Women Are Hilarious

The first time I heard the phrase “women aren’t funny” I thought to myself, “that’s really funny. I bet a woman came up with that.” Then, when I realized it wasn’t a joke, I spent an entire evening determining just how many ways it’s possible to dislike Christopher Hitchens, and I did enough internet research to come to the horrified (yet, ugh, not surprised) conclusion that people actually believe that there is something about women that makes them less funny than men. In case you’ve been blissfully unaware of this longstanding belief in women’s comedic inadequacies, Bitch Media has put together this helpful timeline. In fact, while you’re at it, take a reading break and spend the next four minutes watching a group of hilarious women respond to claims that they aren’t funny. Because, dammit, women have been funny for at least as long as people have been telling us we’re not.

I thought about writing a long-winded rant detailing just how sexist the whole idea that women aren’t funny is (who gets to decide who does and doesn’t count as funny? For that matter, who gets to decide what standards of “funniness” we’re using in the first place?). However, when I asked my friend, “What do you think about this idea that women aren’t funny” and she responded, “Bullshit. I’m hilarious,” I threw the entire idea out the window. Instead of talking about why people think women aren’t funny, I realized it would be a lot more fun to spend this time proving the naysayers wrong. Newsflash: women make me laugh until I’m tear-soaked and split at the sides and I have a sneaking suspicion it isn’t just me. Additionally, (because I’m nothing if not ambitious) I don’t just want to show you that women are funny. What I’m really bursting to share is the fact that feminist women are funny. “Whaaat?” says you who’s been convinced all along that feminism is about as funny as the stomach flu – you just might want to hold on to your pants. Things are about to get exciting.

For the record, the comedians I’m about to reference come from a fairly mainstream and well-known group of women. While heaps of high quality feminist comedy exists throughout the world’s many local comedy scenes, I have only so many words to work with before this blog post becomes a novel and I have to hold myself back somewhere. Also, I think it’s important to point out that feminist comedians aren’t just working within a “niche market” of feminist comedy consumers. Nope, these ladies are infiltrating the many corners of popular culture faster than you can say “Whoopi Goldberg” and I think there’s something mighty revolutionary about that. 

Point #1: Margaret Cho: Margaret Cho starting writing standup comedy when she was 14. By the time she was 16, she was performing professionally. Today, we know Margaret Cho as the comedian and performer who has travelled around the world doing standup (and producing films along the way) and who’s starred in the television shows All-American Girl, The Cho Show, Drop Dead Diva, and Dancing With the Stars. She’s made a Grammy nominated album of musical comedy called Cho Dependent and she’s written two books, I’m the One That I Want and I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight. Why have I bothered to tell you all of this? The point I’m trying to make here is that Margaret Cho is pretty much the shit. Not convinced? Let me show you: 

1. Firstly, she is hilarious and witty about race. I mean, really hilarious and witty

2. Secondly, she has some funny stuff to say about contraceptives, feminism, and being and expert on North Korea.

3. Thirdly, she makes us laugh about monogamy, childbirth, and why she is not a mother.

One of the things that makes Margaret Cho so incredible is the person that she is behind the comedy. Growing up as the target of bullying, even Cho’s success as a comedian didn’t silence the people who have tried to change who she is. In her bio on her website, she speaks about the experience of having ABS “water down” her show, All-American Girl, to the point that it became “completely lacking in the essence of what I am and what I do.” Cho faced scrutiny so severe that she ended up hospitalized for kidney failure as the result of an eating disorder (an experience she talks about in the documentary Miss Representation). Despite these struggles, Cho has continued to focus on staying true to who she is and has worked to remain in charge of the production and distribution of her work so she can keep telling the jokes that need to be told. An active and ardent feminist, Margaret Cho has worked with a variety of anti-racist, anti-bullying, and gay-rights campaigns and has won award after award not just for her work as an entertainer but also for her dedication to social justice. At this point you’re probably more than convinced you’re in love with Margaret Cho, but, just to be extra helpful, here’s a link to her blog. My current favourites? “Why is it great to be a queer icon?“ and “You are not ugly. Don’t make videos“.  

Point #2: Amy Poehler: Amy Poehler has been knocking some improv socks off for pretty much forever, starting with her work in college as well as her time with Second City, Upright Citizens Brigade, and a variety of other improv groups. Of course, there was also that whole thing where she became a huge star on Saturday Night Live and we all had insta-crushes. Then, (THEN) as if we weren’t already convinced of Poehler’s greatness, this little thing called Parks and Recreation happened and now my partner and I have stopped going on dates because sitting on the couch laughing our asses off to Poehler and the rest of the Parks gang is always infinitely more enticing. In an article called “Sitcoms are the Golden Land of Feminist TV Characters,” Bitch Media writer Gabrielle Moss talks about the pattern of sitcom feminists who are either “flakes” or “ball busters”. That is until Poehler’s Leslie Knope came along and proved that feminism doesn’t have to be portrayed as a laughable and out-of-touch quirk in our so-called “post-feminist” world, but that it can instead be a part of a character that makes them endearing and, more importantly, relatable.

