Posts Tagged ‘feminism’

Note to Teeth: Bite Me.

December 22, 2008

 teeth_ver33

One of my best friends is a connesieur of horror films, a fact that’s been something of a twist in my life, given my seriously ingrained adversion to them.  (My brother once commented — some would say rightfully — that the scariest movie in my personal collection is Finding Nemo.  But come on, that first scene with the shark attack is hard-core, don’t you think?)  But anyway, in honor of said friend’s taste and to celebrate her graduation, last weekend we watched Teeth together.  I’ve been initiated, over the past year or so, to enough truly frightening films that I figured I could handle a self-proclaimed horror-comedy.  Indeed, Teeth — the story of a teenage girl embedded in the abstinence movement, who eventually discovers a pair of dentures embedded in her genitalia, — pushes its humor at least as far as its horror or its moments of grindhouse grotesque.  The comedy factor isn’t really what interests me, though.  For starters, I’m a bigger fan of the unintentionally hilarious “horror films” (see either version of The Wicker Man), which somehow give the impression of an honest attempt to terrify that simply miserably, miserably failed.  And on a more complicated note, there’s an assumption underlying Teeth’s premise (and therefore its comedy) which strikes me, frankly, as borderline tragic.

I’ll set the scene as best I can by explaining this film is by no means “understated.”  A baseball bat with the word “symbolism” scrawled across it could basically have been applied directly to my skull, and still created a subtler effect.  “Character development” is equally no-holds-barred.  If, three seconds into encountering our heroine’s stepbrother, you have not firmly gripped that he’s absolutely her foil, I expect there are some remaining social services you might benefit from receiving.  But in the midst of all this obviousness, there are a handful of questions that do go unanswered, most of which are more interesting to me than the film itself.  For instance:  How does Dawn, the protagonist we first glimpse as an apparently run-of-the-mill toddler (minus the second set of chompers, of course), end up so firmly rooted in the abstinence movement by her teenage years?  What motivates this particular young woman to become the poster-child for celibacy, giving speeches and even donning t-shirts in support of her cause?

The closest thing to an explanation offered in the film itself strikes me as pretty problematic:  Dawn’s vagina dentata are framed not simply as a mutation, but as a biological adaptation, a genetic fluke Mother Nature might do well to make note of and keep in mind for future generations.  A scene in a science classroom discusses mutations as an essential component of evolution, implying that Dawn’s condition is somehow beneficial to the survival of the species.  Perhaps it’s intended simply to suggest that the extra pair of teeth would be good insurance against a world where every available male — be he your first love, your stepbrother, or your gynecologist — presents a threat, but that conflation of female protection with male peril is a huge part of what bothers me.  If the vagina dentata myth really does originate, as even the film describes, in men’s fear of castration and their terror over women’s sexuality, how does that narrative transition into anything that can be deemed a “feminist” reclaiming?  I’ve done a handful of quick Google searches on the movie, and the film is definitely framed that way, if not necessarily by feminists themselves.  Rotton Tomatoes not only granted it a (beyond generous) score of 82%, but further claimed the film put “a fresh feminist spin on horror movie tropes.”  Critics and bloggers alike — (sidenote: is there much of a difference anymore?) — suggest that, far from being anti-woman, the film actually reclaims the original myth, landing firmly on women’s “side.”  The notion, then, is that women’s sexuality — or even our survival — is somehow in opposition to male desire.  Male sexuality is equated with male-perpetrated sexual violence, and female sexuality with purity we can only maintain by, quite literally, cutting men off at the pass.

Is anyone else facepalming at this point?  Or are we all so used to these representations that we no longer deem them worth the gesture?  It’s possible I just don’t exhaust easily enough, but this still frustrates me.  Why do we socially maintain this tendency to understand women’s strength — in relation to sexuality — as about either personal “restraint” (in maintaining virginity) or about conquering / controlling / castrating men?  Why do we set up male and female (hetero)sexuality as oppositional, especially considering they all but require the other?   

Is there seriously no healthy sexual encounter that can coexist with strength for women?  What would that look like, in terms of representation?  Who does the myth of the virgin/ whore or — in this case — a sort of virgin/ succubus serve so well that we must continually create and recreate it, until we’re eventually trying to sell it as empowering? 

