♀ Moving On

A little over seven months ago, I asked my wife to proofread the first post on this site, then I pressed “Save & Publish” with a growing sense of anticipation. I had spent almost four months reading books and articles, collecting news links, pre-writing a few posts, and making lists of topics I planned to cover. By the time I actually launched Jesus & Venus, I was bursting with ideas I simply had to put in writing and share with the world.

This is no longer true.

Some of the topics I wanted to write about turned out, as I learned more feminist theory, to be irrelevant or misguided. Most, though, found their homes either in one of the columns I published every Thursday or as reactions to linked news items. I even picked up new ideas from my interactions with other feminist friends online and the diverse array of news sources I spent hours reading every week, and I wrote about many of these as well. But for some weeks now, I’ve felt I had nothing much to say.

This isn’t a knock against feminism; I doubt there is any one topic I would want to write about indefinitely. I don’t have the kind of brain that thrives on constantly obsessing over a single subject, and I’ve always done better when working on projects that have definite completion points (like screenplays). Since I have several such projects currently begging for my attention, I plan henceforward to devote the bulk of my writing time to them.

Because I feel so deeply invested in gender equality, I will, of course, keep reading news and op-ed writing about the world of women and feminism, so I will continue to post links to the site on a fairly sporadic, limited basis. But this Saturday will be the last day of regular publishing at Jesus & Venus, and I am discontinuing the Venus Weekly newsletter.

I have very much enjoyed my interactions with readers, and I hope you derived even a fraction of the benefit from reading the site that I did from writing it. Please feel free to seek me out on Twitter or through the contact page if you want to stay in touch.

It has been my privilege to bring you the news. Thank you.

♀ I Find Your Lack of Sense Disturbing

 Photograph by  Qsimple  via  Photopin  ( cc )

Photograph by Qsimple via Photopin (cc)

Earlier this month Wired published a piece by Laura Hudson called “Leia Is Not Enough”, on the dearth of notable female characters in the Star Wars saga in particular and movies generally. It’s a great article, and you should go read it right now, but in case you don’t, here’s the crux:

As great a character as Leia was, however, she was functionally the lone representative of the female gender in a larger Star Wars universe where every other character moving the plot forward was a man. It’s even sadder when you consider that the dearth of women who play important roles (or any role at all) in the classic George Lucas films from the late ’70s and early ’80s echoes a problem we still have today: Women are dramatically under-represented in films and media.

And they’re even more poorly represented in roles where they are driving forces, not just ancillary characters or love interests for male heroes.

If you’ve never really noticed the absence of women in Star Wars (or movies at large), consider yourself living proof of how the limiting narratives of culture and media can warp our expectations, to the point where the presence of one woman in a cast of dozens of memorable male characters can seem like perfect equality.

A few days later, Noah Berlatsky of The Atlantic’s new “The Sexes” section published a critique of Hudson’s article. While he agrees with her broader point that Hollywood needs to better represent the female sex in mainstream movies, he thinks Star Wars itself needs to push beyond the boundaries of the gender binary, so simply including more major female characters will not suffice.

Star Wars’s lack of women seems linked to a deliberate lack of interest in women. The film franchise is designed to be a series of male genre pictures, and for proof, all you need to do is look at the innovative, non-traditional approaches to gender other sci-fi works have taken—which Star Wars and other Hollywood films avoid.

I won’t deny that seeing some gender-bending science fiction would be interesting, but Berlatsky’s logic is flawed for two reasons. Firstly, he argues that Star Wars faces an obstacle to broader female appeal fundamental to its genre, which he identifies as “boys’ adventure”. Critics have generally agreed that Star Wars is essentially a Western set in space, with accompanying technology. It’s about gunslingers, and everyone knows only boys like movies about gunslingers, amirite? Of course not, and Berlatsky knows that’s stupid, so before proceeding he pays lip service to the idea that girls are allowed to like action movies, too.

The series is devoted to battles, adventure, politics, more adventure, and more battles. Girls certainly can—and certainly do!—like all of those things.

Then he undoes it:

But the fact remains that the genre has historically been focused on boys. Which means that it has been a lot more concerned with providing points of identification for guys than with points of identification for girls. It’s not an accident that it’s Leia rather than Han who ends up in the swimsuit and chains, right? […]

Genre and gender, then, are tied up together. Sci-fi imagines different worlds—but those different worlds are governed in no small part by particular narrative expectations. The galaxy isn’t as far away, nor as teeming with possibilities as it looks.

This makes no sense, even within the context of Berlatsky’s own argument, because just a few sentences before this he takes care to point out that sci-fi opens up new worlds free from the cultural baggage of our own:

If Star Wars were the Western that it in many ways imitates, then of course you wouldn’t necessarily expect there to be lots of female gunfighters, because gender roles back in the time period when Westerns are often set restricted what women could do. But Star Wars isn’t a Western; it’s a science-fiction story, which means anything goes.