 One of the things I love most about Amy Poehler is just how open about feminism she is. In a time when women entertainers everywhere are avoiding the word “feminism” like the plague, Amy Poehler is off making a show for girls that focuses on highlighting just how badass they really are. Yep, just because they rock, Amy Poehler got together with her friends Meredith Walker and Amy Miles to create a show called Smart Girls at the Party which teaches girls all about their awesomeness. Part of her motivation for the show, as Poehler explained when she was asked about the over-sexualization of acts like the Pussycat Dolls, is because

“Once it comes into the adult realm it’s like, ‘Great, go for it, do your own thing … Sit on cakes. Do whatever the fuck you want.’ It’s just that I get worried for young girls sometimes; I want them to feel that they can be sassy and full and weird and geeky and smart and independent, and not so withered and shrivelled … More than it being the Pussycat Dolls thing? It’s just distracting from what is real power.”

Granted, I haven’t spent enough time perusing the website to be convinced that Smart Girls at the Party‘s approach to feminism is necessarily intersectional nor am I entirely sure how the show frames the issue of gender expression more generally, but when I watch videos like this one, I can’t help but feel at least a little excited about the whole idea. 

But enough of me blabbing. Here’s a video of Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope using every sexist stereotype she can think of to her advantage as she tries to distract and confuse a park ranger (this, for the record, is one of those rare occasions where ironic sexism is actually funny).

Point #3: Wanda Sykes: If you’re a friend, relative, or colleague of mine, there’s a very good chance you’re aware of my firm belief that Wanda Sykes is god’s gift to the world (which is saying a lot, coming from the girl whose relationship with god is rocky at best). Like Margaret Cho, Wanda Sykes has been rocking the standup scene in all the right ways for ages. Also, she’s written and performed for The Chris Rock Show in addition to starring and making appearances in the television shows Wanda at Large, Inside the NFL, Premium Blend, Crank Yankers, Wanda Does It, and The New Adventures of Old Christine. She’s also written a book called Yeah, I Said It which I haven’t read but am currently adding to my list of “absolutely must reads”. Just when you’re feeling like Wanda Sykes has already been awesome enough for one lifetime, there was also that time she was the featured entertainer at the 2009 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner(She made some comments about Rush Limbaugh that some people got a bit upset about but, really, I dare you not to laugh at them.) Super fun fact? In spite the sexism, racism, and heterosexism that creates immense barriers to queer women of colour’s participation in popular culture, Sykes was the first African American woman and the first openly queer person to be the featured entertainer at the White House Correspondents’ dinner. Like I said, she’s pretty incredible.

Wanda Sykes is so hilarious and well loved that, as I was researching to write this post, I got lost in a sea of blogs calling her “detachable vagina” joke the perfect example of a joke about rape that is actually funny and helpful. Instead of shaming victims, Sykes makes us think about how pervasive the fear of sexual violence can be in people’s lives and even makes us laugh while she’s doing it. Also on the list of Wanda Sykes jokes that we can’t get enough of? That time she talked about “dignified black peoplewhen she pointed out just how ridiculous “reverse racism” really isand when she imagined the experience of “coming out black”.

Sykes continues to make all of our lives better, not just by cracking us up, but also by speaking out about marriage equality, working with organizations like PETA, and by participating in anti-homophobia campaigns like the 2008 “Think Before You Speak Campaign. Sykes is such a gifted comedian that she even manages to make jokes about Sarah Palin without being sexist or offensive. While I couldn’t (for the life of me) find a clip of her interview with Jay Leno where she speaks about Palin, incredible feminist blogger Melissa McEwan did manage to create a transcript of it so we can still get our laugh on. Highlight? The moment where Sykes calls herself a feminist on television. WHAAAT?! (Sometimes… it really is the small things.) Haven’t had enough Wanda Sykes yet? Don’t worry, I’ve got your back. Check out her website for more feminist hilarity.

Now, I think if we take a moment to collectively consider the logical premise outlined by points 1, 2, and 3, we can come to the conclusion that I’ve just presented a rather compelling argument. Margaret Cho, Wanda Sykes, and Amy Poehler are really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to women being hilarious and feminist in incredible ways. While the general purpose of this post has been to discuss this in good fun, I think it’s worthwhile to take a moment to consider the reality that humour is powerful and compelling and that it has an undeniable ability to bring people together. Comedy is one of the best parts about being alive. So, when I’m arguing against claims that women (and feminism) aren’t funny, I’m not just doing it for the hell of it. I do it because feminist comedy has given me the space to laugh like I’ve never laughed before. I wrote this because it’s women like Cho, Sykes, and Poehler who are the reason I haven’t given up on popular culture. When you tell me that women aren’t funny, I’m not just offended by your ignorant sexism, I’m hurt by your denial of the kind of humour that makes me feel like a healthy and happy human being. So, please, crawl out from that sad, lonely hole dug by the cold hands of patriarchy and watch Mindy Kaling be funny and awesome at everything she does or check out Aubrey Plaza in The To Do List and… don’t forget to laugh. 

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A Feminist Conversation on Chivalry

by Nicole Deagan, Ariana Barer, Ellie Gordon-Moershel, Carly Rhianna Smith, Helen Polychronakos, Carissa Ropponen, Katie Scholfield, and Caity Goerke. 

