Women having a chance to speak up and be heard goes far deeper than media representation; it runs as intimately as our classrooms.
Monday I presented a paper I did for my Renaissance class which examined imagery that was popular for wedding related gifts (panel paintings and chests to store clothing, etc in). Part of contextualizing the popularity of these objects (that were typically commissioned by the groom or his male relatives) was to examine the gender dynamics of the time which led into the discussion of the existence of rape culture in the Renaissance (though I didn’t call it that explicitly as it is a contemporary term).
After my presentation there was a student who insisted on reminding me that not all men are bad (which I never claimed to argue in my presentation) and to reassure me that HE was a gentleman.
While his concerns are not unfounded, they felt to be out of context for the nature of my presentation. I was very clear in contextualizing it and very clear to not make sweeping generalizations (there was an example I stumbled upon in my research in which the male member of a painting couple gave up his career to encourage the development of his wife’s so it’s not like there weren’t great men even then despite heavy emphasis in moralist texts/behavioral guides for men/women).
When I expounded on my thoughts and tried to address his concerns, I was met with a, “Well, I’m still confused,” or “I don’t understand.”
Granted, maybe I wasn’t explaining it correctly but I had the sneaking suspicion that he just refused to hear what I was saying.
This brings me to my point: in my field, I’ve been presented with numerous images of women depicted in a myriad of situations. And the percentage of images produced BY women OF women is a relatively NEW concept in the time line of art, so when it comes to the criticism of images of women commissioned and financed by men from the past, you better believe I’m going to “go there” and address the absurd imbalance of power between the sexes.
Furthermore, when I present FACTS that can be checked and proved from OTHER primary, academic sources (I’m not just ‘making up things’ because I hate men or some other absurd accusation . . . which by the way why is it SO EASY to assume I hate men but it’s next to impossible to hear that men have the capacity to hate women), why do you feel it’s necessary to come to the defense? Can we agree that the Renaissance was a time when some women were merely property to be exchanged and bartered in economic ventures between some male citizens? Furthermore, can you accept that just because some men of the past fucked up, this in no way is an attempt to hold YOU responsible. I’m merely asking you to listen and hear the context. It’s not the time for you to reassure me (and the class) that you’re ‘one of the good guys.’
If you are, great! Then be as upset by the information as I am and realize that there contemporary manifestations and work WITH ME to eliminate them! Don’t look for moments to find a ‘silver lining’ or ‘explain away’ the problem because you’re ‘confused’. Just because you don’t experience the problem being described doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. That’s like telling people of color that racial profiling isn’t a ‘thing’ because you, as a white person, haven’t experienced it in your life. Give me a break.
It has recently come to my attention that I’m not brown enough.
Can we please talk about how this assumption that if you identify as Latin@ in any capacity that you must also fit into some shade test . . . ?
I’m sorry (not sorry) that I don’t fit into your neatly little pre-constructed ideal of what a Latin@ should/should not look like.
No, I don’t “need more sun”. I’m quite content with my farmer’s tan, thank you very much. My family is representative of a variety of ethnic/cultural backgrounds with varying shades of lightness and darkness.
I know that my lighter complected skin means that I may “pass” as white and therefore not face the same kind of experiences as those darker than I (so I don’t claim, in any way, to make this an attempt to undermine those struggles).
However, it doesn’t mean that I haven’t heard the “what are you?” question hurled at me from time to time (and that shit is obnoxious). I don’t know? Human? A woman? A martian? Inevitably, when I do respond with my background, there is always someone who makes the off handed comment: “Huh, you’re not that dark.”
This completely robs me of my childhood experiences; the memories of sitting at a table watching relatives dance under pretty lights at a baile, the memories of hearing people speak Spanish so fast I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to keep up or make sense of what was happening. The memory of Mom finally sharing with me why I couldn’t speak Spanish. Because a preschool teacher didn’t want learning Spanish at home to “confuse” us while we were in school and so Mom stopped teaching it (she, to this day, resents ever listening to that teacher).
I don’t think my Latin@ identity should be hinging upon whether or not my skin is dark enough (for other people). If you ever find yourself staring at someone, trying to figure out “what they are”, just stop. You’re already Othering that person. I understand a certain level of human curiosity is inevitable but there are much more productive ways to find out about a person’s background and identity that don’t reduce them down to a mystery for you to solve. Furthermore, if you find yourself surprised by their background, do not make the same off handed comment that I’ve heard. It’s no different than policing the gender of a person by saying things like, “Oh, but you’re too [ ],” or “But you’re not that [ ].”
