misogyny bowl

I’m not much of a football fan. When I was a waitress, I’d always volunteer to work on Superbowl Sunday, in hopes that someone would volunteer to work for me on Oscar night. Since then, my Superbowl-watching has been confined to the years when someone I know has a Superbowl party or people come to my house or whatever. Left to my own devices, I spend Superbowl Sundays sewing or knitting or watching DVDs or whatever.

This year my boyfriend wanted to watch the Superbowl, so we invited my sister and her husband over for food, drinks, football-explaining (my boyfriend’s forte) and general mocking (my forte). Dear readers, if you saw the Superbowl, I’m sure that my anger regarding a number of the ads will come as no surprise to you.  The message in many of them was: Women are bringing you down, men! Bitches have removed your spine! They’re making you watch vampire TV shows! They’re bossing you around! They’re inferior to a set of tires! It’s time to remedy this by buying stuff and acting like an asshole.

(Side question: Regular Superbowl watchers, is there always this much misogyny in the ads? I don’t remember it being this bad before, but as I said, I’m a sporadic viewer.)

Anyway. The worst, most rage-filled ad as far as I’m concerned was the Dodge Charger one (which you can see here; I’m not going to embed it). I found this clever response to that ad and posted a link to it on Twitter:

A woman I follow on Twitter wrote that she didn’t watch the game, but from what she could tell, the ads were pretty alienating to the female audience. I responded:

Yeah, a LOT of the ads were of the “WOMEN BE SHOPPIN’” variety. Made me wish @sarah_haskins was still doing “Target Women.”

Then I said:

Our superbowl: leftover party food, @meganheadley falls asleep, @luiztauil watches the game, I bitch to @bpriker about sexist commercials.

I got these two replies within two minutes of each other:

@bluishorange yuck. I hope the fallout from the critiques doesn’t further it with “women are too sensitive and can’t take a joke”

@bluishorange I tried bitching about the sexist commercials, but everyone thought I was being an overly sensitive whiner. ARRRG.

It took a lot of exposition for me to make this point, but here it is: Thinking critically about the portrayal of your gender, race, nationality, sexual orientation, etc, in the media does not qualify as being oversensitive. Speaking up about it does not mean you can’t take a joke.

The fact that two people I know worried at nearly the same moment about being thought of as oversensitive whiners is evidence to me that this sort of “Oh, lighten up!” response is still pretty common. Well rest assured, people, I’m not planning to lighten up on this issue anytime soon.  It’s not that hard to create TV shows and movies and advertisements that are funny, interesting, enlightening and engaging without insinuating that women are bitches; and it’s up to us, the viewers, to demand that standard.

I’m fortunate to have a boyfriend who is happy to discuss sexist commercials and sexist other things and general feminism with me. He maintains that the ads like the ones aired during this year’s Superbowl are offensive to both sexes: they’re hostile towards women, but they also assume men to be thoughtless, anti-intellectual cads. And I think he’s right. Gentlemen, if you’re part of the “lighten up” contingent, you may want to start evaluating how you’re being portrayed.

P.S. Matt Haughey made a good response video as well:

Parisian Love, Part II from Matt Haughey on Vimeo.

Mr. Treehorn treats objects like women, man!

If any of you are Metafilter-readers or regular NPR listeners, you’ve probably heard about the Bechdel rule this week.  If you haven’t heard of the Bechdel rule, here it is, as written in Bechdel’s comic strip, “Dykes to Watch Out For.”

I only go to a movie if it satisfies three basic requirements: One, it has to have at least two women in it, who, two, talk to each other about three, something besides a man.

When I read this, I thought four things:

  1. Boy, lots of cool people are named Alison with one L.
  2. I bet that every episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer follows the Bechdel rule.
  3. But Dr. Horrible definitely doesn’t.
  4. And I bet a lot of my favorite movies fail, too.

It should be noted here that I don’t think that the Bechdel rule should be seen as a hard-and-fast rule–rather, it’s something to make one think about how movies are made, and for what audience.  After all, there are quite a few very good movies that don’t follow this rule, and I’m sure there are some bad ones that do.  It just now occurred to me that a lot of hard-core porn films probably follow the Bechdel rule: the parts at the beginning where they talk about how the cable needs to be fixed, or the refrigerator just broke, or whatever.

Anyway.  Because I find this Bechdel rule very interesting, I’m going to test all the movies on my shelf at home:

The Big Lebowski: Fail.  Two women, Bunny Lebowski and Maude Lebowski, who never speak.

Election: Pass.  Tracy Flick and her mother talk about the election, and Tammy Metzler talks to her sort-of-girlfriend Lisa, though it doesn’t go very well.

Adaptation: Fail. Susan Orlean and Charlie and Donald’s respective love interests don’t talk to each other.

