Tag Archives: sexism

Sexism, Entitlement and Santa Barbara

I live in Australia, almost as far from Santa Barbara as it’s possible to get, and tonight I felt my heart race as I walked from the house to my car in the dark. I felt as if someone was about to leap at me from the shadows, and I checked the back seat of my car for attackers before I got in.

If it seems weird or over the top to you that I felt triggered by the mass shooting in Santa Barbara yesterday, in which gunman Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured seven more before killing himself, you might be right. I certainly felt silly about it once I was in the locked car with the radio on. But on the other hand, when you think about the fact that Rodger appears to have committed this horrifying crime because he was angry that women wouldn’t pay attention to him, it’s not so weird. Men with a sense of entitlement to female attention aren’t that uncommon, after all.

If you think Rodger is an outlier, a fringe wacko or a “madman,” then you are over simplifying the matter. More to the point, if you think this sort of violence has nothing in common with everyday sexism, with rape jokes, with theendemic online harassment of women that we’ve seen getting media attention lately, you are not paying enough attention. Elliot Rodger’s views about women, expressed in videos and writings that are disturbing to read, are extreme in the sense of being awful but not in the sense of being unusual. Men say things like that to and about women on the internet all the time. Most of them don’t act on their threats – or at least not on a scale that gets them on the news, though I have no doubt plenty of them are real life rapists and abusers – but whether or notevery creepy guy ranting about how much he hates women really is a bonafide mass murderer, there are many more men expressing similar views out there. Since the shooting, comments have appeared on Rodger’s videos (Trigger Warning: violent misogyny) that call him a “hero,” express sympathy for his pain at being rejected, and gloat that women could have prevented his crimes by sleeping with him, as if it is women and not this entitled and deeply misogynist man who are to blame for his actions.

This is the extreme end of the Nice Guy phenomenon and the so called “friend zone”, the sense of entitlement to women’s attention and affection held by men like Rodger and a whole lot of other men who don’t think of themselves as scary or extreme, but justified in their anger. And as I saw someone else say on Facebook, every man who has blamed women for not being attracted to him has contributed to the culture that made this happen. If you’ve ever complained about women dating “brutes” instead of dating a “gentleman” like you, take a long hard look at yourself, because the proliferation of objectifying, entitled beliefs about women and who they “should” show affection to is where mindsets like Elliot Rodger‘s come from. Women do not owe you sex or romance, even if you’re nice to them, even if they’re attractive, even if you really really want them. Believing that they do or should is wrong and dangerous even if you don’t go out and murder anyone.

When men make threats like these and women express their fear and alarm, we’re usually told not to take it so seriously, that they’re just empty threats from internet trolls and if you ignore them they’ll go away.Obviously that’s not always true. Rodger had been seriously planning this killing spree for months, and he posted disturbing videos weeks ago in which he talked about suicide and killing people, and which concerned his family so much they called the police. But when police interviewed him and found him to be a “perfectly polite, kind and wonderful human” (in the words of his father’s lawyer) they pursued it no further. Rodger’s own writings tell that at the time of this interview he had already collected weapons and ammunition and had written extensively of his plans to murder large numbers of people. If the police had taken his family’s concerns and the threats he had already made on YouTube more seriously, he could have been stopped.

But the police saw a young, middle class man who was well-spoken and polite and assumed he couldn’t possibly be dangerous, that the threats he had made about killing other people and himself were just letting off steam or a harmless joke or a misunderstanding. It’s not a huge surprise that they came to this conclusion, because people often don’t take misogynist threats seriously and treat them as harmless posturing, but it is awful to think that if they hadn’t been so quick to accept that he was a nice young man this tragedy might never have ocurred. It’s outrageous and tragic that people had to die in order to make this clear, but misogynist beliefs breed hatred and violence, and threats of this kind need to be taken seriously.