In March, The F Word Media Collective received the following email from The Morning News with Philip Till at CKNW:

“…I’m writing because I’m hoping that someone from The F Word would be available for an interview. Earlier this week I saw an article on chivalry in the Huffington Post and I thought it would open the doors for an interesting discussion. [http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/andrew-lawton/chivalry_b_2936648.html]. Basically in the article, the author talks about an incident at a coffee shop where he held open the door and a woman refused to walk through the door saying, “I don’t need a man to hold doors open for me.” The author says he was just doing what he was raised to do, be polite!

We are going to be speaking with the author of the article to have him share his story and start the discussion on chivalry, and we’ll also speak with a gender studies professor to talk about gender roles/stereotypes, etc. I’d like to have someone from The F Word on our show to talk about chivalry from a feminist point of view.”

In response, one of our collective members, Nicole, agreed to go on-air and seize the opportunity to share her thoughts about chivalry and to speak to how we might consider chivalry from a feminist perspective. Additionally, Nicole’s invitation for an interview sparked a conversation amongst the members of The F Word regarding our own thoughts on chivalry:

Ellie: I have an opinion on this. It’s definitely not top on my list of battles to fight but it does annoy me when men open doors for me but even more so is when men try and give up their seat to me on public transit.

Carly: I don’t see it as a big problem or something I need to speak up against because, quite frankly, there are bigger and more problematic issues when it comes to gender inequality. It’s a symptom of larger attitudes, no doubt, but having someone be extra polite to you is not really the worst thing that could happen. I’d take having someone awkwardly hold the door open or try to give me their seat on transit over being sexually propositioned or harassed on the street any day. It’s not malicious or ill-intentioned, and while it does carry the implication that I am a weaker female, I can live with it.

Katie: Basically, I think that whatever gender you are, it is polite to hold the door open for someone if it makes sense. i.e. If someone has a lot of stuff in their hands/are struggling with something, or if I’m simply a few steps ahead, and the flow of our walking makes opening the door for them more convenient than walking through myself and holding it open. For me its all about what is the most practical. Basically practicality and minimal disruption of movement is what I focus on. So, I get annoyed when my flow is disrupted because a guy is mislead into thinking it’s his job to open the door for me. Pet peeve!

Ellie: Exactly, politeness is holding the door for the person coming into a building behind you. Everyone should do that for everyone all the time regardless of gender. It just keeps the flow going (as Katie said). Politeness is also going out of your way to open a door for someone who is carrying a lot of shit. Again, regardless of gender.

Katie: I do not mind if a guy holds the door open for me, I don’t look at it as gendered. However, if a guy won’t walk through a door I hold open for him, then that’s a problem, and is the point at which chivalry or “politeness” becomes sexism.  What I mean when I use the term sexism, is not misogyny/hatred of women, but a perception that some action or exchange is to take place with the male or female in set roles; in this instance, a man opening the door for a woman.  If I open a door for a guy, oftentimes he will open the OTHER door himself and go through it.  How does that make any sense? It could easily be interpreted as rude, and likely would be so if I were to refuse to walk through a door a guy opened for me, and opened my own door.

Similarly, it makes no sense if I’m nowhere near a door and a guy holds it open, and waits 10 seconds or more for me to walk through, when I am clearly  able-bodied and not weighed down with objects.  Don’t do that.  That is inconvenient and doesn’t make sense if it’s simply to make you feel like you’re doing your job as the man, because in fact you are simply annoying capable women. :P

Ellie: Unfortunately, this argument always get conflated to “oh here goes another crazy feminist blaming a ‘nice’ guy for oppression.”

Caity: I was walking into a bank and an older guy was walking in a little ahead of me. The bank had a vestibule so we had to go through two sets of doors get inside. Because he arrived at the door first, he held it open for me. Considering that that meant I got to the second door before him, I tried to hold it open for him to return the favour. However, he stopped right away and (he was a lot taller than me) he reached over me to hold the door instead and insisted that I walk in ahead of him. What was the worst part about the situation was how flustered he got and how bad I felt for making the things feel awkward. The whole thing immediately made me feel like I should have just let him hold the second door in the first place because it would have been easier. Thinking about it later, that felt shitty because I know that the “easier” it seems to maintain the status quo, the harder it is to uncover where paternalism and sexism exist in ideas like chivalry.

Helen: I do have a little internal feminist spasm when a man opens a door for me, thinking: I should say something! I should educate this dude… But frankly most of the time I don’t have the time, and, as Ellie said, it’s not at the top of my list of important feminist battles. And the line between genuine courtesy and patronizing courtesy is sometimes hard to define. Men giving up their seats for able-bodied women is another matter, however. It is really annoying. I definitely decline.

Ellie: The transit seat thing kills me. A guy tried to give up his seat to me on the main street bus once and I politely declined. At the next stop a bunch of people got off and so I sat down and he said to me “see you did want a seat.” I responded, “how does it make any sense for me to have a seat over you. I’m obviously young and able bodied” so then we got into a public argument about ‘treating women well’ blah blah but I kept saying to him all of this ‘chivalry’ or ‘politeness’ is based on the notion that women are weaker than men and need their protection. No matter how nice the intention.

