The Feminist Gadfly

Discussing the problems of feminist identification in the context of gender egalitarianism

Category: Media

Trigger Warnings and Pop Culture

by aronjerrison

Content note: intentional conflation of trigger warnings with content notes

Over the past couple years, a series of conversations with different people on similar topics has led me to form an opinion which I should very much like to share.

I got a phone call last year from my mother telling me that her next door neighbour (with whom I have some serious political differences) was attempting to ban a book that was on the curriculum at the high school that both her son and my brother attend.* The reason that my mother had called me was that she wanted to know what I thought she ought to do.

After making the potentially inflammatory statement that if she supported banning a book, any book, I would cut all ties with her, we had a long discussion during which we came to an agreement: the best thing to do would be to petition the school to provide all the parents of students reading the book with a run down of the potentially objectionable aspects of the book. This is not so that they can make the decision to “opt out”, but rather to give them a heads up so that they can be prepared to discuss these topics with their children.

It was only later that I realised that we had just reinvented the trigger warning.

When I began my foray into the feminist blog-o-sphere, I loved the idea of trigger warnings. We can talk about some serious problems, and it’s truly refreshing to have warning and be able to not read a post if I know that it might be difficult for me to read.

It is for this reason, that I would love to see trigger warnings in use everywhere.

Why doesn’t the Harry Potter series have trigger warnings for child abuse and neglect? The books have been challenged a great deal over the years, but it’s always been for silly reasons like promoting witchcraft. All the while, Harry suffers from criminal neglect and no one in the books mentions it as anything other than sad. I think that the discussion about child abuse in these books is one that needs to happen, and that warnings might start people thinking.

It’s not just books either. I want this for movies, comics, video games, art. If it would be describable as ‘text’ in a comparative literature class, it should have trigger warnings.

I have been asked if the movie rating system is what I’m looking for. Unfortunately, it’s not. I would love to be able to point to the MPAA and say “Yes, that’s what I want.” but they limit the accessibility of their reviewed works based on age which is pretty much the opposite of what I want. Don’t take it upon yourself to police the work, give fair warning and allow parents to make the decision with their children.

I have been told that this is an idealistic pipe dream, and that’s probably true. But as my earlier posts have shown, I’m an idealist.

So how about instead of looking at how unrealistic it is, just think about how nice it would be.

The first time that I asked my dad if I could watch an ‘R’ rated film, he sat me down and discussed the major aspects of the film that I, as a child, might find shocking, disturbing, or frightening. After the discussion, having decided that I was appropriately prepared, he let me watch the film.** Even if we’re ignoring the obvious benefits of trigger warnings, i.e. the purpose for which they were designed, I think that it would be wonderful to have this sort of discourse happening every time that a child watches a film or reads a book.

And hey, if you agree with me, maybe, together, we can make this happen.


*I cannot for the life of me remember what the book was.

**Nor can I remember the film.


Facebook and casual sexism

by EddyNorthwind

First, an image:

As you can probably guess, I made this after seeing one too many of the “As’ rules for Bs'” Facebook memes, and figured I’d share it in hopes that someone will find it useful. This phenomena deserves more than just a 92 word response, though, so I figured I’d comment on it here in a more extended manner.  But first, some source material:

…and you get the gist. (content copy/pased after the jump for non-Facebookers and in case links break)

This stuff is pretty obviously sexist, but for the sake of completeness, I’ll go over why:

1) It makes a hugely general claims about classes of people (men and women) that vary widely; many of these claims don’t even apply to a majority of people in the given class. Example: It’s pretty hard to get statistics on “sports fans”, since the term is so loosely defined, but Super Bowl XLV had 111.3 million viewers. Given that the United States currently has 310 million people, less than 72% of US men watched the most-watched game of the year, even if we assume that literally every person watching is a US male. More realistically, the figure is something like 48%, which is what it is if 2/3 of the viewers are male. Sunday is not sports day for me, or, apparently, for the majority of men, and claiming that it is universally so erases the existence of a huge swath of the population. This particular example is relatively benign, but some of the claims made by these memes, like “all women are unapologetically horrendous while on their period” and “all men are cheating pigs” are genuinely harmful, because they encourage such poor behavior as a means of gender performance. These ideas also make it easier to make excuses for poor behavior, i.e. “Boys will be boys.”

