thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Posts Tagged ‘feminism’

Secret Histories: Wonder Woman, Feminism, and Uncomfortable Truths

In books, feminism on March 16, 2015 at 6:02 am

Sarah S. lepore_wonder_woman_coverThe secret history of Wonder Woman is in many ways the secret history of feminism in America. Or at least this is how it is portrayed in historian Jill Lepore’s book of the same title. Feminism in the U.S.—indeed, the history of women in the U.S.—seems to be constantly forgotten and rediscovered and forgotten again. And so too Wonder Woman, who’s popularity and overt feminism have both ebbed and swelled and waned again.

The secret history of Wonder Woman is also the secret history of the character’s creator—William Moulton Marston—and the inspirations for his super-powered Amazonian—his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston and his/their second wife, Olive Byrne. Psychologist Marston invented the polygraph but failed to bring it into reputable use, earned extra income during college by writing movie scripts, and advocated for women’s rights while at Harvard. He met suffragette Holloway, a woman whose brain, ambition, and political fervor exceeded even his own. But Marston was also a proponent of free love. He carried on one affair that Holloway at least tolerated, possibly participated in, setting the stage for their relationship with one of his college students—Byrne.

The secret history of Wonder Woman includes a bevy of such tricky or uncomfortable realities. One of these is Olive Byrne’s mother, Ethel Byrne, a birth control and free love activist almost forgotten by history, overshadowed by her better connected and more PR savvy sister, Margaret Sanger. And so it includes her daughter, Olive, who grew up learning about birth control and free love from her mother and aunt, and then lived in a secret polyamourous relationship with Marston and Holloway from the time she graduated college to Marston’s death. (Byrne and Holloway continued to live together for the rest of their lives as well.) And it includes Marston, who let his ego mask his general inadequacies and lack of financial success (Holloway was the primary breadwinner for the household and the only consistent one) and yet this same ego also emboldened him to woo and “marry” two such brilliant women.

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Unpacking The Beauty Vlogger Phenomenon

In Beauty Culture, body politics, fashion, feminism on December 3, 2014 at 7:37 am

Vera Hanson**

I stumbled upon the beauty vlogger phenomenon over a year ago. It was summer, and I was at home from college with way too much time on my hands. I remember watching my first Zoella, or Zoe Sugg, video and instantly being charmed. At 19, I loved fashion and was interested in makeup. But I was mostly stunned at how quickly I felt connected to a girl talking to a camera thousands of miles away in England. Over the next few months, I not only grew attached to Zoe’s videos, but I began watching other beauty vloggers, such as Tanya Burr and Sprinkle of Glitter, as well. With millions of subscribers each, they all have their own distinct personality, style of video editing, and personal story.

As a career, beauty vloggers share their passion for beauty via video blogging. This takes the form of makeup tutorials, clothes hauls, product reviews, and beyond. The videos are “all the same but slightly different,” according to Guardian writer Eva Wiseman. “A young woman talks to you from the edge of her bed … Piece by piece she will test the brushes, the lip glosses, and piece by piece she will make you her friend.” What’s distinctive about these women is how personable they all are. Watching their videos feels, at times, less about makeup and more about the relationship they’ve carved out with their audiences.

Today, these women are not just beauty vloggers but also entrepreneurs, building YouTube beauty empires one makeup tutorial at a time. Yet their widespread influence does raise questions. In recent months, I’ve begun to wonder about the cultural significance of this trend. What, if any, stereotypes about women and beauty culture do these vloggers engage with and perpetuate?

It would be easy to conclude that beauty vloggers are feeding into stereotypical images of femininity. Their videos are overgrown with pastel colors, they’re capable of talking about lipstick for over ten minutes, and sometimes it feels as if they’ve done more shopping in a week than most of us have done in a year. Yet that conclusion feels too simplistic to me, and it denies these women their agency. To shame vloggers for their interest in beauty and fashion is to undermine their contributions to a larger female narrative. More than that, the way they continue to contribute to an industry pioneered by women plays a large role in explaining why beauty vlogging, at its core, can actually be quite feminist.

