As I write this, I keep peeking at the #YesAllWomen Twitter conversation, where women are explaining what it’s like to live with the constant threat of male violence thanks to misogynistic attitudes that caused a young man to kill seven people and injure several others at UC Santa Barbara. He was angry that women wouldn’t sleep with him. See, we never know if this guy is lurking inside the dude who harasses us on the street or sidles up to us at the bar, so we say, “I have a boyfriend” and grip our keys between our knuckles.
Recently, on a late-night walk with my partner, I thought we’d walked enough and wanted to go home and sleep, but he wasn’t done. He said he could just meet me at home. I said, “Uh, it’s a forty minute walk back on dark streets where no one walks, and I don’t even have my phone or ID. You think I’m walking that by myself?” He does it all the time, so he didn’t think twice about it. Must be nice, I thought, to not live with the kind of fear women live with for good reason.
This isn’t what I want to talk about this week, but I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s constantly under the surface as I do other things. I’m so relieved that people are having this conversation instead of ignoring the reason this guy plainly gave for his actions and the reason women die at the hands of men every day around the world.
But what I want to talk about isn’t totally unrelated.
My subject today is “strong women.” Please, can we stop saying it? Screenwriters and directors who care about female characters just a little more than the average filmmaker use this term a lot. So do the people who interview them, stunned that someone might see women in complex ways. And so do people who want to see more of these women on screen. It’s become shorthand for fully drawn female characters or female-driven stories. I was going to give you a few examples, but there are just so many and if you haven’t come across this term a hundred times in the last year, then you probably don’t have a TV anyway.
It isn’t that I don’t appreciate the sentiment. I get what these people are saying and appreciate what they are doing.
The problem, however, is that the still fairly new idea of making movies with “strong women” implies that such women are a rarity. That there are loads of women out there who are little weaklings just floating around waiting for a big, strong man to reel them in and protect them from all the harsh difficulties of real life. That most women don’t know how to handle life on their own.
What is the male corollary of the strong woman? In film or fiction, it’s just…a man. No one says, “Gee, I love that this director focuses on strong male characters” because that wouldn’t make sense. Men get to be who they are and women, if they are lucky, get to be strong women. I asked my partner to tell me the first thought that came to him when I said “strong man.” He said, “A man in a striped, old-timey bathing suit with a waxed mustache and a heavy barbell.”
Need I say more?
Honestly, I don’t know any women who aren’t strong. Do you? Every woman I can think of–whether family, friend, colleague, or acquaintance–is strong in her own way. I used to work for a nonprofit that housed women who had faced intimate partner violence, sexual assault, addiction, prison and other problems that totally disrupted their lives. Some of them had worked or lived on the streets. Many had lost their children. Nearly all had faced sexual abuse when they were young. You might assume that these were weak women. That might be what you associate with drugs and domestic violence and prison and sex work. But they were the strongest people I’d ever met in my life. Each one was working to overcome a series of debilitating problems that all began when someone they trusted had hurt them in ways many of us couldn’t imagine. They had reached rock bottom and gotten back up. I’d say that’s as strong as it gets.
You don’t have to kick someone’s ass to be strong.
What we really mean when we say a film or TV show has strong women characters is that we’ve been shown a more comprehensive view of those characters’ lives. Someone has taken the girlfriend of the hero and shown us other parts of her life. We can see that every minute of her life does not revolve around the hero, that she has agency, her own concerns and interests and desires. By showing us other sides of the usual narrative, we can see her as the hero of her own life. This isn’t anything special. It’s every day for more than half the world.
We live with the threat of violence every day. And we go about our business anyway. You think we’re not all strong?
Today’s Take Back the Tech! action is about reshaping public space online. We want to recognize that much of this space is created and managed by women and there are many women who work hard to make digital spaces more welcoming for women. To that end, we’re asking people to highlight an inspiring woman in the tech or online realm.
I’ve chosen Anita Sarkeesian, a media critic whose blog Feminist Frequency deconstructs tropes associated with women in pop culture. I love how accessible her work is. There’s so much high-concept feminist analysis out there that’s valuable, but I really appreciate feminists who address what people are consuming daily and do so in a way that anyone can understand. Sarkeesian writes about movies, television, music, comics, and video games, with topics ranging from damsels in distress to non-violent iPhone games.
Sarkeesian faced serious harassment when she launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a Feminist Frequency video project. In addition to threats, insults and photoshopped images, someone created a video game that allowed players to beat her. But she was not deterred. She stood up for her right to exist and speak up in online spaces and is even more influential now. In fact, she ended up with nearly 7,000 Kickstarter backers and $158,917 to create her Tropes vs. Women web series.
