Anita Hill Hearings Sparked National Conversation on Sexual Harrassment
“I think it was something that was meant to happen, actually,” Hill explained. “I had an experience to share that went to the fitness of an individual who was going to be sitting on a Supreme Court with a lifetime appointment. It was important, not only to the integrity of this individual, but also to the integrity of the court itself.”
In the years after Hill’s testimony, the number of workplace harassment complaints to the EEOC skyrocketed as more and more people became comfortable with the idea of speaking up. Though Hill recognizes the role she played in sparking a national conversation about sexual harassment, she stressed the fact that there’s still much more work to be done.
via 25 years after accusing Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, Anita Hill says she’d ‘do it all again’ — Fusion
Women and Villainy
What makes a woman a villain? And what makes a female villain’s portrayal sexist?
I recently wrote about the qualities that constitute a heroine, whether in literature, TV, or film. In doing so, I was led to consider the equally compelling question: What makes for a successfully imagined female villain? Perhaps more specifically, what makes for a portrayal of a female villain that isn’t sexist?
We know what makes for a good villain in general—he or she should be someone we love to hate. Generally, a villain is characterized by an incapacity for empathy. This is true no matter the villain’s gender. But too often, representations of female villains seem driven by animosity toward women in general, or at the very least fall back on misogynistic gender stereotypes. Thus, perhaps the most common female villain is the “ambitious woman,” the power-hungry Lady Macbeth archetype: hard, icy, cunning, and scheming (think House of Cards’ Claire Underwood). There are also female villains who are merely promiscuous, irrational, and violent, ruining the lives of the unfortunate male protagonists they ensnare. These two stereotypical female roles have sometimes fused in the femme fatale who uses her sexuality to advance her ambition. Some combination of the two stereotypes has informed female villains from King Lear’s two ungrateful older daughters to the Marquise de Merteuil in Les Liaisons Dangereuses.
Stereotypes of female evil also often blend ageism with sexism—every fairy tale has its evil hag or warty witch. I grew up watching Disney’s female villains—the Evil Queen, Maleficent, Cinderella’s step-mother, Ursula, Cruella Deville. Their villainy was usually connected to their jealousy of youth and beauty and/or to their hunger for power. The evil queen is vain and envious, Maleficent vengeful, Cinderella’s step-mother spiteful, and Ursula manipulative and just generally ruthless. Whether or not their individual representations are sexist, as a group they send the message that older women are dangerous to youthful heroines, and could never be heroines themselves.
How do we tell, beyond a gut feeling, if a particular representation of a female villain is sexist? Certainly we can’t call sexism on every female villain; to demand only positive representations of women would itself be regressive and sexist. The question is only complicated by the fact that today, particularly on TV, we seem to have moved in many cases beyond portrayals of clear-cut villainy, favoring anti-heroes and (less-frequently) anti-heroines. Generally, an anti-hero or anti-heroine is made, not born; they have nuance, and we see the circumstances have led them to be who they are. Some iconic female villains have been given backstories this way and even received full-on makeovers in recent years, occasionally even transitioning to heroine status: Maleficent and the Wicked Witch of the West are among these. But other female characters, even when given nuance, remain evil, and it’s in those cases that it’s particularly tricky to pinpoint whether they convey a generalized negative attitude toward women.
One such difficult character is A Song of Ice and Fire/ Game of Thrones’ Cersei Lannister, who is worth discussing in detail. Is she a villainess or an anti-heroine? She’s certainly not pure evil like her son Joffrey or Ramsay Bolton. She has a back-story and some complexity. But why must the series’ most overtly devious female character be the one with the most feminist awareness? Is dissatisfaction with female roles aligned with villainy? Other, more positive female characters in the series transgress gender norms (Arya Stark, Brienne of Tarth). But Cersei has the most fully developed awareness of the gender constraints imposed on her, and of the differences in the way she and her twin brother have always been treated. She resents being married off like chattel and having her ambitions limited by her gender. The trouble is that her indignation about these things is part of a general pattern of resenting and blaming others for her own faults or the consequences of her own actions, so that it feels as if Martin is undermining the validity of her gender critique. (Book readers may be particularly unlikely to attribute her villainy to years of gender inequity, since as a little girl she was already apparently evil enough to drown a friend in a well.)
