Gender, Pop Culture & Space/Place | Journal #11 | WGST 250

In our discussion this week, we defined the difference between space and place thus: space is the physical location, abstract and without meaning; a place is a space that has meaning, which has been coloured by human experiences.

In groups and as a class, we identified a few places that women avoid or feel uncomfortable in, like gyms or city streets at night or skate parks. Often just the presence of large groups of men was enough to make women feel vulnerable or nervous. Women In Cities International (WICI) asked, “What Makes Women Feel Safe in Public Space?” Among the answers they received, responses indicated that places felt safe when they:

  • were well-lit and clean
  • had street art, greenery, and seating
  • had clearly marked directions/exits

Women felt comforted by spaces where there were other people families and felt that good lighting and clear exits also minimized the fear of threats or attacks. One thing many of the answers also pointed out was accessibility; cities felt safest when they were “socially connected, inclusive and accessible.”

The design of spaces can sometimes serve to separate people in a gendered way. One example from earlier in the semester is how the office in Mad Men is set up: the men’s large offices encircle the women’s small, individual desks. The men claim more of the space, and have their own private offices, while the women are grouped together in space where they can be observed.

A study by Paula Townsend in Britain looked at the contemporary home. As we’ve noted previously, women are typically associated with the private and domestic while men occupy the working world and public sphere. One thing the study mentions is how homes construct “personal space”:

Male partners frequently have space that can be regarded as their own personal territory in the form of the garden, a garage, a den, or in better equipped and often larger dwellings, a study; a space where they have the freedom to do as they choose. Women, as housewives, rarely have defined personal space. The female partner may have personal space in her part of the bedroom, yet total privacy is denied due to the bedroom being a shared space between adult partners.

This stood out to me when I considered my own home. The garage, the downstairs workshop, and the media room basically belong to my dad. They’re also secluded and rarely used for socializing. (The media room was originally more of a family space, but has become less so as we consume more media on our individual laptops and tablets.) We have a spare room that my mom uses for sewing and crafting, but it also doubles as our guest room, and has to be regularly given up to visiting family.

My sister and I grew up with separate bedrooms. Having my personal space, with door that shut, has always felt important to me. My sister and I have also each expressed a desire to one day have a home with a study or studio where we could work. In popular culture, marriage and family are presented as the ultimate goals for women. They are expected to share their life, and so it follows, their space. However, if women take the role of artist, entrepreneur, or craftsperson, roles that are not defined by their obligations to their partner and children, they may claim more personal space.


One thing we didn’t really discuss is how this concept of space/place plays out in the digital world. The design of digital spaces, like physical spaces, can create environments which are more or less welcoming to people of different genders. For example, women and non-binary people are more likely to experience harassment online (and offline). Digital spaces which fail to protect users’ privacy, do not have or enforce community guidelines which ban harassment or other abuse, and do not provide users the ability to block or report abusive users or posts create a hostile environment for vulnerable people. (See the Tech Ladies statement on the Gender Digital Divide.) This can lead to situations that put these users’ safety at risk, like the Gamergate harassment campaign.

I think it is important that current and future discussions of gender and space/place acknowledge that an increasing amount of our time is spent in non-physical places which can still be be gendered.

Consuming Popular Culture | Journal #10 | WGST 250

There are various models which attempt to describe the relationship between audiences and media texts. Among those models which conceptualize active audiences are the concept of polysemy and the encoding/decoding model. These models suggest that while media producers can embed meaning in texts, audiences can interpret texts in myriad ways which may or may not align with the producers’ intended or preferred meaning.

I consider myself a fairly active and critical consumer of media. Much of my interest in actively analyzing narratives can be traced back to Matt Guion and his Books vs. Movies series on YouTube, which compares film adaptations to their literary source material. The first of these I ever watched compared Disney’s The Little Mermaid to the short story by Hans Christian Anderson that inspired it.

I love The Little Mermaid. Matt criticizes it pretty harshly (but fairly, I think). After watching his video, I viewed the film differently, but I continue to be very fond of it. Interestingly, an article by Chyng Fen Sun and Erica Scharrer looks at students’ resistance to criticism of Disney’s film. The students’ professor compared and contrasted the film and the short story, analyzing both. Many students did not change their mind about the film, despite the criticism presented. Sun and Scharreer identify a few themes among the students responses including:

  • Liking supersedes analysis
  • “It makes me enjoy the film more”
  • Different stories: like comparing apples and oranges
  • Separation of enjoyment and analysis

This article was fascinating to me, because many students responded to criticism of The Little Mermaid in much the same way I had, settling on negotiated reading of the film that allowed them to continue to enjoy it.

