Friday, November 20, 2009

Brief thoughts on the Cavalier Daily sexism uproar

You know, after writing over 4000 words in debates with Dan for asserting very similar positions, I'm not sure I have the energy to break down how much is wrong with Abby Coster's "Gender Bender" piece for the Cavalier Daily. Members of FIFE are doing a pretty good job and providing links to other solid responses. It would be a great excuse to compile and revise my argument points from the aforementioned Life Scans Darkly debates into a neat comprehensible essay, but for now I think I'm going to pass. I've got gutters to oversee replacing, jobs to hunt for and a play to finish writing.

So, for now I will simply take a cue from Libby Engel. As a heterosexual male feminist, a recent UVA alumni who majored in English and has lived in Charlottesville his whole life, wore khakis, black shirt jackets and a brown fedora on campus (while listening to Imogen Heap, NIN, Tool, The Decemberists, The Rolling Stones, Tom Waits, Charles Mingus and The National on my i-Pod), used Old Spice deodorant, drank either iced coffee black or frozen mint-mochas from Green Berries, hung out in the libraries (which had plenty of women occupying them), kept a Salvador Dali painting on my wall, sucked at math, probably couldn't direct you to the Commerce School, never went to a single game while attending... other than once to women's basketball, and was never, ever, ever anyone's "bro" (preferring to be friends with people that would not refer to me as their "bro" instead), I call bullshit. Bull-shit. B-u-l-l-s-h-i-t. Bullshit.

(And yes, despite my frequent neglect of spelling and grammar in the blogsphere, I really am an English major... and graduated with distinction to boot!)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

On the "Problem" of Reflective Rasism in Transformers 2

I finally saw Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and yes, I feel that drinking a weekend-long gap in my memory would have been less damaging to my brain. It was... painful. But I'm not really interested in wasting another moment of my life to bother actually attempting to review why it was terrible. I share my pain only because I went into it with some vague understanding that there was controversy over the film being racist, and I for one whole heartedly agree. At the same time, I do not fail to recognize an apparent contradiction in my hold such a position.

While it was really just one of the first things that came up when I googled for it, I think this article from showcases the problem pretty directly.

LOS ANGELES – Harmless comic characters or racist robots? The buzz over the summer blockbuster "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" only grew Wednesday as some said two jive-talking Chevy characters were racial caricatures. Skids and Mudflap, twin robots disguised as compact hatchbacks, constantly brawl and bicker in rap-inspired street slang. They're forced to acknowledge that they can't read. One has a gold tooth.

As good guys, they fight alongside the Autobots and are intended to provide comic relief. But their traits raise the specter of stereotypes most notably seen when Jar Jar Binks, the clumsy, broken-English speaking alien from "Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace," was criticized as a caricature.

As some may recall from my recent piece on Marge Simpson and sexual objectification that I used an argument posed by Slavoj Zizek that illustrated the problem with calling The Phantom Menace racist. Since it was a small part of a fairly large entry, I will repeat section here:
In Slavoj Zizek's The Fragile Absolute, he analysis the criticisms of the first of the Star Wars Prequel as an example of a third kind of racism, neither direct or reverse, but reflective.
The usual leftist critical point that the multitude of exotic alien (extra-human) species in Star Wars represent, in code, inter-human ethnic differences, reducing them to the level of common racist stereotypes (the evil merchants of the greedy Trade Federation are a clear caricature of the ant-like Chinese merchants), somehow misses the point: these references to ethnic clichés are not a cipher to be penetrated through an arduous theoretical analysis; they are directly alluded to, their identification is, as it were, part of the game. […] What is crucial here is that [the aliens] are not played by real actors, but are pure digital creations – as such, they do not merely refer to the clichés; rather, they are directly presented, staged as nothing but animated clichés. For that reason they are, in some way, ‘flat’, lacking the ‘depth’ of a true personality: the grimaces of their almost infinitely plastic faces give immediate and direct expression to their innermost attitudes and feelings (anger, fear, lust, pride), making them totally transparent (Zizek, pages 4-5 in my copy, page 7 in the linked version).
Humoring the idea that all stereotypes emerge from a kernel of truth, that the actions or characteristics of one or a group of people are then attributed to the whole of their race, the mistake such critics make of Star Wars is in thinking that it is like the minstrel show, where black performers or white performs in blackface act out racist archetypes of black people, directly attributing stereotype to race. Star Wars is not such a minstrel. The staggering irony here is that in these embodiments of racist stereotypes, these pure living manifestations of stereotypes disconnected from human beings, "staged as nothing but animated clichés" become racist only through their re-attribution with human races. Like the famous lewd joke Jack Nicholson tells in Chinatown, it is the politically correct critic of the Star Wars aliens who, like the presumably innocent (of infidelity but also racism) wife of the racist man, ends up shouting, "You're skrewin' just like a Chinaman!" (emphasis mine).
Thus we see the conundrum: are not Mudflap and Skidz, like the Star Wars aliens, merely "staged as nothing but animated clichés" which "become racist only through their re-attribution with human races?"

