Feminism and “Girls”


Since the airing of its first season in April 2012, Girls has received a great deal of praise. But the HBO series has also encountered a lot of criticism. My goal for this month’s post is to begin exploring the feminist content (or lack thereof) in Lena Dunham’s Girls. (Click the link to see a trailer for the first season).

The series launched as a response by HBO to criticism that many of their shows are male oriented and is– refreshingly– directed by a female. It follows the lives of Hannah (played by the show’s director, Lena Dunham) and her close friends Marnie, Shoshanna, and Jessa. These female leads are all approximately twenty years old, cisgender, straight, white, educated, and middle to upper class.

Bridesmaids producer Judd Apatow said that Girls would provide men with an insight into “realistic females” (Goldberg). And indeed, the show is honest in its portrayal of imperfect females. Hannah/Lena Dunham, who appears to be the show’s leading character, is not model-thin or conventionally beautiful and is coming to terms with being overweight. The characters are not always perfectly groomed, either. They are shown in pajamas, without makeup, and without a consistently flawless wardrobe, unlike many shows. The girls are very open about their sexuality, and sex scenes are often awkward and more characteristic of real life than other shows which do not exhibit awkwardness in sex scenes. And, despite their cissexuality, different sexualities are portrayed between the girls. Hannah is very experimental and sometimes takes part in what may be considered BDSM, Shoshanna is a virgin for much of the first season, Jessa is headstrong and is not afraid to seek out sexual partners, and Marnie represents “vanilla” sex (or conventional sex).

When we analyze a show based on intersectionality, we must take the many intersections of people’s identity into account, including: race-ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, education, class, and abilities. So, despite the many positive aspects of this show, Girls has been criticized for appealing to a limited audience. For example, there are certainly no central characters who represent other races. In fact, even though the girls live in New York City, it is rare to see even an extra character of another race. There are no characters with disabilities, and the main characters do not associate with characters of a lower class.

Girls writer Lesley Arfin responded to complaints regarding the lack of black characters on the show with a tweet saying, “What really bothered me most about Precious was that there was no representation of ME.”

In a way, I understand Arfin’s frustration with the show’s critics. But I can’t help thinking back to a course reading from earlier this term: Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. In this essay, McIntosh compiles a list of privileges often taken for granted by white people. Most relevant to this post is number six on her list:

“6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.”

Unfortunately it seems that popular culture is still lacking in its representation of non-white races and characters that do not pertain to what we so often refer to as the “cultural hegemony.” Girls provides a perfect example of this shortcoming. But can it still be considered a step in the right direction?

A perfect television series would allow for representation of numerous aspects of identity: different race-ethnicities, different sexualities, different genders, and so on. Girls is focused on the positionality of white, educated, cisgender females. This is Lena Dunham’s area of expertise as she identifies with those categories. Imagine if she chose to represent other aspects of identity through her lead characters – would she be criticized for her representation of those characters? People will always criticize popular culture for one reason or another. Personally, I feel that Girls has made progress through its honest portrayal of women and because it is a female centred show– directed by a female– in an industry that tends to be male-dominated. Outside of this series, we need to continue expanding the realm of representation in the media. What do you think?


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Yoga Pants and Rape Culture

god-created-yoga-pantsDuring reading week, I came across an article on my news feed from YogaDork.com titled The Comfort and Sexualization of Yoga Pants. In the article, author hollypenny explores the increasing popularity of yoga pants and leggings, which have become widely acceptable to wear in public.

The author makes reference to a hypersexualized website called Girls in Yoga Pants and then to an article on The Good Men Project to make her point about the sexualization of yoga pants. She mentions two very important quotations from Nathan Graziano’s article in which he states:

“I have a hard time believing that—outside of the gym or the yoga classes—women wear yoga pants solely for comfort.”

“…baggy sweatpants are also comfortable, so I can only assume there’s more to it. There is an implicit game here—the age-old tease where women flaunt and men look.”

She then points to this comment posted on Graziano’s article:

“yeah honestly I have to admit this whole deal is more than a little alarming to me … when most of the girls in my daughter’s high school show up in very revealing skin tight yoga pants it seems to me like something has gone a bit off. … I guess I like that women feel comfortable in their own yoga skin and also that fitness is something that we all generally are more aware of. But I do ask myself repeatedly how it became okay to wear close to nothing to dinner or class or a movie? I am not a prude by any means. But what ever happen to a nice pair of jeans and a white t-shirt?”

hollypenny asks, “Are we all really too sex-crazed to the point where clothed, rounded bodily shapes are too much to handle?”