Disney is well known and often criticized for its portrayals of young women in their fairy tale films. Ariel, like many Disney heroines, is young, beautiful, focused on finding love, and ultimately lacks agency in the story. I know this is problematic, but I still love the story, just like I love Pretty Woman and It Happened One Night and a whole host of films with problematic tropes.

Media-encoded messages about gender can be so persuasive and so deeply ingrained in us from a young age that we continue to enjoy these kinds of films even after analyzing them. After all, the happy ending tells us that it is right and good for the prince/millionaire/Clark Gable to get the girl in the end, and we want the happy ending.

References

“Chapter 6 Consuming Popular Culture: The Role of Gender,” Gender and Popular Culture, Katie Milestone & Anneke Meyer (2012)

Chyng Feng Sun, K., & Scharrer, E. (2004). Staying True to Disney: College Students’ Resistance to Criticism of The Little MermaidCommunication Review7(1), 35–55.

Queer/Non-Binary Representation | Journal #9 | WGST 250

One of my favourite university courses was FILM 323 Queer Cinema. Anyone looking for an upper-level elective, I would highly recommend it. Not only did we watch a film every week (mostly things I probably wouldn’t have watched on my own) but we had important, complex discussions about the history of queer representation on screen. I’ve been thinking about that course a lot this week as we look at queer/non-binary representation.

Looking at representations of masculinity and femininity in the past couple weeks, it’s clear that heteronormativity shapes gender expectations.

This Film is Not Yet Rated (2006) found that films involving sexual content received a stricter rating when the characters were gay than when they were straight, even when the scenes were less explicit. The appears to reflect the long-standing concern of conservatives that children should be “protected” from content which depicts queer characters and relationships. The ratings board is supposedly made up of “average American parents,” but who gets to decide the people who fit that vague, subjective criteria? Jamie Babbit, director of But I’m a Cheerleader, points out that she is an American parent and a lesbian, and wonders if there is anyone on the ratings board like her. (As of 2006, there was not.)

see 39:35-43:02 (warning: explicit content)

Pivoting to another letter in the LGBTQIA2+ acronym, my final project for FILM 323 was a video project that looked at asexuality’s absence from popular media (which has now been viewed over 2000 times). It’s very limited in scope, but offers a first look at how asexuality has been absent from and misrepresented by popular media. Non-binary identities are similarly missing from popular media; there may be examples out there, but I can’t think of a single one.

“Why is representation important? It’s important because we are the stories we tell. Stories allow us to empathize with people and experiences.”

Representing Men | Journal #8 | WGST 250

Continuing our discussion of gender representation, we focused on masculinity this week. The textbook mentions three forms of masculinity: the old man, the new man, and the new lad.

In group discussion, we talked about whether these groups still felt relevant today. We agreed that they did, but we also identified several more specific subcategories. One of these was the “male geek” stereotype, which is worth talking about in relation to the “new lad.”

Though the hobbies of the new lad are more likely to include sports and drinking than role-playing and comic book-reading, we still see considerable overlap between the lad and the geek. Both interact with friends in a juvenile way, use jokes and irony to play their offensive behaviour off as “just kidding,” and behave in overtly and covertly misogynistic ways. Geeks, like their more masculine counterparts, still see women as sex objects. However, though their pursuit of women may involve lying and manipulation, it is usually played for laughs—they chase after women who are “out of their league” and find themselves in ridiculous situations.

The British sitcom, The IT Crowd, makes frequent jokes about its two geeky leads, Roy and Moss, making clumsy advances on beautiful (stereotypically blonde) women.

The male geek stereotype appears all over pop culture, from the John Hughes teen movies of the 80’s to the more recent television series The Big Bang Theory. The channel Pop Culture Detective on YouTube has examined The Big Bang Theory in particular. The central point of the video below is that because “the geek” doesn’t embody the kind of macho masculinity we would expect of sexist men, it’s surprising and therefore funny to see them engage in that kind of misogynist behaviour.

“The target of the joke is not the misogynist behaviour. Instead, it’s making fun of men who are not traditionally masculine enough to believably pull it off.”

Representing Women | Journal #7 | WGST 250

Since this week we were looking at media representations of women, I want to look at a couple examples of how the medium influences how representations of women are constructed and interpreted. In particularly, let’s focus on the body and physical appearance.

A series by Feminist Frequency hosted by Anita Sarkeesian called Tropes vs Women in Video Games breaks down some of the most common tropes about women seen in popular games and also provides some positive counter-examples.

