Using Rape as a Plot Device

by Caity Goerke

[Content warning: discussion of sexual violence]

A plot device “is an object or character in a story whose only purpose is to advance the plot of the story.” While plot devices are necessary to move the action of a story forward, sometimes writers neglect to realize that there are some experiences that should always be handled with thoughtfulness and care – issues which shouldn’t be tossed around lightly as a simple means of moving from one plot point to another. Earlier in my semester, I read Titus Andronicus for my Shakespeare class and it got me thinking a lot about what it means to use rape as a plot device.

In Titus Adronicus, Titus’ daughter is brutally raped and mutilated. Lavinia’s rape is important to the play for exactly two reasons. Firstly, it allowed Shakespeare to increase the shock, gore, and horror factor of his play. Secondly, it provides motivation for Titus’ later acts of revenge. Lavinia’s rape is not important as a means of providing a platform to discuss sexual violence nor is it important to develop Lavinia as a character herself. In fact, Lavinia actually becomes less of a character after her rape because she becomes reduced to only her body. After reading Titus Andronicus, I started thinking about the ways that this is an all too common theme. Taken, I Saw the Devil, Death Wish, and Django Unchained are just a few examples of films where violence against women is used as a fundamental motivator for the story’s protagonist. Like Titus Andronicus, these films aren’t about the women who have been kidnapped, beaten, abused and raped. Both the women and the violence against them are merely important to move the plot of the story forward.

It is easy to see how using rape as a plot device in this way functions to erase women, as characters, from films and drama. Yet, the use of rape as a plot device also works in other harmful ways. Firstly, it can contribute to the sensationalization of violence against women. Violence against women is sensationalized when it is used to shock, horrify, and/or intrigue the audience. In an article called “The Bigger Picture: What happens when we find ‘The Line’ as viewers?,” movie critic Drew McWeeny speaks to his experience of watching rape being exploited for entertainment in film. He says,

what scares me most about it is that the vast majority of the scenes are directed so poorly that they become, in essence, titillation, and there is something immeasurably sick about including a scene in your film that involves rape just so you can sneak a little nudity into the movie.

The sensationalization of rape occurs in Titus in the way that Lavinia’s body, after her rape, is displayed as an object to be gawked at by other characters in the play and, subsequently, by the audience. In addition to the actual visual effects that would have been used to display the violation and mutilation of Lavinia’s body, she is described by both her rapists and her uncle in explicitly graphic ways. Not only does the repeated description of Lavinia’s appearance reduce her to her body, but the fact that she cannot speak because her tongue has been cut out further highlights her importance as a body, not as a character. The exploitation of rape is emphasized by the nature of the rape being used as a plot device. Because Lavinia’s rape is just a plot device, and her experience is never taken up and engaged with in any critical or thoughtful way, she is only important because she is a raped body – her character exists for no other purpose than to be raped. She functions only as a victim of violence and that violence is sensationalized so as to “justify” the equally sensationalized acts of violence committed by Titus in revenge.

Not only does using rape as a plot device contribute to its sensationalization, but it also functions to desensitize the audience to the issue of violence against women. McWeeny explains that “I must see 30 films a year where somebody needs to have ‘something bad’ happen, and the go-to impulse in almost every case is rape.” When rape is reduced to simply “something bad,” the reality that it is a traumatic experience that occurs in pandemic proportions is completely ignored. In Titus Andronicus, Lavinia’s rape is only important because it is a crime against Titus’ family, it’s simply “something bad.” Depicting rape in this way desensitizes us because it erases the experience of the victim and, therefore, ignores the grave reality of rape. We become further desensitized because rape is used in this way in film, television, and literature time and time again. You only have to turn on Law and Order, CSI, or any of a variety of crime dramas to see rape being used as a platform from which to launch the episode’s plot. While these shows occasionally take the time to engage with larger social issues related to violence (Law and Order SVU is perhaps the best example of this), the vast majority of the time the issue of sexual violence isn’t the focus of the episode. Instead, it’s the successes of a talented investigative team that takes the spotlight. Using rape again and again as nothing but a plot device causes us to forget what rape really is: a traumatic and violent event perpetrated against an individual as a result of a variety of intersecting and oppressive factors such as gender, race, sexuality, class, and ability.