I sometimes feel these moments of insecurity when I look in the mirror; like I’m not allowed to claim my identity because I, too, have let myself internalize that, THIS is what a Latin@ looks like (whatever “THIS” is). I don’t have the J-Lo behind, I don’t have the Shakira hips, and I don’t have the Eva Longoria hair . . . but I do have their light complexions (which I know in a white supremacist media world is what rules). Yet no one would deny these women their cultural backgrounds (or would they)? Again, I feel so lost sometimes because I’m content with my bronze arms (at least up to my elbows) that don’t match my lighter legs. I’m content (most days) that my weight doesn’t distribute itself through my thighs, hips and behind and that my waist is high (and not so tiny).
So, what’s it to you if I’m not dark enough (whatever “enough” is)?
From Jacqueline S. Homan
Originally posted on Feminism — The Other "F" Word:
by Jacqueline S. Homan,
author of Without Apology
Combatting the scourge of human trafficking has become the sexy, trendy newest cause for privileged opportunists in need of their newest feel-good activism fix as they seek to profit by wrapping themselves in the cloak of social justice. Of course, those whom are the very core of this cause—the sex trafficking victims (or exited women) themselves—are without real, adequate and appropriate help in terms of income support, medical care, education, job training and job placement to regain control of their destiny to rebuild their lives and live with dignity while trying to do so.
Restoring trafficked women to “normalized” status in society is an important goal, but there is an enormous resistance to that on the part of society, including many “allies” that will not stop their privilege-clinging and power-overing to actually facilitate restoration. Sadly, even most such “allies” look…
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I wanted to begin this post from a highly academic standpoint and quote some kind of theoretical analysis that I could build my introduction upon but instead I am opting to quote a blog post that was published earlier this year in March. It appeared in my newsfeed on Facebook this morning. Hardly the most academic of sources, sure; however, it represents a mass means of conveying information about the state of images of women and how it is impacting society as a whole.
Titled “An Open Letter to Facebook,” the author—who goes by ‘Jackie’—bemoans that “the men of Facebook love to celebrate women when it is in a sexual manner that is visually appealing to them.”Jackie then goes on to explain the exact reason for her open letter. “Today I posted an anatomical drawing of a vulva; something that looks like a page of an anatomy textbook. It was posted for educational purposes to help women get to know their bodies, learn the proper terms, as a learning tool for their children if need be.”
Facebook’s official policy concerning ‘Nudity and Pornography’ is as follows
Facebook has a strict policy against the sharing of pornographic content and any explicitly sexual content where a minor is involved. We also impose limitations on the display of nudity. We aspire to respect people’s right to share content of personal importance, whether those are photos of a sculpture like Michelangelo’s David or family photos of a child breastfeeding.
In an effort to not digress into a discussion surrounding free speech and censorship, I simply want to highlight that the legal ‘standards’ in place are highly problematic for women. A “policy against the sharing of pornographic content and any explicitly sexual content where a minor is involved,” suggests that unless the woman in the photograph can be proven to be underage, the image of her—no matter what it depicts—is within their standard as a company.
Furthermore, that they reserve the right to “impose limitations on the display of nudity” is an incredibly vague and open standard. Of course, one could weigh in and say that this vagueness allows for the instances already higlightedt—nude images of Michelangelo’s David and women breastfeeding. Yet, it seems that Facebook is perfectly content on imposing their ‘limitations’ much more often when it comes to images of women in non-sexual contexts rather than ones that objectify and degrade women.
Of course deciding which images to censor and which to allow on the website is in one part a question of free speech. The other side of that concern is an entirely different question of values. What I mean to say is that those monitoring the complaints made by users of the website are imposing their values in determining what is and is not within the perimeters of the community standards. And their values are a reflection of larger societal values that place women within very narrow definitions. And so images of women on Facebook are filtered through a legal definition of what constitutes nudity and pornography—and it would appear that images on pages like “Lets Expose These Hoes” are perfectly within these community standards and not subject to policing while anatomically correct imagery is ‘offensive’.
Finding an anatomically correct image that reminds men and women of the sheer reality of a woman’s body ‘offensive’ calls to mind Virgin Mary by artist Kiki Smith.