Season 1 of Tropes vs Women in Video Games.
Season 2 is available here.

Gameplay adds a new dimension to representations of women in video games. Representations of women often tie their worth to their appearance and how sexually attractive they are, from beauty pageants to magazines offering tips on how to “look good.” In video games, the trope of “women as reward” builds this into the mechanics of the game.

 It occurs when women (or more often women’s bodies) are employed as rewards for player actions in video games. The trope frames female bodies as collectible, as tractable or as consumable, and positions women as status symbols designed to validate the masculinity of presumed straight male players.

This “reward” can take many forms: a kiss from the princess for successfully rescuing her, unlocking hypersexualized outfits for female characters, or unlocking an achievement for using the in-game camera to look up a female character’s skirt. If we consider Laura Mulvey’s term, the “male gaze,” the film viewer is a mere spectator watching the women displayed as sexual objects while a video game actually gives the player agency in participating in voyeurism.

How powerful is this framing? If we imagine a female character, her appearance is only one part of how she is depicted; we may also get to know her through her behaviour, dialogue, backstory, etc. But the emphasis on the body and physical appearance can potentially eclipse a character’s other qualities. Lindsay Ellis looks the women in the Transformers films, including Megan Fox’s character, Mikaela Banes, and how what is written in the screenplay “is undermined by the way the women are framed by the camera.”

Mikaela Banes, as written, has a skill for hot-wiring and repairing cars, acts bravely saves the protagonist’s life on a couple occasions, has a backstory that reveals the sacrifices she has made in her life, and states in her dialogue how frustrated she is that the men in her life don’t take her seriously because of her gender and appearance. But alas, the camera repeatedly frames Mikaela as a sexual object, panning over and lingering on parts of her body, and in fast-paced films like Transformers, “aesthetic impressions get weighted much more heavily than thematic or narrative ones” (Ellis).

The thing that strikes me about this example is that it demonstrates clearly why it is so important to have people of different genders involved at all levels of production. The meaning in a screenplay can be changed by how a director shoots the film and the work of video game writers can be undermined by the game’s designers/programmers. Better representation in media requires the participation of people in all areas of production.


*See “Chapter 6 Consuming Popular Culture: The Role of Gender” in Gender and Popular Culture by Katie Milestone & Anneke Meyer (2012). While the chapter touches on some of the tropes I discuss above, it does so in the context of consumption and why video games are more commonly associated with and played by males.

The 90’s: Buffy, zines, and the third wave | Journal #6 | WGST 250

The Riot Grrrl movement, and the third wave of feminism, began in the early nineties, just before I was born. Let’s look at the latter first. When think first wave, I think:

Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The television series premiered in 1997 (five years after the film upon which it is based) and Buffy Summers embodies a lot of what I associate with third wave feminism.

Where feminism meets pop culture, we get a show that takes the blonde valley girl—typical horror movie fodder—and makes her the supernaturally talented chosen one. Buffy gets to be traditionally feminine and also kick ass. She has strength as the Slayer and she commands respect. She can walk through the streets at night, unafraid, and is empowered to stand up to the Big Bad of the week, every week.

Is the character feminist? Is the show feminist? Well…it’s complicated. Rachel Fudge’s 1999 article “The Buffy Effect” points out that Buffy’s feminism is limited by the show’s need to attract a mainstream audience, and that the show’s marketing “threatens to turn empowerment into yet another product.” The show’s chosen feminism also has a distinctly white, middle-class, suburban flavour. But the show tackles many of the issues that third-wave feminism tries to address (see my checklist above). The final season especially makes strides to address cultural diversity and collective activism, issues which were largely sidelined in earlier seasons in favour of Buffy’s individual empowerment (for more on this, see “Buffy Summers: Third-Wave Feminist Icon”).

I like thinking about Buffy in relationship to the third wave because I think the show did a lot of things right, and its iconic place in pop culture history means that people are still critiquing it and finding that we can do better.

As for Riot Grrrl, the carryover from that era, for me, is

zines.

The subculture of political, feminist zines centred on lived experience is still alive and well today. “Zines” as a category is huge. While the Internet may be a more efficient way of disseminating information, zines are still celebrated as a form of personal expression.

Canzine celebrates “underground printed arts,” the Vancouver Public Library has a collection of zines, and the lowercase reading room in Vancouver’s Regional Assembly of Text also carries hundreds of zines and self-published books.