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Feminist Fabulists: Telling Stories, Changing Perspectives, and “Pretty Little Liars”

In ABC Soaps, feminism, Perspective, Pretty Little Liars on September 16, 2014 at 7:59 am

Phoebe B.

The villains and heroes of a story often change depending on who’s controlling the narrative. Consider the many recent re-thinkings of classic stories from the evil characters’ perspective.

Wicked, for example, re-tells the Wizard of Oz from the Wicked Witch’s (aka Elphaba’s) point of view. In so doing, an entirely different story is spun: a young girl discriminated against for her skin color fights an unjust system, only to be cast as “wicked” by the Wizard’s corrupt administration.

Similarly, Disney’s newest princess fairytale re-imagines Maleficent (masterfully played by Angelina Jolie) in the titular character as a woman scorned—her majestic wings violently stolen by the King, her former childhood sweetheart. As narrated by Aurora, Maleficent’s supposedly evil nature—and by extension her violence—is filtered through a rape-revenge fantasy narrative. The film casts her anger and desire for revenge as rooted in trauma rather than the product of pure evil—a move that doesn’t function to justify her violence but rather explains it.

Both re-tellings further complicate familiar narratives by foregrounding relationships between women that don’t fit within patriarchal structures. Sleeping Beauty’s re-telling of Maleficent’s story, outside the confines of her father’s violent ideology, reveals that the theoretically bad fairy was Aurora’s true protector, a complex person capable of love. In Wicked, a similar relationship of rivals is recast as a best friendship and alliance between the “good” witch Galinda (aka Glinda) and Elphaba.

This is the trick of perspective: when we flip it and re-imagine stories from the viewpoints of outsiders, we begin to see the dangers of limiting ourselves to just one narrative (check out Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s beautiful Ted Talk for more on this.).

Like Wicked and Maleficent, the ABC Family series Pretty Little Liars foregrounds perspective, casting doubt on the reliability of any singular narrative and particularly those that attempt to frame women within patriarchy. But it goes even further in championing the multiplicity of narratives that emerge in communities of women, suggesting the importance of reclaiming and re-writing our own diverse stories.

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Pretty Little Liars and the Power of Four

In girl culture, misogyny, Pretty Little Liars on February 27, 2014 at 6:52 pm

ImageSarah T.

The four of us sit in the grass by the farmer’s market. Together we form a baseball diamond, a compass rose.

Chelsea wears a printed sundress. Her short hair is perfectly mussed; her mouth is a red cupid’s bow. When I first met her I thought she was so glamorous that it was a little intimidating. As it turns out she’s fiercely loyal and easy to trust, the kind of friend who’ll usher you into the kitchen when you’re feeling sad to cook you a bowl of pasta. She’s equal parts sass and Southern sympathy as Melissa acts out scenes from last night’s party.

Melissa’s proud and fiery and mostly legs, equally comfortable pitching a tent in the middle of a rainstorm and spinning across a dance floor with a perfect cat’s-eye. I love listening to her tell stories because she always acts out all the parts. Now she waves her arms over her head, forms her hands into claws and growls.

Phoebe mock-recoils with a laugh. She’s warm and poised with bright blue eyes, quick with comebacks and questions and bear hugs, and sure about the things she loves in a way that makes her habits contagious. Spend enough time with her and you won’t be able to understand how you ever lived without over-salting your salads and speed-walking for at least an hour a day.

As for me, I’m fresh off a breakup. My bangs are awkwardly short because I was too depressed to tell the stylist when to stop cutting. It’s an appropriate look, as I am pretty sure I’m having at least three identity crises simultaneously. But together with these three women, for what seems like the first time in weeks, I don’t feel like crying. Read the rest of this entry »

What Beyoncé Wore

In Uncategorized on February 11, 2013 at 3:25 pm

Sarah T.

