Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Reflections on Feminism in Modern Culture and Media

I try to think of myself as a progressive man, but I fall within many categories that place me in a privileged position in society. I am perceived as white (despite not having a purely European background). I originate from a middle-class family and currently earn a comfortable living. I am heterosexual and cisgendered, and, most importantly to my comments that follow, I am male. I offer this as a prelude because on this topic I feel disclosing how a person self-identifies is a valuable piece of information for understanding their comments and perspective.

I am not sure if it is because of the growth of critical analysis of more topics in popular culture, or the fact that I am more interested and so follow up on articles that discuss these topics, but regardless I have read many more feminist or gender-issue articles over the last year on popular culture. Popular feminist figures in new media such as Laci Green and Anita Sarkeesian have helped to broaden my perspective, along with the formal education I received at university.

As far as I understand it the basic premise of feminism is that all people are equal and that historic prejudices and power structures exist within our society and institutions that disadvantage certain groups. As a historian this is a very difficult premise to disagree with. I do not have the space here or the knowledge to outline the historic development of this important movement, but it is fair to say that how this end is accomplished has been hotly contested.

I’ve wanted to write on this topic for a while. My interest in writing about this topic has been spurred on by three issues that pointed out that social problems are more imbedded than most of us are comfortable admitting.

GamerGate. Sigh. GamerGate is the catchall term to describe the vociferous attacks, online and real-life, directed towards women in the video game industry and the media outlets that cover them. These attacks are perpetrated under the banner of “ethical journalism” that doesn’t even provide a fig leaf’s worth of decency for the most horrendous misogyny the internet can offer up. For example, Ms. Sarkeesian has been targeted with threats to her life and public talks where she is critical of tropes of video games damaging depiction of women.. Several women have been harassed and had their private residences shared on the internet forcing them to leave their homes.

GamerGate is particularly disturbing because video games have done a lot in the last few years to shed the “boy’s club” and overtly sexist appearance. A growing cast of interesting video games, designers and studios are creating experiences and characters much more relatable as human beings and not just digital eye-candy. Still, the medium has a lot more work to do. There are real questions of ethics in the video game industry, but this has been made irrelevant in the witch hunt. Sex sells and there are more than enough depictions of elf-maidens in bikini-armour out there to depress anyone hopeful for the future of video games.

In Canada media the firestorm swirling around Jian Ghomeshi once again highlights how we deal with prominent, powerful men accused of sexual assault or violence against women. For various other crimes large segments of the public would unquestionably consider the allegations against Mr. Ghomeshi, but as is tragically typical of rape/assault cases the character and credibility of the victim is the first questioned. I am embarrassed to admit that my mind first went there. While I am not a fan of Mr. Ghomeshi I have listened to and enjoyed his interviews and thought he was a valuable contributor to Canadian media. The only protection his accusers seem to have is that they are not alone and that Mr. Ghomeshi has left a trail of women behind in his life who are now ready to stand together.

When a similar story happens to, for example, a college football player I can easily and comfortably dismiss the defenders because that person is not part of my cultural tribe. As a Toronto-based media icon and progressive the willingness to accept Ghomeshi and openly reject his victims at face-value proves that elements of rape culture and misogyny are not too difficult to find when the perpetrators of these crimes are people we ourselves are fond of. The treatment of these victims and how these crimes are handled makes it no surprise that they go underreported.

The third piece of media I wanted to share was the video recorded of a woman walking down New York City’s streets and the endless parade of catcalls made after her. See the two-minute video below.


In my heart of hearts I hoped that brash New Yorkers were more inclined to this behaviour. However my opinion was heartily rebuffed when I was told by a journalist that his female friends often experienced harassment and a former co-worker of mine reported serious, and threatening street harassment twice in the space of a week. And upon reflection I can remember how my friends were sometimes treated as we walked down the street and suddenly this video did not feel so alien.

It should not matter what any of these women were wearing. No one deserves to be harassed. No one deserves to be assaulted. No one deserves to be attacked. In the cool, dispassionate mind many would accept this. Except we don’t. Many of us still cannot help but blame the victim because we are socialized to believe that women are not in control of their own bodies.

One of the reasons I am writing this piece is that I deal with these contradictions. Do I respect women more or less because of their appearance? Do I judge a woman on how she’s dressed rather than who she is? While I think a woman should dress as she pleases do I still quietly slut-shame her? It’s the contradictions in our culture that further confuse and problematize these issues. A popstar dancing in limited clothing in front of a giant lit sign reading “FEMINIST” seems to drip with hypocrisy to me, but conflict among the intelligentsia can’t seem to determine whether or not this is a betrayal of feminism or celebration. At least it’s not as dumb as a young actress declaring that she’s not a feminist because she “loves men.” 

Some of the most ardent misogynists are those who say this is a settled issue. That sexism is “fixed” and that only those ardent man-haters are the ones that want to talk about it. This is not a settled issue. Across our culture and entrenched in our media are symbols and exploitation defined by gender. More and more men are openly the victims of sexism as well are their depiction in media becomes more masculinized and dissociated from reality. Perhaps the great curse is that progress means both genders are blatantly objectified now.

This is by no means a “correct” opinion. Given the diversity of opinions and approaches I am confident that I have failed to properly articulate these various perspectives in some way. Try as I might to be a proper 21st century feminist man I am burdened and conflicted by a socialization and culture and reinforces misogynistic values towards many different groups. So far the only solution I have found is to actively challenge the status quo both external to the world around me and, perhaps more importantly, the world inside my head.


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