I am a literary scholar and a feminist. I study popular or “fringe” literature like comic books and science fiction, and am an avid gamer. I believe in a feminism that is pro-women instead of anti-men, and because change is made when the marginalized teach the dominant group to care about the rightness of their claim, I believe that the future of gender equality is only possible if we move from a ‘women for women’ feminism to one that wields the collective power of all people against misogyny and hypermasculinism (which are as detrimental to men as they are to women).
Based on those factors, it should make sense that I am deeply invested on both a personal and professional level in representations of women in popular media. Jezebel.com, a (debatably) “feminist” website with a somewhat eclectic publishing history, recently linked to a TED talk on how we need more movies that feature strong, smart girls. It was given by former actor Colin Stokes, and glimpses of the studio reveal a mostly male audience in attendance. By all appearances, this should be something directly in my wheelhouse, right?
One of the chief benefits of humanistic study is the fact that, somewhere in the years of school, you learn how to question everything, especially the things with which you agree. Apart from allowing you to hone a crucial skill (i.e. analytical thinking), humanistic study can give you the resources to challenge your own convictions and keep yourself from falling into an uncritical acceptance of either ‘traditional’ or ‘nontraditional’ values.
I’ll use the TED talk to illustrate what I mean. Though the general premise is one I accept as true—we do need more movies that represent real, complex women—there are several issues with Stokes’ project that prevent me from finding it a ‘good’ talk.
1) The Wizard of Oz is Stokes’ example of a movie that contains strong female role models. To a critical eye, however, that movie has a lot of issues. For starters, Dorothy’s entire life functions in relation to “home.” Even her fantasy world is reached by staying ‘safely’ in the house rather than straying outside (granted, there was a tornado, but that doesn’t change the film’s reality of a woman who is saved from the overwhelming danger of the outside world by shutting herself up in the house). Secondly, the three most powerful women in the Oz universe that Stokes points to are Dorothy, the Wicked Witch of the West, and Glinda. What does the entire conflict between these women revolve around? A pair of sparkly shoes and unwarranted competition. This list could be continued almost ad infinitum: the masculinization of the Lollipop Guild that creates goods vs. the female fairy-princess-flower-children of the Lullaby League who, presumably, do not produce anything more tangible than lullabies (for babies); the glorification of Dorothy based on the violence she commits against a powerful woman, and the reproduction of that violence against another powerful woman for the pleasure of an impotent man; the fact that the three men who have meaningful friendships with Dorothy think of themselves as less than men and represent three male stereotypes—the heartless man, the brainless man, the uncourageous/unmasculine man. Stokes specifically mentions that Dorothy saves the day by “making friends and being a leader,” but she makes friends with everyone except the supposedly strong female role models. The only woman she has a ‘friendship’ with is Glinda, who uses the younger girl to actualize her personal vendetta against another woman and who manipulates Dorothy into throwing herself at the feet of Oz’s most powerful man despite knowing all along that the shoes contained the magic to transport Dorothy back to Kansas.
2) Stokes says that Disney princess movies are “doing a phenomenal job of teaching girls how to defend against the patriarchy.” I’m not sure what princess movies he is referring to, but according to his visual he is at least including Pixar’s Brave in that category. The issue? Brave ended up being about a girl who had to choose between marriage or masculinity, and who resolved her conflict with her mother (a woman deeply encoded with patriarchal values) through the domestic act of sewing. The only potentially redeeming aspect of the movie—the speech against arranged marriages—is subverted by the idea that the protagonist will eventually choose marriage, even if it’s not arranged. The film leaves no room for a princess who doesn’t seek marriage at all, despite having real-life historical figures like Queen Elizabeth I to draw upon as precedent. Most of the other Disney princess movies undermine women in a similar way: Beauty and the Beast tells girls that staying with/catering to abusive male partners is the only way to reveal the prince he really is inside; The Little Mermaid suggests that trading in the ability to express your opinions for a great pair of legs (and presumably sexual availability) is an acceptable step toward dating a stranger (and also that ‘unfeminine’ women who desire power should be stabbed with the laughably phallic bow of a man’s boat); almost all of them teach young girls that aging is the most concrete approach to evil.
3) Probably the worst part about Stokes’ TED talk is a feature I mentioned before: the audience. The audience was mostly male, and was being fed a comfortable, safe, marginally pro-female rhetoric that virtually no one would disagree with anyway, since it was actually mostly pro-child. There were no hard truths being put forth, and no real purpose to the talk other than to point to an easily recognizable trend and say “Look!” It was feminism designed to make the least possible impact. Contrast this to another TED talk, by feminist gamer Anita Sarkeesian, who went public about the harassment she received as a backlash for simply announcing her future video series “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games.” The talk contains some deeply sickening truths about the death and rape threats she received, as well as an Internet game called “Beat up Anita Sarkeesian”—all for even daring to suggest a project that challenges female representation in a male-dominated medium. The problem? Though the violence was perpetrated by people who identified exclusively as male, this talk was given to an all female audience at TedxWomen.
Though I agree with the overall aim of both of the TED talks mentioned above, it is only through humanistic study that I have been able to realize their crucial differences, and identify the root of the issue. So what can the Humanities really do? If the analysis here is any indication, they can break down your notions about the world and what you think is valuable, and build them back up into far more purposeful convictions.