gender

♀ 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.  ↩

Do Women Talk More Than Men?

No.

For every study showing women talk more, there’s another showing men talk more. After a while, it becomes difficult to deny that individual preference and environmental pressures have more influence than gender on how much talking people do.

Amanda Marcotte suggests that we continue to believe this trope because of confirmation bias; conventional wisdom tells us women talk more, so we keep noticing anecdotal evidence in support of this belief.

Leia Is Not Enough

Laura Hudson at Wired explains the problem with the dearth of major, three-dimensional female characters in film, particularly sci-fi/fantasy film:

Criticisms about representations of gender (or race and other diversity) are often countered in fandom by sociological or scientific analyses attempting to explain why the inequality happens according to the internal logic of the fictional world. As though there is any real reason that anything happens in a story except that someone chose to write it that way.

Fiction is not Darwinian: It contains no impartial process of evolution that dispassionately produces the events of a fictional universe. Fiction is miraculously, fundamentally Creationist. When we make worlds, we become gods. And gods are responsible for the things they create, particularly when they create them in their own image.

As Tracy Jordan would say, “Tell it to me in Star Wars”.

Gamers Harass Women More Than Men

Content/Trigger Warning: Gender and Racial Slurs and Profanity

I mean, duh. But still, it’s nice to have some data to back up all the anecdotal evidence.

Halo 3 was used as the staging ground, chosen for its popularity and its random matchmaking system. In order to standardize the experimental conditions, verbal messages were pre-recorded in both a male and female voice. These were made up of unassuming things such as “hi everybody,” “nice job so far,” and “thanks for the game, bye.” The researchers then played public matches, transmitting the messages via voice chat. Matches played without engaging in voice chat were used as a control. […]

Findings indicate that, on average, the female voice received three times as many negative comments as the male voice or no voice. In addition, the female voice received more queries and more messages from other gamers than the male voice or no voice.

Negative language also tended to be more gendered when directed toward women than when directed toward men.

In one particular game nearly every utterance made by the female condition was met with a negative response by a particular gamer. When the female condition said “hi everybody”, the other gamer responded with “shut up you whore” followed a few seconds later with “she is a nigger lover”. When the female condition said, “alright team let’s do this”, the other gamer replied, “fuck you, you stupid slut.”

What’s wrong with people?

Science: Girls v. Boys

For years… researchers have been searching for ways to explain why there are so many more men than women in the top ranks of science.

Now comes an intriguing clue, in the form of a test given in 65 developed countries by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It finds that among a representative sample of 15-year-olds around the world, girls generally outperform boys in science — but not in the United States.

Fantastic graphical presentation of the data. The worst part, though, is that not only does the U.S. have a large gender disparity in science—it has the third largest.

Spend some time poking around with this chart; I found it fascinating.

Study: The Sexes Aren't So Different After All

A study recently compiled by Bobbi Carothers and Harry Reis, who analyzed data from 13,301 men and women, finds significant overlap between the sexes on a number of characteristics commonly thought to be split fairly evenly by gender. Examples include:

  • desire to have sex with multiple partners

  • frequency of masturbation

  • willingness to have sex outside of a relationship

  • empathy for others

  • caring about close relationships

  • closeness with a best friend

  • fear of being too successful (as measured by agreement with statements like “Often the cost of success is greater than the reward”)

  • interest in science

The entire study is here, if you’re curious.

Via XX Factor.

Florida Man Accused of Fraud for Changing His Last Name After Getting Married

Lazaro Dinh (neé Sopena) changed his last name to his wife’s to prevent it from dying out (her father has no sons). He got a new Social Security card, passport, and credit cards before going to the DMV to get an updated driver’s license. Over a year later, the DMV notified him that they would be suspending his license at the end of the month for “obtaining a driving license by fraud”.

When he called the state DMV office in Tallahassee he said he was told he had to go to court first in order to change his name legally, a process that takes several months and has a $400 filing fee.