People have a lot of thoughts about Beyoncé’s Superbowl outfit.

A Huffington Post headline screamed, “Beyoncé Goes XXX at the Superbowl Halftime Show.” Conservative corners of the blogosphere fretted that Beyoncé was too sexy for the Superbowl, as well as, presumably, her car (too sexy by far). Meanwhile, some feminists and cultural critics–including people whose opinions I respect very much–expressed disappointment with the way Beyoncé’s wardrobe catered to the objectifying male gaze.

I’m not surprised that conservatives dredged up beef with Beyoncé. If the goal is for all female musicians to act and dress like pretty pretty wholesome-family-values princesses, obviously lots of them are going to fall short. (Although Beyoncé really is remarkably apple-a-day wholesome: Besides being one of the most successful performers alive, she’s a devoted wife and mother, friend to the Obamas, and ready to fight childhood obesity with the power of the Dougie.)

Reactions on the other side of the ideological fence, however, took me aback. It’s not that I disagree that part of the point of Beyoncé’s outfit—a leather bodysuit with lace accents, fishnets, and knee-high boots—was to emphasize her sexual allure. But her costume didn’t strike me as anything out of the ordinary for a pop star. Nor did her dancing seem particularly risqué. Because she is Beyoncé, she obviously looked like a blazing blinding goddess of beauty, but beyond that her appearance seemed like nothing to write home about. She definitely didn’t look XXX to me.

Partly, I’m sure, this is because I’m immersed in a culture that objectifies women all the time. My sensitivities on this issue are probably dulled. But I also didn’t spend much time thinking about Beyoncé’s outfit because I was too busy cheering for her awesome lady guitar player, and for the reunion of Destiny’s Child, and for her all-women-of-color band–a first in Superbowl history. And now that I have devoted more time to contemplating Beyoncé’s Superbowl outfit, the main thing I’ve concluded is that it’s counterproductive to spend time worrying about what other women ought to wear. Read the rest of this entry »

The Feminist’s Dilemma

In Uncategorized on March 4, 2012 at 10:07 am

Sarah S.

Today, Slate posted on article on “Hollywood’s New Beefcakes.” In it, authors and note that “Hollywood always likes to keep a few beefcakes around for use in its big action pictures and romances” and they grade the newest crop accordingly. (It’s worth clicking on the main link to the article to see their graphic, which includes hover-overs for each celebrity situated on top of what part of the cow they represent; I could not snag an image of it for this post.) Taylor Lautner, Twilight hunk, gets Rump Roast and grade of “C” for his “bland acting,” revealing him to be “just a rump, perhaps beef’s least flavorful cut.” Ryan Gosling, on the other hand, gets deemed grade “A” beef, Mock Tender, for being “more interested in subverting his hearthrob dreaminess than in perpetuating it.” Channing Tatum, Chris Pine, Jake Gyllenhall, Ryan Reynolds, and others also make the “cut.”

Image

Here’s my dilemma: If someone did something similar comparing fresh, young starlets to cuts of beef (or any other food item) I would be appalled. All my feminist hairs would stand on end, inflamed with righteous indignation at this objectification of women, this reduction of women to only their bodies. It’s because of such responses that a magazine such as Slate would never publish that article. Why is it okay, then, to reduce these men to meat and not do the same for their female counterparts?

One response is that such an objectification of men subverts a patriarchal paradigm, putting men into a “feminized” position and claiming the traditionally male power of “the gaze” for (straight) women (and gay men). It’s okay because men still enjoy more power and privilege so cannot be problematically hurt by their alignment with beef.

One might counter, however, that such a reduction of any human being to solely their physical self is a problem. And we can see that it’s problem given the rising instances of male anorexia and other signs of body obsession in young men. No human should be viewed so reductively.

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