Sunday, May 24, 2015

OUTRAGE, FEMINISM AND THE "PROBLEMATIC" PROBLEM: A MANSPLANATION

I don’t style myself a feminist, having no real credentials as an activist of any stripe. But in my own half-assed way, I’ve always been a liberal sort of dudebro, and as such I acknowledge that Hollywood generally and genre fiction particularly have real issues when it comes to representations of women. And I don’t think these issues are trivial; as a nerdy sort of dudebro, I believe in the power of movies the way some people believe in the benefits of a gluten-free diet, or a just and loving God.  How our popular culture portrays different groups has real effects on how other people view that group, and how that group views itself, and this manifests itself in subtle but hugely impactful ways.  What movies, TV, games, comics present as normal – shit like this matters, even when the actual products are silly or, well, shit.

But lately I’ve found myself in online conversations arguing against those taking such cinematic products to task for their alleged insensitivities to what I will (quite sensitively) call Chick Stuff. I’m not ready to sign up for any MRA message boards or donate to the Gamergate Kickstarter*, but it did prompt a modicum of soul-searching about whether I had just stumbled upon that magic age that everyone but Roger Ebert eventually hits, where the world has started changing too fast for my comfort, and from now on I’m just one of the boring pile of gripes that old white men who aren’t Roger Ebert inevitably decay into.

A few moments of reflection later, I decided that yes, I’m definitely that. But I still think that the online outrage directed at, specifically, the use of Black Widow in Avengers: Age Of Ultron and a certain development in in last week’s episode of Game Of Thrones, has been widely misapplied. I’ll get into some spoilery plot points for both in order to explain, but first I need to explain how to get through law school.

See, when you go to law school, they teach you a strategy for taking exams, including the Bar. Your “question” on the test is generally a page of description of a scenario that could give rise to a variety of legal problems, and your job is to identify as many of them as possible and explain how to approach them. With the clock ticking and interest already accruing on some serious Fuck You sized debt, this can be an overwhelming task, so much of first semester is spent drilling a format for answering these questions into the new student’s heads. It’s called IRAC, for Issue, Rule, Analysis, Conclusion. So you identify a potential Issue, and the prof credits you a few points toward your grade. You then have to recite the Rule, or legal precedent that the court would follow to decide on the issue, and if you can put all the words in the right order that’s another couple points. Then you have to Analyze how the rule would apply, and predict the Conclusion the court would come to.

The little secret is that it doesn’t really matter to your grade what you put in those last two sections, since they’re highly subjective territory. You might pick up a stray point or two with the analysis if you go in depth enough, but really you’re better off scribbling down something that doesn’t sound too stupid and getting on to the guaranteed points of the next Issue and Rule. The upshot of this is that the single biggest talent for passing law exams is what they call Issue Spotting. That means looking at a narrative and identifying all the different points that could be spun into a problem. Because that’s where the easiest points lie, and anyway you can’t get to the meat of the issue until you first identify it.

What does this have to do with the internet and outrage?  Well, I’ll start by saying that, for all the silliness and vile bullshit that it traffics in, the internet has been making us smarter.  Those of us with easy access to it have the collected stores of human knowledge (also pornography) available to us at a moment’s notice, ideas now disseminate with a speed we can only describe by citing communicable diseases, and I am in regular communication with people in far flung corners of the globe that I never would’ve been able to interact with a generation ago.  Yes, this means our prejudices and venalities are on more open display, but I truly believe that on the whole it is, incrementally, making us better, more aware people.

One of the increments in the internet’s growth has been an increased awareness of gender dynamics in popular media. And yes, reading that sentence back made even my own eyes glaze over a bit, but all it means is that when it comes to Chick Stuff in movies and such, those of us that live online have gotten very good at Issue Spotting. We’re much more savvy about tropes and conversant in writers’ lingo than we were a decade or two ago, and now we know about the Bechdel Test, and Women In Refrigerators, and that there’s something regressive about the girl being a trophy that the hero “wins” by beating the bad guy.  So when we spot the signifiers of a problem we’ve learned about, we get excited and want to show that we know about it.  And combined with social media’s inherent push to condense everything down to the size of a logline/status update, it means that the leap is easily made from spotting a potential issue and the conclusion “BAD”.

The problem is, this skips the middle two steps of the IRAC process, and that is where the heart of the matter actually lies. We’ve learned to identify the problems, and that is a good thing that indicates progress. But we struggle more to articulate the reasons behind the rules (particularly on social media platforms that aren’t conducive to depth and nuance), and therefore have trouble applying them to particular examples, and discern whether they are the problem or if they just have the same general shape as the problem without creating the same effects.