I believe there error here lies in the misinterpreting of Zizek's point as one which says that animated character, through its very artificiality, is incapable of being a racist depiction. That is not his point nor mine in the article where I used it at all (in mine recall that I focused on the significance of Marge's physique being identified as a cartoon's as opposed to a woman's). It is that the Star Wars aliens, on every level, are not human, they are unhuman in every sense and are thus independent with no reference, no link to humans beyond their mutual technological sophistication and capacity to speak the same language. The robots of Transformers are aliens as well, and as such are separate from humans, yet within the universe of the franchise they are inescapably linked with humans through a discourse of imitation. Unlike the aliens of Star Wars, the aliens of Transformers try to imitate humans in speech, and in one case literal form (the female transformer with the lethal tongue), thus their behavior is a direct reference to humans.

This discourse of imitation in itself does not make the film racist. The film Tropic Thunder has a great example of this in Robert Downy Jr. playing an actor who has his skin darkened to play a black man. Like the Autobots, he imitates a race, using only pop-cultural knowledge of how he thinks black people act, only to be contrasted by (ironically) a mainstream rapper turned actor (played by Brandon T. Jackson) who really is black and constantly collides with him over how inaccurate his depiction of black people is. The depiction is acceptable because unlike in Transformers the imitations isn't validated by a direct human/racial reference.

In Star Wars we see humans of numerous races, yet virtually identical in their speech, intelligence and overall demeanor. Like American news anchors, the racially diverse humans of Star Wars (particularly in the prequels) all perform in a universally flat manner with very little distinction between them. They are nothing like the aliens and to compare them is ludicrous. With perhaps the exception of Mace Windu and Samuel L. Jackson's 'pimp-saber' there is never a sense that a character must 'act black' or 'act Asian' or any other race based upon the actor playing them.

In Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, however, we can see much more racially distinct characters. While predominantly white characters push the film forward and save the day, I really only recall two black characters with lines. The most prominent is Tyrese Gibson's character Epps, which appears only in periphery, offering no drive to the story but to punctuate scenes with lines that would embarrass a schlocky Will Smith impersonator. He dosen't really speak so much as say, "Aw hell no!" a lot, and after a while feels like the 'token black character'. Near the end of the film, he does directly cause one thing to happen, he fails to properly throw a smoke flair for the F-16s to target causing the planes to open fire on friendlies. That's right, a decorated solider can't throw a flair. Nice job! As for the only other black character that I recall, it is the infamous "bucktoothed black guy" that the article above mentions, who happens to be working in a greasy spoon, and is told by his white boss to keep at it or else he'll never get his teeth fixed. robots. His teeth are cartoonishly fake providing a direct visual link between race and characterization. The bucktooth big-eared face of the robot twins finds a direct reference to a black man, and only a black man. Mudflap and Skidz's appearance, their manner of speech, and their incompetence are all validated by black characters within the film.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is the stuff of a contemporary minstrel, with characterizations direct stereotypes black people and cannot be excused because of those characters artificiality anymore than blackface can be excused for its obvious exaggeration; the film would be racist without the illiterate robots, but with them it is horrendous.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

NuvaRing ad against safe sex?

You know, I was kinda looking forward to a break from writing anything about sex. I mean, various issues of feminism fascinate me a lot and in general I find them fun to analyze, but I'm not really aiming to turn my blog into the next Dr. Ruth explains it all.

But alas, feeling a bit restless tonight, I decided to kill an hour or so on Hulu, and I ran into this ad which I can't help but comment on.

That the ad has a group of women telling stories about how inconvenient taking birth control pills are isn't that troubling to me. It's not that they are shooting down one kind of hormone treatment to promote another, but rather something that is said around the middle of the ad. A woman tells about losing a pill and her doctor suggesting she just use condoms until everything is back on cycle. This, was apparently a huge no-no for the woman. "That's the whole point of it," she exclaims, that the pill allows you to not need condoms.

