A tool for critical viewing

Here’s a handy memory device for the next time you watch a movie.

It will help you remember the 3 rules to Alison Bechdel’s measurement of gender bias in media.

The bottom line is TWO–are there two named female characters on screen? If yes, great! Advance to the next level.

The second is TALK–do these female characters talk to and interact with each other? If yes, holy crap, you’re moving up to…

The third criteria TESTES–do our characters talk about something besides testicles? If they only talk about men, the film fails. But if they do not, hurrah! Get that star!

The original context of this test was a comic strip, yet I find myself amazed and horrified at how regularly films fail it….and often on the first level. Try it for yourself sometime.

-Nicole

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Agonizing Ads….

Just last week, I had the pleasure of flipping through an issue of the fashion magazine Marie Claire. According to their website, this publication is: “Your source for information on fashion, style, beauty, women’s issues, careers, health, and so much more. It is the fashion magazine with character, substance and depth, for women with a point of view, an opinion and a sense of humor…If it matters to women, it’s in Marie Claire.”

Hmm, sounds promising so far.

Inside I found these two ads:

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What matters to women? Apparently Slimfast diets and breast implants. I particularly love the Slimfast image, with its bait and switch. Women want to lose weight to be more confident, it’s improving their self-image, right….? Oh wait, what they actually meant was women want to look better naked.

Two things:

1. Don’t tell me to diet.

2. I already look good naked.

Why do these ads make me happy? It’s not because I’m looking to drop pounds or get bodywork done.

It’s not even because they expose Marie Claire’s mission statement as blatant hypocrisy.

These ads make me smile because of what happened as I was looking at them. (Glaring in anger, really.) Because at that moment, two other women in the room with me became interested in what was causing my face to twist up. I quickly showed them the offending pages. And what happened next was brilliant. We started a dialogue.

In a very simple way, we deconstructed the hell out of those images. We talked through it. We voiced our different opinions. These stupid, frustrating pictures of faceless women turned into tools whereby we could talk about what it means to be a woman now. And that’s a seed of hope for this society. Women want to talk about what it means to be women. They just need the opportunity. And what is more fitting and more ironic than using  mass media as a diagram of exactly how we don’t want to be seen?

I may even write a little note to Marie Claire, to thank them for making their idea of womanhood so clear to me. It’s useful to know thine enemy.

-Nicole

Media Review–“Accessory”

Jordyn Taylor

Confessions of a Shopaholic

2009

“Fashion defines women” is certainly not a new concept, but I was surprised to learn that by tracking fashion trends, you can track the modernization process of a society. To put this into practice, I’ll do my best to gain some sort of insight into our society by breaking down the messages in “Accessory.” I am indebted to Professor Susan Hiner for her excellent talk on fashion and modernity given at Tyler School of Art, which inspired and provided the background for this post.

Oh, our love affair with inanimate objects.

No, really, she is about to make out with that mannequin. Do woman (wealthy, white) have so much agency that they can afford to love their luxury accessories instead of- or more than- other people?  Clearly, pleasure is tied up in the acquisition and display of “brand name” objects. Now take a moment to appreciate this image.

Here’s where it gets interesting: the handbag did not always carry the meaning we assign to it today. In fact, circa 1801 handbags were seen as ridiculous alternatives to pockets, which were hidden underneath the dress. A handbag, in contrast to the secrecy of the pocket, was promiscuous. The women carrying a handbag openly was immediately “classed down”  as vulgar, letting it all hang out. Unless her bag was a sewing bag, because in that case it announced her prowess at home economics and thus potential wifely qualities. Needlework was acceptable, it showed a woman’s moral fiber. Virtuous needlework would keep a woman from the idle vanity of handbags.

Jump forward to the 1880s. Department stores have entered the scene, trampled small businesses underfoot. We can see all too clearly the developing gendered economy, reflected in the literature of the time. Women, as consumers, are idiots. They drive men to bankruptcy. And who is to blame for this trouble? The humble handbag. Because woman get irrational over them. In fact, it’s almost like your wife or fiancee is having an adulterous relationship with these huge stores full of fashion. Isn’t it? Check out 2:52 in the video again. Stores are seduction machines.

Well, the adultery never stopped. By the 1900s, women had moved into the public sphere of activities. Their defiant use of fashion accessories allowed them to transgress traditional  boundaries that associated women with privacy and the home. Where does that leave us today? The bigger the better! In the video, our girl dances in front of bags larger than she is. Designer bags are now symbols of wealth and status, to a much greater degree than they were in the past.

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See? We’ll even fight for them! How can we go out into the world without an accessory that proclaims our power and marks us as better than the competition?

“He’s my latest accessory. Was he on sale?”