Carly: I guess this is something that’s crossed my mind in the past, although I haven’t thought about it too deeply. I suppose my take on it is that it’s not really something I see as a problem. Like Katie said, I hold doors open for people all the time (when it makes sense) out of politeness, and regardless of gender. I would hope common courtesy dictates that the person walking in front of me doesn’t let it slam in my face, especially if my arms are full or something. That being said, it does make me a little uncomfortable when somebody quite obviously goes out of their way to do something like that for me. However, that’s simply because I’m aware of the underlying implications that I’m “weaker” or “need help” as a female.

Carissa: Feminism has not killed chivalry. The two are not mutually exclusive.  Men can still continue to open doors for women while working toward substantive social change. One problem I see is that some men think that opening a car door, offering a seat on transit, or paying the dinner bill is doing enough to show they value women. It would be much more useful if men would focus on opening doors of opportunity for women rather than car doors because let’s face it, we are still living in an old boys club where most of the power is consolidated with wealthy white men. If these old boys would use their privilege and power to hold the doors of opportunity open to women rather than to hold them shut we would be further along our way to equality.

Ariana: I’m just thinking about some language I learned at an abelism / disability justice workshop the other day. The facilitator was talking about how useful the language of “enabled” folks and “disabled” folks can be. How does our society and our infrastructure enable some people (accommodate their needs) and disable others? Stairs, narrow hallways, inaccessible bathrooms, ridiculously long exams, tiny print, small seats, etc. Reading all of your thoughtful comments, I kept thinking about how chivalry can be used as an excuse to participate more directly in rape culture… otherwise we wouldn’t need a poster like this. Chivalry can act as one part of our cultural disabling of feminized bodies (as lacking, deficient, and needing extra or special accommodation) and enabling of masculinized bodies (as “normal” and fully capable). Women are supposed to need special safety tips to avoid rape (instead of an end to rape culture) and First Nations folks are supposed to need special funding and reserved land (instead of an end to colonization and racism), etc. Anyway, just thinking about some parallels/solidarity between disability justice, feminism, and Indigenous movements in relation to supposedly courteous acts by individuals, systems, and governments…

What do you think about the lines between “politeness” and “chivalry”? What does it mean when acts of “politeness” become gendered and how can we connect these ideas to discussions of feminism, ableism, etc.?

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Men’s Rights Activists and Misdirected Hatred

by Carly Rhianna Smith

Carly Rhianna Smith is a journalism student at Langara College currently completing her practicum at The Tyee in Vancouver. 

I became aware of the men’s rights movement in September of 2012, when a friend showed me an upcoming debate called “Has Feminism Gone Too Far?”

Vancouver slam poet Ruth Mason-Paull organized the debate. Feminist speakers as well as men’s rights activist (MRA) speakers were scheduled, and a public event on Facebook was created. Interestingly, the debate was to be held on Commercial Drive at Café Deux Soleil, a neighbourhood eatery haunted by many feminists, as well as others of the political left.

The Facebook event exploded with venomous discourse between the two camps, and the event was cancelled. According to an article on feminist website Jezebel.com dated September 10, “Mason-Paull canceled the debate … after receiving what she said was an overwhelming barrage of comments and threats.” On Mason-Paull’s Facebook page, she said “I come from a middle class belief that people can discuss things and work it out through logic and reasoning. I understand that this is at best delusional when applied to certain members of our society.”

Around the same time, in the same neighbourhood, posters from the Men’s Rights Movement (MRM) Vancouver group began appearing, and were soon torn down. The posters said things like “Rape Culture. Men Can Stop Rape. All Men Are Rapists. Had Enough of This Shit Yet?”

 

Journalist Derek Bedry, who soon came under fire from MRAs, reported on this in a story on Open File. They accused him of “creating the news” by tearing down the posters himself. They posted pictures of a man (who didn’t look much like him) and publicly vilified him in comments on the article. Comments were patronizing, saying things like “So how did you become a reporter again Derek? Do you receive a pat on the back from some ladies at work for this? Or do they throw some more bones at you?” All this was too juicy and I did some further research into the MRM.

The most active website I came across was AVoiceForMen.com. They have over 1,200 featured articles separated into categories like “misandry,” “sexual politics,” and “feminism.” They also put out radio shows on a multitude of topics pertaining to the MRM.

But what, exactly, do they stand for? And what do they hope to accomplish?

 

At best, the MRAs look to correct what they see as a series of social injustices directed towards men in a society that caters to female dominance. At worst, they are misguided, angry people with a chip on their shoulder using feminism as a scapegoat for the problems they face in their lives.

“You have a group in a privileged position in society and they’re claiming to be the victim; it’s either a strategic maneuver or else it’s just a misguided perspective,” says Nicole Deagan, a member of The F Word feminist media collective. Deagan encountered a lot of resistance from MRAs when she worked as a legal advocate for women who were going through the court system in the 1990s. “Either it’s people who have power and are uncomfortable with the idea of losing their power or they’re uncomfortable with somebody who’s typically not had power trying to get some. Or else it’s individuals, especially in the men’s rights movement, who are suffering injustices as individuals and they interpret it as a systemic issue,” she says.