So here's my gripe: birth control hormones, be they by pill or ring, do not protect against STDs! Yes, we can speculate that the woman is in a monogamous relationship, married possibly even, and simply taking the pill to avoid having children, in which case the "whole point" bit might seem benign. However, we're given no personal information about the woman to confirm that. All that is clear is that there is something unfavorable about condoms, which happen to be the best way to prevent the spread of STDs short of abstinence. The pill and the ring both carry out virtually all the same functions and thus their quality can be compared. Condoms, however, do not function in all the same ways as these hormone-based contraceptives. Comparing the quality of their shared function without acknowledging the simultaneous alternative use of the condom, at best, ignores this alternate use--and its importance--and, at worse, implies their superiority over the condom at its alternate function, which of course is completely false (the latter is admittedly a stretch, considering they do note in the end of the ad that NuvaRing does not protect against STDs).

I'm not saying there's anything wrong with NuvaRing as a product, but good grief does this strike me as irresponsible advertising. It's not like the women are a bunch of teenagers talking about how they can sleep around with lots of guys and not worry about getting pregnant, but nonetheless the ad's disregard for the seriousness of sexually transmitted diseases warrants someone getting slapped upside their head.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Feminism and Gender Debate (continued from FIFE).

So yeah, I've been debating a lot on topics of feminism with Dan of Life Scans Darkly (good music taste by the way). Both on this blog and over at Feminism is for Everyone. In the case of the latter, things have gotten a little off topic from what the original post was about. Our discussion began when he responded to an aspect of a question I asked another commenter, Lindsey, about part of what she had said about the topic of the post. From there, our discussion took over the thread and Dan has asked me if we could take it to email. Since the debate began public, however, I kinda feel it should remain so if there is anything more to be said (at this point I do feel rather done with it on my end). My blog gets pretty low traffic from what I can tell, so I don't think there is any kind of home advantage to speak of. Still, I hope fellow readers will stay cordial or at least civil.

To avoid unfairly slanting the discussion in my summery, anyone that is curious about this post please follow the link to the FIFE discussion board to see what this is all about. The topic does pertain to sexual ethics, so none of this is probably appropriate for minors (when has my blog ever been?).

As for the debate...

Dan, you asked last time if I could repeat my last comment for you to respond to here it is (if not clear to others, quotation marks indicate things Dan said that I'm responding to; these quotes are all from one comment posted by him and should not be read as a back and forth chat--see original post):

"Just as feminism was a result of femininity, femininity was a result of women. Logically - if there were no women, there would be no such thing as femininity."

That's... just...

Ok look, you just arbitrarily picked a sex to blame gender roles on. You could just as easily say 'feminism is a result of masculinity (and yes, PATRIARCHY), and that logically, were there no men there would be no masculinity (or femininity or gender). You offer no grounding for why the woman must be the 'other' of the equation.

"As such, gender no more "traps" women in femininity than a photograph "traps" a landscape in perpetual summer. The photograph is a depiction (result) of the landscape, just as femininity is a depiction (result) of female traits. It's not a trap - it's a portrait."

While I really don't want to drag out Susan Sontag, your photograph analogy is neither that accurate or to your benefit. There is the assumption that in a photograph you do capture something of the truth, but how does one capture?: through the framing and focus. A photo only conveys a moment, of what is in its frame, from the position of the lens--attempting to translate a three-dimensional temporal reality into a stagnant two-dimensional moment. What is outside of the frame, what happened before or after the shot... all excluded. The phenomenon of the event becomes a story, a document through the photo which can never be fully trusted on its own to convey real truth.

Femininity (and masculinity) as photograph is in this sense, at best like a stereotype: a projected assumption of the whole based upon an observation of a portion. So yes, where gender roles are upheld, gender does trap.

"It's one thing to be a non-feminine woman, but to rail against femininity itself is pointless."

I have nothing against femininity. My fiancee is in many respects quite feminine... when she's not kicking ass with a broadsword or pinning a sheep down for her folks to sheer. I have nothing against feminine qualities - both in the sense of western forms and my above description of gender being 'what each sex does'. Behavior is not the problem, its the constraints of gender upon behavior. It's the part where behavior becomes designated and dichotomized by sex.

"As long as women and men exist, so will gender."

As long as women and men exist there will be women and men, gender designations have increasingly become blurry within our society. We are no where near as strict as we were. Women can play sports, men can more and more acceptably be stay at home dads. Men can more acceptably cry. There is a major problem with women being raped in the military, but at the same time there is a lot more acceptance within this generation for them going to war. Forms of behavior have become much more open to both sexes, there is no reason to assume they will not continue to progress.