Of course, because the “women cruelly overlook nice guys” myth is so ingrained, I expect most people will prefer to stick with the explanation I’ve already seen in several places; that Elliot Rodger was a “madman,” and that his actions were the result not of sexism but of personal defects. Lots of people have been quick to point out that he was being treated for mental illness and that he had been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. To that I will say that I happen to know several men on the autism spectrum, as well as several more who have experienced mental illness, and amazingly enough not a single one of them has ever murdered anyone. It is insulting to autistic people to imply that someone who isn’t neurotypical is capable of going on a killing spree at any moment because of the way their brain works. Autistic people are no more likely than any other group to commit violence, and as the Autistic Self Advocacy Network urged in a statement today, we must “fight against any attempt to exploit such incidents to advance an agenda of bigotry and prejudice.”

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Selfies, Beauty and Objectification

A big collage of my selfies!  I am: looking off to the side, drinking a slurpee in the car, showing off a new bra, poking my tongue out, smiling in front of books, wearing makeup and a quiff, looking downcast, eating ice cream, displaying elaborate eye makeup, smiling outdoors, wearing a hat and sunglasses, bug eyed in smeared makeup, wearing a blue santa hat, looking dismayed by One Direction branded conversation hearts, showing off another bra, wearing purple makeup and a floral headdress, wearing gold lipstick and making a kissy face.

A big collage of my selfies! I am: looking off to the side, drinking a slurpee in the car, showing off a new bra, poking my tongue out, smiling in front of books, wearing makeup and a quiff, looking downcast, eating ice cream, displaying elaborate eye makeup, smiling outdoors, wearing a hat and sunglasses, bug eyed in smeared makeup, wearing a blue santa hat, looking dismayed by One Direction branded conversation hearts, showing off another bra, wearing purple makeup and a floral headdress, wearing gold lipstick and making a kissy face.

This post was inspired by two different conversations, a facebook thread following a friend’s post of an old quote from The Reclusive Leftist and the wider conversation about feminism and selfies that’s going on across various locations at the moment.

Here’s the quote. The discussion that followed was out of context of the post it came from, but for the sake of attribution see this 2009 blog post.

“Look, if posing naked were empowering, then the rich men who run the world would be lining up for it. We would be awash in naked dick shots of Warren Buffet and Bill Gates and Barack Obama; magazines would be filled with male politicians and financiers and moguls with their bits hanging out. Softly lit, perhaps; head coyly tilted, bunny tail on the ass. Power.”

It’s a zingy little paragraph. I laughed out loud and nodded my head when I read it, and was deeply entertained at the mental image of powerful men acting coyly flirtatious on the covers of magazines. But even so, men in image-based industries do appear as sex symbols. Consider David Beckham in H&M underwear or “Sexiest Man Alive” articles in magazines or images like this. The difference is that apparently women’s power is diminished by being seen in this way and men’s is increased.

The reason, of course, is sexism. In a patriarchy men who follow the rules always win and women always lose, no matter how little the rules make sense. I’ve never heard a man accused of “objectifying himself” for sending dick pics, but women whose nude texts are leaked get lambasted as fools for daring to think they could trust a lover or a device with their privacy. When a man shows someone a photograph of himself naked it is an act of aggression, but when a woman does the same thing it is seen as an act of submission, and even of consenting to become less than a person. Or consenting for all women everywhere to be seen as less than people. A woman who accepts money to pose nude in a men’s magazine is setting the cause back decades for all women everywhere because she’s colluding in the objectification of her own body, and theirs by extension. A woman who photographs herself and posts it on the internet where people can see it is vain and obsessed with her looks, and therefore also setting the cause back decades for all women everywhere because she’s colluding in the patriarchal plot to define women by our appearance.

I agree that culture where being sexy or beautiful is the only or most important way a woman can be accepted or have power is awful, and clearly excludes some women as well as limiting all women; even the conventionally attractive are always more than just conventionally attractive. But I do think it is possible for feeling sexy or beautiful to be a positive, empowering and not objectifying experience, working within the confines of the society we live in, and I also think that looking at yourself and inviting others to look at you doesn’t have to be about beauty.