The Vancouver Men’s Rights Activism website states in its FAQ: “The MRM is a true civil rights movement, which entertains no goals of removal of the legal rights of others. Both men and women are members of the men’s movement, which recognizes and works to address the real struggles men now face.” To them, this is in contrast to feminism, which “is now elitist, and prejudiced against men” because “many mainstream feminist organizations define masculinity in their public literature as hostile, violent and oppressive.”

The main antagonist of the MRM is feminism. “I’m of the firm belief that, while no society is perfect, we have pursued, and I think achieved, as much sexual parity as could possibly be hoped for in western culture,” says Paul Elam, creator of A Voice For Men. “If there is systemic discrimination against women, I would certainly stand up and speak against it if anyone could show me where it was. However, what I see in terms of systemic discrimination anymore works against men.”

 

MRAs are fighting against misandry, the fear or hatred of men and boys. A lot of MRM literature uses examples of men being irrationally feared as sexual aggressors, female-on-male violence not being taken seriously, and the court system’s favoritism of women to illustrate their point. The problem with their approach is that they frequently cite anecdotal evidence to back up their claims, yet provide either no or blatantly false empirical evidence or statistics to back them up.

Many MRAs, such as Vancouver resident Chris Marshall, seem to have become involved in the movement due to a personal hardship. Marshall runs the website A Father’s Story, which documents his custody battle with his wife, who lives in Alberta with their 11-year-old son. The website, to say the least, does not seem to be working in his favour. He has continued posting despite being ordered by a judge to take the site down, saying in a post, “It is still up because it is the only tool I have to get people to understand the 10-year nightmare that I have been through in the Alberta courts.” He posted his entire psychological assessment, in which Dr. J. Thomas Dalby states: “Mr. Marshall has shown, by his past actions, a sense of entitlement that he feels he has the natural right to construct access to his child in the way he sees fit in spite of legal restrictions. He has seen the consequences of this casual disregard of legal boundaries and his conduct can only be described as self-defeating.”

In an interesting turn of events, Marshall was to co-host a new debate after the first one at Café Deux Soleil was cancelled. John H., MRA blogger at A Voice For Men named only as “John The Other,” would also host. I intended to attend the debate and interview some of the MRAs in person. It was going to be held at the car dealership in East Vancouver, CC Motors, of which Marshall was the manager. I showed up not realizing this, and walked around in confusion, looking for the master debaters. I could see signage out in front of the dealership being taken down but not much other activity. I asked someone and they told me, “The guy who was supposed to run it never showed up.”

I found on the Facebook event page that police had escorted Marshall off the premises and that his position at the dealership had been terminated due to an entirely separate issue. I got his contact information from his website, and he seemed eager, if not overly so, to share his story with me. He expressed worry in our conversation that I was going to “use him” to get to other MRAs and defame their movement. After some reassurance, we arranged an interview time.

I showed up at the coffee shop we’d arranged to meet at 10 minutes early. I waited for him for over 45 minutes and placed several calls to him that remained unanswered and unreturned. He later replied to one of the emails I sent him, but never got back to me about re-scheduling an interview. This was perturbing; isn’t their goal to have their voices and points of view heard by the public? The opportunity was there and gone.

I soon found that MRAs are an elusive bunch outside of the realms of the internet. I managed to get ahold of Paul Elam after several emails over the course of two weeks or so. He admitted to me that the only reason he ever called me back was because I was “so persistent.” I also attempted to contact John The Other through the website, through Paul Elam, and through Facebook, to no answer.

This seems to be an MRA tactic – they control what information they’re putting out and the slant with which it’s communicated. If they don’t cooperate with media, then there is less of a chance of media scrutiny. In many articles, media has been unkind to MRAs, but this has been as much their own undoing as anything else.

Firstly, to get to the heart of the matter, a majority of claims made by MRAs are false. In a video made by Men’s Rights Edmonton, they say, “Women and men initiate domestic violence at similar rates. Over 250 scholarly studies demonstrate that women are as physically aggressive or more aggressive than men in their relationships with their spouses or male partners.” This assertion is widely purported in the MRA community. Notice that the “scholarly studies” are not named, nor are they cited anywhere. Another poster put up on Commercial Drive in September said, “Stop Violence Against Women. But not against men. Because men do not matter, and despite being more often the victims of violence, male victims are no good for fund raising, so screw them.” However, according to Statistics Canada, “In 2010, 7 in 10 (70%) victims of police-reported family violence were girls or women. Looking at rates, the risk of becoming a victim of police-reported family violence was more than twice as high for girls and women as it was for boys and men … The main factor behind females’ increased risk of family violence is related to their higher representation as victims of spousal violence. Women aged 15 years and older accounted for 81% of all spousal violence victims.” In addition, the Michigan Women’s Justice and Clemency Project says in its Clemency Manual, “Currently, there are approximately 2,000 battered women in America who are serving prison time for defending their lives against their batterers. As many as 90% of the women in prison today for killing men had been battered by those men.”

MRAs make claims that sound true or based in fact, when in actuality, they’re based on assumption, anecdotal evidence, or a complete misunderstanding of the issue. “Domestic violence against women is much more likely than domestic violence against men to be life-threatening,” says Jarrah Hodge, who runs the blog Gender Focus. “If MRAs want to address violence against men they should also look at male violence against men and address the stereotypes and pressures that unfortunately tells many men that violence is an acceptable way to resolve conflict and necessary to prove masculinity.”