Far From Heaven: Pass.  Cathy and Eleanor talk about the party they host together.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Fail.  Clementine and Mary never meet.

High Fidelity: Uber-Fail.  It’s got lots of women, but they never talk to each other.  This movie fails for a lot of reasons.

Wayne’s World: Fail. Obviously.

The Royal Tenenbaums: Pass.  Margot and Etheline talk about Margot’s depression.

Donnie Darko: Pass. Sometimes Kitty doubts Mrs. Darko’s committment to Sparkle Motion.

Being John Malkovich: Pass-ish.  Lotte and Maxine talk to each other, but they talk about sleeping together while Lotte’s in John Malkovich, so I’m not sure it counts.  That movie’s hard to classify.

Shakespeare in Love: Pass.  Viola and her nurse talk about theatre.

Roxanne: Fail.  Roxanne and Dixie talk, but they talk about men.

Sideways: Fail.  We never see Stephanie and Maya talk to each other.

About Schmidt: Fail. Warren’s daughter and future mother-in-law never have a conversation.

Punch-Drunk Love: Fail. Barry’s sister and Lena talk, but they talk about Barry.

The Man Who Wasn’t There: Fail.  Doris Crane, Ann Nirdlinger, and Birdy never speak to each other.

Pollock: I never watch this movie because it’s too depressing, but I suspect a fail.

So that’s a 64% failure rate.  The point of this, of course, is to illustrate the fact that all too often, women in movies are seen through the eyes of men, or else they’re used as props to illustrate what the central male character is going through.  Rarely are they shown dealing with their own issues that are unrelated to men.

That’s why High Fidelity gets an uber-fail.  All the women in it are props for Rob Gordon to lean against or react to or use to deal with his own issues.  The girls he dumped are happy to see him and talk to him years later, and even when Laura’s dad dies, she chooses to deal with it by having sex with Rob, a plot point that always rang false for me.  I know that the way Rob relates to women is the central point of the movie, but the women in question could really use some help with their self-esteems.

Now that I think about it, the television shows I like follow the Bechdel rule much more often, sometimes even on an episode-by-episode basis.  Buffy, pass.  Veronica Mars, pass.  The Office, pass.  Gilmore Girls, pass.  Lost, pass.  30 Rock, pass.  Granted, most of these are shows with large ensemble casts, and with central issues unrelated to male-female relationships, so it’s easier for them to pass.  But neither Veronica nor Buffy nor the other female characters on those shows could be called props by any stretch.

I’m not sure that this indicates that television is better at fleshing out its female characters, but maybe it does.  Or maybe it’s just that my taste in TV shows runs toward those with female main characters, while my taste in movies runs toward those written and directed by quirky men (Anderson, Kaufman, the other Anderson, Payne, Coens, etc.) who usually write about male protagonists.  Or maybe it’s just that I’m more familiar with television than film.

But it does seem like television has more female writers, directors and show runners than movies have female writers and directors, doesn’t it?

tits up

On our second night in Brussels, Jessica and I went to a nearby square to find someplace to have dinner. Anyone who travels in foreign countries is probably familiar with this method of dinner-finding:

“What about this place?”
“I dunno, let’s look at the menu.”
[Looking at menu]
“Whoa, that’s expensive! Let’s keep walking.”

[Walking]

“How about here?”
[Looking at menu]
“Eh, we had pizza last night. Let’s keep walking.”

[Walking]

“Here?”
[Looking at menu]
“I can’t tell what this is.”
“Me, either.”

[Walking]

“What about this place?”
[Looking at menu]
“I think I can find something to eat here. You?”
“Yeah, this looks good.”

We sat down at a table outside and looked at the menu. The waiter came over and spoke English to us, so we asked him to translate some of the less-obvious words on the menu, and he helped us pick out some drinks and salads and pasta.

As we waited for our food, I noticed an elderly man sitting by himself at a table just behind Jessica, with what looked like a metal crutch propped up next to him. On his table there was a beer and a bunch of colored pencils; it looked like he was drawing something.

Just after our food arrived, the man stood up and hobbled over to where Jessica and I were sitting. “Excuse me,” he said in heavily-accented English, handing me a beer coaster, “I draw this for you.”

I looked at the beer coaster. It was just a regular coaster on the printed side, but on the blank side he had drawn this:

a gift from an elderly man

In case it isn’t glaringly obvious, this is a drawing of me. Topless.

Of course I was not topless at the time; I guess the drawing was just his representation of what I might look like topless. While I was quietly freaking out, the elderly man was telling Jessica that to get the breasts so perfectly round, he had traced around an old Belgian penny. Not a Euro penny, a Belgian penny, I guess to add a little Belgian nationalism to his topless works.