We’re at the point now that we use relationships in the same way we use designer labels: to boost our status. To give us another reason to feel good about ourselves, in the public street and online, through photos and status updates, anywhere. It’s a kind of power trip to be able to claim someone as “your significant other.” “Accessory” is a bit interesting in that it is the women who are making this statement of power, quite blatantly listing men as objects in their collections. I would not call it empowering, however. It comes at the expensive of dehumanizing men, even to the point that men are bought and sold like the shoes and bags. That’s no kind of progress.

We tend to think that quantity makes up for quality. If we own a lot of bags, or boyfriends, our quality of life will increase. Are these things just tools, or are they some fundamental part of our egos? And at that rate,  I wonder at what point does ownership transfer? When do we stop owning our accessories, and they start to own us?

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~Nicole

Fatal Adventures 1.19.13–Mosex Revisited

MUSEUM OF SEX
233 Fifth Avenue (@ 27th Street)
New York, NY

In my head I’d imagined it bigger. Something on the scale of the PMA, or even Philly’s City Hall. From Darragh’s description of her first visit, I’d built up a picture of an endless maze, a pictorial journey through the History of Sex. Standing on fifth ave, my expectations around my ankles, I held back the urge to mutter “Really? That’s it?”

The first floor sex shop was surprisingly less shocking and more, I don’t know, coy? It seemed a little too clean, too well put together, like Barnes and Nobles trying to be kinky. There were popular novels, too, such as 50 Shades of Grey, and shot glasses, and coloring books. Hiding in the back of the shop were the actual sex toys, which were only vaguely intriguing. (Why a cupcake?) The shop itself could have made a succinct exhibit, Commodification of Desire, or The Sexual Consumer. But the next floor above made up for all that.

The museum calls it Universe of Desire. To me it will always be the floor where I first saw porn. Or as they put it,“As human behavior becomes more clickable than physical, we can’t help but wonder what this means for our most basic, biological impulse: sex.” says Mark Snyder, Director of Exhibitions and Co-Curator of “Universe of Desire.”  The black walls really help the screens of copulation to stand out, as if they weren’t going to have all your attention anyway. Out of all the kinks, all the video installations, it was the animated cartoon sex reel that made me nauseous. I think because of how exaggerated the motions were. Come on, cartoon dude, she’s not a kabob. I stood there wincing until I’d seen the video through. At least this exhibit helped me discover what I’m not into. One object that I did like on this floor was the orgasm quilt. It was, as you might imagine, a quilt with orgasming faces on each panel. The images came from this project, The Beautiful Agony, dedicated to the beauty of the human orgasm. It gave your eyes something still to rest on, pleasurable instead of demanding. There was a lot of stimuli in that room.

Beyond the digital sex exhibit, the floor I liked the most was called Sex Lives of Animals. It came closest to fulfilling my desire for information as well as arousal. Besides learning about the shocking and ridiculous ways animals get it on, you also get to look at some fun sculptures and pics. Deer threesome, anyone? Or if that’s not to your taste, how about camel masturbation? People laughed in this room, or snorted with embarrassment, or grabbed their friend to point something out. Not the hushed, dark, weird space of the porn floor at all.

MOSEX is an experience that everyone relates to in some way. But going through it feels more like a carnival atmosphere than a museum. There are huge holes in the structure and content, none of which seems logically organized. Sexy sex in other cultures is omitted (Anime? Manga??). Religious attitudes towards sex are never referenced. This is not a scientific inquiry, ladies and gents. But that’s okay, because its target audience is the 18-25 crowd. Girls taking pictures of themselves in front of the exhibits, guys copping a feel of their girlfriend’s butts….the visitors themselves are sometimes more interesting than the exhibits….galleries….whatever they are. I’m still mentally digesting everything I saw there, not sure if there’s any real insight to be had…other than, as much as we may like to have the sex ourselves, perhaps we like even more the suggestions and the possibilities available by watching others have it?

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If you’d like to check out their other exhibits, here’s the website: Museum of Sex.

–Nicole

Fatal Friday–Nueve

Despite twenty-some years of observing others, on Friday I discovered that my judgments are still too hasty. People’s character is infinitely more complex than society’s roles would suggest. And perhaps still more complex than one mind can understand alone.

No doubt you are rolling your eyes now……Hey, get to the good part! What DID you two do last Friday night?

For starters, we witnessed Gloria Steinem give a lecture. Who is she, you ask? Gloria is a writer, lecturer, editor, and the feminist activist. She was speaking at Haverford, to a full house of women and men.