Tumblr is full of women who do not fit into the mainstream beauty paradigm – whether because of race, body shape or size, disability or gender presentation – taking selfies and posting them to a public viewership, including naked ones and sexy ones and glamorous ones. There’s even a photography challenge along these lines, the 365 Feminist Selfie Project created by Veronica Arreola of Viva La Feminista. The project challenges participants to take a selfie every day for a year, at least partly in rebuttal to that infamous Jezebel article about how awful women who take selfies are (no linking for that one, google it if you’re curious).

Not unexpectedly, plenty of people are upset or concerned about women photographing themselves under the banner of feminism. I think there are interesting things to be said about how an act qualifies as “feminist” as opposed to simply “not anti-feminist” – for example feminism means women can choose whether or not to shave their legs so shaving isn’t anti-feminist, but it isn’t a feminist act either – but that’s not the discussion I’ve seen happening about selfies. The discussion about selfies seems to be much more focused on vanity, and on beauty and whether or not women should care about it. Take, for example, this article from concerned father-of-girls Black Hockey Jesus:

Put simply, all I’m saying is this: I see your need to redefine beauty and raise you one need to question the female defined by her appearance. Women can be more than how they look and deserve to be. Step away from the cameras. Seek new ways to appear. As you explore new adjectives through which to be defined, you will emerge as more complicated nouns than pretty ones. This is perhaps the direction toward a feminism beyond beauty.

Now, I recognise that Black Hockey Jesus is trying to be supportive here. He worries about the future in store for his daughters and wants women to be comfortable as complex, nuanced human beings. And I agree with him, women are more than how we look and the mainstream beauty paradigm does harm us, even those women who are privileged by it. I’m not even referring to this guy’s article so I can crow “Look at the white guy shaming feminist selfies!” as he fears (poor darling) but because that quote right there demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the reality of a bunch of people that is being repeated over and over in the handwringing over “selfie culture”.

See, if the great diversity of women who participate in internet selfie sharing like the Feminist Selfie Project “step away from the cameras” a lot of us are plunged back into a world still saturated with images of beautiful women who don’t look like us, where we are not only told that we are not beautiful, but where it’s implied by the mainstream culture most of us are immersed in that we don’t even exist. We don’t have control over that to a great extent, that is the kyriarchy at work, and the capitalist beauty industry. And living in that world where we never see our own bodies or faces reflected back at us doesn’t make it easier to let go of the idea that beauty is a woman’s most important or powerful attribute, it makes it harder. Because beauty, a very specific and limited idea of beauty, is the only attribute of womanhood that we ever get to see.

What taking selfies and sharing them does is fill our immediate environment with a far more diverse visual language of bodies than we have access to otherwise. If I turn on the TV or open a magazine I’m lucky to see one or two fat people and a scant handful of POC. Maybe one person with a disability (more likely a currently able bodied actor pretending to be disabled) or one trans person (more likely a cis actor pretending to be trans). To Black Hockey Jesus, who appears from his photo and blogging history to be a thin white cis man, it probably wouldn’t even register that this is something which happens, because people who look like him are the default template from which all other people on TV diverge. If a person who looks like him is portrayed as a villain, an idiot or a joke it doesn’t matter, because the next person over looks like him too. It’s similar but a bit more limited for thin, white, cis, able bodied women, because most of the versions of themselves they see are hollywood pretty. But for anyone who doesn’t fit that mould, representation – especially neutral-to-positive representation – is hard to come by.

Black Hockey Jesus urges women to “seek new ways to appear”, but we already are doing that when we take selfies. In selfies we simultaneously determine the method in which we will be seen by others and get used to seeing ourselves in different ways, unlike looking to popular media where we are always portrayed in the same ways. If you take the time to trawl through the #365feministselfie hashtag on Twitter, or the Feminist Selfie Project pool on Flickr, you’ll notice women appearing in a lot of different ways. Rock climbing, watching TV and pulling faces with a friend were among those at the top of the Flickr page when I wrote this. And you should see the camera roll on my phone!