Why is it so incredibly dangerous to ignore the reality of rape? Well, for starters, because we know that, in North America, 1 in 4 women will be raped in their lifetimes. 1 in 4. That’s 25%. And that’s only people who identify as women. How can we sensationalize and desensitize ourselves to the issue of rape when we understand the pervasiveness of it? When we use rape as a plot device and when we neglect to engage with the issue of sexual violence in thoughtful ways what are we saying to our classmates, to the person three rows behind you in the movie theatre, to the dorm-mate sharing the couch with you during your Saturday CSI marathon? What are we saying when these are people for whom rape is a reality, not just something that happens on screens, on stages, and in books? While these questions can’t be easily answered by a simple solution, there are things we can do to speak up. Efforts like Miss Representation’s #NotBuyingIt campaign allows us to bring our voices together to demand more responsible media. Donating our time and/or money to front-line organizations like Women Against Violence Against Women, Battered Women’s Support Services, Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, and UBC’s Sexual Assault Support Centre contributes to the provision of community-level support for victims of violence. Participating in events like the February 14th Women’s Memorial March and the March 23rd Community March Against Racism raises awareness about lived experiences of violence and oppression. Most importantly, we have to remember that using rape as a plot device isn’t just about lazy writing and the exploitation of trauma for “entertainment value.” Using rape as a plot device contributes to a culture where violence, trauma, degradation, and oppression go unquestioned in all forms of media. Moving from this point requires much more than just volunteerism and Twitter activism and, instead, requires a shift in our collective consciousness.

2 Comments | Comment on This Post

Fembots Have More Fun

By Sandi Sonnenfeld  

Originally published, in slightly different form, on the Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review on October 31, 2012.

It all started 18 months ago when I saw a new ad from a national anti-abortion group being promoted on the subway.  The ad featured a sad-looking woman hugging herself for comfort and a single sentence, “Abortion changes you forever.”

It was so simplistic a slogan, an affront to every woman who has ever agonized over her choices.  It meanly implied that women who unexpectedly find themselves pregnant blithely rush out to get an abortion without giving any thought to the consequences, which directly contradicts my own personal experience and the other women I know who faced such a decision.  What made the ad particularly galling, however, was that it was sponsored by the same group that was egging on former Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann and others in Congress to defund Planned Parenthood, one of the few affordable places left for women to obtain reliable birth control that would help prevent the need for an abortion in the first place.

The hypocrisy, then, led me to do it.  I dug into my purse, pulled out a black pen and wrote over the sign in big thick lettering, “Not nearly as much as having a child—wanted or not—does.”

My heart raced as I publicly defaced private property in full view of one hundred and fifty or so other New Yorkers.  I never before had knowingly committed a crime. As is usual among my fellow urbanites, the subway passengers pretended not to see what I was doing.

I wish I could say that when I had finished my rage subsided, that I took satisfaction in my defiant act.  If anything, to my surprise and without a little shame, I felt only more infuriated.  So I sat on the subway fuming, replaying in my head all the statistics I’ve read over the past few years. Statistics like:

  • American girls now enter the first stages of puberty at an all-time low of 10.4 years (nine years for African-Americans and nine and a half-years for Hispanic Americans), likely as a result of over-processed food which speeds up the activation of the hormone leptin.
  • One hundred thousand children, the majority of them girls between 12 and 17, are involved in sex trafficking in the US each year; 70 percent of them are runaways from foster care.

Recalling such statistics kept me enraged until I arrived at my office, where it quickly dissipated as my workday got underway, sidetracked by my day job as a Director of Public Relations at one of the country’s largest law firms.  Indeed, when I left my office that night and headed home, I chastised myself for so foolishly tilting at windmills. As I exited from the Kings Highway subway station near where I live in Brooklyn, a huge delivery truck sat idling at a red traffic light.  The truck was emblazoned on both sides with a billboard ad for a premium vodka featuring three naked women sipping liquor out of martini glasses.

The women had no stomachs, necks, wrists, ankles, or genitals other than a metallic shield-like loin cloth where their vaginas should be. They did of course have breasts: large rounded breasts, bald heads, pink-lipped mouths and two slits for eyes that were framed with oversized pink and black eyelashes.  The slogan read, “Fembots have more fun.”

The gale hit me with full force, tossing me around emotionally that even now all these months later, I still feel cast adrift.