I say I was quietly freaking out, but really I wasn’t sure what to think. How was I supposed to feel about this? Was the topless coaster drawing offensive? Was it creepy? Or was it just a prop for a funny travel tale? The waiter came out, saw the drawing on the table, and chuckled. “He does that every day,” he said.

The fact that the elderly man was there at the restaurant every day, drawing all sorts of topless tourists, made me feel a bit better. If he was creepy, at least he wasn’t so creepy that he had alienated restaurant employees. As a former waitress, I’ve known restaurant regulars like this–they walk a fine line between creepy and normal, but if you work at a place long enough, they start to seem a little endearing.

Jessica and I were halfway through our meal when the elderly man came over to our table again. “Excuse me. What is your name?” he said to Jessica.

“Jessica,” she said.

“Yessica!” he said. “You write it here.” He handed her a beer coaster and a marker and pointed to the printed side of the coaster. She wrote her name and gave it back to him. A few minutes later he came back over and handed her the coaster. On the blank side he had drawn a train, with Jessica’s name incorporated into the front grill of the locomotive.

“Thanks!” she said.

He asked us where we were from, and we told him Texas. “Texas!” he exclamed, as though pleasantly surprised. A few minutes later he asked me to write my name down, and I received a drawing of “a steam ship on the Mississippi!” with my name on it.

“Thanks,” I said.

The rest of the meal was uneventful except for the part where I arm-wrestled the waiter and he tried to give me a neck massage, but that’s another story. As we walked away from the restaurant, I thought about the topless drawing of me. What if the elderly man liked men instead of women? Would he draw pictures of shirtless or pantsless* men and hand them out to male tourists? I imagined how things might go if he handed out pictures of pantsless men:

“Excuse me, I draw this for you.”
[Punch]

If that’s really what would happen, then the beer-coaster drawing represents yet another thing that happens to women more often than men. Women are generally seen as more passive than men, and therefore less likely to react violently or negatively to things like this. Maybe the elderly man felt safe giving me the drawing because I’m a woman, so he probably wouldn’t get punched or even yelled at.

And he was right, apparently. I didn’t punch him or yell at him at all; in fact I thanked him. My general rule when I’m in a country where I don’t speak the language, don’t know the laws, and don’t know anyone besides my traveling companion is that it’s important to stay as safe as possible; negative incidents I might not walk away from at home are usually best avoided when abroad. So maybe that’s part of it. But the truth is that I am pretty passive. If a man in an Austin restaurant handed me a naked drawing of myself, I’d only make a fuss if he followed up with something inappropriate, and even then I’d probably just ask for the check and tell the waiter, “I’ve got to go, this customer is harassing me.”

The elderly man in the restaurant was obviously not coming on to me, and there was no inappropriate followup to be found. After he gave us our drawings, he didn’t talk to us again for the rest of our meal. If the same incident had happened in Austin, I’d have done the same exact thing that I did in Brussels.

There are a few other things at play here:

1. I felt less threatened because he was elderly, and walked with a cane. If he’d been large and/or muscular and imposing, I might have reacted differently, or at the very least felt differently.

2. My reaction to the drawing was a pretty American one. It’s an unfortunate American convention that, no matter what the context, the nude female form is automatically seen as a sexual thing to be censored.** Our movies are filled with more blood and violence and killing than with nudity, and when the nudity appears, it’s a big fat deal. Watching any amount of European television will tell you that they don’t look at nudity the same way we do. Perhaps the elderly Belgian man didn’t see his drawing as overtly sexual, at least not in the way I did.

I still struggle with my reaction to the drawing, and what it means as far as how I lead my daily life. I guess I don’t wish I’d been less passive at that restaurant in Brussels; the elderly man was harmless enough, as are your average men. But what about when things aren’t so harmless? I wish I didn’t feel the need to look behind me every time I walked down a deserted street. I wish I didn’t have to take my keys out and have them ready while walking to my car or apartment at night. I wish I didn’t feel like I can’t do certain things for safety reasons because I’m female. I wish about a lot of things that happen to women.

A friend once told me that whenever he’s walking down a nearly-deserted Manhattan street at night and there’s a lone woman walking in front of him, he’ll sometimes cross to the other side of the street to avoid freaking her out. And I think that’s what I really struggle with. Is it up to other people to try not to freak me out, or is it up to me to avoid allowing myself to freak out?***

As for the drawing, of course I took it with me, to use as a prop for a funny travel tale. Maybe I’m just a sucker for a good story.

*Side question: if he drew pictures of pantsless males, what would he trace for the penis?

**However gradually, I do think America is improving on this front, but we’re still much different from the rest of the western world in how we view our nudity.

***I think it’s both, really.