Another thing that frustrates me about the representation of Cersei, but may just reveal my own stereotypes of female villainy, is her lack of cunning or even intelligence; this lack is unusual for a powerful, ambitious female villain. The first time I read A Song of Ice and Fire, I was surprised when I reached the third book, A Feast for Crows, in which Cersei first becomes a point of view character, to discover that she lacked the calculating intellect that typically goes along with ruthless ambition in a female villain. The second time I read the novels, I was more actively annoyed—Why does G.R.R. Martin have to emphasize that every single decision she makes is stupid and self-defeating? Her one redeeming quality is her love for her children, but she loves them only for the same narcissistic reason that she loves her twin—because they are reflections or extensions of herself.
I am not sure that it is necessarily sexist that Cersei’s villainy is bound up with her gender and her gender-awareness. It seems incorrect to say that a representation of a female villain is sexist unless her villainy is disconnected from her gender, or unless her role could just as easily be played by a man. I am also thinking here of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and its deliciously sociopathic title character, who has cunning in spades. Amy Dunne, like Cersei, is keenly aware of the role gender plays in every aspect of life. She uses the media’s bias toward pretty white women to strengthen her intricate revenge plot against her cheating slob of a husband. She also gives the novel’s powerful and much-quoted “cool girl” speech, skewering men’s expectations of women. At the same time, what does it mean that this arguably feminist speech comes from a sociopath? Amy herself is certainly no feminist—like Cersei, her attitude towards other women is often sexist, contemptuous, and exploitative, never sororal.
Is Amy a villain, an antagonist, an anti-heroine? Rosamond Pike, who played Amy in David Finch’s 2013 movie version, has said there is something essentially feminine about Amy’s type of crazy—by extension, one might say Amy’s type of evil. This makes me distinctly uncomfortable, but it seems indisputable: there is no way Nick’s and Amy’s roles could have been successfully reversed. Indeed, they seemed to play out an extreme version of husband-wife dynamics that some readers and film-goers found uncomfortably familiar.
Gone Girl seems to break the most fundamental rule of non-sexist villainess depiction: that a book/show/movie not cater to men who could close the book or leave the theatre with the comment: “Women—crazy, am I right?” (This rule is why I have avoided watching movies like Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct.) But then again, men are more likely to leave Gone Girl terrified than smug, and I honestly can’t say if that’s better or worse. In any case, sociopathy certainly characterizes many of the scariest male villains as well. It doesn’t necessarily make a depiction of female evil sexist.
So it seems any rule one lays down about female characterization is inevitably unstable. The best conclusion I can come up with in avoiding creating sexist female villains, and it seems a cliché, is that a character should be fully-realized, not a caricature or stereotype, but recognizably a human being. She should not be vilified merely for wanting things or doing things a man would not be a villain for wanting or doing. Those ideas seems simple, but we can hold to them and still retain characters like Cersei or Amy, who challenge us to continue the debate about representations of women that loom large in our cultural consciousness.
Weekly Link Roundup: 11/20/15
Goodreads from this week on feminist friendships, ISIS, and more. Continue reading “Weekly Link Roundup: 11/20/15”
Organization Spotlight: Unconscious Bias Project
S.T. interviews the Unconcious Bias Project’s Cat Adams on bias in STEM fields and how we can bring about a new, more effective form of “diversity training.”