In fifty years, we’ve gone from blondes having more fun to fembots do.  Why bother with a flesh and blood woman anymore, who possesses hair that requires grooming, a stomach that craves filling, a mind that hunger for ideas?  Just give us some breasts to stare at, put a glass of vodka in our hand and away we go.  Once men lusted after the Hollywood pinup, then the airbrushed women of Playboy; when that grew tiresome, they switched to watching pornography on the web, jacking off to electronic images of women generated by lines of code made entirely out of Xs and 0s.  Perhaps, however, even those images reminded them too much of the smart-mouthed woman they shared an office with or their ex-girlfriend who dared to fall in love with another guy, so let’s move on to fembots instead.  Fembots who can’t talk, and don’t demand anything more than a shiny martini glass from which to drink.

It would be easy, but inaccurate, to lay all the blame on men.  But the sad thing about the ads, which are produced for Swedish vodka company Svedka by Constellation Brands here in New York, is that they are aimed at women.

“The Svedka image is playful, even naughty, featuring the sexy fembot symbolizing the brand’s fanciful futuristic achievement,” said Marina Hahn, senior vice president for marketing at Constellation Brands in a story by New York Times advertising columnist Stuart Elliott.  “Our vision of the future is very different from others. It’s ‘a lot like today, but better, more fun’ and Svedka [is] the vodka that lets you ‘be your fun, flirtatious self…at a price point you can afford.’”

The Times went on to report that the new campaign featuring the Svedka fembot includes print and online ads, signs in stores, billboards, events in bars and nightclubs, photos and videos on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

“Maybe one day, ‘Svedka Girl, the Movie,’ ” Hahn said, laughing, at the close of the article.

I want to laugh too.  Yet how can we ever make true strides as women, not just politically or in the board room, but, even more importantly, in reducing those all too real statistics about the trafficking of teenage girls, childhoods cut way too short by early puberty, and the millions of people, men and women alike, who prefer to masturbate to porn than take the risk of actually interacting with a no doubt flawed, but nonetheless potentially attractive  human being, when women still feel the need to starve themselves to fit into a size four dress, buy self-esteem through breast implants, or simply fail to reach their full potential for fear that boys at school won’t like them if they are “too” smart?

We all have grown so used to seeing fantastical images of women in advertising, film, television and on the web that even those of us with a profound awareness of the implausibility of such gorgeous, overly sexualized creatures existing in real life still regard such images as the standard far too many of us, myself included, aspire to.

Maybe that’s the true source of my rage—I’m mad at myself for not being able to dismiss the ad or others like it.  I’m mad at my fellow countrywomen for not only putting up with such messages that fundamentally tell us that, nearly 100 years after our great grandmothers chose to go on hunger strike rather than be denied the right to vote, and 50 years after Simone de Beauvoir, Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan helped usher in the second wave of feminism, we still think of ourselves as sexualized beings rather than fully fledged, sensual individuals for whom our sex is just one defining factor of who we are.

I’m mad at Sarah Palin, who as former mayor of Wasilla, Alaska ordered that victims of sexual assault pay for their own rape kits to keep costs down, for her audacity in declaring that she and the “mama grizzlies” represent the new face of feminism.  Palin said it during a meeting of the Susan B. Anthony List, a PAC which supports Congressional bids of anti-abortion candidates, including that other mama grizzly, Michele Bachmann.

That Palin and Bachmann are among those now shaping the discussion of what it means to be a feminist today is clearly a failure of our own making.  Too many of us have turned away from discourse, or perhaps have simply turned out, all too aware that we possess more choices than any other generation of American women.

We take it for granted that women walk on the moon, climb Everest, travel alone to exotic countries to negotiate peace treaties.  We’re no longer wowed that women launch twice as many US businesses as men, or that women have invented everything from central heating to Kevlar, the material from which bullet proof vests are made.  Indeed, we rarely think about the battles won before us, and most of us have never been schooled in the hard-fought efforts of generations of women to be taken seriously as citizens of the world. We accept without question that we can purchase property, adopt children without a partner, and increasingly, in many states, even marry each other if we want.  That we have made so much progress has also made too many of us complacent.

Or perhaps we are just too distracted.  No one is more squeezed for time than those of us in the sandwich generation.  Women in our thirties and forties perpetually torn by the demands of our careers and our personal lives, many of us are also caring for a child and an aging parent at the same time.  We squeeze our bellies and thighs into Spanx after squeezing out from the plastic bottle that last bit of ketchup for the French fries we ate at lunch. Our thoughts are squeezed into the 144 characters of a Tweet or compressed into a download on YouTube.  We squeeze into the crowded, noisy subways of New York and Boston or into traffic on the Interstate in Los Angeles or Seattle on our way to work.  We squeeze in yoga classes, painting courses and Thai-fusion cooking between the food shopping, picking up the kids from school, making a dental appointment for our husband, trying to stretch that salary for which we collectively still earn eighty-five percent of what a man with comparable experience and education does.  Thus many of us have also been squeezed into compromises that we once swore we would never make.