The Comfort and Sexualization of Yoga Pants prompted me to consider a larger issue that is often discussed in the context of social media and internet activism, and one that was not explicitly referenced in the article: rape culture. In Gendered Worlds (one of our GNDS 125 textbooks), the writer introduces rape culture with regards to the American legal system, explaining that “in rape trials before the feminist reforms of the 1980s, women’s actions, dress, and words could become implicated in the [case of a] rape. Often the rape victim herself was on trial, as rapists’ excuses and justifications– ‘she asked for it’ or ‘no really means yes’– blamed the victim for the crime” (Aulette and Wittner 125). My understanding of the term “rape culture” is that it involves the perpetuation and encouragement of a culture in which rape and victim blaming are not taken seriously. It also involves “slut bashing” or “slut shaming,” when women experience “bullying and harassment regarding [their] perceived sexual behaviour with the intent to shame, degrade and dehumanize the victim” (Tolmie). Dehumanization, according to our professor Jane Tolmie, is a factor in the objectification of women, or the idea of women as objects for male pleasure. Furthermore, the “degradation and dehumanization inherent in slut-shaming has shaped societal discourses on rape, abuse, and harassment. Slut-shaming is a consistent theme in the lives of women as the fear of ever being labeled a “slut” provides a method of social control against women living as sexualized beings” (Tolmie).

The idea that men would think that women choose to wear yoga pants in order to please them and the comments that hollypenny refers to in her article are perfectly in line with rape culture, slut bashing, and the objectification of women.

I think hollypenny's poll speaks for itself here.

I think hollypenny’s poll speaks for itself here.

Why should women and girls feel ashamed to wear clothing that makes them feel comfortable and confident about their bodies? As hollypenny writes, “How did it become ok to wear [yoga pants]? When we, women, decided it was ok. When we started practicing yoga and decided we would feel good in our bodies and our clothes while doing anything from yoga to running errands to sitting on the couch.” Many of the comments on her article support this argument. One user wrote,

“In all honesty, I never wear baggy sweatpants in public because they get in the way! […]

If I’m wearing skin-tight yoga pants […] I can move about without the burden of stepping on my hems. Plus, yoga pants look less sloppy!

I have never ONCE thought “oh, I’m going to wear the hell out of these yoga pants because guys LOVE it”. Get over yourself, guys.”

But is it okay to want to feel “sexy” as well? Another user wrote,

“I would like to have the option to choose that I wear yoga pants outside of a yoga class because they are easy & comfortable AND that they make me look sexy.

Choice number three: Both.”

Regardless of a person’s reason for choosing to wear yoga pants or leggings, whether they wear them for comfort or even to look more attractive, their decision should be respected by others. This means not making them feel ashamed for their clothing choices, not treating or viewing them as a sex object, and not calling them a slut.

One of my favourite comments on the article says,

“If yoga pants are sexy it is because they cover the toned legs of fit yoginis rendered beautiful inside and out by a regular yoga practice. ;)”

So what do you think? Do you think that despite efforts to increase awareness of rape culture and slut bashing, women should still make careful decisions about their clothing? Can you think of any strategies for increasing awareness and eliminating rape culture?

Check out these images for a better understanding of rape culture.

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The Normalization of Degradation

I would like to focus my first post on a brief but intriguing (and disturbing) reading from week two of this term’s Gender, Race, and Popular Culture course called We Are What We Watch by Susan J. Douglas.

Douglas begins her article with an examination of popular North American reality television shows, stating that fear and public humiliation are used as agents for the success and popularity of shows such as Extreme Makeover, Fear Factor, The Swan, The Apprentice, Are You Hot?, and American Idol; that viewers are meant to partake in an unthinking and mindless enjoyment of these shows without seeing any flaws to their approaches. Most people who participate in contemporary North American culture have an idea as to where fear and humiliation is derived for those featured in reality TV shows. “In the early episodes of American Idol […] we were invited to laugh at those pathetic tone-deaf pop star wannabes,” and in Fear Factor and The Apprentice, “perpetuating degradation and terror is the premise” (Pearson Learning Solutions 2). People’s appearances are dissected by judges.

Take Susan Boyle’s performance on Britain’s Got Talent, for example.   Much like American IdolAmerica’s Got Talent, and Canada’s Got Talent, this show has a tendency to scrutinize contestants’ physical appearance before allowing them the chance to demonstrate their talents, and humiliation was anticipated with her performance. Scrutinization begins when she enters the stage, evident in Simon Cowell’s tone, a cat call from the audience following the first signs of nervousness, and laughter from the audience at the discovery of her age. It is clear that not much is expected from Susan at this point. But within seconds of beginning the song, countless audience members stand to cheer, and the judges appear to be pleasantly surprised by her abilities. Near the end of the video, one of the show’s hosts remarks, “You didn’t expect that, did you? Did you? No.”

