Wednesday, May 23, 2007

This is What We Mean By Rape Culture

First, you have all read Whedon's latest rant of excellence, right? Good.

Now that I've spent far too much time compiling the list below I'd like to talk about why I believe that the Twain quote about there being "lies, damn lies, and statistics" is never more apt than when it comes to discussions about gender, harassment, and the male gaze.

Amanda recently made the comment on her blog that:

.....I call bullshit on the simple-reversal thing.

For example, a scene: Woman in library reading by herself, man leans over her shoulder. vs. Man in library reading by himself, woman leans over his shoulder.

Simple equation, but most of us could more easily see the former being scary because we’re aware of how commonly men invade women’s personal space to harass them.

Experience isn't something that people need to get over, it's something people rightly use to make everyday choices. While we should never let fear dominate our decisions, ignoring our feelings because they are inconvenient is never good nor logical.

The two posts must hardly seem connected in most people's minds, however. Amanda's example is of man doing something that many women would find threatening, while most women would find Laura's example of a man looking at store displays featuring sexy women to be harmless everyday behaviour. Yet why is looking at objectified women in public considered to be such mundane behavior? Does it really carry no other meaning than "sex is good and healthy?"

Just like the image of the person looking over another's shoulder, we view the situation through the lens of our experiences. Just as we bring to images like the ones below the knowledge that men rape women exponentially more often than women rape men, we also bring the knowledge that men are allowed more freedom when it comes to sexual desire than women are. While the pervasiveness of all this often prevents us from seeing the big picture impact of everyday actions, it's also what contributes to the impact such actions have.

Every instance of such behavior is a reminder that not only men are allowed to look at objectified images of women, but they are often given the right to do so without reasonable boundaries, while women often barred from the same basic privilege. The amount of harm done by such actions is not limited to the crudeness displayed or lack of respect when interacting with actual women. No more than it's all about the way he's looking over her shoulder that makes the image frightening. It's also about the experiences of being denied similar privilege and being forced to participate in the same pastime of looking at objectified images of women, whether you like to or not.

The final score is not thirty-something to nine, it's thirty-something to a fraction. Because, like Amanda's example. mere gender reversal does not equate to equality. Whatever I may feel looking at person-shaped Spidey in peril, I'd imagine most (heterosexual) men see nothing sexual in it at all. Which means that the pairing of sex and violence is not present in those images the way that it is in even the image of Sue Storm being held captive by two men.

I don't dislike the Fantastic Four cover. I just think it carries different connotations than a similar image of a male superhero would. Especially the typical superhero, who would be built closer to a tank and than a movie star. And I think we can all agree that many of my additions to the "sexy men in peril" were highly questionable when it comes to the sexy part. Is Spidey in that cover really in any way sexy the way that Sue Storm is in hers? He's mostly just person-shaped and looking a little graceful and awkward at the same time. There's nothing really objectified about him. Sue Storm, on the other hand has a blank expression, "perfect" body, hands clenched together (not apart and in fists), and knees together as well.

Quite frankly, in some ways I find this cover more disturbing than the infamous Heroes for Hire cover. (With the exception of the needless injustices done to Misty.) Setting aside for the moment the rating of the cover, it is at least honest about what it's trying to convey. To a disturbing degree certainly, but, well, honesty counts for something. But images like the F4 cover normalize the intersection of sex and violence against women in a way that's needed for the HFH hire cover to become acceptable in the mainstream. How many people are going to look at the F4 cover and consciously think "sex! and women in pain!" and yet still absorb the message? What kinds of real life signals do guys miss because they are taught that her posture is womanly rather than deliberately vulnerable? Which brings us back to Dworkin and the question of how a culture that equates femininity with vulnerability and submission can ever properly define rape.

The guy who "can't take a joke" is now arguing that "sexism is a convention of the genre" - in the guise of "sex sells."

If it was just sex that sells, I'd be fine with it all. I'd imagine most of us would (leaving sex in kid's stories for another debate). But it's not just sex that sells. It's degrading sex that sells. It's sex that degrades women that sells. It's sex that lumps sex and violence against women together that sells, and that's something else entirely.

The male gaze does burn. Largely because, as the covers show, it's meant to.

I can't speak for other women, but I didn't buy Super-hero comics until recently not because I don't like action or super-heroes, but because I thought they were more of the "action hero saves damsel in distress" type of story - often with added objectification of women and sexual violence towards women. Other people (Ragnell, Kalinara, and yes Whedon) showed me that this isn't always the case, but I never would have been able to find the comics that don't do this without their help. And I'm still very, very torn between liking the medium, wanting a good adventure story, and wanting to avoid crap like this as much as humanly possible.


Ami Angelwings said...

Great post :D

I agree with you completely :) It's just something some ppl (esp some men) dun seem to get and may never get. :\ They think that life on the other side is the same as life on their side, so therefore if the reverse of that something doesn't offend them, therefore that something shouldn't offend them.

They also just dun get what the reverse would rly mean either!

Like... whenever ppl point out that the female superheroes have pornstar bodies, they say "oh but the men have super muscular bodies too!"

It's not the SAME

They think it is, but it's not >.> They prolly assume we're ogling the musculature of Superman, but we're not (at least I'm not XD)

They seem to think that a pornstar girl and an athletic men make sense, b/c men are supposed to be tough and cool and women are supposed to be smexy. >.> And therefore b/c this is what society holds as the ideal standard for men and women they must be equal in power.

Right >.>;;

Men are built like tanks not b/c they're physically attractive that way (altho they might be, but it's not what the artist is thinking when he's drawing it) but b/c it makes them appear strong and powerful.

Neways.. sorry about the ramble :(

I like your post :)

Mickle said...

Thanks, and ramble away. I mostly was. I just kinda started looking at all the covers one by one bc I was curious and then figured it might be worth it to put some of my thoughts down on paper as I did so.

notintheface said...

Wait a minute. Now a PERP WALK is too objectifying? Better not watch CSI, Law & Order, Cold Case, Criminal Minds....

I don't mean to be glib, but talk about setting the bar way too low.

Mickle said...


1) did you even, like, read any of the post itself?

2) why is it "perp walk"? I'll admit, I don't read F4, so did Sue do something bad that I don't know about? 'Cause I should think it was quite obvious that my analysis of that cover centers around the idea that Sue is someone you shouldn't want to see hurt.