That we all pay a price for such compromises goes without saying, but I’ve started to wonder if the cost is just too much to bear.  Lately, I find myself in a state of near perpetual rage at what is happening in America. Perhaps it’s the angry rants of the Glenn Becks, Rush Limbaughs and Ann Coulters of this world that has brought out this fury in me, a mad desire to answer fire, as it were, with fire.  Or my sorrow and disappointment as I watch President Obama make concession after concession to the fringe right in the spirit of bipartisanship, wondering how he still cannot understand that the Tea Party-obsessed, Koch brothers-funded opposition not only has little interest in bipartisanship, it has no interest in governing at all.  Or perhaps I’m just simply out of patience, no longer able to hide behind the cloak of deference and respectability.

When Michele Obama became First Lady, her popularity soared.  Some admired her for trying to raise her girls in as “normal” way as possible despite that they no longer lived a normal live.  Others admired her stance towards community service.  But mostly, we admired how chiseled her arms were, that her biceps were “cut,” how stunning she looked in her white beaded Jason Wu inaugural ball gown.

Just as many of us women vilified Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate for her ugly haircut, love of pant suits, or simply staying married to a man who had convinced himself receiving a blow job by a young intern was not sex, and therefore not a betrayal of his wife.

We still worry far too much about being “playful,” “likable,” “fun,” about not turning men off with our talk of inequity at the workplace or unfair division of home labor, or worse, driving them into the arms of another woman.  And we care far too much about being perceived as chic, glamorous, or just plain sexy.

“How do I look?” we ask our husbands, our friends, our lovers. “Is my ass too big?  My tits too small?  Do I look fat?”

Perhaps that explains why, according to The Village Voice, the fourth most popular Halloween costume of 2011 for women was the Svedka Fembot.

So as autumn again draws near, and in the hope of creating in the words of Marina Hahn, “a future a lot like today, but better,” here’s a list of Halloween costumes to consider based on other female images that occasionally can be seen flickering across our digital screens:

  • Gabby Douglas – At age fourteen, she had the courage and determination to leave her family and home in Virginia Beach to train with top coach Liang Chow in West Des Moines, Iowa, a largely all white Mid-Western suburb. Less than two years later, Douglas became the first black American to win a gold medal in gymnastics and the only American to ever win gold in both the All-Around and the team competition during the same Olympics.
  • Jessica Jackley – a Stanford MBA graduate and co-founder of Kiva, which has facilitated hundreds of millions in loans among individuals across 209 countries by enabling internet users to lend as little as $25 to individual entrepreneurs.  A member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a 2011 World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leader, Jackley serves on several boards of organizations championing women, microfinance, technology and the arts, and has worked in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda with Village Enterprise Fund and Project Baobab.  Oh, yeah, she’s also a trained yoga instructor, avid surfer, wife and mother of twin boys.
  • Sylvia A. Earle – Known as “Her Deepness” or “The Sturgeon General,” Earle led the first team of women oceanographers in the Tektite Project in which they lived in an underwater chamber for fourteen days to study undersea habitats.  Author of more than 125 books and articles related to oceanography and protecting ocean ecosystems, she served as Chief Scientist of NOAA and led the Sustainable Seas Expeditions, a five-year program to study the United States National Marine Sanctuary from 1998-2002. At 76, she currently is National Geographic’s Explorer-in-Residence.
  • Tawakel Karman – Called the “Iron Woman” and “Mother of the Revolution” by her fellow Yemenis, Karman is a journalist and politician known as one of the public faces of the Arab Spring. Co-founder of Women Journalists Without Chains, she is co-recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, making her the first Arab woman and the second Muslim woman awarded that honor and the youngest Nobel Peace Laureate to date.

As for me, come October 31, I will pay homage to that great, forgotten star of the silver screen, Hedy Lamarr, once described as the most beautiful actress in Hollywood.  During a dinner party shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Lamarr embarked on a passionate conversation with an avant-garde composer named George Antheil about protecting US radio-guided torpedoes from enemy interference.  She scrawled her phone number in lipstick on the windshield of his car so they could explore their ideas further.  In 1942, the duo developed and secured a patent for a torpedo guidance system based on what Lamarr described as ‘frequency hopping,” which they then donated to the US government to assist in defeating Germany and Japan. Though the US military didn’t take the invention seriously until more than a decade later, today frequency hopping is the basis for the technology we use in cell phones, pagers, wireless Internet, defense satellites, and a plethora of other spread-spectrum devices.  Pretty darn good for a five-time divorced, foreign-born actress who never attended college.