Most perturbing are their claims regarding sexual violence. In the “Facts” section on A Voice For Men, they claim “Men are the overwhelming majority of rape victims.” However, none of the following statistics they present prove that. All the statistics have to do with the percentage of female aggressors in cases of child abuse, correctional facilities, or the inmates who report prison rape. These are all misleading. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, nine out of every 10 rape victims were female in 2003, while SexAssault.ca statistics show the over 80 per cent of sex crime victims in Canada are women.

Even more dangerous are their attitudes toward rape and rape culture. John The Other was quoted in Bedry’s Open File article as saying, “Maybe it’s a mistaken accusation, she doesn’t remember who she had sex with because she was drunk at the party or whatever. Some make accusations that have nothing to do with being raped; they’re angry, or they got stood up, they wanted to have sex with a guy but he said no. The fact that our society doesn’t have a balance for this is a major problem. I’m not suggesting every woman you meet is a loose cannon, but every woman you meet has the potential to be one, because for those few who are nutty, there’s no disincentive for them to go, oh, I was late for work. I know, I’ll just say I got raped.” This is speculative and revealing that, while MRAs say they are not anti-women, their attitudes are misogynistic at the core. The belief that women can and will falsely accuse men of rape in order to further their own ends is another symptom of the rape culture that MRAs claim does not exist.

“[They] definitely seem to see feminists as enemies. And so these men are in a position of power but are rallying people against their supposed ‘oppressors’. But since those aren’t real oppressors with real social power then it just ends up feeding into the same discrimination that women experience already,” says Deagan.

The clash between feminists and MRAs is tempestuous. “In my experience, their approach is quite reactionary as opposed to pro-active; I find they are more interested in smear campaigns against feminism rather than making a case for issues they think are important to men,” says Megan Karius, who maintains the Feminist Edmonton website. “They generally blame feminism for what they consider men’s issues and that ultimately detracts from their arguments.”

There seems to be a group of them that are quite vocal and quite aggressive so when they see something, specifically when they see women’s activists or anyone who’s trying to look at women’s issues, they kind of come in for the attack and so it’s very hard to have a reasonable conversation,” says Deagan.

I recognize that patriarchy is not only oppressive to women, but functions to oppress men as well. The term “patriarchy” is not some sort of imputation against all men, identifying them as oppressors of all women. Patriarchy is an institution; it functions at the cultural level and, while it does avail men with privilege, this does not mean that males are not also detrimentally impacted by patriarchy,” writes Jasmine Peterson in an article on the blog Gender Focus. This spurred a mocking, hateful response video from MRAs. The background of the video is a photo of someone in a gorilla mask with superimposed text that reads “Feminist sans makeup.” The men read her entire post in a mocking tone and present their own unsubstantiated facts, then go on to invite people to attack her.

The ones who have engaged me have generally taken one of two approaches: outright hostility and total dismissal of feminists as “cunts” or “feminazis” who are bent on bringing down men, or arguing more civilly that they don’t believe feminism is necessary because, in their view, society actually discriminates against men,” said Hodge.

They are just the latest trend in the ongoing backlash to the gains of the feminist movement we’ve seen in the past few decades.  While individual men may face structural inequality due to other aspects of their identity, such as race, class, sexual orientation, or ability, they still derive privilege from being male; I think the majority of MRAs are reacting to seeing some of their previously unquestioned privilege eroded and they are threatened by that,” says Karius.

One begins to wonder whether MRAs hate feminists, or are just rattled by women asserting themselves and challenging traditional modes of behaviour. Elam believes that the over-sexualization of women in the media is simply “recognizing women’s sexual power in this culture. Their sexual power gives them access to men economically.” He says that “sexuality generates a lot of financial generosity in men,” and some women are not only aware of this, but use it to their advantage. “We’ve been skewed by feminist ideology – we don’t see the power women have in our society,” he says. For how often MRAs accuse feminists of misandry, it’s incredibly ironic when they rely on arguments such as this one.  That statement is more insulting to men than anything feminists could come up with,” says Karius.

All this is not to say MRAs don’t have any valid claims. “We can and should absolutely talk about how our rigidly gendered society hurts men, but we can’t stop talking about the ways that women have been unequal and the ways in which women still suffer because of their gender,” says Hodge.

The issues MRAs have qualms with are basically class or social issues and have little to do with gender.

As feminism continues to be misrepresented and seen as some sort of hate movement, the goals feminists pursue become all the more relevant.

I think attacks by Men’s Rights Activists can be distracting from the issues and campaigns we’re involved in around women’s equality. It’s frustrating but I think most people who look at the issues can see MRAs tend to be pretty out-of touch,” says Hodge.

That being said, when I was waiting for Marshall’s interview, a man noticed I had been waiting for someone with a notebook and recorder and asked me about it. 

“I’m going to interview someone for an article,” I said.

“Who? And what is it about?” he asked

“I’m writing an article about the men’s rights movement,” I replied.

“Men’s rights! Ha! That’s a laugh! There’s no such thing these days!” he said as he walked off, guffawing.