For zines more in-line with the Riot Grrrl tradition, there are zine distros (distributors) like Stranger Danger in Chicago, which carries “feminist zines, queer zines, trans zines, POC zines…zines about identity, home, disabilities, friendship, survival, etc etc.” While the Internet offers a whole new avenue for feminist writers, I still find myself moved by these physical artifacts which often tell very personal stories.

P.S.

As a final thought, I’d like to suggest that there’s another subculture of marginalized writers finding creative ways to tell their story in the digital age.

Twine.

This book, edited by merrit kopas, includes a collection of Twine authors playing through and commenting on each other’s work, and offers a fascinating glimpse into how games and interactive fiction have been the new medium of choice for voices not often heard from in mainstream media.

Twine is a program for creating interactive, non-linear stories. Part of the wonderful thing about interactive fiction is that it frequently puts the reader/player in the position of the main character. Stories are written in the second person—you do this, you go to that place—and so many Twine games put players in the position of queer or trans folk, or people of colour, or people living with mental illness. Some of the stories are largely autobiographical while others place us in a fantastical universe; the goal in either case is to show us people and stories that we don’t see in Hollywood films or on television shows.

Just for fun, check out Zine Fair Lady, a Twine game by Morgan Sea about navigating a queer zine fair as a trans woman.

Social change in the 1960s-70s | Journal #5 | WGST 250

Something I noticed in our discussion of the 1960s and 70s is that some recent popular media has revisited those decades to highlight the accomplishments of prominent and less-well known women. I’m thinking specifically of Hidden Figures (2016), Battle of the Sexes (2017) and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (2013). All three of these media texts centre on women working in male-dominated fields who accomplish great things.

Battle of the Sexes addresses sexism head-on; Billie Jean King felt that beating Bobby Riggs was important for the future of women’s tennis and gender equality in sports. The match was a significant moment for the women’s liberation movement.

Beautiful and Hidden Figures, on the other hand, look at the contributions of women who may have been overshadowed by their male counterparts. Though Carole King of course found great success with Tapestry, the musical focuses on her work in the 1960s with her husband Gerry Goffin and the songs they wrote for groups like The Shirelles and The Chiffons. Milestone and Meyer point out that it is producers of that era like Phil Spector who are regarded as auteurs or creative geniuses. Similarly, the figures associated with the Space Race include President Kennedy and astronaut Neil Armstrong, and Hidden Figures highlights the contributions of women like Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson.

I wanted to mention these three works because I think they offer a nice contrast to some of what I discussed last week about gendered cultural production and the many cases where women’s work is not valued or recognized. As we fight for equality and the feminist movement continues to stride forward, it is essential to also reflect on past challenges and victories and to celebrate work that may not have received much recognition at the time.

References

“Chapter 2 Gender and Cultural Work: Post-War to the Late 1970s,” Gender and Popular Culture, Katie Milestone & Anneke Meyer (2012)

Gender and Cultural Production | Journal #4 | WGST 250

This week, we were looking at cultural production, specifically during WWII and the post-war period. As the number of jobs related to cultural production grew, sexist ideas about women in the workplace meant that jobs were divided along gendered lines and opportunities for women were limited, often in supporting rather than authoritative positions. Kylie Andrew’s article about the post-war ABC reveals how explicit this could be, noting that “The post-war ABC defined authoritative, higher paid roles as ‘male’, and menial and superficial roles as ‘female.’”

This kind of gendered division isn’t limited to cultural production or to the 60’s & 70’s. A 2016 article by Claire Cain Miller for the New York Times points out that the average pay across an entire field drops when a large number of women enter that field. Roles for women may also be less esteemed. For example, in the film industry, visual effects supervisors (mostly men) are eligible for the Visual Effects Oscar, but visual effects producers (often women) are not—how creatively involved a producer is may vary from project to project (it would not be out of the question for a producer to have “primary creative responsibility” for the VFX), but the role is seen as more administrative than creative and therefore ineligible.

The Visual Effects award is a craft award. Producers, coordinators and other executives are not eligible for this award unless they are also craftspeople with primary creative responsibility for the achievement.

In the history of the Oscars, only one woman has taken home an Academy Award for Visual Effects. And the exclusion of producers from the Academy Award seems to follow the existing precedent set by computer programming, a task which was once seen as menial and gained prestige as men entered the field (Miller, 2016). The problems surrounding gender and cultural production are not simply solved by women (or non-binary folk, or people of colour, or other minorities) entering a field of work. Larger systemic issues must also be addressed so that their work is equally valued.