But mostly, I’m picking Hedy Lamarr because she is the ultimate anti-fembot, who once told the press, “Any girl can be glamorous. All she has to do is stand still and look stupid.”

A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Sandi Sonnenfeld holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Washington, where she studied under National Book Award winner Charles Johnson.  She is the author of the memoir This is How I Speak (2002: Impassio Press), for which she was named a Celebration Author by the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association. Her short stories and personal essays have appeared in more than 30 literary magazines and anthologies, including Hayden’s Ferry Review, Sojourner, ACM: Another Chicago Magazine, THIS, Raven Chronicles, Perigee, The Storyteller and Mr. Bellers’ Neighborhood.  For more, visit www.sandisonnenfeld.com.

4 Comments | Comment on This Post

Navigating contradictions of progress in hip hop and pop culture.

“We would know far more about life’s complexities if we applied ourselves to the close study of its contradictions instead of wasting so much time on similarities and connections, which should, anyway, be self-explanatory”
-The Cave by José Saramago 

Last week, a wonderful string of news was catalyzed by 24 year old hip hop artist Frank Ocean’s open letter which revealed, in beautifully written words, a past romance he had with another man. His mother responded to the news saying he’s the “most incredible human she knows” and powerful hip hop mogul Russell Simmons even wrote a letter of support. A big day for hip hop.

Ocean is attached to hip hop collective Odd Future. I was interested in the buzz around Odd Future about a year ago but I promptly stopped seeking them out once I discovered that the collective is led by Tyler, The Creator a lyricist who is known for excessive use of the word ‘faggot’ and the graphic description of rape scenarios. One of the lone voices of public criticism was Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara who rightfully called out the industry’s refusal to condemn such lyrics.  Tyler responded with the following tweet, “If Tegan and Sara Need Some Hard Dick, Hit Me Up!” Can’t speak for T&S but nothing displays thoughtfulness to me more than use of the phrases “hard dick” and “hit me up.” It would be more funny if he didn’t have over one million followers. Despite this hateful rhetoric, Tyler, perhaps surprisingly, came out in strong support of Ocean in the wake of this announcement.

While this support may seem incompatible on a personal level, it does serve to provide an illuminating window into the current confusing and contradicting climate of hip hop, a fact not lost on long time writer and hip hop insider dream hampton. In her thank you letter to Ocean she writes:

You fulfill hip-hop’s early promise to not give a fuck about what others think of you. The 200 times Tyler says “faggot” and the wonderful way he held you up and down on Twitter today, Syd the Kid’s sexy stud profile and her confusing, misogynistic videos speak to the many contradictions and posturing your generation inherited from the hip-hop generation before you.

Syd tha Kid is the only female member of Odd Future and if you’re wondering what misogynistic videos dream hampton is talking about this would be one of them. It starts out cute and queer and ends with Syd pulling her coked out date out of her car and leaving her passed out the gravel road while Syd drives away. Again, the critique around this video seems to be fairly quiet save for this piece at Afterellen.com (granted this is old news by internet standards). I was pissed when I saw this video. The last thing we need is one of the lone queer women in popular hip hop normalizing the degradation of women. This, though, was obviously not Syd tha Kid’s intent as she stated, “I decided to do [the video] because I wish I had someone like that [an openly gay female artist] while I was coming up. People write on my Tumblr just thanking me for making the video, saying that I really inspire them, and they want to be like me.” I thought about it and realized if my 18 year old (then closeted) self saw this video I would have found it exciting to see two queer girls flirting and kissing on screen. I was so used to misogynist music at that age that the last scene probably wouldn’t have even phased me then. In fact, though it absolutely pains me to admit, my younger self thought The Prodigy’s video for Smack My Bitch Up was edgy and provocative. I’m not even going to link to it because it so fully disgusts me now at age 27.