Of course here, the ‘offense’ is in suggesting an image that is completely out of the context in which the Virgin Mary has been imaged throughout the history of Western art—and visual culture as a whole. Furthermore the virginal woman is a carefully protected construction within the context of Christianity. Often depicted with the Christ child upon her lap, she is the icon for the Western construction of motherhood as well—attentive, docile and eternally devoted to her role.
The status of motherhood is a carefully policed status. In many cases for women in the United States, the moment you are found to be expecting a new life, your status as a human being decreases just a bit while the embryo inside of you is suddenly catapulted into the status of ‘person’. This status, in some cases, legally holds you responsible for the treatment and maintenance of your own body. For example in Colorado a fetal homicide measure is set to be on a 2014 ballot initiative. If the measure passes, it will grant an embryo the same rights as any other Coloradan citizen in order to prosecute anyone who is found responsible for terminating a pregnancy.
Kruger’s Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground) from 1989 seems especially relevant over 24 years later. Though the work, in its own time, was in reference to the attempts to reverse Roe V. Wade (1973) in the same year of its production, the fight that women face hasn’t changed. Slowly, state-by-state, measures have been introduced to legally redefine personhood in an effort to protect the unborn. Women have been left out of the decision making processes all together and the legal definitions for their biology has been left up to policymakers.
Much of the opposition to women being able to decide the future of their bodies comes from a religiously lined argument. Citing sacred text to justify a belief in ‘life at conception’, women’s battle for agency over their own bodies has been an uphill one. This is due largely in part to the defense of the unborn ‘sacred life’ within a woman. I want to examine this idea of ‘sacred life’ for just a moment.
Certainly, the history of civilization has produced archaeological evidence to suggest a time when the mystery and aura of women’s life giving bodies were an object of curiosity—if not all out worship. Certainly, the swollen belly of pregnancy and delivery of another human being must have been quite the sight for the nomadic cultures of yesterday. The notion of a sacred body in this context is absolutely accurate. Woman would have been likened to that of a god, one could postulate as she was bringing new life into the world.
However the idea of ‘sacred life’ in 2013 in narrowly defined within a careful timeline: from the time of conception to the day of delivery. Before and after those time frames, the same oppositional voice claiming the ‘sanctity of life’ is quick to turn a blind eye to the child born to a teenage single mother. So, woman becomes a kind of holding tank that must be policed and controlled until she fulfills her role while consideration for socio-economic situations are effectively left out of the discussion.
Motherhood and the discussion surrounding abortion rarely if ever shed light on class issues that accompany such a major life decision. For starters, the ability to provide a relatively comfortable life for an unexpected child is heavily divided along class lines. Only the very affluent and stable of income levels are afforded the luxury of an unexpected child. The illusion of ‘choice’ exists for the rest of the female population. In a way, the inability to economically afford an unexpected child puts woman in a position that makes a woman choose between an unstable and unforeseeable future with a new life or forfeit the ability to experience a phenomenon that—at one time—was as natural as the rhythms of the seasons.
Canadian based artist Amanda Greavette’s work captures, visually, what seems to be missing from women in regard to their own ability to bring forth a new life.
Postindustrial capitalism has effectively robbed women of what Vandana Shiva describes as the ‘regenerative process’ through its reductionist revision of history and science. Childbirth and motherhood have, too, been reduced to a highly medicalized event. In fact, one could even argue that childbirth has effectively become a sort of fast food phenomenon in that some women can ‘plan’ when they will give birth thus creating a culture of convenience and efficiency while the medical costs for women—and their families—continue to skyrocket to enable this system in the first place.
Greavette works from photographs of women during the various states of the natural birthing process. Her work isn’t sentimental by any stretch of the imagination. Rather, it seems to capture a very visceral moment. Her work will, at times, place woman in a natural backdrop or against intricately designed patterns. The women grimace and writhe out in their labor pains yet at the same time channel an awe-inspiring beauty in their efforts. They are strong and primal. Ironically, Greavette’s subject matter isn’t radically modern.
Natural birthing processes have existed longer than medical science. Women assisted one another in the process up until approximately the mid-to-late nineteenth. In the United States a transformation from a natural phenomenon for women turned into the medical procedure that was predominantly understood and studied by men of the time. Doctors—at the time only male—replaced the female midwife that had delivered babies from time immemorial for most—if not all—of human history. And in the arts celebrated and commemorated such achievements of the triumph of science over ‘old wives’ tales’.
