Soft Spots: Sexism and the Entertainment Industry

A friend of mine asked an important question recently; given that the entertainment industries, Hollywood film in particular, are habitually, casually, unconsciously sexist, where can we intervene? Where are the soft spots? My first thought was encouraging allies because there are a lot of men in media who are onside when it comes to sexism. I think there is merit in recruiting allies because feminism ultimately can’t work without men being on board. I stand behind that part of what I was saying. It really can’t work without men, which is why the very idea of allies was invented. I take a great deal of pride in calling myself an ally because I know that I can use the privilege that dumb luck gave me to undermine that very system of power. That’s one of my major goals in life.

You’re probably seeing the problem here, right?

This friend (who will remain nameless because I don’t think it’s cool to put people’s names online without their permission) pointed out that when my head went to allies, I was in effect advocating that we should empower male voices in the media, which is pretty damned counter-productive to the task at hand. It’s not what I meant, but it is what I said, and I immediately felt like a big dumb asshole man for saying it, which is a healthy thing to feel every so often when you have all the privilege. So anyway, the central question remains: where are the soft spots?

We need to support the media that does grant women the ability to speak out against sexism and to represent themselves in all their diversity. We should support those media products that get it right, but those are few a far between, so we have to also independent, small-scale media as well. Film, TV, music, and comics all have healthy indie movements, and a lot of those artists are women. A little affirmative action is called for, here; we need to throw our money and attention at those people who need more help because of they’re operating in a sexist media context.

And that’s what I mean by “support,” by the way. The term often gets watered down to the point where it’s a euphemism for just agreeing with something, as if simple agreement, in the privacy of your own skull, actually helps anyone. No, they need our money, our attention, and our word of mouth. That’s actual support. I don’t think this support has to be exclusively for creators who are women, but that really ought to be the vast majority of it because men aren’t facing the same kinds of barriers to entry and double standards when it comes to having voices in our media landscape. If you have the skills and the time, then you can even take that support a step further and make the feminist/non-sexist media.

We also need to call out sexism, misogyny, and patriarchy when we see them. It doesn’t have to mean we’re not fun at parties any more. We don’t have to put our senses of humour in a lockbox. (And by the way, anyone who says that feminists have no sense of humour has never actually spent any time with them. When someone makes that idiot claim, what they’re really saying is “feminists don’t find sexism funny,” and there’s no reason they should.) Feminist analysis really just means getting good at spotting sexism.

The Bechdel Test is one good example of a way to get ourselves thinking about these things; a movie must have (a) multiple, central female characters who (b) must talk to each other about (c) something other than men. It shouldn’t be a high bar to clear, but it is. It’s not the whole discussion, of course, and it doesn’t automatically mean a movie is or isn’t sexist, but it’s a great place to start.

Another good system is thinking about the distinction between sexy and sexualized. They’re somewhat arbitrary terms, but in conversations I have about the subject, “sexy” implies a certain agency and humanity on the part of the sexy person. That person’s sexuality is one part of a larger personality; it’s not her only trait or the only trait that really matters to the narrative. This is very different than “sexualized,” which implies that it’s something being done to that person (character), either by the whims of an author or by the audience’s insistence, which tends to take away all of her other traits.

It’s a subtle and by no means Boolean distinction, but a good rule of thumb is the notion of objectification. Once a person has been reduced to body parts, it’s probably sexualization. The framing of an image, for example, can take a woman’s face away, the part that we humans empathize with the most. Costuming can imply a body on display as opposed to a body that belongs to a person. Textual descriptions of the dimensions of a body, to exclusion of personality or history, have the same effect. Nudity isn’t a problem in and of itself. A fully clothed woman can be sexualized by the way she moves in a video game, for example, and a naked woman can be empowered by what she’s doing.