When I start to get into this rabbit’s hole of discerning meaningful progress from warped misogyny in hip hop and pop culture at large I often come back to dream hampton again. Last fall I saw her speak on a panel about “feminism and hip hop.” I have to admit from the get go I was highly skeptical of her. After all, she co-wrote Jay-Z’s biography and was close friends with Notorious B.I.G. for a number of years. I danced to their songs all throughout junior high but I would never say that either of them are feminist champions or close to it. On the panel dream hampton was the last to introduce herself after each of the other panelists had, right off the bat, confirmed that “I’m not actually a feminist” (if my recorder wasn’t stuck on the table I would have walked out at that point). I figured that hampton, surrounded by the major players (mostly straight, rich men) in hip hop for many years would also try and dance around the title of feminist or calling out misogyny in the industry. Fortunately I was entirely wrong. This is a 3 minute clip of dream hampton talking during that panel about how she keeps herself and her politics in check:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Is it all about balance? Can you really ingest misogynist music one day and then lead an anti-violence against women’s march the next day without being a hypocrite? I think more than the balance issue is the importance of fighting the urge to be dogmatic. That is, adhering strictly to a set of cultural beliefs. More and more studies show that people from all ends of the political spectrum seek out self serving information to further entrench their beliefs and in many situations will ignore or justify away facts that counter their beliefs. In the NPR interview I linked one researcher was asked if this was more of a problem with religious fundamentalists and he answered, ” I don’t think so. There are people who have made that case in the psychological and political science literatures, but I think the jury is still out. And, you know, the conclusion that my co-author and I came to is that this is really a human problem.”  This is what I enjoy about people like dream hampton―she has no willful ignorance. As a hip hop insider and a cultural critic she’s not afraid to call bullshit on what she loves. This idea reminds me of a discussion in Barbara Kingsolver’s book The Lacuna where two characters disagree on the role of the artist (including writers like hampton).

- Well, but suppose the artist’s job is just to keep everyone amused? Maybe get their minds off the stink, by calling it a meadow. Where’s the harm?
- Nobody will climb out of the pile. There’s the harm. They’ll keep where they are, deep to the knees in dung, trying to outdo each other remarking on the buttercups.

So maybe the problem isn’t feminists and progressives ingesting pop culture in the first place but our likelihood to defend our favourite pet TV show to the death or to dismiss an entire genre of music  as being anti-women. While I still don’t agree with everything dream hampton represents I felt myself move over the week from being horrified at Syd The Kid’s video and therefore this young artist herself to thinking about how confusing and contradicting her environment must be. I still think the video’s message is terrible but you can see her working her way through some important youth outsider issues in her lyrics ”She shaved off all of her hair…cause she don’t give a fuck…some people seem to think she needs changing but they don’t know the struggles that she was raised with so shut the fuck up…Stop thinking that you know everything.”

She’s not worth writing off and neither is the movement of this music either. It just takes one look at d’bi young and Invincible to realize that we have lots of positive growth worth spreading.

Follow Ellie Gordon-Moershel: @EllieGordonMoe

1 Comment | Comment on This Post

The Empty Promises of Prometheus

Guest post by Aphrodite Kocieda

Aphrodite is currently a graduate student at the University of South Florida focusing on Communication. She is a radical feminist and an enthusiastic media and cultural critic, as well as a contributor for Out Front Magazine

Is Hollywood completely dominated by white males who are only able to write about their own experiences and their own fantasies? I kept thinking this as I watched the first five minutes of the newly released film, Prometheus. When it was over, I could feel the feminist itch in my hands reaching out to the keyboard to unleash the anger that manifested during the viewing of the film. My boyfriend and I initially decided to take in Prometheus based on the merit of the online previews. The previews looked promising. It appeared to have a strong female character (which is RARE for Hollywood), and had a plot that was almost identical to Alien. However, as usual, I was completely disappointed to the point that I left before the movie ended. It appears as if Hollywood today spends more time and money on constructing distorted previews for their films to trick you into buying a movie ticket, instead of just creating a good creative plot.

I feel like we’re in an era where Hollywood is turning EVERY book into a movie because film writers just don’t exist anymore. Though maybe more disturbing is the trend of blatantly stealing plots and storylines from the past, regurgitating them on the screen for an oh-so-loyal audience that is overly entertainment-saturated to the point that almost anything with bright colors, 3-D glasses, and loud noises will fulfill their expectations and desires for creativity and entertainment.