Because honestly the claim is just that.  According to Urban Cinefile, Teeth is the story of a “a woman who turns her imperfection into empowerment.”  I’ll try not to get started on the notion of vaginal teeth as an “imperfection”  — a simple failure to achieve some feminine ideal — but if I pass on that soapbox, can I point out that the notion of Dawn as sexually empowered should not sit well with any of us?  As a woman, my sexual empowerment should not conflict with the sexual empowerment of any male.  It shouldn’t lead to violence against him any more than his empowered sexuality should lead to violence against me.  No offense to Teeth, but I think I’ll hold out for another story of female sexual empowerment, perhaps nicely situated outside the horror realm.  Maybe even one located in reality.  Now there’s a thought.

So Much Racket, Something Out of Kilter.

October 5, 2008

I promise I don’t hate my university nearly as this and other recent entries might make it sound.  Still, I’ll admit that there are times a private, Catholic school in the Midwestern heartland strikes me as the worst decision I could have made (although my choices were admittedly limited.)  In those moments, which often revolve around such goings-on as what I have now officially termed “the Fagbug bullshit,” I tend toward a desire to flee.  I had another such moment this past week, which resulted in a bit of a meltdown and required one hell of a pep talk from a favorite professor, who was thankfully able to convince me that the good I do on this campus more than balances out the harm done to me.  In all honesty, the good done to me outweighs the harm as well, but when I’m being forced to read a New Yorker article based entirely on gag-inducingly repulsive gender stereotypes (not for a gender studies class, mind you, but for a writing class) and when I’m receiving word that the campus may not have enough time to “process” and “recover from” Erin Davies’ speech before the next GSA event we want to have (featuring AVEN’s own David Jay), I start to lose my mind a little.  I filed an unofficial complaint with the professor about the article (which advocated pain for the sake of fashion, threw in a 98-pound adult woman presumably just for good measure, and in general contributed to — instead of challenging — the rephrensible practice of teaching women they are ugly and worthless, so that they’ll be more comfortable trying on shoes than other clothes, and learn to feel “valuable” by buying more, specifically if the “more” in question is a dumptruck full of designer stilettos).  Although he initially blew me off (while pretending to agree with me in part), the professor (who’s notorious for sticking to his original arguments and never, ever giving in) actually conceded the article’s repulsivness after I once again took it apart in class.  Sexual stereotypes appall me almost as much as their acceptability in our current cultural climate, and I said as much.  I can’t see how an article based entirely on gender stereotypes is allowed to stand, when an article based on racial stereotypes or religious stereotypes would be reamed immediately.  My professor’s initial argument was that there are plenty of women who love shoes, who will pay exorbitant fees to own more of them, and who really do base their value on such things.  The notion, apparently, is that because this exists we’re not allowed to question why it exists or to question why it’s allowed to continue.  Instead, as a feminist, I’m supposed to consider myself an anomole and move on with my crazy-divergant lifestyle.  I don’t think people realize how offensive that is.  I may not cling to gender or to “doing gender” as much as many other young women I know, and I may hate the binary with a passion.  Regardless, I do still identify as a woman, and I do still have an echo of Sojourner Truth in my head when I’m told that the term “woman” generally (and therefore “really”) means all of these things I am not.  An article in my school newspaper this week, discussing what male students and female students consider necessary for their dorm rooms, confirmed the same hypothesis.  According to said article, I am neither female (obsessed with clothes) nor male (obsessed with video games).  I am somehow less representative of my gender than my female classmates, because unlike many of them, I do not conform to the norms.  Apparently, gender is defined quantitatively.  If enough people agree to a definition of women, it no longer matters how destructive that notion of womenhood is; it becomes the legitimate defintion.

I cannot be the only person who thinks this is lame.

It’s actually the same thing I find bothering me (most) with the fights for our GSA events this year.  I’m increasingly hearing from people behind the scenes that, in spite of how much we’re actually *supported* by the administration, the real concern is that the events will upset/ offend someone outside the school and as a result, the school will end up in hot water politically or (perhaps worse) lose funding.  I understand this argument so much better than the bullshit excuses they keep trying to give me.  I understand the fear of people losing jobs, of bad press for the university, or decreased resources to serve the students, faculty, and staff.  I really do.  I don’t understand the notion that our events are somehow more “controversial” than a hundred other things that are allowed to take place on-campus, or that a flyer advertising them will upset some unidentified member of the student body.  Am I not a student?  Are my friends and the other group members not part of the student body?  Are the faculty and staff who attend our meetings and our events, who write us letters of support, somehow less representative of this campus than those who conform to the notion of what it means to be Midwestern, or Catholic, or of a certain age?  Of course not… which is why they should just drop the smokescreen, admit it’s about money, and quit trying to pass off the significantly more offensive lies.