Is there a woman in the tech/online world who inspires you? Spread the word. Mention her in the comments section and link to her work in your social media. Add or update her Wikipedia page (sorely needed since women are not equally represented on Wikipedia). Rewrite women into the digital story!
Last week I got into a Facebook argument with someone I didn’t know on a friend’s page. I was a bit embarrassed, as I normally ignore stupid Facebook comments from complete strangers and I didn’t want to turn my friend’s page into my own little soapbox, but he said something I just couldn’t let go.
The guy prefaced his comment by admitting it was ethnocentric and then said the entire continent of Africa is a shithole that has nothing to offer the rest of the world and he has no interest in anything that happens there.
I…I just–I couldn’t let it go. I had to say something. So I said something about imperialism and racial hegemony and recognizing our own roles in the various struggles in various parts of Africa.
As expected, he figured I was a hypocrite because what I had ever done for Africa?
Well, for one thing, I don’t freaking shut an entire continent out of my life because I can’t be bothered with its misery. In fact, I actively engage with issues in Africa though my work in women’s advocacy and enjoy, in particular, music from Mali, food from Ethiopia, and literature from Egypt. Furthermore, I recognize that Africa is made up of countries and cultures that are distinctive and complex and is not just a big pile of shit, thank you very much.
Can you tell I’m still a bit angry?
Sometimes I think I’ve become an angrier person since the internet invaded my life. There’s so much to be upset about!
Let’s all take a deep breath and pour a glass of smoky scotch to soothe us.
The good thing is that there’s a lot to love and cherish and celebrate too. Like this piece on how Western feminists could learn a thing or two from Africa’s many women leaders (64% of the Rwandan parliament, for instance). That’s why I decided to share with you some of my favorite African women working in creative fields today. If you aren’t already familiar with them, you will love them.
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: What can I even say about this woman? She writes like a graceful beast, stomping right through your heart on her toes. From Nigeria, Adichie is the author of, among other books, Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun (which won the Orange Prize), and the recently released Americanah. She’s also given two kick-ass TED talks, “The danger of a single story” and “We should all be feminists.” Yes, ma’am, please, and thank you.
- Ama Aita Aidoo: Poet, playwright, and author Aidoo writes about women challenging traditional gender roles in Ghana. Check out her novel Changes, which follows Elsi, who leaves her husband after he rapes her and then enters a polygamous relationship.
- Tsitsi Dangarembga: This Zimbabwean writer published her first book, the award-winning Nervous Conditions, when she was only 28. It was one of the best works I read in graduate school. She also created the story for Neria, one of the most successful films of Zimbabwe.
- Sokari Douglas Camp: A sculptor from Nigeria, Douglas Camp works out of London. Her medium is steel, and she draws from Nigerian culture (more specifically, her Kalibari heritage) and such issues as war, oil, death, gender, and race. Her work looks homemade and industrial at the same time; it is shiny, dark, and bright at once. I love Yoruba Ladies, Sharia Fubara, and Saint.
- Mariam Doumbia: One half of musical duo Amadou & Mariam, Doumbia went blind as a child, like her guitar player and fellow vocalist, Amadou Bagayoko, whom she met at Mali’s Institute for the Young Blind. Last year saw the release of their eighth album, Folila. Listen to “Dougou Badia,” which features Santigold, whose voice blends nicely with Doumbia’s.
- Nadine Gordimer: A Nobel Prize winner, Gordimer writes of race and politics in South Africa. Her award-winning novel The Pickup deals with the alien feeling of being an immigrant. She is also known for her work against apartheid and for HIV prevention.
- Tracey Rose: Based in South Africa, Rose explores identity, gender, race, and the body through performance, video installations, and photography. Her 2001 video installation Ciao Bella, which offers images of iconic women “taunt[ing] one another’s historical time zones and scoff[ing] at one another’s histories and politics,” has been described as “a shambolic, operatic, feminist parody of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper (1495–8).” I ask you: does it get better than that?
- Nawal El Saadawi: An Egyptian feminist writer and doctor, El Saadawi wrote, among other books, Woman at Point Zero, about a woman forced into prostitution who receives a death sentence for killing her pimp. The story was based on a real prisoner. El Saadawi, a former political prisoner, is a big advocate for women’s rights and speaks out against female genital mutilation.
- Rokia Traoré: This Malian musician performed in and wrote the music for Toni Morrison’s play Desdemona, shared a song with Half the Sky‘s 30 Songs/30 Days, and recorded with Kronos Quartet. She is smart and bold, and she plays the hell out of her guitar. Her album Beautiful Africa just came out.