Their attitudes may be outdated and misinformed, but many men agree with them. Examining gender inequality equipped with the wrong information can lead to some very troubling conclusions. MRAs create such noise in their political lobbying that they are bound to influence change. For example, a group called RADAR (Respecting Accuracy in Domestic Abuse Reporting) claims they have blocked four federal domestic violence bills in the United States. These are not the first legal implications MRAs have had, nor will they be the last if MRAs are taken seriously and feminism continues to be painted in a negative light. 

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Women and Aging

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Well, if Ellie can start blogs with Rage Against the Machine, then I figure I can throw down a little Beastie Boys…

Now, onto the real topic. Aging.

It happens. We all get older. And even with the most staunch feminist values, we all feel some psychological effects as our bodies age. For women, society’s over-valuing of our looks amplifies our responses to aging.

We know that we’ll have very real consequences in our lives as we lose that ‘precious’ commodity of youthful appearance – and attractiveness to men. Once we move out of the male gaze and onto the supposed sidelines of life, or we fear that we will, we need to look at our own relationship to our bodies and to our age.

There are ways to work with those feelings, and come out on the other side to a place where we can be role models for younger women and show them why it isn’t a bad thing to be an older woman!

Listen to my interview with Dr Vivian Diller to hear her amazing insights on this topic:

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Miss Representation: A critical review

Amidst a sea of accolades and five-star reviews (examples: here, here and here), Natalie Hill offers a dissenting opinion on Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s new film on the representation of women in the media.

 

 

You might say the representation of women in the media is somewhat of an obsession of mine.  Whether at journalism school or studying at the graduate level, research on stereotypical media narratives about women has always been my focus.  I was also recently lured into the core organizing team of the Vancouver chapter of WAM! (Women, Action and the Media), an organization designed to bring journalists, academics and activists together in progressive dialogue about the media.  For all of these reasons I was thrilled when I heard about a new documentary that explores the abhorrent way women are depicted in the media – Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s Miss Representation.  I promptly put together a Facebook event and headed off to a screening with some fellow WAM! members and our collective high hopes for a refreshing take on an age-old issue.

The thesis of the film is clear.  As Margaret Cho, one of its featured interviewees, puts it: “The media treat women like shit.”  Accordingly, the highly offensive content gathered by Newsom – a Hollywood actress turned activist – is  assembled in depressingly cohesive montages: Jessica Simpson writhing on a soapy car in a crimson string bikini; rapper Nelly showering a faceless woman’s pulsating crotch with dollar bills; a young girl featured on Toddlers and Tiaras, no older than six, adjusting the enhanced bust of her glitzy pink pageant costume while her mother glues on fake eyelashes and touches up her bubblegum lipstick.  These make it all but impossible to protest.  In establishing that we do in fact have a problem here, the director succeeds brilliantly.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the way Newsom treats the rest of the doc’s content, comprised primarily of interviews with a select group of experts.   The group with the most face-time includes: Pat Mitchell (MA, President and CEO for the Paley Center for Media, former President and CEO of PBS); Jennifer Pozner (Executive Director of Women in Media & News); Caroline Heldman (PhD, Associate Professor of Political Science at Occidental College); and Marie Wilson (founding President of the White House Project); with more famous faces including Jane Fonda, Geena Davis and Katie Couric.

Don’t get me wrong – these women are very smart, and incredibly well versed on the subject matter.  They are leaders in their fields, accomplished and powerful.  They are exactly the type of role models the makers of the film want to highlight as counter to the sexualized, degraded, objectified women rendered voiceless by other media makers.  But as inspiring as it is to listen to these women speak, the very juxtaposition is a problem.  The film aims to challenge the tight corners the mainstream media likes to paint women into, and yet, in a way, Newsom does it herself: educated and knowledgeable women/uneducated and ignorant women; respectable women who wear turtlenecks and pants suits/sleazy women who wear extensions and tight clothes; women whose opinions matter/women whose opinions are never even considered. Continuing the mainstream media’s attitude that the only people worth quoting are those with PhDs or a long list of Hollywood credits is neither innovative nor productive.  If you want your film to start a revolution, be revolutionary; not just in your message, but in whom you get to speak to it.

The key slogan for Miss Representation is “you can’t be what you can’t see,” meant to drive home the fact that girls cannot become successful, self-assured, empowered and civically engaged if they do not see women who embody these traits on television, in the movies, and in the pages of magazines.  It is a powerful message.  But again, Newsom seems to commit the very sin of which she hopes to rid the world.  Who don’t we see in Miss Representation?  Women with disabilities, for starters, whose large-scale exclusion by the mainstream media contributes greatly to the discrimination they experience every day, as their abilities and intelligence are routinely under-estimated or outright dismissed.

We also see a whole lot of privileged white women doing most of the talking, which means we don’t see a whole lot of anybody else.  Margaret Cho, Rosario Dawson and a few others (on camera only briefly) are great speakers – women of colour with great insights and experiences.  But they play supporting roles.  Bit parts, if you will.  Just like the world of Hollywood she comes from, Newsom lets the usual suspects take the lead, with a smattering of diverse voices included on the periphery.  In prioritizing academic arguments over down-to-earth truth-telling (in one of the few times Cho appears on screen, she tells of how, after being pressured to lose weight to remain on air, she was eventually replaced by Drew Carey “because, you know, he’s so slim”), Newsom reinforces the typical practice of making formally educated white persons’ knowledge and experiences central and everyone else’s supplementary.  This view was echoed by some of the women who attended the film with me – smart, well-spoken women of colour – who lamented seeing yet another feminist documentary in which time that was afforded to people like Gloria Steinem meant little was left for minorities.

