The Radical Notion

Encouraging women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians

Terminology (or, This Isn’t Sex) February 25, 2010

Terminology (or, This Isn’t Sex), Pt. 2 found here

There comes a time in every grown-up’s life when they have a sobering revelation: their parents were right.

Well, maybe.

One of the things I’ve noticed during my Feminist Journey ™ is how I’ve become critical of things that I used to think were totes cool. Well, okay, that’s not news, but I have more, I swear! I’ve become critical of things I not only used to be interested in, but used to support because I thought they were progressive, or empowering, or some vague force for good in the world. Case in point: Cosmopolitan Magazine.

15-year-old TRN: OMG there’s this magazine that talks about SEX and it’s right there in the CHECKOUT LANE and it acknowledges women’s libidos and doesn’t call them sluts and helps them have better sex and become Fun, Fearless, Females! Clearly this is not only hot, but AWESOME. I feel so morally superior to all those prudes who don’t want me to read it, because they’re afraid of SEX, especially premarital sex, and especially the ladies doing it. They just don’t like women being happy with themselves as sexual beings! I feel validated in being a female with an actual sex drive! Cosmo is the best magazine ever!

22-year-old TRN: OMG I immediately die a little inside when I meet someone who takes Cosmopolitan seriously. I can’t believe I ever liked that magazine. Sure, it does manage to stray away from the Madonna-whore dichotomy of women’s sexuality, but that’s about the only good thing I can say about it. Its sex tips are not only repeated every month, but completely ridiculous. It’s so heteronormative that I don’t think I’ve ever, in the dozens of issues in multiple languages I’ve read over the years, seen a single mention of a non-heterosexual romantic or sexual interaction. It promotes hackneyed gender stereotypes and “relationship tips” (I once read one where they advised women to pretend not to be able to do certain things, i.e. open jars, in order to help your man feel manly). Oh yeah, and they’re also rape apologists.

Obviously, there are many reasons why I think differently now then I did in middle and high school. But you know what? If someone had actually said the latter paragraph to me when I was at the height of my Cosmo phase, I might have listened – probably not as much as I do now, but I would have least understood the idea that there were objections to Cosmo other than OH NOEZ LADIES HAVING SEX AND LIKING IT. It’s gotten to the point (documented well by Ariel Levy) where the social conservatives in our society are demonizing sexuality and fetishizing virginity so much that any frank depiction of sex, particularly with women involved, comes as a relief (you think women should cover up all their skin? Well, I’m going to get NAKED!). Of course, it’s usually a false idol, as objectifying women and portraying them as perennially thin, hairless sex machines just dying for a good “pounding” is neither novel nor particularly helpful. But I wonder how much of the criticism that when I was a teenager I mentally labelled as “socially conservative” (or “prude”, or whatever the hip terminology was) was actually based on principles that I would agree with now. (more…)

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No Girls Allowed, Part 1 April 30, 2009

My female readers will surely be familiar with the following scenario: you’re reading something, preferably nonfiction and not very formal, so that the author frequently addresses the reader to explain things, joke around, relate anecdotes, etc. Obviously you, the reader, knows that said author has probably never met you in his life (and it is a ‘he’ in this case), but nevertheless, while reading the book it’s expected that you and the author will form something of a rapport – an imaginary relationship, if you will – wherein the author is relating facts or a story to you and you’re indulging him because you find the subject matter and his way of relating it interesting.

Most of the time, it’s also assumed that anyone with an open mind and interest in the book topic would be welcome to read the book – and ostensibly, that’s true. I’m sure most book authors – certainly the authors of the books I read – are happy to get all the readers they can. Even if royalties and publicity were not motivating them, I want authors of things I read to have at least a nominal commitment to empathy and openness, with a distinct lack of hate or hang-ups vis-a-vis any particular group. There are plenty of authors who wouldn’t feel that way, but I try not to read things they write.

So. You’re happily zipping along, learning new things, wrapped up in the narrative, and then – BAM! All of a sudden the illusion that the author was speaking just to you, or had you in mind at all when he was writing this, is gone. The author has, completely unintentionally, revealed that the only readers he had in mind when writing this book were people like him – in short, people who were straight males. It’s not his fault, really – one of the hallmarks of privilege is that the privileged group is viewed as the default. In a joke, it’s never a woman who walks into a bar – unless, that is, the joke revolves around her being a woman. The majority of characters in books, movies, TV are men – unless there’s a reason for them to be female (like a love interest or to act as a gendered foil to a main character). And so on.

One of the most common ways that an author can make me acutely aware of my own lack of male privilege is by invoking our old friend, the male gaze. This excludes female readers in two possible ways:

  1. It establishes the idea that everyone views women  – and ONLY women – as sexually attractive and appealing beings. Of course, there are many women who are attracted to other women, but a good deal more are not, and as we’ll see later, I think it’s pretty clear that these authors are not directing their words toward queer women.
  2. Much more insidiously, it communicates the message that a woman’s primary value is dependent on her physical appearance. If she’s attractive, than she’s wonderful and deserving of rhapsodic waxings-on about her breasts and thighs and rosy cheeks (she should be honored!). If she’s unattractive (to the writer, of course), then she is an affront to humanity who should be stamped out , mocked, or at the very least locked away where no one can see her. By forever bringing up the topic of how a female character, celebrity, or other personage appeals to the author sexually, he unwittingly reveals his subconscious belief that women exist primarily for male consumption.

Women who are not sexually interested in other women get hit with a double whammy here, but anyone who doesn’t fit the template of “straight male” gets some shrapnel. Anyone who isn’t attracted to women (for example, gay men) suffers from number 1, and anyone who identifies as female is slapped with number 2. As one of the aforementioned double-hitters, I feel confident in saying that number two is much worse. Better to be ignored than actively belittled.

Want to see some examples of what I’m talking about? I know you do. Here are just a few of the ones that have given me a psychological hypnagogic jerk in the past couple of months. (more…)