References:

“Chapter 2 Gender and Cultural Work: Post-War to the late 1970s,” Gender and Popular Culture, Katie Milestone & Anneke Meyer (2012)

“As Women Take Over a Male-Dominated Field, the Pay Drops” New York Times, Claire Cain Miller (March 18, 2016)

Indigenous Representation | Journal #3 | WGST 250

Indigenous representation in media. A few images immediately come to mind, none of them particularly positive: Pocahontas, Tiger Lily from Peter Pan, Halloween costumes featuring feathered headdresses, cowboys and “Indians”, and the list goes on. Many of these depictions fall back on stereotypes like the “noble savage” or portray indigenous peoples as villains.

I’d like to zoom in on an example I’m looking at in other course. In FILM 308 Documentary Cinema, we’re studying early documentaries including Robert Flaherty’s celebrated but controversial film Nanook of the North. The film, released in 1922, was a critical and box-office success and is an enduring cultural product. Flaherty was an explorer who spent years living and working among Inuit peoples in the Canadian Arctic. The film was shot over the course of a year with help from the Inuit, who not only appeared on camera put also helped operate the camera.

In many ways, the film is ethnographic, following the day to day lives of people living up north. In fact, the film has been called an example of “salvage ethnography,” a particular branch of ethnography concerned with cultures that are disappearing or going extinct due to colonization or modernization. Flaherty was concerned with recording the lives of the Inuit as they were before the influence of modern Western society. To this end, some sequences in the film are staged: men are shown hunting a walrus with harpoons when in reality, by that point they had guns; and “Nanook” is shown biting a vinyl record when in fact Allakariallak, who played Nanook, was familiar with records and gramophones. (Additionally, it is worth noting that the family in the film was not a real family—they were cast to play the part of the family in order for the film to have characters and a narrative structure.) Flaherty’s goal was to capture the “true spirit” of the people.

In some ways, Flaherty’s work falls into the “noble savage” stereotype, and he chose not to depict the way the Inuit peoples had integrated new technologies into their way of life. However, the film also offers a genuine and touching glimpse into the life of a group of people whom Flaherty respected and a culture few people were familiar with. The successes of Nanook are likely due to the amount of time Flaherty spent with his subjects and the trust and collaboration between the filmmaker and the indigenous peoples whose story he put on screen.

References:

Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, Eric Barnouw (2003)

Introducing terms and concepts | Journal #2 | WGST 250

Continuing our introduction to the topic at hand—gender and popular culture—we looked at a lot of key terms and concepts this week. I’m going to pick just a couple that I had questions about or wanted to better understand.

gender essentialism “stipulates that men and women are inherently different beings who belong to separate different categories” (Milestone & Meyer 12).

sex-gender distinction “‘sex’ refers to biological, bodily differences between men and women, ‘gender’ refers to the socially constructed categories of masculine and feminine and the socially imposed attributes and behaviours which are assigned to these categories” (12).

I am a cisgendered woman. Much of my favourite media draws on the idea that men and women are inherently different and uses that idea for humour or plot purposes. Victor/Victoria for example, is centred around a woman pretending to be a female impersonator (a women pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman). When Harry Met Sally asks the question, “Can men and women be friends?” and imagines a heteronormative world where sex usually gets in the way. And then there’s the constant cross-dressing on Monty Python, which I still think is hysterical.

I didn’t begin interrogating the gender binary until I was 16/17. Sometimes, discussions of the gender spectrum and non-binary identities can still set my head spinning, so I do my best to listen to people who are more well-informed than I am.

The article “No, The Existence of Trans People Doesn’t Validate Gender Essentialism” from Everyday Feminism stood out to me because while I agreed with headline, I couldn’t fully articulate why—I wouldn’t have been able to argue the point effectively. After reading it, I understood; the article helps to define gender essentialism and outline how trans folk may or may not transition, and that the process of transitioning is not tied to a binary concept of gender but to the right of trans folk to have autonomy over their bodies and alter them. The article also offers the perspective of biologist and queer-feminist activist Julia Serano, who asserts that gender is both biological and social and not a mere binary.

The distinction between gender and sex remains complex, in my view. Judith Butler’s suggestion that “the categories of sex and gender are powerful but unstable” (15) rings true, and I look forward to examining popular media’s representations of these categories.

A video investigating this topic:

Resources:

“Ch. 1: Introduction,” Gender and Popular Culture, Katie Milestone & Anneke Meyer

No, The Existence of Trans People Doesn’t Validate Gender Essentialism,” Kaylee Jakubowski, Everyday Feminism