Assuming the Feminist Selfie Project or any enthusiasm for selfies is just about feeling beautiful is very limited. The thing about taking a photo of oneself every day is that sticking to glamour shots gets boring and time consuming, so the participants are increasingly photographing themselves doing things, or just being themselves as is, no makeup, pyjama clad, unstyled, whatever. Maybe when you just take one selfie for your facebook profile picture you’re going to be concentrating on looking pristinely pretty, but if you do it all the time you get used to your own face and (in my experience, anyway) get a lot more relaxed about beauty and whether or not you have it. Taking self-indulgent pictures of myself had a large role to play in the fact that I can now look at unflattering photos of me that other people post on facebook and laugh my butt off instead of feeling ashamed and miserable.

Two unflattering photos of me.  In one I'm sitting cross-legged in a yellow dress and appear to be mid-sneeze.  In the other I'm making a surprised face and look remarkably like George Takei.

Two hilariously unflattering photos of me. In one I’m sitting cross-legged in a yellow dress and appear to be mid-sneeze. In the other I’m making a surprised face and look remarkably like George Takei.  What even is my face.

Returning to the original quote about posing naked, another issue occurs. Ultimately, it’s not appearing naked or being sexy on purpose that makes women into sex objects, because women are objectified even when they’re not doing those things. Consider my friend and fellow fat blogger Kath, who gets angry hate mail from trolls complaining “you’re ugly and I don’t get a boner when I look at you.” That’s objectification based on the premise that to exist she should appeal to the sexuality of those trolls and their boners. Gross. What about the many stories of female gamers and sci-fi geeks who get harassed at conventions and online by male geeks and gamers? Those guys are casting women in their fandoms into the role of sex object. And then there’s young female performers like Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus and Emma Watson, who all had websites dedicated to counting down until they were 18 and “legal”, because the only consent you need to have sex with a woman is the law’s, right? In a patriarchy, women are objectified whatever they do. Blaming women for making sex objects of themselves by posting naked selfies comes dangerously close to blaming rape victims for dressing provocatively. The people responsible for the objectification of women are not the women who are objectified.

You might say that’s all well and good for fat girls, but those who are conventionally attractive and take pictures of themselves or pose for sexy shots are just adding to the flood of images that I lamented earlier in this article! How can that be ok?  Well, I know plenty of women who I would expect to be serenely confident in how well they fit the mainstream beauty paradigm who actually have poor self esteem (up to and including eating disorders and other mental illnesses) because the approval of the patriarchy is fickle and impossible to live up to.  If it’s ok for fat women – or other women who’ve been excluded from the mainstream beauty paradigm – to feel powerful by controlling the image of themselves, which I think it’s pretty clear I believe, can we really say it’s not ok for women who are conventionally attractive to do the same thing? Who gets to decide which women fall on which side of the line? Patriarchy certainly doesn’t agree. It comes down to the leg shaving argument for me, in the end. While the act of appearing nude, sexy, beautified is not necessarily inherently feminist in every context, individual women have a right to make themselves feel good in the ways that are available to them.

For me, taking and sharing selfies reminds me that I can challenge the received narrative of beauty my culture has given me and either place myself in it – which I’m not supposed to be allowed to do – or discard it completely as the situation warrants. If I look at my collection of selfies I certainly don’t think I look beautiful in all of them, and that’s frequently deliberate. Being able to look in a mirror or at a photograph of myself – even an ugly or unflattering one – and like the person I see there after a lifetime of being literally afraid to see my own reflection, that feels very powerful.

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On Fat Admiring Men at Fat Positive Events

I’ve had this written for a few weeks now and have been unsure about whether or not to post it. It’s based on an experience that put a downer on something excellent for me, and as such the post is itself a bit of a downer. But it’s something that concerns me too, so I’ve decided to go ahead and put it up for discussion.