Depictions of medical phenomenon can be traced all the way back to Thomas Eakins’ Gross Clinic Eakins’ work embodies the very Western and predominantly male conception of medical science. Cool, calm and detached as he cuts open another human body, the instructor casually addresses his class. Again we see the emphasis upon reductionist ‘procedures’ concerning the human body. There is kind of formula being offered to memorize for later. The birthing process, too, has undergone this formula.
I would argue that Greavette’s work is just as valuable in terms of chronicling actual medical phenomenon and it is just that—a phenomenon while Eakins’ work chronicles nothing more than ‘standard procedure’. She is imaging an experience that not all women will go through but that all women, in one way or another, are familiar with. And in this familiarity, many women more than likely have images engrained in their head when they hear the world ‘childbirth’ or ‘motherhood’. Where do these definitions of how women (and men) identify such terms come from if not through the lens of socially constructed definitions reinforced by visual culture? Certainly Greavette’s work is more about the process in which a woman experiences childbirth, which informs a way in which she experiences motherhood.
Of course, it must be addressed that not all women choose to become mothers. Furthermore, many women are incapable of becoming mothers for circumstances beyond their control. Yet, there are plenty of technological advances that enable some women to try at the chance to become a mother. Again, it must be noted that this ability is only available to those who can afford such costly procedures like in vitro fertilization. So again, the definition of motherhood in the context of infertility must be understood in terms of economics.
Yet this begs the question, does a woman have to give birth to be a mother? Can one become a mother? Certainly women care for and or adopt children in their lives that have no biological tie to their person, so is birthing absolutely necessary? What about a woman who miscarries? These difficult questions illustrate just how limiting yet arbitrary our construction of motherhood is in society. Perhaps with new analysis, theory and visual culture, women can begin to redefine conceptions on their own terms.
Our class was challenged to think of a construction for women that has stood the test of time; one that appeared out of the imagination of someone else whether in literature, music, art, or any other media that has served as entertainment for humanity.
In an effort to choose a construction that I could trace throughout history, I decided upon the “Damsel In Distress”. Now, of course, the wonderful Anita Sarkeesian has already examined this trope in her video series covering specifically video games and their portrayal of women within that specific medium. I am going to shift my attention to visual culture as a whole looking at artwork and movies in particular.
So, let’s start from the beginning (or in this case the ancient world). I am focusing primarily upon Greco-Roman culture because it is the foundation for most (if not all) Western ideology that gets regurgitated with every passing generation it would seem. We begin with the Greek myth of Andromeda and Perseus:
What is probably the most stunning to viewers is an instance upon which a male is nude. It is almost laughable by today’s standards. In the ancient world, the male nude body was in a state of “heroic nudity”. Yes, folks. His nudity symbolized heroism and bravery like that of the divine gods. He was revered and honored for his actions. And I mean, after all, in this image he is saving Andromeda from the sea monster.
So what got Andromeda into this mess to begin with? Well her mother boasted that she [Andromeda] was even more beautiful than the Mereids–daughters of a sea god. These Mereids would often accompany Poseidon (thee sea god) on his adventures. In an effort to get back at the queen for her offense, Poseidon sent a sea creature to destroy the kingdom. In a panic, the queen visited her friendly, neighborhood Oracle only to find that she would have to sacrifice her own daughter to thwart off the creature and so Andromeda was stripped naked and chained to a rock as a sacrifice. Upon her rescue (and slaying the creature), Perseus is given her hand in marriage as his reward.
Of course this story has been adapted many a times; we know the story of the dragon being slain by the heroic knight in honor of the princess from childhood fairytales. Another version is the trapped young maiden who is under oppressive rule of an evil stepmother . . . point is, this story manifest itself in a variety of ways tweaking the characters here and there but it’s origin has most certainly been set for Western society.
The subject of the Andromeda-Perseus story remained a staple in Western art for quite some time. There are plenty more contemporary versions but the one I will share is from Italian artist Giorgio De Chirico:
What you’ll notice is that Perseus seems to be an afterthought at this point in visual culture. Andromeda appears to be totally unaware of any kind of danger near her. She even appears to look out longingly or out of boredom–I haven’t really figured out which one it is. The theme/subject seems to only serve as a reason to have a naked female in the foreground.