So this is all well and good, but what you really want is some of those sweet, sweet demonstrations. Well I’ll give you some proper (and spoilery, if that concerns you) IRACs of various issues with Black Widow in AOU and rape scenes in Game Of Thrones, don’t you worry.  And to do so, I’m going to resort to some pretty blatant straw man oversimplifications of the “feminist” critiques of these depictions, because I don’t have an angry feminist on hand and if I did, their actual arguments would be full of idiosyncrasies and nuances that would really screw up the momentum of what I’m trying to do here. So we’re just going to go with the Social Justice Straw Woman Stereotype version of the complaints (“SJSWS”), starting with Age Of Ultron.

SJSWS Complaint: They made badass Black Widow a boy-crazy ditz.

Issue: There’s a dearth of female heroes in superhero comics and movies (that aren’t X-Men, at least) who don’t exist solely as the male hero’s love interest.

Rule: You shouldn’t take a strong, independent female character and reduce her to being just some guy’s girlfriend.

Analysis: The key word here is “just”. The problem with this practice is that it makes the woman secondary to the man, not that having romantic feelings or relationships innately diminishes a woman’s worth.  I don’t think the Widow ever felt secondary to the Hulk in the movie; she is the more active party, pushing for the relationship, and ultimately she overrides his choice to run away together and abandon the mission.  Which gets to the other thing, that they are never actually a couple, so if we’re going with the shallow view that feminism means that a woman has to choose between her work and love life, and that prioritizing love is always the weaker choice…then she still ultimately makes the “right” decision for Feminism (in this most dumb, basic-ass form).  She sees the job through, and ends the film as a hero and one of the leaders of the Avengers, even as her love interest flees from society altogether and a couple of her other male counterparts essentially retire.

Put another way, the problem doesn’t come from the female character having a boyfriend, it comes from her becoming “his girlfriend”.  And if you were asked to describe Black Widow in a few words coming out of Age Of Ultron, would you honestly default to “Hulk’s girlfriend”?  I certainly wouldn’t have.

Conclusion: Widow’s romantic subplot actually gives deeper shading to her characterization rather than to reduce her to an object for the male hero to win/save.


SJSWS Complaint: Natasha calls herself a monster for not being able to conceive.

Issue: Implies a woman is worthless if she can’t bear children.

Rule: You really shouldn’t say that. It’s…well, it’s just mean for starters.

Analysis: This controversy is based around a fundamental, borderline-obtuse misreading of the line in question.  She doesn’t say “I can’t have children, I’m a monster!” She is wrapping up a monologue about how she gave up parts of her humanity (including, yes, her fertility), to become a more efficient killing machine.  It’s the killing part that makes her a “monster” in her own eyes, and I wouldn’t say that the movie shares her judgment of her own character in that regard.

Conclusion: Natasha’s not a monster because she can’t conceive, she compares herself to one because she’s killed a bunch of people and feels bad about it.


SJSW Complaint: Widow gets kidnapped by the bad guy.

Issue: Women in action and genre movies are kidnapped with numbing regularity in order to provide motivation for their boyfriends to kick ass.

Rule: It’s bad when your ostensible female lead becomes nothing more than a plot macguffin.

Analysis: This is a prime example of people latching onto the signifiers of a particular problem without considering what actually makes it a problem in the first place.  Because yes, superhero stories in particular have a bad track record of making every female character a damsel in distress who needs to be saved by the men (I’m pretty sure Guinness recognizes Kirsten Dunst as History’s Most Dangled Actress after three straight Spiderman movies where the villains’ plots revolved heavily around kidnapping and hanging her off some shit).  But it’s important to recognize that it’s not the fact of capture that makes this trope an issue.  Male heroes get captured all the time, whether it’s Batman or Indiana Jones or Flash Gordon; heck, you can’t even make a James Bond movie where he doesn’t spend a good chunk of the running time in the enemy’s clutches.

No, the problem with kidnapping is that it usually means the female character becomes an inert object, a token for the hero to take back from the villain.  But that’s not how things play out in AOU. Widow is captured late in the second act, but is freed early in the third.  It’s not as though she gets locked up and sits there waiting to smooch Banner after he’s saved the day.  She works to free herself and alert the group to Ultron’s location by sending a coded message, and then she gets out right as the climax kicks off and becomes a full, active participant in it.  She even forces her “boyfriend” to do the same when he wants to take them both out of harm’s way.

Conclusion: This walks like a trope, and talks like a trope, but doesn’t actually create the substance that makes that trope “problematic”.


And now on to the really fun stuff, Game Of Thrones and rape scenes. Let’s start with last year’s Jaime/Cersei scene, where he forces himself on her at their son’s bierside.

SJSWS Complaint: Unnecessary sensationalism that trivializes rape and makes excuses for the attacker

Issue: Having a sympathetic character rape a more unsympathetic one reinforces the idea that sexual assault is not that big a deal, and that a woman can be “asking for it”.