I’ve spent the last week in bed with this miserable end-of-summer illness that’s going around, but the upshot is that I watched loads of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Years ago, when Buffy was already in its fifth season, I happened to catch an episode and was immediately hooked. I’d forgotten how much I once craved a female superhero. Coincidentally, this was also when Alias started, and though Sydney Bristow boasted no actual super powers, I still loved to watch her kick ass, especially in that bright red wig.
As a late 70s tot, I was a big fan of Linda Carter’s incarnation of Wonder Woman, Diana Prince, though I was far too young to understand much about the story. There’s a picture of me, about three years old, standing in the living room in my Wonder Woman Underoos, and I can barely contain my excitement.
As I got older, I searched for similar themes in books–not warriors necessarily but girls and women who took control, solved problems, made decisions, and changed the world in some way if only in their little communities. Therefore, I read a lot of Nancy Drew, and I was really drawn to the notion of a regular girl fighting crime because it made me feel like I could do that sort of thing.
And that’s what I liked about Buffy Summers and Sidney Bristow. One was a blond, outgoing high-school student and secret chosen one, while the other was a graduate student in English (just like me!) and world-class spy. While these shows had their flaws, I liked how Buffy addressed the good girl/bad girl binary: Buffy couldn’t be just one or the other; ultimately, she had to be both. She had to accept that her dark side was an essential part of her and was not such a terrible thing to embrace. A girl or woman could be multi-dimensional, have conflicting feelings, be tough and firm if she wanted to, and drive the story. She didn’t need to be anyone’s sidekick. She didn’t need saving. And she didn’t need to please everyone.
Has there been another good female superhero since then? I suppose Katniss is one, though she doesn’t have super powers and there’s that tiresome love triangle that guides much of her story. But who else? I admit that I’m not very knowledgeable about comics, but there’s a reason for that. The few women characters always seemed to be impossibly busty and done up in just a strip of leather. To the rescue: artist Alex Law’s Little Girls Are Better at Drawing Superheroes Than You displays little girls’ re-interpretations of superheroes, and they are uplifting and exciting. Little girl Hulk in a tutu might be the best thing ever.
There’s been an influx of superhero movies lately, but they’re mostly the same old stories of straight white dudes. Supposedly, Marvel is a pinch interested in making a female superhero movie because they see a hole they can fill, but they aren’t ready to move. Furthermore, this world is in dire need of more superheroes that aren’t white. Can we get a black Batman or Arab Harry Potter?
Enter Qahera, who breaks the mold and then some. Egyptian artist Deena’s veiled female Muslim superhero fights both misogyny and Islamophobia. Qahera deals with current, real-life scenarios such as sexual harassment and the sexist response of Egypt’s police to said harassment.
It’s fun to imagine having super powers and using them to kick a little ass, especially when faced with a corrupt police force or tyrannical regime, but Ciudad Juárez has its own superhero right now, minus actual super powers, one assumes. A woman calling herself Diana the Huntress (excellent name choice, though I prefer her Greek form, Artemis) has been shooting bus drivers in response to women’s frequent sexual abuse at the hands of the drivers. Authorities say she’s getting revenge, but considering the utter lack of police and government response to rampant femicide in Juarez, you might call it justice.
The thing is I don’t think violence really is a part of justice. I don’t actually want to respond to violence with violence. I think the value in a good superhero tale is not in graphic violence but in the symbolism. Buffy didn’t kill humans, only monsters, and those monsters were the physical manifestation of angsty teen emotions. One of the things I loved about Buffy was that it wasn’t just good vs. evil. Buffy was about accepting that there’s no such thing as perfectly packaged categories of good and evil. There are subversive feelings and ideas lurking beneath cheerleader smiles.
Rather tellingly, Juarez officials have put far more effort into catching this single woman who has killed two men (and wears a blond wig, by the way) than into finding the perpetrators of the mass rape and murder of the city’s female citizens. Clearly, serious cultural change–not violence–is what’s needed to end gender-based violence in Mexico, Egypt, or anywhere else. Transforming traditional narratives, especially superhero stories which are part of our collective consciousness (i.e., the mythic hero’s journey), are an important part of this necessary cultural change. Though that may be why Diana the Huntress chose an archetypal hero as her nom de guerre.