2) It erases homosexual and transgender people. These are universally voiced as one cisgendered individual addressing another cisgendered individual of the other gender. It’s easy to say, “well, yeah, these are specifically about cisgender, straight relationships, so of course they’re going to be cis and straight-centric. You don’t hear people complaining about how the Women’s rules for Men don’t directly address women, do you?”, but such an argument is flawed, because there are no (no widely shared, at least) “Men’s rules for Men”, or “Women’s rules for Women”. Sure, you can say they’re not widely shared because they don’t apply to as many people, but I for one have seen plenty of men sharing the women’s rules, and vice versa, even among people who I know have never been in a relationship. These memes aren’t about actual experiences in relationships, they’re about the kinds of relationships we see in TV and movies, which are almost universally cis and straight.

Casual sexism sucks, because it often feels like there isn’t much you can do about it. You don’t want to be labeled a “humorless feminist”, but at the same time you don’t want to just do nothing while people you know contribute to a shitty, sexist culture. What’s one to do?

Fight bad jokes with good ones, is what I’ve concluded. If someone is engaging in casual sexism, they’re probably not going to respond well to Shakesville links or Naomi Wolf quotes; direct confrontation without social backup is typically a losing proposition. An obviously fake laugh and some well-done sarcasm, on the other hand, provides negative feedback and expresses that you don’t find the joke funny, but does so without making you into a Captain Ahab, unable to see anything but the White Whale of sexism (even if, in reality, sexism is more like the matrix: the only reason people don’t see it is because it’s everywhere). Unless you’re literally surrounded by sexists, it’s pretty easy to come out of such an encounter ahead, which will teach the casual sexist that “hur hur sexism hur” is not going to make them any friends.

…and that’s pretty much the gist of it. The question of how best to engage a sexist world is a difficult one, but if the response I’ve gotten on Facebook is any indication, stuff like this seems to be pretty effective.

Read the rest of this entry »

Give Your Child A Barbie

by naomiparker

There must be a version of Godwin’s Law which states that as an intro Women and Gender Studies course approaches completion, the probability of having a discussion about Barbie approaches one. My class had that discussion last week. One classmate, in passing, mentioned that she had a Barbie, but “didn’t treat her right”. To my surprise (and relief) a murmur of solidarity passed over the class, followed by a murmur of shock and concern directed toward the Barbie mutilators. The conversation moved on, but I was lost in contemplation of my own relationship with Barbie.

When I was young, every holiday brought a new Barbie toy. In addition to a plethora of dolls with various outfits and accessories, I had Barbie’s convertible, a (gigantic, early-90s) toy cell phone, and bright pink child-size cleaning supplies. While I’ll admit a fondness for following my mother around with my tiny broom, I absolutely despised my other Barbie toys. I knew exactly what personality to attribute to my dolls, and they were all superficial, narcissistic, and privileged in every way. I loathed them for their vices and envied them for their social dominance. My Barbies would be punished, sent flying across the room, and replaced with a toy more akin to a giant robotic insect.

Mattel has always promoted Barbie as an independent career woman, a role model for girls. In reality, Barbie is a foot high plastic toy. She isn’t realistic and she doesn’t have an inherent personality. She is, however, a representative of our society’s perfect adult woman. This makes her an extremely valuable parenting tool.

As an adult I constantly dismiss most portrayals of women (and men) in advertisements and media as unrealistic or insulting. Children, boys and girls alike, can’t make that distinction. Even the most careful parents can’t completely shield their little feminist from this patriarchal bombardment. As much as we’re working to put a negative stigma against these unfair portrayals of femininity and masculinity in the media, they won’t change overnight, and they are affecting today’s children harshly. Barbie is thus essential as a window into a child’s still-malleable conception of gender roles. I know now that I had a twisted view of the perfect adult woman, but I would not have begrudged learning that lesson a bit sooner. So after all my Barbie hate as a child, I’m standing up to defend the innocent piece of plastic. Give your child a Barbie, teach them that real bodies aren’t meant to look like hers, stand back, and watch.