We all know STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields are rife with sexism. It seems like every week, there’s a new story about sexual harassment, or absurdly sexist statements about how women can’t science. And, of course, the many other forms of bias that plague us – racism, homophobia, transphobia – are prevalent in STEM fields too. (And, you know, everywhere.) Sometimes it just feels like everything is terrible and everyone is terrible to each other. But, there are also a lot of awesome people working hard to change things, in STEM and elsewhere. This week, I talked to Cat Adams, a PhD student a UC Berkeley who is fighting biases in STEM fields through The Unconscious Bias Project, which, in her words, is designed to “help people be more awesome to each other.” You can follow her and her project on facebook and twitter. Our interview is below.
Continue reading “Organization Spotlight: Unconscious Bias Project”
Straight Outta Sexism
I went to see Straight Outta Compton with my friend who’s a screenwriter; he mentioned beforehand how he had read a few scathing reviews about its sexism. I was excited about the film because it felt significant and timely. The Black Lives Matter movement is gaining traction in an unprecedented way and the recent murder of black Cincinnatian Samuel Dubose by a white officer, and the officer’s subsequent indictment, hit close to home. All of this is relevant when N.W.A.’s. “Fuck Tha Police” comes to mind. (N.W.A. stands for ‘Niggaz Wit Attitudes,’ and is the group portrayed in the film, featuring mostly Dr. Dre, Eazy-E and Ice Cube.) While I am aware of the weight of intersectionality in dealing with oppression, I wasn’t even thinking about the obvious misogyny in the group’s lyricism and members’ lives.
I live ensconced in privilege. I am white, I am well-educated, I got that education without accruing major debt, I have a supportive family and access to the healthcare I need. I grew up in a wonderful feminist household that gave me the confidence necessary to navigate a sexist world and the conviction that I do not deserve any less on account of my gender. I am not afraid to speak my mind. I don’t put up with being talked down to. I can jumpstart my car and open stuck jar lids and I find the idea of “needing a man” around for anything ridiculous. But every once in a while, I am forced to remember that none of these things – not my privilege, not my mind, not my willfulness – protects me from the men who think they are entitled to my attention and my body.
Weekly Link Roundup!
- This past week’s popcorn.gif moments come courtesy of the reddit debacle. Former Reddit CEO Yishan Wong is just over in a corner giggling about this whole thing. Meanwhile, Ellen Pao was never the feminazi monster she was made out to be. Oops. Reddit is a fascinating place, and harbors some productive/fun communities in addition to its cesspools, but let’s not pretend we won’t survive without it.
- In more serious news, we continue to ask: What happened to Sandra Bland? The latest, highly suspicious case in continuing police violence against black lives.
- Bigotry nestled deep within niceness: how lack of empathy, and lack of humanization, often comes with a smiling face and sincerity, rather than vitriolic hate.
- Medium gives us a glimpse into the shifting economy of Tinder. The mantra? Dick is abundant and low value.
- Study confirms implicit biases against female bosses, even in cases where such biases are explicitly disavowed. Look closely at yourself, look closely at your practices.
- This earthquake is coming for you and death is nigh.
- And lastly, simply because it’s heartening: these young ladies celebrated their hearts out at the ticker tape parade for the US Women’s Soccer Team, and it’s great.
#distractinglysexy and Drawing the Line
Last week, Tim Hunt surely earned himself a lot of love letters by claiming that women in the lab are distracting—you know, always falling in love with him (I’M SO SURE, TIM HUNT), crying, and other female shit.
(Incidentally, this sparked one of my favorite twitter hashtags of all time, #distractinglysexy, in which women in STEM documented how hard it is to hold tissues and test tubes at the same time! How conveniently a hazmat suit hides tear tracks! Etc. )
Tim Hunt’s sexist remarks were infuriating not only on their own merit (or lack thereof), but also because they make me fear that for every lumberingly blatant misogynist speech, there are a hundred Tim Hunts not voicing their misogyny—only thinking it. It was striking in the way he kept claiming he was just “being honest,” and shouldn’t have said those things in a room full of journalists, as if his real mistake was revealing the depths of misogyny in the sciences, not the misogyny itself.