What I responded to most in superhero stories from Wonder Woman to Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the image of a curious, bold, strong, and smart girl or woman who could lead people and effect change. That’s why Nancy Drew was a kind of superhero to me. She saw problems in her world and found a way to solve them on her own. Like Nancy, Diana, and Buffy, I was never interested in being a damsel in distress (or fragile princess, a mythologized Diana of another kind), in letting life just happen to me. I wanted to make life happen, and I wanted to solve problems. That’s what the best superheroes do. If our superheroes reflected more diversity, we might be more inclined to see these strengths in people no matter their gender, ethnicity, religion, etc.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, it feels like Athena is about to bust out of my skull, so I must get back to fighting the good fight against the simple cold.
I tried to watch a historical fiction miniseries on Netflix the other day, but I had to give up. Two episodes in, I’d seen at least five sexual assaults: one rape, three attempted rapes, and two different scenarios wherein unctuous men fondled women’s breasts against their will. Granted, the story took place in the fourteenth century when ideas about women and violence were somewhat different than they are now, but I’d had more than enough. Instead, I turned to Emma, letting Jeremy Northam‘s Mr. Knightley and the clueless but wonderful Miss Bates (“Pork!”) cleanse my brain.
Years ago I read Cunt: A Declaration of Independence, in which Inga Muscio urged readers to stop watching movies that depict rape. I did that for a while, and then I gave up. For one thing, I didn’t always know a rape scene was coming. For another, there were some really good movies and TV shows that sometimes addressed rape, and I hated missing them even if I didn’t want to watch the rape scene. Though I suspect Muscio is probably right that we should just completely reject rape scenes.
I watched The Sopranos, well after it aired, and nearly tapped out in season three when the violence, especially against women, reached its peak. I’m glad I stuck with it because The Sopranos was a phenomenal series, but I wonder what it does to me to witness staged violence so regularly and what it does to the actors who portray it. And I wonder about anyone who can sit through a rape scene and not feel a crushing weight. Moreover, through TV and cinema, we typically see women as victims and men as aggressors, both tiresome and harmful gender stereotypes.
Admittedly, I am a big fan of British (and European) detective shows. From Miss Marple and Pouirot to Inspector Lynley, Lewis and Hathaway, and now (or then) Endeavor Morse, I devour Masterpiece Mystery. Who knew Oxford dons could be so murderous? Rather obsessively, I raced through all seven seasons of Prime Suspect, in love with the indomitable Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison. I followed Kenneth Branaugh’s gloomy Kurt Wallander around the Swedish countryside and Mireille Enos’s intense Sarah Linden as she followed clues through drizzly Seattle in The Killing, though I have yet to watch the Scandinavian originals of both. I loved Idris Elba as Luther and Malin Crépin as Annika Bengtzon.
But I am tired of women being beaten, tied up, raped, strangled, stabbed, and wrapped in plastic. I should also point out that these women, like the detectives who work on their cases, tend to be white, as though we couldn’t possibly care about people of color being attacked.
And I’m tired of worrying about deranged men who plan to sneak up on me while I’m unlocking my car door or break into my house while I’m sweetly slumbering. (I don’t actually worry about these things that much, but, to some extent, that’s the message some of these shows send.)
Off screen, most women do become victims of violence at some point in their lives, but their lives are about so much more than victimhood. On screen, women are often reduced to victims or defined by the physical attacks they endure. Furthermore, by impressing upon us the idea that attacks by strangers are so common, these shows (by these shows, I mean all shows that center on violence against women, especially US detective shows that have spawned iterations in multiple cities; Masterpiece Mystery is the least offender) undermine the seriousness of the violence most women face: intimate partner violence and “date rape,” which I put in quotes because the common terminology also implies a less serious form of violence than “rape.”
A new British show popped up on Netflix recently. In The Fall, Gillian Welch plays Stella Gibson, a bad-ass detective superintendent called to Northern Ireland to review a murder case. Stella is the next-generation Jane Tennison: sharp, focused, purposeful, demanding, and fully in control of her own life. She ends up tracking a serial killer, who, by day, is just a normal family guy working as a bereavement counselor! No one in his life has any clue that he’s a devious killer! I loved Stella so much that I finished the first season despite my utter disinterest in serial killers, my disgust with the focus on the killer’s detailed methods and trophy-stroking, and my absolute disbelief that no one has noticed that this man lives two completely different lives. I’m pretty sure there would be some red flags.
I appreciate a female detective–or a group of women code breakers, as in The Bletchley Circle. I appreciate a show that follows one case for the entire season instead of showing us a new murdered woman each week, a show that has plenty of male victims like a regular detective’s job, and a show that doesn’t shove every graphic detail in your face. But outside of most Masterpiece shows, which are tame enough for a PBS audience, this isn’t enough. And on US networks, there is little in this genre that I appreciate.