One of the reasons I was disappointed with the film is that while it capitalized on the legacy of the 1979 hit film Alien (also by director Ridley Scott) it did not build on the progress of the original which was, in many ways, progressive for its time. It had a lead female character that was not stereotypically attractive in a challenging role that centered on her and her actions, instead of her sexuality. The plot for Prometheus was too large and the only semblance of an attempt of progressive representation was represented in its ONE black cast member, and ONE Asian cast member. I do not understand how, in 2012, white people still dominate the screen. Based upon the previews, it seemed as if the film was going to focus on the lead character, played by Charlize Theron, but her role was merely a façade of power and progressiveness. Theron’s character, Meredith Vickers, acts as the supervisor of the mission, and contains all of the trite stereotypical characteristics of a female leader in a masculine world. She is bland in appearance, tough within her internal core, and is a physical threat to some of her crew members. Although it is wonderful that the film does not focus on her sexuality or her attractiveness in a stereotypical mainstream sense, the writers merely fall into another stereotype in their lack of imagination for their female character in power. Power, for the white male writers, immediately equates to dominance, aggression, and physical fear. Theron’s character, Meredith, is even assumed to be a robot by Idris Elba’s character, Janek, because she did not want to have sex with him. In response to his accusation, she crumbles to his insult, and ends up fulfilling his desires in her bedroom.  Her tough exterior and cold composure merely fulfilled the stereotype of the “bitch” in power that is unsympathetic to love and human emotion. In order for a female to be in power, she must abandon any signs and traits of femininity, and overtly subscribe to a distorted version of masculinity.

After shuddering at the thought that the writers actually assumed their Meredith Vickers character was progressive, the movie just got worse. The archaeologist character of Elizabeth Shaw, the only other main lead female character, subscribed to a trope that feminist Anita Sarkeesian from Feminist Frequency, calls, “The Mystical Pregnancy.” Here is a video Sarkeesian created that pretty much sums up the trope.

Sarkeesian examines how Hollywood writers use women’s bodies as incubators and vessels for alien offspring or demons. She states, “Basically the characters are reduced to their biological functions.” Additionally, writers use pregnancy as a way to torment and violate the female characters whose male counterparts are not tormented in a similar complementary manner.  The archaeologist, Shaw, ends up becoming pregnant with an alien baby and enters a machine that rips the baby out of her. She runs through the hall with blood all over her half naked body due to her fear of what was inside of her own abdomen. This was so cliché and uncreative. I honestly couldn’t believe they included an alien pregnancy in the film because it was so unnecessary. They couldn’t find a way to construct fear within their female character, so they had to resort to impregnating her with an alien. Real creative (note the sarcasm).

After all of this ridiculousness, the movie was just garbage. I remember looking down for a minute, and when I looked up, the film looked like a WWE wrestling match. I saw a character bashing in the face of another character, there was fire, tons of gunshots, and too much masculinity for me. I honestly wouldn’t have been surprised if Vin Diesel drove by on a motorcycle in space with Megan Fox in a space suit behind him. After this, I got up and left. The movie was not worth watching until the end, even with the 3D glasses, and an IMAX screen. It seems like the more you have to wear for a movie, the more it is going to be garbage.

The only captivating thing about the film was the graphics. They were awesome, but unfortunately, being attached to the plot it just began to self-destruct. I hate watching mainstream films. I thought the point of film and science fiction was to escape reality, not reinforce the shitty parts of it.

 

 

6 Comments | Comment on This Post

How a female athlete’s body became a battleground for gender assumptions (again).

For those of you who follow women’s basketball you will have already heard of Brittney Griner. Though only 21 she has been making waves the past few years most recently having received Associate Press’ Player of the Year and the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. Like many elite level athletes Griner possesses some unusual physical traits (think swimmer Micheal Phelps with his wingspan as long as 26 monarch butterflies lined up in a row…or more simply, 6’7”). Standing 6’8″ tall, Griner wears a men’s US size 17 shoes.

The use of the word “unusual” over “unnatural” is an important distinction and kind of the crux of what this blog post will be about. I recently read The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi. It’s a young adult historical fiction novel about a upper class white girl who finds herself as the only female passenger on a voyage across the Atlantic in the 1800s. As she transitions into a competent member of the crew the antagonist Captain Jaggery attempts to squander any solidarity she builds with the other crew members. In a particularly memorable scene Jaggery accuses Charlotte of a crime using an argument about her “unnaturalness”:

“Doing her part like we all was,” the captain echoed in a mocking tone. “Mr. Barlow, you are not young. In all your years have you ever seen, ever heard of a girl who took up crew’s work?”
“No sir, I never did.”
“So, then, is it not unusual?”
“I suppose.”
“You suppose. Might you say, unnatural?”
“That’s not fair!” I cried out. “Unusual and unnatural are not the same!”