This incident, and the responses to it, are yet another reminder of the way in which women who work in fields dominated by cis-hetero men (ie. most professional fields) must grapple with the policing (and self-policing) of their beauty. It’s no secret that women, whether walking into a grocery store, a first internship interview, or into their own corner office, deal with an overload of information on how to self-present—as competent, as low-key, as anything but #distractinglysexy. How much makeup can one wear in a lab? A boardroom? When does that extra swipe of eyeliner push you from “intriguing” to “overdone”? Like women’s bodies, women’s faces are a battleground where the war over modesty and “appropriateness” is waged.
Thinking about makeup and the performance of appropriate womanhood brings to mind Caitlyn Jenner looking into the mirror at her Vanity Fair cover shoot. Caitlyn Jenner marks a watershed moment in American thinking about gender presentation—as she went from Bruce Jenner, an emblem of masculinity in the Cold War Olympics, to channeling the immediately “legible” femininity of Marilyn Monroe and other screen sirens.
Her revelation to the American public was, of course, not going to be complete without a ‘glam squad’ supplied by a magazine in the business of selling femininity. In the write-up above, Vanity Fair lovingly details the individual products used on Jenner, and quotes makeup artist Mark Carrasquillo in saying, “‘I didn’t want her to look like a man in a dress. I wanted her to look like a beautiful 65-year-old woman,’ said Carrasquillo—and that is exactly what he achieved.” There is, of course, nothing wrong with Caitlyn Jenner wanting to look like what she considers her most beautiful self. But the discourse surrounding Jenner focused on a very particular image of womanhood, which uses makeup to emphasize the person’s traditional and hetero-acceptable femininity. It thus erased trans-women (and cis-women) who either can’t or don’t want to conform to this image.
From high-school hallways to corporate offices, women walk a thin line between “successfully” inhabiting a beauty standard and stepping outside of it. The margin can be as thin as the missing half-inch of fabric on shorts that get high-school girls sent home. It’s not just about wearing makeup versus going bare-faced, but the ways in which powders, creams, and pigments play back into age-old virgin/whore dichotomies. In these cases, the onus is on women to use their purchasing power to present themselves as willing and able to adapt themselves to “appropriateness.” Sometimes they lack that purchasing power. Let’s not forget that looking “right” for the context is a class-based and racial issue as well, more often than not. To take a prominent example opposed to the more demure examples of Taylor Swift and even Beyonce, Nicki Minaj’s alter ego Roman and her “Barbie” phase were both memorable for their very intentional use of makeup as message. By wielding strikingly artificial pink hair, green eyeshadow, and lacquered lipgloss, Minaj reminded us of the extent to which femininity (especially femininity that dared to be loud, deep-voiced, and not particularly “feminine”) is a performance that others will try to police. This makeup made some people uncomfortable. That, like Nicki’s monster-rap voice, was part of the point. There was nothing “natural” about it.
This is not to erase the agency of women who use makeup or choose not to, but to prompt a more thoughtful consideration of the ways in which women are pressured toward the “right kind” of beauty construction. Makeup and the performance of beauty are complicated issues. No amount of misogyny and policing can fully erase the pleasure, for those who love it, of tracing one’s lips with a beautiful, velvety lipstick. These instances remind us that makeup and self-presentation serve purposes beyond “prettiness” as it’s traditionally defined.
And makeup can be a weapon. I wear thick black eyeliner all the way around my eyes these days. This veers just beyond the kind of eyeliner that is conventionally considered “attractive” or appropriate for daytime—except for those who see my eyeliner as an invitation to comment on my “exotic” looks. As a young Chinese-American woman alone in a new city, with a soft-spoken voice and a manner that can come across as naïve and trusting, this eyeliner is my daily ritual of preparation. At least, while others might see me as a quiet, malleable person tapping away silently at a laptop all day, I can look back at them with assassin eyes.