I think both images disregard the immediate danger Andromeda must have felt; the peril of not knowing how she would escape (if that idea had even entered her mind at all). The entire subject seems to have been handled in both instances entirely from a male perspective which Sarkeesian highlights in her videoblog,
. . . the damsel in distress is a plot device in which a female character is placed in a perilous situation from which she cannot escape on her own and must be rescued by a male character, usually providing a core incentive or motivation for the protagonist’s quest.
So the emphasis is not upon the danger and fear felt/experienced by the female but rather by the triumph and prize (in Pompeian fresco) of Andromeda as a possession waiting to be obtained (De Chirico).
Speaking of prizes, let’s move on to the Middle Ages and the social structures therein. The entire concept of “courtly love” relied on a very fundamental basis: that women were fundamentally weak and in need of protection and heroic actions of the men around them. Of course, courtly love was only enjoyed by the upper echelons of society under the feudal system but it focused primarily upon the heavy policing and control of both sexes’ actions. In her book A Distant Mirror, Barbara Tuchman highlights,
As its justification, courtly love was considered to ennoble a man, to improve him in every way. It would make him concerned to show an example of goodness, to do his utmost to preserve honor, never letting dishonor touch himself or the lady he loved.
On a lower scale, it would lead him to keep his teeth and nails clean, his clothes rich and well groomed, his conversation witty and amusing, his manners courteous to all, curbing arrogance and coarseness, never brawling in a lady’s presence. Above all, it would make him more valiant, more preux; that was the basic premise.
He would be inspired to greater prowess, would win more victories in tournaments, rise above himself in courage and daring, become, as Froissart said, ‘worth two men.’
Guided by this theory, woman’s status improved, less for her own sake than as the inspirer of male glory, a higher function than being merely a sexual object, a breeder of children, or a conveyor of property.
The Middle Ages embodied a sort of constant state of danger for young maidens. Susan Griffin examines this notion at great lengths in her essay, “Rape, An All American Crime,”
If a male society rewards aggressive, domineering
sexual behavior, it contains within itself a sexual
schizophrenia. For the masculine man is also ex-
pected to prove his mettle as a protector of women.
To the naive eye, this dichotomy implies that men fall into one of two categories: those who rape and those who pro-
tect. In fact, life does not prove so simple.
In a study euphemistically entitled “Sex Aggression by College Men,” it was discovered that men who believe in a double standard of morality for men and women, who in fact believe most fervently in the ultimate value of virginity, are more liable to commit “this aggresive variety of sexual exploitation.”
(At this point in our narrative it should come as no sur-
prise that Sir Thomas Malory, creator of that classic tale of
chivalry. The Knights of the Round Table, was himself ar-
rested and found guilty for repeated incidents of rape.)
In the system of chivalry, men protect women against
men. This is not unlike the protection relationship which the
mafia established with small businesses in the early part of
this century. Indeed, chivalry is an age-old protection
racket which depends for its existence on rape.
So, while chivalry (on a very surface level) appears to be embodying an aura of respectability and self-control, it really relied heavily upon man against himself and woman was caught somewhere in between–either as the valiant inspiration for the young hero or the victim of circumstance in his inability to control his “nature.” This is not only problematic for women but also for men. It presumes that their “natural” state is rapist which is not the case. Griffin goes on to explain in her article that this particular crime is most certainly a product of socialization and is not a “natural” given.
Unfortunately, these kinds of antiquated notions upon gender roles in regard to sexual relations permeate almost all of American culture at this moment. Woman is either a helpless victim or she is the reason for her own defilement. The entire sense of accountability upon men for their role in this regard is all but vanished; so if there is anything (and this is being generous) positive about chivalry, it is the insistence upon “honoring woman” by abstaining from physical contact. BUT, that is a very gross overgeneralization for sure.
This system and game in which women bounce back and forth in a male-on-male competition for female affection/protection/safety, etc is probably one of the biggest plot elements in mainstream entertainment and is also a device used to instill fear into men concerning woman and her purpose (WARNING: the last image is highly racist and highly disturbing).