The film also includes small clips from Rachel Maddow, who comically speaks to the amount of hate mail she receives about how she looks.  Here she hints – without saying it outright – at the challenges of being gay on TV.  The critically engaged viewer might take this comment a bit further and ponder the particular challenges women face when trying to make it in the media business if they don’t conform to the ridiculous universal standard of femininity.  Or, they might think of the harm done to young queer or transgender persons struggling to see themselves and their experiences reflected in the media they consume.  They might.  And if they don’t, well it’s safe to say the specific harm done to queer women by the media’s completely distorted view of female sexuality (which excludes them almost entirely, except when included in the context of male heterosexual fantasy) is left unexamined.  You can’t be what you can’t see.

So the key characters in Miss Representation were less than original, but so too was the film’s formula.  Newsom bookends the film with the narrative of her pregnancy and her hopes to improve her baby’s future by overturning the state of this media-saturated culture (complete with dream-like camera techniques and music almost certainly titled “Hopeful”).  In between she bombards the audience with graphic, sexist imagery, shot after shot after shot aimed to elicit gasps and furrowed brows and offended shaking heads (all of which I did while watching it, by the way).

One cannot help but wonder – is Newsom participating in the very objectifying she is trying to critique by replaying these degrading images?   It is an eternal dilemma for a journalist – the ‘if I show the violent imagery, am I further victimizing the subjects?’ question.  It is one that remains unanswered, but it would have been nice to see any proof that Newsom herself had considered it.

 Miss Representation’s format is tired and familiar: 80 minutes of depressing facts (including dozens of statistics with no identified source whatsoever), followed by 10 minutes of ‘we-can-do-it!’ Rosie the Riveter fist pumping designed to inspire the audience to go out and change things.  But what guidance do they get?  One woman speaks of the great mentorship program she created, where aspiring young female journalists rub shoulders with former press secretaries and the like.  The visuals show women in business attire chatting over h’orsdeuvres and white wine in what looks like a hotel meeting room.  That’s wonderful for the tiny subset of the population currently in journalism school or on track to become a press secretary.  But I ask, borrowing from friends currently occupying, what about the other 99 per cent?

Katie Couric laments that if women everywhere spent a fraction of the time they spent fretting about their weight volunteering at a soup kitchen, the world would surely be a better place.   She may have a point, but one that is likely better directed at the type of audience that would have spent the afternoon at a swanky salon, not in a theatre watching a documentary about the state of women in the media.  I for one think that hardworking and politically engaged women are the last group of people who need to be told to do more unpaid labour.

I suppose you are not expected to take all your inspiration from these two examples.  After all, Newsom ends with the Ghandi quote seen on bumper stickers and coffee mugs everywhere: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”  That’s enough to prepare you for your journey taking down the massive capitalist, patriarchal mainstream media, right? … right?

There are things that Newsom does well.  The important, albeit brief, overview of how the deregulation of the communications industry in the United States has led to the rise of massive media conglomerates is crucial to understanding the larger political context of the content we consume every day.   Lifting restrictions and allowing the biggest names in media production and distribution to buy up smaller, community-based outlets – and eventually, each other – have resulted in a drastic decrease in diversity of narratives, both in the United States and in Canada.  Simply put, a handful of very powerful people (who, surprise, surprise, don’t exactly give a crap about women) control the majority of messages in the public sphere.  She is also bang-on in demonstrating how capitalist objectives are at the heart of this industry that refuses to veer away from what sells (women’s bodies), and arguing that we cannot approach the problem of the misrepresentation of women without addressing the inherent problems with capitalism.  Finally, a look at all of the subtle ways in which women are belittled and undermined in the news media (one example – reporters describing women politicians as having “whined” when they voiced criticisms, as opposed to the more neutral “said” or “stated” almost always employed in coverage of their male colleagues) was an intelligent and nuanced way to address the film’s thesis, and a welcome break from the montages of overt, blatant sexism far easier to point out.  These are great insights that not all viewers might have had.

But aside from these few educational, big-picture contextual components, the film comes off as a primer for high school students in desperate need of some media literacy, not for adults who have consumed at least a modicum of media in the last thirty years.  I think – or at least I hope – that the average person is fully aware that women don’t exactly fare well in the media they consume every day.  It’s time to move beyond stating the obvious.

In a handful of places in the film, Newsom includes footage from a focus group of teenagers discussing sexist media and the consequences.  They speak of their low self-esteem, their anxieties, their sheer anger and frustration.  I wonder if this incredibly articulate group of young people was given the time to brainstorm a response, to come up with realistic strategies, or to plant the seeds of revolution.  If they were, why didn’t we see it?   What an incredibly inspiring film that would have been – one in which the majority of production time and energy went into finding a solution.  Now that’s a film I’d like to see.

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