So, to review: even though Star Wars belongs to a genre that typically panders to boys, it could change the rules of that genre because it’s also sci-fi, and sci-fi has no boundaries, but it can’t change the rules of that genre because of our cultural boundaries. Also, even though girls can and do like action/adventure, Westerns, gunslingers, and the like, girls will never really like Star Wars because that genre is for boys.

This is all nonsense. A film, or series of films, doesn’t have to pander to boys[1] just because other films in its genre traditionally have; in fact, Star Wars has already stretched the boundaries of the Western/adventure movie genre by setting it in space. The way that Star Wars actually panders to men is by casting mostly men; women would probably like Star Wars better if they saw more women doing all the gunslinging.

Having backhandedly reinforced gender stereotypes, Berlatsky proceeds to argue that Star Wars should emulate other, edgier works of science fiction literature by playing with the boundaries of gender itself.

Way back in 1969, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness imagined a planet where the human-descended inhabitants had only one sex; it is only during the monthly mating time that they take on gender identities and sexual urges. In Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy (1987–2000), a post-apocalyptic Earth is invaded by aliens with three genders. There are males, there are females, and there are ooloi, a sex of genetic mixers and manipulators, who are able to mate with, and thereby reengineer, human men and women. More recently, Brian K. Vaughn and Pia Guerra’s comic book series Y: The Last Man imagined a world in which a plague had wiped out all males on earth except one.

Those stories all sound cool and interesting. I wouldn’t be at all upset if Star Wars ventured into exploring this sort of territory, and I don’t think there’s anything stopping the producers from doing so. The series could include elements like this without straying from the action/adventure genre, although Berlatsky does not appear to think so:

You could certainly argue, I suppose, that the public wants space opera and not gender exploration—Han Solo shooting storm troopers rather than tentacle brain intercourse with aliens. To me, though, looking around, it doesn’t seem especially clear that violence sells better than sex.

Firstly, I think this underestimates the Star Wars franchise, which is more than dumb, schlocky action; the films’ ability to include substantial thematic material without needing to compromise the fun contributes to their lasting appeal.[2] Secondly, the sort of gender exploration Berlatsky seems to be advocating isn’t “sex”; it’s sociology. Watching ooloi re-engineer humans through sexual intercourse would be fascinating, but it wouldn’t get me turned on. I don’t think it’s prurience that keeps mainstream sci-fi movies from engaging with these kinds of subjects.

In any case, this whole argument that Star Wars needs to push the envelope on genre misrepresents the mainstream of feminist goals. We don’t need androgyny, asexuality, or polyamory to be portrayed as the norm; we mostly just need equality between the sexes. Putting more women in the roles typically occupied by men would go a long way toward achieving that. If “anything goes” in sci-fi, Star Wars can certainly do a simple thing like cast more women.

This whole article is such a mess, it’s hard not to think that Berlatsky manufactured a controversy just so he would have something print in response to Hudson’s article.[3] It wouldn’t be totally surprising for him to opportunistically miss the point of a feminist message. Even if his criticism is genuine, though, I disagree entirely. We don’t need every work of literature to accomplish every worthwhile goal. Star Wars does not need to engage in hard-core gender-bending; it can just be a good space opera, but it should be an egalitarian one; considering the scope of the Star Wars universe, gender parity seems a reasonable baseline to require. And people—particularly those who, like Berlatsky, write specifically about sexual politics—need to stop reinforcing stereotypes about what women do and don’t like; that sort of behavior is why we need feminism in the first place.

  1. Okay, can we stop saying “boys”? It’s belittling to grown men (and women) who love Star Wars and other action/adventure movies of the kind. From now one, we’ll be using “men” to describe male fans of Star Wars in this post.  ↩

  2. I really question whether Berlatsky even likes or knows much about Star Wars.  ↩

  3. Because, obviously, simply agreeing or building on her point would just not be journalist-y enough.  ↩

Why We Oppose Votes For Men

Check out this satirical piece of suffrage literature from 1915. My favorite reason is #4: “Because men will lose their charm if they step out of their natural sphere and interest themselves in other matters than feats of arms, uniforms and drums.”

Duke Offers Feminist Blogger Workshop

The Duke Women’s Center has launched Write(H)ers, a semester-long “initiative to create a community of feminist-oriented writers”. Its 23 initial members will attend four dinners with visiting feminist journalists and must contribute three blog posts during the semester to one of two Duke blogs.

Senior Sarah Van Name, a member of Write(H)ers and a contributor to Duke’s feminist blog Develle Dish, said the program serves to train young women and better equip them to be activists when they need to be.

“This program was a dream come true for me because I read a lot of feminist blogs and several of the women who write these blogs now have the opportunity to come to Duke and explain to this new community how to follow in their footsteps,” Van Name said.

I’m a little skeptical about this, for two reasons. Firstly, learning to write well and learning good feminist ideology are two different things, and I can’t tell which of those things this program is trying to accomplish. Maybe the program assumes good ideology? If so, that seems like a recipe for confusion.

Secondly, even most of the amateur feminist bloggers I know write three posts every week, not every semester. Some of them aren’t terribly good writers, but they will be soon, if they keep up that level of output. On that I feel like I can speak authoritatively; if Duke wants to develop strong feminist writers, they need to make those little feminists crank out a massive volume of content.