In the course of the hour, she expanded on her theory of the interconnected nature of current social justice movements. She stressed that as long as the construct of racism exists, sexism will never go away, and vice versa. With her particular humor, she made it current by addressing the looming presidential election. She noted that rhetoric over the years has tried to make us believe our vote doesn’t count or is somehow meaningless. She also made it very plain that she considers Romney/Ryan’s proposed policies about women’s bodies dangerous and multi-faceted. One of the best moments of the night was when she asked “Why are ultra conservatives against both birth control and lesbians?” Food for thought. Her answer was because both allow women to have sex for pleasure not procreation. What I loved most about her (besides her wit) was her understanding of everything affecting everything else. She used the circle in her explanation; an idea world is modeled on a endless circle, not an inverted triangle of hierarchy.

Darragh geeked basically the entire time, and after the talk Gloria was signing autographs in the lobby. After waiting in the line, Darragh presented her book to be signed. Not a book written by Gloria, no. This was a vintage book of erotica, a real nightmare of pasty boobs and butts. Gloria looked at the book and made this face:

But being the wonderful person she is, she finally signed the cover “A Terrible Book–Gloria Steinem.” It’s true, I swear.

Flushed with these events, we got our picture snapped by this lovely organization:

(And spoke to its organizer. Keep an eye out for future collaborations.) What could get better than meeting Gloria Steinem in the flesh? While waiting for the train back to Temple, we engaged a neighbor in friendly chat. Her name escapes me, but she listened with good humor and recognized Gloria’s name as a famous feminist. After she got off at her stop, Darragh and I kept chatting pretty much continuously from the train station to the center of Temple campus. We met up with her gentleman there, and then things got a little funky.

A kid was urinating on the bellower. Now bear in mind this was 11:30 on a Friday night. North Philly has seen much odder in its time. But it bothered our guy friend, and he went over and slapped the kid around a bit, as you might discipline a bad, drunk puppy. Naturally, this kid had a group of garden-variety assholes around him, five or so. They started yelling and oooing and ahhhing. In the confusion, Darragh thought one of them told her to “get over here and suck my dick” or some variation of the usual crap. Long story short, she dropped her bag and punched the offending drunk in the face.

Wait, WHAT? Yes. Trust me, if I was making this up, it would be more believable.

For the record, I have never seen her get physically violent before. It was about thirty seconds of what appeared to be total disregard of consequences, pure emotional response. This is very out of character for my partner; she is someone who plans ahead, who has the future firmly in front of her eyes. Before Friday, I would have said it was impossible for her to do that. I guess the old cliche proves true again…..as it turns out, nothing’s impossible.

–Nicole Beck (nikolbolt@gmail.com)

Fatal Friday-Siete

As anyone who knows her can agree, Darragh is at home with spoken words. She has a way of expressing them, using her hands and face and whole body as much as her vocal cords. Listening to her, as I’ve discovered, requires the attention of my eyes as well as ears. Otherwise I don’t get the full meaning of the story. It always amazes me, how well her body language reflects the contours of her thoughts.

Friday’s discussion ranged from personal reservations about makeup, to scientific articles studying evolutionary psychology, to why women wear heels during sex, to the ubiquity of the “orgasm face” in advertising. So just a normal Friday night.

From there we ended up reminiscing, sharing moments from our teen years when we said/did/wrote something odd or or a little embarrassing. (One word: fandom).  If I had to give the entire thing a time frame, I’d say maybe four hours? (That’s longer than I talked to my parents this month.)

What I’m saying is that if there was an Olympic marathon for talkers, we’d make a gold team. Eventually, and with the help of delicious chocolate brownies, we attempted a homework coup. Prince and Sade were on the playlist (bet you didn’t see that coming) and then I turned up the nostalgia with The Tempts. Since I can’t listen to those voices quietly, I began singing along. To my intense surprise and happiness, Darragh joined me. Thoroughly interrupted from homework, I grabbed a sketchbook and began to make blind line drawings.

Around one AM, we had a visitor drop by. The only thing to do in such situations is to have a tea party. Which we did. By then, we were reaching muffin time, that magical time of night when the muffin joke evokes fits of laughter. When our visitor left us, we wandered into the wilds of the Internet. After a detour through AskMen.com, we stumbled into a swamp known to many as “Cosmo.” Bear in mind that this was about 5 in the morning. Mocking and booing and shuddering our way through “30 things to do with a naked man,” we did our best to study all aspects of its ridiculousness for both sexes. We also continued our grand tradition of looking at more boobs and butts than most of our guy friends. Occupational hazard, I suppose.

In the end, we didn’t get drunk, but we may have been a little intoxicated.  Would I have it any other way? Not on your life.

Media Review – “Naughty but Nice”

Dr. Sherril Dodds, scholarly dance professor at Temple University’s Boyer College of Music and Dance recently presented her engaging research on Neo-Burlesque performance as social and gender commentary. The lecture was informational to say the least and controversial at the most. I sneaked in as she began to speak and grabbed a seat in the front row. Pulling a notepad and pen out of my bag, I did not stop writing until I had to leave.

