second option. In the words of the Vancouver Sun’s Misty Harris,

“[the reason] why, days later, tongues are still clucking over the hit show’s controversial conclusion: not because ABC’s prince turned out to be a toad, but rather because that toad publicly, petulantly refused to jump at producers’ command – and pulled back the curtain on one of TV’s longest running games of make-believe as a result.”

Harrison outlines his rationale for allowing the show to be the exclusive fantasy it is in an interview about the potential for there to be a gay bachelor, or a bachelor who didn’t conform to normative standards of attractiveness. His response was this:

“Look, if you’ve been making pizzas for 12 years and you’ve made millions of dollars and everybody loves your pizzas and someone comes and says, ‘Hey, you should make hamburgers.’ Why? I have a great business model, and I don’t know if hamburgers are going to sell.”

THIS JUST IN: STRAIGHT PEOPLE ARE PIZZA. QUEER PEOPLE ARE HAMBURGERS. Whahaaaat?? Couldn’t we imagine it more in terms of the current “Bachelor” being cheese pizza and different adaptations of the premise being ham and pineapple, or pepperoni, or deluxe, or REALLY ANYTHING ELSE BECAUSE WE’RE ALL JUST REALLY SICK OF ONLY GETTING CHEESE PIZZA ALL THE TIME. Harrison continued to say, “is it our job to break barriers, or is it a business? That’s not for me to answer.”

Ahhhh. Well now we’ve reached the bottom of a deep well and capitalism is not about to throw a rope down and help us out. It’s okay to be unethical, or to ignore ethical considerations, when business is at stake. But, why isn’t it Harrison’s job to answer that question? Why can’t we hold him accountable to the ethical considerations regarding “The Bachelor” franchise? What might happen if we dared to imagine that we have a right to expect more representativeness from our media?

 

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What do “Her” and “The Social Network” have in common? A lot about him.

*Warning: Spoilers ahead for both Her and The Social Network*

Recently, in my “Introduction to New Media” class, we were talking about human connections to technology. The professor brought up the movie Her (a film that focuses on a romantic relationship between a human and a computer operating system) as the film depicts a reality that might not be so far in our future. After discussing Her, my professor referred back to the 2010 film, The Social Network (which is based on the story of Mark Zuckerberg’s founding of Facebook). She suggested that we could imagine The Social Network and Her as representing a progression between where we’ve been and where we’re going in regards to social technology. I was immediately interested in what it might mean to use these two films as cultural landmarks in this way.

For starters, if we are to learn anything from The Social Network, it is that technical innovation has been driven by exactly one thing – the sort of expectations and opinions about sex that we’ve come to expect from the teenage boys and young men of “coming of age” comedies: the same expectations and opinions that have been normalized through the rhetoric of “boys will be boys” and that rarely prioritize the agency, value, and/or pleasure of teenage girls and young women. Re-watching the film, an interesting (disturbing?) pattern came to light. The pursuit of sex and a sense of entitlement to women drives every major web-based innovation discussed in the film.

Facemash, the precursor to Facebook, allowed visitors to rate women against each other based on their appearance. In the film*, Mark creates Facemash as a sort of “wronged nice guy” self-care after being broken up with (and after using his public blog as a way to demean and humiliate his ex). The other site that inspired Facebook, the Winklevoss brothers’ Harvard Connection, is a lucrative idea because, according to the Winklevosses, “girls want to get with guys from Harvard.” Finally, there’s Napster, a site created by Sean Parker who explains that he created Napster because “the girl [he] loved in high school was going out with the co-captain of the varsity lacrosse team and [he] wanted to take her from him.” In regards to Facebook itself, it is the “relationship status” and “interested in” sections of the profile that cause Mark to declare the site as finished. Him and Eduardo discuss that what will get people to log on will be the opportunity to use these tools to “get laid” and “meet a girl.”