When he explained he was changing his name due to marriage, he was told “that only works for women,” he said.

Florida has no gender-specific laws regarding name change upon marriage. Dinh’s license has since been revoked, and he is appealing the decision.

♀ The Functional Freeze, the Feminine Protest, and Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead

This is the sixth post in my chapter-by-chapter analysis of The Feminine Mystique, as I read the book for the first time in an effort to educate myself about the roots of modern feminism. You can read the other posts here.

Yesterday I had a conversation about innate differences between the sexes—specifically: do they exist, beyond the obvious biological level? Since one tactic of feminism is to at least minimize the attention given to any differences between men and women, feminists tend to operate on a practical level as if those differences do not exist. And maybe they don’t. I remain skeptical about the whole thing, since I think most of the available evidence we have on the subject is tainted by sociological assumptions. Conclusive evidence may be practically unattainable. I do think, though, that society as a whole overemphasizes any differences that do exist, which I suspect to be at least fewer and less significant than most people assume.

In the previous chapter of The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan covered Freudianism and its contribution to the marginalization of women. In chapter six, she moves on to functionalism, the school of sociology that developed as Freud’s ideas moved into the mainstream. The functionalists attempted to make sociology more scientifically credible by “studying institutions as if they were muscles or bones, in terms of their ‘structure’ and ‘function’ in the social body.” (Friedan, Betty, The Feminine Mystique. Norton & Company, 1997, p. 127) This resulted in little actual progress, though:

By studying an institution only in terms of its function within its own society, the social scientists intended to avert unscientific value judgments. In practice, functionalism was less a scientific movement than a scientific word-game. “The function is” was often translated “the function should be”; the social scientists did not recognize their own prejudices in functional disguise any more than the analysts recognized theirs in Freudian disguise. (127)

While the functionalists moved beyond Freud’s view of “biology as destiny”, they only got as far as “societal norms as destiny”. Despite accurately describing social structures, they never critiqued them, contenting themselves with telling people how to “adjust” instead. (129) In this, they may actually be more culpable than Freud, who at least thought he was expressing a scientific, unchangeable reality. The functionalists acknowledged the potential for equality but dismissed it for reasons of convenience.

For example, functionalism correctly identified the social purpose of complementary roles in marriage—the husband responsible for earning money that would keep the family and household operating, the wife responsible for the actual operations. But it never moved beyond this fairly obvious insight to a deeper analysis of the system, except to point out that if the wife stopped taking care of operations the husband would no longer be free to fulfill his role:

When men and women engage in the same occupations or perform common functions, the complementary relationship may break down. (Bowman, Henry A., Marriage for Moderns. New York, 1942, p. 21)

This ignores the possibility of achieving a better future at the cost of short-term inconvenience or upheaval—a process I think may actually be underway right now.

The most influential of these thinkers, at least with regard to the role of women in society, was Margaret Mead. (Friedan 135) Mead completed extensive anthropological research among three different tribes in Papua New Guinea: the Arapesh, among whom both men and women displayed traits traditionally considered “feminine”; the Mundugumor, both of whose sexes were “aggressive” and “masculine”; and the Tchambuli, whose women Mead claimed were more dominant and independent (this claim has since been disputed). (136) Despite these findings, though, Mead did not (in general) advocate equality or eradication of gender stereotypes. In some of her writing, she hints at the possibility of gender equality:

Just as society now permits the practice of an art to members of either sex, so it might also permit the development of many contrasting temperamental gifts in each sex. It would abandon its various attempts to make boys fight and to make girls remain passive, or to make all children fight…. No child would be relentlessly shaped to one pattern of behavior, but instead there should be many patterns, in a world that had learned to allow to each individual the pattern which was most congenial to his gifts. (Mead, Margaret, From the South Seas. New York, 1939, p. 321)

For the most part, though, Mead skewed functionalist, particularly glorifying the reproductive functions in women. She even attributed the male urge to accomplish and create to a sort of “uterus envy”—a subconscious awareness that women were superior because of their ability to create and nurture new life similar to but opposite Freud’s penis envy. (Friedan 140–141) In her Male and Female, she asks:

If little boys have to meet and assimilate the early shock of knowing that they can never create a baby with the sureness and incontrovertability that is a woman’s birthright, how does this make them more creatively ambitious, as well as more dependent upon achievement?