Okay, so let me address the last image. It is highly problematic not only for its incredibly racist portrayal of Japanese men BUT also for its highly vulgar use of a (assumed Western and white) woman as a trigger to “inspire” young men to take up arms and kill their “enemy” in a combined effort to protect not only the entire nation but women in particular from being sullied by the same “enemy”. Also within this notion is a fear of genetic miscegenation. The immediate threat is the brutalization of White women but the added layer is that there may be an entire generation born of this act of war. If you remember anything from history, it was often the custom of victorious invaders to pillage, plunder and rape the women of their defeated enemies. It served as a way to repopulate the area and ensure that those born were born from the victor’s blood lines. In a Marxist analysis, woman’s ability to sustain and give birth to another generation is exploited and used for the benefit of men. The image also represents a long standing tradition to pit the so-called “civilized” Western man against his “uncivilized” foe. In John Vanderlyn’s The Death of Jane McCrea is shining example from the nineteenth century:
The piece was “inspired” by the death of the young Jane by Native men who were allied with British forces during the Revolutionary War. An obvious piece of propaganda used to rally Patriotic support, it was produced to reinforce already predominant stereotypes of Native American men as ruthless “savages” clearly hell bent on terrorizing the white population (and what better way to get the American man all bent out of shape then to show his counterpart being brutally victimized at the hands of Native men). Again, we see the emphasis of woman as catalyst for male action–typically against other men (in an effort to defend her honor).
The irony of all this use of women as pawns in the game of man versus man is that the same men that want to “defend” women are typically the same men that portray women in the least respectable ways (especially in the arts). Take this Vanderlyn piece from 1814 as an example.
The story of Ariadne depends on the origin of the myth. Here, Vanderlyn has envisioned her sleeping on the supposed island of Naxos and being abandoned by her “love”. Given that she is unclothed and sleeps upon a pile of fabric one is only left to fill in the blanks. And in this case, I suppose it would be safe to assume she has consummated the relationship and has been abandoned afterward.
As in the case of Andromeda, we see a pattern of using mythical (unreal) women’s stories as the basis to model female nudity. A woman’s body is not necessarily sexualized in of itself; I think most rational (and mature) people would understand this to be so. However, the carefully placed clothing and fabric beneath her body suggest a state of “undress” which has sexual overtones but is not explicit.
Still, for some paradoxical reason, we see the same artist attempt to tell the story of an injustice inflicted upon a woman in one work but totally use a woman’s body as a form of titillation and eroticism in the same lifetime.
It kind of reminds me of how paradoxical the United States is about survivors of rape. If the survivor is from a place like India, the whole country rallies in an effort to point he finger at the “foreign” country that treats its women poorly but refuses to acknowledge rape culture and problematic attitudes toward women here in our own country. This has a lot to do, I would imagine, with the white supremacist, imperialistic and colonialist attitude that the West is “right” (and therefore absolved) and the Other is always wrong.
The only way to really illicit true sympathy from an onlooker is to be the “perfect victim”; that is having no idea that an attack was coming in any way, shape or form. I think of the 2008 film Taken.
In the film young Kim is abducted while vacationing in Europe with a friend. The ongoing suspense builds as we find out that Kim will eventually be sold into prostitution. Her only hope is her father (Liam Neeson) who, conveniently is an ex-soldier and skilled in the art of tracking and taking down “bad guys”. This is perhaps to most overt use of this “damel in peril” idea. The entire film depends upon her rescue and while I’m willing to grant the analysis that it’s about a father’s love for his daughter, the film falls short. There are plenty of ways to showcase a parent’s love for their child without the child being subjected to the threat of danger, death or exploitation.
Switching to a more recent film I want to premise my analysis with theory. In his essay, “Multicultural White Supremacy and the Substructure of the Body,” author Dylan Rodríguez argues that the construction of white supremacy no longer exhibits itself as a white body on black/brown body but rather is an internalized system of values that targets and perpetuates the systematic oppression of black/brown bodies. For example, he cites the LAPD’s campaign to recruit more “diverse” members to its patrol teams. Outwardly the institution put on the façade of being “multicultural” by recruiting into its ranks black/brown bodies however the practices of the police department continued to profile and target poor and predominantly black/brown neighborhoods.
When “people of color” become selectively, unevenly incorporated and engaged in the creation, leadership, and everyday operation of institutional racism–as administrators, state officials, pedagogues, cultural producers, bureaucrats, ideologues, and armed executors–the condition of possibility for “racist” and “antiracist” social agency have been structurally reformed. Thus, what sense can be made of the lasting social productions and systematic processes of the white supremacist substructure when the bodies in enables, empowers, inspires, and mobilizes include those that have been–and continue to be–targeted for enslavement, colonization, civil disenfranchisement, militarized subjection, policing, and massive imprisonment?