Furthermore, we never see women driving technological innovation in the film. This is solidified when Mark starts delegating to his newly assembled Facebook team and the two women in the room (having not received any tasks) ask, “is there anything we can do?” to which Mark quickly replies with “no.” In an article on Jezebel, Irin Carmon asks “in Mark Zuckerberg’s real-life world, women did more than give blowjobs… so why does The Social Network so badly want to pretend otherwise?” (Carmon also adds that “black people said more than ‘Is this guy bothering you?’” The lack of people of colour involved in the world of technical innovation is also a serious shortcoming of both The Social Network and Her.) Carmon goes on to say that Mark Zuckerberg “lived, and lives, in a world where, even if women were scarce in computer science classes, they were achieving as brilliantly as the men around them” and points to both Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook’s current C.O.O) and Randi Zuckerberg (Facebook’s former Director of Market Development and Spokeswoman) as evidence of this. Carmon’s article is important because it pushes us to ask why the filmmakers of The Social Network felt that it was so necessary to erase, stereotype, and objectify women in the film.

Her doesn’t have the same obvious lack of involved and developed women characters as The Social Network does. Both Amy Adams’ and Scarlett Johansson’s characters (Amy and Samantha, respectively) are complex and have a powerful presence onscreen (even if we never actually see Samantha). However, the primary narrative of the film still belongs to a man and the women who populate the story are there because of their relationships with him. Furthermore, Her also uses access to women (or woman) as being the major motivator for engagement with technology.

For what it’s worth, Her‘s protagonist, Theodore, does seem to genuinely desire a meaningful relationship with a woman and he does have a strong and mutually beneficial friendship with the character Amy (whereas the men of The Social Network seem solely interested in women for sex). I appreciated this about the film, not because I think all relationships need to be “meaningful,” but because depicting these strong relationships means that we also get to see women as important agents within the film as opposed to only imagining them as bodies that exist for male gratification.

What I also enjoyed about the film was the ending. The narrative of Her allows Samantha to develop to the point that her character moves past her relationship with Theodore and eventually leaves him behind for a new life. In a review on Bitch Flicks, Amanda Rodriguez explains why the ending is so redeeming,

I love that Samantha leaves him because she outgrows him, transcending the role of Manic Pixie Dream Girl in which Theodore has cast her, evolving beyond him, beyond his ideas of what a relationship should be (between one man and one woman), and beyond even his vaguest conception of freedom because she’s embraced existence beyond the physical realm. Not only does Samantha become self-aware, but she becomes self-actualized, determining that her further development lies outside the bounds of her relationship with Theodore (and the 600+ others she’s currently in love with). Samantha’s departure in her quest for greater self- understanding is… what finally redeems a kind of gross film that explores male fantasies about having contained, controlled perfect cyber women who are emotion surrogates.

Rodriguez puts perfectly both the reasons why the ending is important and the reasons why so much of the rest of the film is problematic.

The reality of Her is that Samantha is the “perfect cyber woman.” She’s an operating system, an object, and she’s been created and purchased for the sole purpose of being whatever, or whoever, Theodore wants her to be. In the words of Sady Doyle, 

there’s the unavoidable fact about Her: No matter how evolved or human-seeming Samantha is, she is also a possession. When Theodore tells Samantha he can’t commit to her after their first sexual encounter, she’s offended, but, at least at that stage of their relationship, she also can’t leave.

No amount of enjoying the film, or appreciating aspects of it, can magically turn it into a story of two equals who have the same capacity to choose to be with each other.

I was inspired to bring Her and The Social Network together because of the comment made by my professor that they create a sort of timeline of innovation in regards to social technology. But there’s larger connections between these films than that. While the representations of women in each film and the kinds of relationships prioritized are markedly different in each, both films depict the creation and use of technology as being driven in order to facilitate men’s access to women.

Guest blogger on Bitch Flicks, Lisa C. Knisely asks us to imagine if “Joaquin Pheonix had played Sam to Scarlett Johansson’s Thea” and she explains that “that’s the film I’m still waiting for someone in Hollywood to write, direct, and… produce.” I think the basic point of her comment is that, if we’re going to immortalize the cultural and social change driven by technological advancement through the world of film, we can’t be satisfied to only see women as existing to be accessed through it. In our daily realities, women drive innovation and are active participants in what it produces – why can’t this be true on screen as well?

 (images courtesy of http://imgfave.com/view/1374017 and http://0roborus.tumblr.com/)

*The Social Network is only based on reality and, as a consequence, much of what happens in the film isn’t reflective of real events. For this blog, I mean to refer specifically to only the events that happened in the film. 

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