Analysis: I will say that sympathies are a very fluid thing on Game Of Thrones, and while both these characters have spent large portions of the show painted as “villains,” this struck a particularly sour chord for many viewers because of the long redemptive arc Jaime had been cresting. And there is something unsavory about the implication that rape is a less serious offense if you’re in a relationship with the person, or if they’re just kind of a bitch.

And that is the crux of the issue, I think, because seeing how little effect this turn of events had on their relationship and Jaime’s rather sympathetic depiction, it really does feel like the show is trivializing the gravity of the offense. The series has always been matter of fact about how sexual violence is a constant fact of life in its milieu, but this is the first time it felt like the show was treating that fact with a shrug.  It was such a non-issue going forward that, all offensiveness aside, you almost wonder why they even bothered devoting screentime to something so inconsequential. And while I’m adamant that rape and all other manner of abhorrent behavior are fair game for storytelling and can be approached in many different ways, one thing that rape should not be is inconsequential, particularly when both the perpetrator and victim are important characters.

None of this was helped by the various producers, directors and actors giving contradictory explanations for what the scene was trying to convey after the fact, which gives off the impression that this was a rather big bullet to have fired off half-blind.

Conclusion: I’m giving Benioff and Weiss enough credit to assume that they didn’t intend to imply that rape isn’t that big a deal, but regardless, yeah, they legitimately fucked this one up. It’s a low point for a series that I otherwise revere.


SJSWS Complaint: Ramsay’s rape of Sansa on their Wedding Night

Issue: There’s like half a dozen. It’s either that a) this ruins all progress and growth Sansa has had as a character, or b) that they made it all about Theon by panning over to him during the act, or c) it was unnecessary because we already knew Ramsay was a sexual sadist, or some variation or combination of the same.

Rule(s): Taking a strong female character and reducing her to a victim sends a bad message, using rape as a motivator for male characters devalues the victim’s perspective, rape is not to be used lightly as a narrative device.

Analysis: I’ll outsource the bulk of this analysis to Amanda Marcotte, who gives a rundown of all the scattershot criticisms of this scene and mirrors my own take on the matter. The bullet points would be that sexual violence has always been part of the fabric of Game Of Thrones’s world and this is very much part of the point, that pulling the camera’s focus to Theon allows the scene to do two things at once and avoid graphicness that would no doubt have led to equally passionate complaints, and those who complain about this ruining Sansa’s character are actually demonstrating the misogynist assumptions that sexual assault forever taints and defines the victim while ostensibly criticizing the show for doing the same thing.

But the thing I want to note here is that the show hasn’t done that. Yet. The rape scene was literally the very last thing that the show has aired. So any criticisms of what this does to the show or Sansa’s character can’t really be about the show at this point, they can only be about your own assumptions about what a rape scene has to be or do.  Though I will allow that perhaps some of the recriminations are given more color by knowing where Sansa’s storyline goes from here in the books, but I’ve remained studiously ignorant of the source material in order to take the show as it comes, so that’s the perspective I’m sticking to here.

Conclusion: It’s too early to conclude that Sansa has been ruined or “fridged” by the rape, even if some of the signifiers of that issue are present in the scene.

Anyway, there will be a new episode few hours, and we’ll start to see how Sansa’s storyline will develop. Then I’ll be doing my normal episode review, chock full of brand new apologetics, rationalizations and bad jokes, and perhaps I will have to change my tune, but I wanted to put this out there beforehand because there is a broader point here.  So again, I think an increased awareness of the shortcomings of female characterizations, in genre fiction in particular, is a positive thing. And I’m not actually suggesting that bloggers should all adopt IRAC as a format for discussing TV, I just use it as a reference point to show that Issue Spotting, while the quickest way to snag low-hanging points, is not enough to demonstrate a real understanding of a subject, or to impart such an understanding to others.  You also need to show your work, and explain why the issue is an issue.
It’s a drag, I know, and seems to make homework out of emotional reactions to largely emotional cues.  But when we succumb to arguing backwards from an emotional reaction, people’s bullshit detectors get pinged, which can lead to the impression that all of this Chick Stuff is overblown.  It’s not, despite the fact that this piece was focused on a few critiques that I do think were blown out of proportion, and I really don’t want the takeaway from all this to be “so shut up about the Chick Stuff already!”

It’s because this Stuff is important that we need to put our best arguments forward when discussing it (and because as a lawyer, poor argumentation in general is nails on my personal chalkboard), and not simply fall back on vagaries like calling things “problematic” or “disappointing” without bothering to explain how or why. I’m sure I’ve done so myself in the past, and why I'm going to make an effort to only use the word “problematic” unless I can also identify exactly what the problem is and why it’s a problem.  Because right now it’s becoming synonymous with poorly thought out, half-baked PC scolding, and we should really endeavor to fully bake our scolding. I think Ben Franklin said that.

*seriously guys, I don’t know that much about being a Real Man, but I do know it involves very little whining about how girls want to play with your toys

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