The captain goes on to say that due to Charlotte’s obvious “unnaturalness” it was the duty of the crew, of the men, to “protect the natural order of the world” by getting rid of her.

Bringing this back to Brittney Griner (…and Caster Semenya and all the other female athletes that have been scrutinized for their “unnaturalness”) her most recent splash in the news was about her decision to remove herself from consideration for inclusion in the London 2012 Olympics. She cited school obligations and family health issues as her main reasons. What caught my eye in this Women Talk Sports article was the author stating, “I saw pokes and jokes about the fact that she’s afraid of genetic testing and that’s why she doesn’t want to play for the USA, because she’s actually a man.” I thought, oh shit, here we go again. So I searched “Brittney Griner+gender” to see what the media and sports pundits had been saying.

At the beginning of April after Griner’s team won the Women’s NCAA Championship game the opposing coach (a woman) said of her after the game, “I think she’s one of a kind. I think she’s like a guy playing with women.” Apparently referring to Griner’s gender was not a new thing at this point but this coach’s comment is important because it led to many articles devoted to Griner’s gender appearance. The articles ‘defending’ Griner are what prompted me to write this blog. Save for this excellent piece at Fit and Feminist I was sorely disappointed and surprised given the excellent progressive articles written about Caster Semenya and the shit show around her “gender testing.” The author of the CBS article titled Questioning Griner’s gender? Please, just shut up and go away is rightly very angered by the scrutiny of Griner’s gender but his conclusion is, “If you think Brittney Griner is a freak, or not a woman, or something other than what she purports to be, either bring proof or shut up. And since you don’t have proof, you’re really left with Option B.” Similar is the attitude behind this Washington Post article titled Brittney Griner’s gender? Shame on those who even ask the question which starts her defense by remarking that Griner didn’t “ask for” a deep voice and size 17 feet. I’m happy that these mainstream journalists are condemning offensive comments about Griner but the conversation is severely lacking in an analysis of gender policing in sport and why this keeps happening to female athletes (especially non-white female athletes). This has nothing to do with the exceptionality of Griner and everything to do with patriarchy and racism as played out through the institution of sport.

The “institution of sport”― this is something that Dr. Ian Richie from Brock University emphasised while I was interviewing him about the history of sex testing in international sport. He started off the interview with saying, “The reason I think sex testing is so interesting is because it really provides a lens into the institution of sport. And, we have to remember that sport is an institution, a social institution created by human beings, it’s not grown out of the natural earth so to speak. There’s no any one way that sport has to be done…sport as an institution was created around gender lines and assumptions about gender.”

Richie went on to remind us that this resulted in sport being raised out of the celebration of masculinity. Masculinity being socially understood as synonymous with strength, speed and all other manner of athletic prowess. This is why it’s foundation shattering to have elite female athletes existing and why, Ritchie and others argue, sex testing―something so fundamentally at odds with human rights―is acceptable in the institution of sport and nowhere else.

This ideology of “natural” gender roles was furthered propped up by the institution of science during the 19th century . A most hilariously ridiculous example being the ‘research’ that found that bicycling would cause a woman’s uterus to implode – it being such an unnatural act. Science was not only interested in proving the naturalness of social gender roles but also white supremacy. When Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Hilter’s Germany he shook up racial assumptions. The response of science and society as neatly summed by PBS’ excellent documentary Race: The Power of An Illusion, “How could a society steeped in the science of racial inferiority reconcile itself to Owen’s four gold medals? By conceding innate athletic superiority to African Americans while denying them so-called civilized capacities.” i.e. black athletes were bigger and stronger since it wasn’t that long ago that they were living in a jungle running from animals.

“Experts” may not say such things out loud anymore but these are the assumptions that sport and our society were built on and it will certainly take more than a few decades to be rid of these deep seeded prejudices. Gender and race are not genetic and there’s nothing “natural” about society’s expectations of either. These systems of injustice are what need to be scrutinized and the institutions that keep these ideologies the norm through such behaviour as the International Olympic Committee’s refusal to completely abolish sex testing. Brittney Griner need not enter the conversation unless we’re remarking on her amazing slam dunks.

Follow Ellie Gordon-Moershel: @EllieGordonMoe

Comment section is no longer open on this post.
29 Comments | Comment on This Post

Blog Categories

RSSTwitterFacebook

The purpose of the blog is to create dialogue and debate around current issues related to women, feminism, and social justice.
We enjoy active participation in the blog, however, we reserve the discretion to remove any comments that are threatening or promote hate speech.

Search This Blog:


Site by Anne Emberline