Still, it’s good that the university is pushing feminist activism as a valuable endeavor.

La Barbe

Danielle Paradis at Fem 2.0 interviews Clémentine Pirlot of “The Beard”, a French feminist group who attend public events with all-male speaking lineups and crash the stage to “congratulate” the speakers on successfully keeping women out of power.

By wearing beards, we create a mirror effect and show them how ridiculous their monopoly and privileges are. We always have a text written for the precise event and call all the men on stage by their first name, usually the list is quite long and it creates a redundant effect, making people realize how many men speak at the event. The beard is the symbol of masculinity, and “La Barbe” also means “enough!” so the double meaning is perfect.

Further proof that beards are awesome.

Radical Woman of the Day: Julia Morgan

On this day in 1872 was born Julia Morgan, the first woman to be licensed as an architect in the state of California, and the first woman accepted to study as an architect at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

Raised by a strong, independent mother, Morgan put off having a debutante party in favor of starting a career and took a civil engineering degree from the University of California at Berkeley in 1894, the only female engineer in her class. At the encouragement of Bernard Maybeck, who had mentored Morgan in architecture during her time at the University, she applied to the Beaux-Arts school. At first refused entrance in 1896 because the school did not accept women, she reapplied in 1897 when activist pressure forced a change to the rule. Although Morgan initially failed to pass the entrance exam, she studied for two years under François-Benjamin Chaussemiche to pass the exam the second time, placing 13th out of 376.

Obtaining her certificate in architecture from the Beaux-Arts school in 1902, Morgan worked for a time as a draftsman in San Francisco before being licensed as a California architect in 1904. The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 brought her initial success, but her later fame would come primarily from commissions by William Randolph Hearst, for whom she built (among others) Hearst Castle and its guest house, The Hacienda, and Wyntoon, another “castle” residence with accompanying smaller houses.

Morgan believed strongly in the advancement of women, and she built several YWCA buildings, some of which are still standing, and a number of buildings for Mills College, a women’s college in Oakland, CA. She died in 1957 and in 2008 was inducted into the California Hall of Fame.

Via Shelby Knox.

Pentagon to Lift Ban on Women in Combat

Leon Panetta will reportedly drop the news tomorrow.

The services must now develop plans for allowing women to seek the combat positions, a senior military official said. Some jobs may open as soon as this year, while assessments for others, such as special operations forces, including Navy SEALS and the Army’s Delta Force, may take longer. The services will have until January 2016 to make a case to that some positions should remain closed to women.

The groundbreaking move recommended by the Joint Chiefs of Staff overturns a 1994 rule prohibiting women from being assigned to smaller ground combat units.

As long as military personnel of both sexes still have to get through the same boot camp and other field testing, I don’t see how all the doomsayers can worry that our armed forces will be undermined with substandard performance.

Radical Woman of the Day: Camilla Collett

On this day in 1813 was born Camilla Collett, considered to be the first Norwegian feminist. Beginning as a diarist during her teens, Collett continued to write fiction, essays, polemics, and memoirs throughout her life, although she published only one novel, Amtmandens Døtre (The District Governor’s Daughters), one of the first Norwegian social realism novels.

Amtmandens Døtre addressed the lot of women in patriachal society, particularly the issue of forced marriages. Collett advocated allowing women to marry for love and grew ever more vociferous on behalf of this ideal as time passed. Although she viewed happy marriage—not career or independence—as offering women the greatest chance for success, many of her literary critiques and essays called for women to cast aside the feminine model of self-sacrifice and subservience and create a new image for themselves.

Collett herself married happily and for love. Her husband, Peter Jonas Collett, was a politician and literary critic who unfortunately died young, leaving Collett to raise their four sons on her own. She never recovered financially from this loss but continued to write despite opposition both gender-based and ideological. She died in 1895.

Via the Radical Women’s History Project.

"I Refuse to Be Terrified Into Submission"

An Irish Catholic priest is planning to defy the Vatican by continuing to proclaim his support for allowing female priests:

The Rev. Tony Flannery, 66, who was suspended by the Vatican last year, said he was told by the Vatican that he would be allowed to return to ministry only if he agreed to write, sign and publish a statement agreeing, among other things, that women should never be ordained as priests.

He’ll probably lose his priesthood and be excommunicated, so this is a pretty bold move.

Via Jezebel.

"Dear Abby" Dead at 94

Pauline Phillips, writer of the Dear Abby column syndicated all over the country, and sister of Eppie Lederer, the writer behind “Ann Landers”, died on Wednesday. The New York Times recounts some of the highlights of her life, including several examples of her column’s sparkling wit:

Dear Abby: I have always wanted to have my family history traced, but I can’t afford to spend a lot of money to do it. Have you any suggestions? — M. J. B. in Oakland, Calif.

Dear M. J. B.: Yes. Run for a public office.

The Times fails to mention Phillips’ outspoken feminism, so you should also read this obituary by Ms. Magazine.