As Douglas points out, “humiliation [has become common] in what passes for daily entertainment” (Pearson Learning Solutions 2).

Following this introduction, she then compares the mentioned reality shows to the horrors of Abu Ghraib – a prison in Iraq that gained notoriety during the Iraq war due to “sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses” and human rights violations initiated by the U.S. army, including “[b]reaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees; pouring cold water on naked detainees; beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair; threatening male detainees with rape; allowing a military police guard to stitch the wound of a detainee who was injured after being slammed against the wall in his cell; sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick, and using military working dogs to frighten and intimidate detainees with threats of attack, and in one instance actually biting a detainee” (M. Hersh). Douglas is adamant that reality television did not necessarily cause what happened at Abu Ghraib, but “she argues that it help[s] create an environment in which something like Abu Ghraib could be such a media sensation,” (Pearson Learning Solutions 1) focusing specifically on the misconduct of Lynndie England.

This photo shows Lynndie England with a naked prisoner at the end of a leash. More offensive images can be found online.

This photo shows Lynndie England with a naked prisoner at the end of a leash. More offensive images can be found online.

In her writing, Douglas seems concerned primarily with the idea that Lynndie England’s actions have caused negative repercussions for women and feminism, explaining that “both reality television and the cultural conversations about Abu Ghraib are rife with anti-feminism” (Pearson Learning Solutions 1). My understanding is that she believes England’s actions during her time at the prison were detrimental in the sense that they advanced anti-feminism through the criticism and discussion that followed her actions; that she may have given women in the military a bad reputation with “‘no sense that there was anything wrong in what the pictures show'” (Pearson Learning Solutions 3). According to Douglas, “Linda Chavez suggested that the presence of women in the military ‘encouraged more misbehaviour’ in the prison,” and “George Neumayr of the American Spectator summed it up this way: ‘The image of that female guard, smoking away as she joins gleefully in the disgraceful melee like one of the guys, is a cultural outgrowth of a feminist culture which encourages female barbarianism'” (Pearson Learning Solutions 3).

In an article from Marie Claire (http://www.marieclaire.com/world-reports/news/lynndie-england-1), author Tara McKelvey has  a more empathetic approach towards Lynndie England’s story. Personally I feel that criticism against Lynndie England was justified in the sense that her actions were immoral, but not justified in the sense that Chavez, Neumayr, and others seemed to target England specifically for being female. Why should her actions be treated any differently than the actions of participating males?

With regards to reality television, Douglas believes that it is anti-feminist because it perpetuates the “ideal” image of femininity, “keep[ing] women in their place and encourag[ing] a retreat from citizenship and world affairs into consumerism and the domestic sphere” due to its “obsession with women’s appearance, sexuality, [and] ability to please men” (Pearson Learning Solutions 3), among other things.

Susan Douglas concludes her article with the following: “In these shows, the inevitability of female narcissism is rendered utterly natural, almost genetically determined. But so is a culture of surveillance, voyeurism, and demeaning exposure. Post-feminism – the insistence that deep in their hearts women really want a return to 1957 – is thus deployed in the service of a culture of humiliation. People may dismiss reality TV as mindless. But when they simultaneously naturalize misogyny at home and shamelessness abroad, we need to take a pretty hard look at what our society finds entertaining- and why” (Pearson Learning Solutions 3).

Douglas brings light to a parallel between popular culture and the realities of the world that is often overlooked or unrecognized. Complacency in a culture of humiliation is an example of how pop culture can have adverse effects on people’s actions. It’s important to consider pop culture when thinking about news events because pop culture is a reflection of the way that people think and vice versa; it can also have an affect on the way that people think.

In the interest of creating discussion: Do you think that media affects the outcome of a culture, or that culture affects what is presented in the media? (Media → culture, or culture → media?) Is one more prominent than the other? Given the complacency in humiliation and harm that is created through popular culture, is Lynndie England at fault for her actions? What do you think?

I’d like to finish on a positive note by quoting Anita Sarkeesian from the Youtube series Feminist Frequency: “There’s often a lot of hostility towards watching TV, like it’s this big, bad, horrible thing that’s gonna warp our brains. But I don’t think that’s true. […] I think it’s important to critically engage with [media] because it’s a reflection of our society” (Sarkeesian).

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