I used this exact theory for my last post but now what to use it to examine the patriarchal substructures that underline most of our popular entertainment. It is often easy to point to female protagonists and want to suddenly scream “equality!” But just as Rodríguez discusses, the participation of a marginalized group doesn’t necessarily prove that we’re beyond the oppressive structures that remain intact to ensure further oppression of that same marginalized group.
I know that I’m going to get a lot of gruff for this but Disney Pixar’s 2012 film Brave is an example of this exact phenomenon.
I will be completely honest. When I first saw this film last summer, I was excited and overall pleased with Merida and all that her character embodied. She was smart, witty, determined and rebellious. What better message to send to young, impressionable girls than the idea that you can challenge social expectations!? This longing for adventure and a chance to decide her own fate is at odds with her prim and proper mother. After visiting a magical witch Merida is able to successfully obtain a spell that will help to change her mom so that Merida doesn’t have to marry any of the three visiting princes. Innocently enough, Merida gives her mom the cake (spiked with spell power) and soon finds out that by “change”, the witch meant changing her entire form–not her mind. So the plot thickens the moment Merida’s mother is cursed to the form of a bear. It’s a race against time as Merida must figure out how to “mend” the bind that was torn between her and her mother. If she is unable, her mother will remain a bear and any humanity within will vanish completely.
Merida’s mother is a damsel in distress. She may not have been put into that state through abduction or the threat of immediate physical harm but she is most certainly in danger of losing her humanity–even if it was an accident. So while the plot gives us a heroine, her entire reason to move to action is because her mother has been disempowered.
So while I appreciate the attempt to put a young maiden in charge of her fate, it still comes at the cost of her mother. In a true fairytale ending, all is resolved and everyone seems to be content with the situation.
It is possible to write conflict without disempowering the agency of a character. Yes, I understand that most of life is a series of events that unfold and confront us with conflict but most of us are able to figure out what to do with a given situation. Some of us ask for help which can be a blow to our ego but the key there is that we can ask; that we have a voice to reach out to others. However, in the damsel trope, there is no agency whatsoever. A series of events unfold unto her rather than by her own bidding and that small difference is key.
For anyone that knows me, Wreck-It Ralph is, by far, one of my favorites that I couldn’t stop shutting up about. The cast of characters are fully fledged, carefully crafted and all work together within a world that has its own narrowly defined boxes for people but each one (in their own way) are able to defy these boxes and resolve conflict.
I find it amazing that Vanellope (voiced by Sarah Silverman), who is a child, has more flair and presence than the title character (Ralph voiced by John C. Riley). One could argue (and I certainly do recognize the critique) that Vanellope is a damsel in that King Candy has deleted her code rendering her unable to exit her own game and that it is Ralph who figures out that she’s an intricate part of the game after seeing her image on the outside of the machine HOWEVER she is not just waiting around to be rescued by anyone. When she meets Ralph she is trying to figure out how to get into the race; she has forged a home for herself (even if it’s in an abandoned part of the Sugar Rush) and enlists Ralph’s help when she noticed he has the strength to break into the kart making factory. The difference here is that even within her dilemma, she isn’t just waiting around helplessly; she is doing her best to find her place within the game despite all others having forgotten her reason for being there whereas in Brave, Merida’s mother is completely dependent upon Merida finding a way to undo the spell.
Once scene stands out in particular for me in Wreck-It Ralph; it’s the scene in which she is learning to drive her kart. I teared up the first time I saw this scene. Her determination coupled with her having said over and over again, “I know I’m a racer; I can feel it in my code,” comes to fruition when she yells out, “Hey Ralph, watch this!” and proceeds to hug the curves and jump the track. She is truly empowered by her ability to drive and race. That is a great moment of clarity for anyone; finding that your greatest passion is grounded in the ability to achieve it! And this is just her story arch. Each character has their own journey of self-discovery.
That is the fundamental difference that I want to highlight; we are all paths of self-discovery that is active and not passive despite what constructions for women attempt to push forth. It can be difficult, at times, to identify these constructions in hiding especially when they appear, externally, to be empowering but it is certainly worth the effort. It makes shining examples of strong women that much more meaningful and hopefully, with time, will make them much more common.