In a way, this reversed Freud’s subjugation of women, portraying them as superior to men because of their reproductive function. But as any good feminist knows, essentializing one aspect of femininity still keeps women in bondage:

In her insistence that women are human beings—unique human beings, not men with something missing—she went a step beyond Freud. And yet, because her observations were based on Freud’s bodily analogies, she cut down her own vision of women by glorifying the mysterious miracle of femininity. (Friedan 145)

Mead’s emphasis on reproduction meant that she retained a belief in the importance of defined gender roles; women needed to be at home fulfilling the ever-so-important function of making and raising new humans. Moreover, because women were privileged with this role, they owed it to men to let them have the less-important but still necessary function of achieving and accomplishing.

This is what Friedan refers to as “the feminine protest”—an elevation of what society called femininity over masculinity, in opposition to the “masculine protest” that functionalists claimed led women who envied men to take on typically “masculine” characteristics. (127) In response to functionalism, particularly Mead’s writings, women embraced their “femininity” and ability to create life, making a lifelong pursuit of this gender essentialism. (147)

Mead eventually began to reject the real-life impact of this philosophy, though, lamenting in 1962 the “return of the cavewoman”:

Why have we returned, despite our advances in technology, to the Stone Age picture? … Woman has gone back, each to her separate cave, waiting anxiously for her mate and children to return, guarding her mate jealously against other women, almost totally unaware of any life outside her door… In this retreat into fecundity, it is not the individual woman who is to blame. It is the climate of opinion that has developed in this country…." (Mead, Margaret, American Women: The Changing Image. 1962)

But despite Mead’s contribution to the perpetuation of the feminine mystique, Friedan credits her with good intentions, and even—to an extent—positive results:

Perhaps the feminine protest was a necessary step after the masculine protest made by some of the feminists. Margaret Mead was one of the first women to emerge into prominence in American life after rights for women were won… And she was able to say with conviction: it’s good to be a woman, you don’t need to copy man, you can respect yourself as a woman… It was a step forward in the passionate journey—and one made possible by it—for educated women to say “yes” to motherhood as a conscious human purpose and not a burden imposed by the flesh. (Friedan 147)

The Masculinization of the Garage

Tristan Bridges of Inequality by (Interior) Design traces the sociological roots of the man-cave.

Industrialization and suburbanization brought about fantastic transformations in family life and gender relations. Men and women began to rely upon one another in new and unprecedented ways. Divisions between work and leisure became more pronounced for men and this same boundary was probably blurred more than ever before for women. The same forces that led Lasch to call the family “a haven in a heartless world” were inequitably distributed between family members. This fact is reverberated in our design and use of home architecture.

Reading over this for the second time, I can’t help thinking how men in our culture have lost their identity as patriarchy collapses. Clinging to the trappings of old-fashioned masculinity ultimately only delays the inevitable need to redefine what it means to be a man.

“Good Ale, Raw Onions, and No Women”

Bitch Magazine’s “Lady Liquor” series explains why, until the 1960s, American bars banned women.

Bars did employ women during the postwar era—just not to pour drinks. Instead, “B-girls” employed by the bar would show up, pretending to be nurses or secretaries on their way home from work, and charm the male clientele into buying them drink after drink. After several drinks, the woman in question—usually called a “B-girl”—would disappear, leaving her companion with an artificially inflated bar tab.

Morally reprehensible? Yes. Hilarious at a historical distance? Also yes.