I’m extremely bothered by the notion that only conformists are allowed to be representative.  If, by diverging from a gender norm, I sacrifice my right to claim that gender-label, how does the definition of that label ever change?  We could have a million women defining that identity differently than the New Yorker is defining it, but “woman” would still be based in the stereotypes, because to so many people, feminists, (self-identified or otherwise), are somehow not “real” women.  And to “improve” things even further  — (can you hear the sarcasm?) — those of us who dismiss (even partially) those gender norms are considered somehow free of their influence.  For the same godawful writing class that assigned the New Yorker piece, we had an in-class reading about the purse, — its history, its sociological and psychological meaning, and so forth.  The claim at the end was that women were tending to use purses less (at the time the article was written), and that this represented some sort of sexual freedom, or perhaps more accurately, freedom from gender roles.  I consider this conclusion worthy of a whole-hearted eye-roll.  Even if you could prove to me a statistically significant correlation between how often women use a purse and their decision to reject or accept gender norms, I don’t think you can claim that the decision to reject those norms represents freedom.  As someone who rejects at least a handful of those norms on a daily basis, I don’t think the rejection itself is a full enough definition of freedom.  Internal freedom is powerful, but to some extent, I think freedom does require external approval, acceptance, or at least tolerance as well.  A woman in a culture that observes Purdah might feel internally free enough to socialize with men, but that internal freedom will not protect her.  Likewise, a woman at my college might feel internally free enough not to shave her legs or not to wear a shirt during a sports practice, but this will not provide her real immunity to the consequences of such actions, which can range from raised eyebrows and ostracism to action on the part of the school.  In my experience, the rejection of sex and gender norms does not automatically translate to a release from them.  As often as not, the result is instead a constant battle between personal choice and public environment, between one’s own understanding of the world and the conditioning that world provides.

There’s a marvelous passage in Megan Seely’s Fight Like a Girl speaking to the issue:

I believe that there is a special type of pressure for self-proclaimed feminist women.  We understand nonfeminist-identified women strugle with self-image — look at our culture!  Diet fads, personal trainers, and cosmetic surgery.  Between 4 and 20 percent of college-age women are estimated to have an eating disorder, and approximately 80 percent of fourth graders are dieting — they’re nine years old!  But feminists don’t recognize themselves in those statistcs — we’re the ones who know the statistics; we’re not supposed to be part of those statistics.  And so we continue to harbor the secrecies of our betrayal. 

Seely is speaking specifically to the social pressure on women regarding appearance, and as a feminist-identified woman in recovery from an eating disorder, her specific observation rings true for me.  However, I think the basic notion remains true even generalized to other populations and/ or other sex and gender expectations.  Even when we firmly step away from what’s expected of us, even when we “claim our freedom” from stereotypes we find harmful or simply not genuine, rarely (if ever) can we manage to escape their scope of influence fully enough to no longer feel their impact.  Whether I’m in tears of frustration over once again seeing in print an argument I know is harming women, or in tears of defeat over not measuring up to standards I’ve long since recognized as flawed, the emotion testifies that I have not fully escaped.  And since those of us who would like to escape the system cannot manage to do so, we continue to fight to reconstruct it, to see it dismantled and improved.  This becomes significantly more difficult, however, when we’re not seen as one with the population that we’re still a part of and that we’re attempting to protect.  If I’m not seen as a woman because I own only three pairs of shoes, if I’m seen as free from sex and gender stereoytpes because I just as often stuff my pockets as carry a purse, then how can I argue that this system is hurtful for women?  “Plenty of women,” I’ll be told “are fine with it.”  And my own experience will be dismissed.

But I am no less of a woman than my purse-toting peers.  I’m no less of a student than my homophobic classmates.  And I’m no less of a feminist for the pain I still experience, living in this environment.  I’m a feminist lesbian student at a Midwestern Catholic university, and I will  represent.  (Because I struggle to know what else to do and because, when you represent, things sometimes happen: Both Erin and David will be speaking on my campus this week.)