As Dodds explained, she has been studying neo-burlesque for several years, interested in how performers communicate more than sexuality and coy femininity while on stage, but when it came to her research, her nose definitely didn’t stay in the books. Dodds went on to show pictures of herself in a UK-based burlesque company, twirling tassels and shaking her groove thang. Throughout her thesis reading, she showed pictures of famous burlesque stars from America and Great Britain, summarized the history of the medium and went on to argue that burlesque has more to do with political statements than showing off what your momma gave you.

As she spoke, her word choices were flowery and articulate and they flowed off her tongue with a hard British accent. She liked using alliterations and metaphors to try to get the audience to imagine that they had attended the same burlesque shows she had seen for her research. The effect was stimulating, but at times took away from what she was trying to prove. This becomes an issue when an educated individual tries to present their research when framed between two wall-size screens with pictures topless women licking their lips. Novelty? Yes. Academic? Yes. Full Communication? Hopefully, hopefully.

Firstly, Dodds made it very clear that there is a difference between “stripping” and “burlesque.” Stripping, she described, is when individuals have “economic necessity,” or the priority to meet their safety and physiological needs. In this mindset, they cannot explore the medium with creativity. “Commercialized neo-burlesque focuses less on politics and commentary and more on nudity and ideal feminine sexuality through the male gaze.” Dodds was focused with the influence of authentic neo-burlesque, not its commodified cousin.

Besides authentic neo-burlesque being “good, clean British fun,” Dodds emphasized (every other paragraph, practically) that it empowers women to make choices about how they communicate their gender roles and sexuality. Certainly she was pro-burlesque, but to what extent? Dodds did not view the form as exploitative in the least, apparently. I struggled with this evaluation during the whole lecture. Many of her points were valid in my eyes, but others, well others I just could not morally agree with!

Dodds said that neo-burlesque is an art form that allows “imperfect flesh” to be “celebrated.” That it is a “parody” examining the humorous stereotypes of complicated female identity while mocking expressed feminine behavior and hyper-masculinity. Yes, that’s all fine and dandy and I think it’s great to deconstruct those ideas, especially in a creative manner, but burlesque, no matter what the performer is intending, involves nudity, stripping, teasing and sex. It is male fantasy. It is degrading. It is using one’s body to seek value. I my brain, none of these things are right or rewarding. And even when  try to justify Dodds ideas by saying to myself that burlesque is an opportunity for women to explore sexual power, I fall back and see that it is just another way of seeking male approval.

Burlesque is apparently a lot like Drag in that the performers don’t sing, but instead lip-sync and dance to carefully planned choreography. Dodds says that this offers participants a chance to meticulously plan costume changes, movements and props, therefore creating spectacle and statement. “Facial expressions are social commentary that offer more than just what the smile represents.” Well, what I see is women actively participating in voicelessness, allowing their exposed bodies to speak for themselves with cultural context, not personal. This is detrimental because the audience sees breasts,  butts, curves and sex – a playtoy, instead of a thoughtful individual who may very well have planned a social commentary into their dance. This “voicelessness” represents passivity and perhaps is the exchange for the female to hold court on stage, but she should not have to give up her voice in order to get attention. Her body should not have to be exposed for her to be able to have a platform for opinion. Her ideas should not have to be interjected in-between shimmying, unzipping and flashing. Sex is power, but only temporarily.

First and foremost, Burlesque is a medium that sexualizes and monetizes the female form. Although Dodds enthusiastically commented that cat-calls from the audience are motivating and approving, all parts of me cannot imagine how. Does burlesque actually offer women the freedom to explore their sexuality or can they not get off unless someone else is? With popular forms of media like women’s Cosmopolitan magazine whose sex advice to female readers is largely how to please “your man,” (the mag is almost always heterosexual, mind you) and never to speak out for your own desires, I’m pretty sure that women are being conditioned into these mindsets.

At the end of the day, neo-burlesque as parody, strip, commentary, rebellion, expression, exploration, exploitation or entertainment is mixed messaging. Dodds has a doctoral degree and has proven the ability to deconstruct. The average person does not have that education nor the media literacy training to comprehend the millions of images and texts penetrating their existence from every source imaginable. This is why burlesque is problematic – the commentary is lost somewhere in-between the garters and the feathers.

*May it be known that those who actively participate and enjoy burlesque are not in the wrong, they are expressing themselves, hopefully. I have no issue  with their choice, their bodies and minds are their own. I am sincerely and solely concerned with how our society interprets women, their roles and their bodies through their actions and current privilege discourses.