I still close my eyes or sometimes leave the room when a woman is being beaten (unless she’s a ninja or spy or boxer or superhero) or raped. My stomach contracts, and I hold my breath, willing the moment to end. But loads of people continue chomping on their popcorn and staring at the screen.
So here’s my question:
Can film and television address the issue of violence against women without normalizing, sexualizing, glamorizing, or unintentionally promoting it; punishing women for making choices; reifying the idea of woman as victim; and playing into traditional ideas of femininity and masculinity?
Is that too much to ask for?
Most of the shows I listed by name were originally books. I’ve never read them. Is that weird? I always like to read a good book before seeing the movie or TV version, but when it comes to detective stories, I’ve just never bothered. I did read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo after watching the Swedish movie to see how the book dealt with violence against women. It was easier to take in written form but still quite rough.
It turns out that killing women sells a lot of books. In fact, they have their own genre: fem-jep, as in female jeopardy. It’s a subject that has generated some controversy over the last few years. There are interesting discussions among feminist crime fiction writers and readers about women victims, book critics who can’t take another bloody breast, and writers who speak out against “gratuitous literary rape.”
I don’t think violence on the page has the same effect as violence on the screen simply because watching violence will always be more visceral, but it’s still problematic. In literature, the representation of violence against women can still contribute to rape culture by normalizing violence, playing on a passive/aggressive binary determined by gender, and encouraging us to connect woman with victim. Therefore, I ask the same question of literature as I do of film and television.
I welcome your ideas. In the meantime, here are some excellent considerations for writing about violence.
A few months ago, I wrote about the importance of reading literature by people who do not identify as men. I should add to that: people who do not identify as straight white men. We get straight white male perspectives through literature, film, TV, music, news, and other media so pervasively that we often fail to recognize the norms we’ve been subjected to over the years and how these norms have affected our lives and our world views.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much diversity to convince us that things have gone too far in the other direction. Studies show that when women and girls are given more time than usual (though still less time than men and boys) to speak, the perception is that they are monopolizing the speaking time. Australian scholar Dale Spender notes, “The talkativeness of women has been gauged in comparison not with men but with silence. Women have not been judged on the grounds of whether they talk more than men, but of whether they talk more than silent women.”
NPR’s All Things Considered recently explored the issue of how we perceive “enough” diversity in Hollywood. Here’s a critical part of Jackie Lyden’s interview with Geena Davis, who founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media in 2004:
DAVIS: We just heard a fascinating and disturbing study, where they looked at the ratio of men and women in groups. And they found that if there’s 17 percent women, the men in the group think it’s 50-50. And if there’s 33 percent women, the men perceive that as there being more women in the room than men.
LYDEN: Oh, my goodness.
DAVIS: So is it possible that 17 percent women has become so comfortable, and so normal, that that’s just sort of unconsciously expected?
LYDEN: Why else, Geena Davis, do these kinds of disparities matter?
DAVIS: What we’re, in effect, doing is training children to see that women and girls are less important than men and boys. We’re training them to perceive that women take up only 17 percent of the space in the world. And if you add on top of that, that so many female characters are sexualized – even in things that are aimed at little kids – that’s having an enormous impact as well.
These figures should make us stop and rethink our assumptions about what we’re seeing, hearing, and reading. As Davis rightly points out, what’s even more disturbing is that the women we typically see taking 17 percent of the space are sexualized, airbrushed, false-eyelashed (What’s with all the spider eyelashes worn by every single woman on screen lately?), etc. They frequently serve as the girlfriend of the main character, a byproduct of his story, a character with no agency of her own.
In 1929, Virginia Woolf wrote about this problem in fiction: “[A]lmost without exception [women] are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen‘s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that.”
Alison Bechdel, the author of the magnificent graphic memoir Fun Home (a must-read that will change the way you see graphic work), devised what is known as the Bechdel Test. A film or TV show passes the test if it contains at least two female characters who talk to each other about something other than men. You can also do a version of this test to watch for people of color talking about something other than white people. It’s certainly lower than the standard we work towards, but it gives us a basic way of determining succinctly whether marginalized people are remotely represented as actual people or simply as resources for straight white men.
One way we can change this is to support movies that bust the norm. Hollywood studios usually balk at spending money on women-driven movies, and even the success of Bridesmaids and The Hunger Games didn’t change that. But The Heat, a buddy cop movie starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, crushed White House Down and opened at $40 million, enough to greenlight a sequel. If we keep supporting movies with strong, funny, determined women, we just might get more of them. And if the percentage of women in movies increases, that might have ripple effects. If women make up higher percentages of people on screen, we might notice where they are missing in our institutions.