What I’m really circling around is the concept of the male gaze, which is a theory in film more or less created by Laura Mulvey. There’s a lot to her argument on the subject, but the simple version is that movies are filmed and cut—and I would argued costumed and written—for the viewing pleasures of men. Women’s bodies thus become spectacle, things to be looked at, not people whom we relate to. To be clear, this isn’t the gaze of men. It’s the way that movies are made for a hypothetical man’s pleasure, and it’s so common in film that lots of people don’t even notice it. Of course, if you have the body that’s being dehumanized, then you’re way more likely to notice it without prompting, which is why men—who don’t have to deal with being gazed at—have to get much better at noticing it.

We also have to support open discussions, and that often means representations, of sexuality in the media. There’s a time and place, of course, and that doesn’t mean that anything goes, but being feminist doesn’t mean being anti-sex. In fact, suppressing women’s healthy, adult sexuality is a big part of patriarchy: a way that women’s behaviour is controlled in order to conform to a gender-based power structure in which women don’t get to have any sexuality except for subservience to their husbands, and gay women barely exist or only exist for the titillation of the male gaze.

Women in media who are whole people—or as close to “whole people” as fictional characters can be—get to have their sexuality. They get to wield it. They get to play with it. They get to enjoy it. Being sexy doesn’t make them anti-feminist. If it’s handled right, it simply represents a part of the reality of being a woman and being human; we’re a sexy species. To represent women as having no sexuality—or more to the point, having only that sexuality that conforms to the male gaze—is a way of dehumanizing them.

There’s a seemingly grey area, here, when we talk about a fictional woman who ostensibly “chooses” to behave in ways that conform to the male gaze, which allegedly wraps around to being a form of agency, as if choosing sexism makes sexism okay. But she’s not choosing it. Her creator is choosing it because “she” is fictional, and if she’s been constructed in such a way that it’s basically her only personality trait, if it’s overshadowing her humanity, then we’re just sexualizing again. There are a million and one excuses that people (mostly men) use to justify sexist representations; we have to call them on that shit, too.

Once we get good at recognizing things like objectification, dehumanization, male gaze, personal agency (including sexual agency), then we’re not just able to tell which things in the media to support, but we can talk rationally about why we don’t want to support something else, and that’s important because have to be able to articulate the objection not just in terms of taking offence. The quickest way to dismiss an objection is to put it all on the objector by identifying the problem as their reaction, and trying to “solve” that problem by convincing them not to be offended any more, instead of addressing the real problem: the media in question.

Many people are just never going to believe us when we object on the basis of objectification. They’re twist themselves in knots trying to demonstrate that the problem doesn’t exist, often by simply heaping the burden of proof on us and then sitting in judgement of our arguments, and once we’ve identified that defence, we can just ignore it and move on. They are, for now, lost causes. Once we’re in a real discussion with someone who’s at least listening, then we can call on our actual evidence. There’s strategy, here. Slamming our heads against a wall of sexist idiocy isn’t required.

Finally, to come around to where I started, I do think that men in particular have to get comfortable with objecting to sexism. We have a moral responsibility to reject it specifically because it claims to be in place for our benefit, and as my friend pointed out, we already have the social privilege to speak. We should use it. Anyone who calls us “pussy whipped” or “white knights” for doing so is merely demonstrating why it’s so important that we don’t stop. There’s room for debate about the best way to eliminate sexism, of course, but personal insults and ad-hominem attacks don’t qualify as debate. We have to learn to hear those insults as signs that it’s working, not as signs that we’ve been rejected from some kind of cub of men (and do we really want to be in a club with those men?). These men are attacking us because they are, consciously or not, defending the very sexism that we have to eliminate.

There are lots and lots of other things we can be doing. Having thought all of this through, and written this essay-length blog entry, I realize now that I’m very much writing as and for someone like myself, someone who sees social critique as a powerful form of corrective intervention, but in an age where we all have blogs and twitter, I don’t think I’m wrong. If we can communicate to the mass-media industries what we will and won’t give them money for, they’ll either change or die. They resist change, of course, because they have business models in place that already work and change costs money, so we’ll have to force it on them, and that was kinda the point of this whole exercise.