When you go to see a performance, there’s a kind of unspoken contract that goes on between the performers and the audience; they invite you to look, and you agree to behave in particular ways. When you go to see a play you sit quietly and clap at the end. When you see a classical music concert you clap at the end of the work, not in between the movements. When you see a comedy show you laugh at the jokes (hopefully). And at a burlesque show, as Va Va Boombah MC Lisa-Skye encourages, you “bay like hungry angry wolves”. In other words, it’s fine to be vocal about the sexiness of the performers, because you’re being invited and encouraged to do so!

But I think some people assume this invitation goes further than is actually reasonable.

After the Va Va Boombah show last week, while I was staffing the merch table, I had an encounter with a guy who had really enjoyed the show, seemed to find me attractive, and wanted to take a photo with me. He asked my name (a couple of times) and whether I was single, and then put his arms around me and kissed me on the cheek while his friend took a photo of us.

I’m not going into more detail on this; the way I handled it has a lot to do with my own personal history and I don’t really want to get into it. Let me just say that he made me very uncomfortable, invaded my personal space, and made me feel like an object he thought he was entitled to. As I made my apologies to the other merch table volunteers and went to hide in the toilets until I calmed down, it made me think about the presence of fat admirers at fat burlesque shows like Va Va Boombah.

It makes sense that fat admirers are going to be among the audience of fat burlesque shows, because the premise of the show is fatties taking their clothes off. It also makes sense that this part of the audience – the part that finds fat people sexy – could include fat admirers who are not even slightly progressive or fat positive. Remember, enjoying fat bodies as objects of lust is not in and of itself fat positive, just as men who like looking at naked women are not necessarily feminists. For all that Va Va Boombah is radical, queer and body positive, and run by radical queer body positive people, not all the audience members are going to fit that mould. Some are just there for partially naked fat dancers.

And I kind of hate that, even though I know that may not make a lot of sense.

Like I said in the beginning, it seems fair to say that by performing burlesque and inviting a public audience to come watch them the dancers on stage are implicitly granting you permission to gaze on them in a sexualised way, while they perform at any rate. You don’t necessarily need to be thinking about their nuanced identities and personal lives while watching them dance, though it’s good to remember that they have these things. But that doesn’t mean you are being invited to look at every other other fat woman who happens to be at the event in the same sexualised way. Just because I am present at a fat burlesque gig – even as a member of staff – and happen to share some traits with some performers (fat, female, wearing lots of sequins) does not mean I am part of the show. It does not mean I am a decoration or exhibit you can get your picture taken with (actually, taking photos of burlesque performers is a big no-no anyway; they will let you know if it’s ok but assume it isn’t). And it definitely does not mean you have inherent permission to put your hands or lips on anyone, staff, audience members or performers.

The guy who hit on me was probably harmless. I say this not to diminish his poor behaviour but to make myself feel better about it. But he made me feel small and ugly when the show immediately preceding our encounter had made me feel powerful and beautiful, because he treated me like a thing that was present for his enjoyment, instead of a person who was there for my own reasons just like he was. And despite what I’ve said about being invited to look, it would not be ok if he treated one of the performers that way either, because performing for your enjoyment is not the same as existing for your enjoyment.

Perhaps it seems hypocritical of me to complain about fat admirers at a burlesque gig when I myself am pretty damn sexually attracted to fat women, but here’s the difference; I don’t treat fat women as if they belong to me because I find them attractive. I do not treat fat women like I’m doing them a favour (and therefore they owe me one in return) by expressing my appreciation for their bodies. I do not expect fat women to be so surprised and delighted to receive attention from me that they don’t require anything else from me other than affirmations that they are beautiful or sexy.

I’m just not interested in fulfilling some kind of fantasy for fat admirers. It’s nice for them that my appearance gives them some kind of pleasure but that doesn’t mean I need or want to hear about it. This seems to be something a certain subset of (mostly straight, mostly cis, mostly male) fat admirers don’t understand about what their desire means to fat women. You’re not doing us a favour or helping us by desiring us as sex objects. I actually don’t care about your desire. I care about my desire. And my desire is to be treated like an autonomous human being by the people I choose to share my space, time and body with. I am not grateful for your purely superficial attention because, difficult as it may be to believe, I don’t need or want it. I can do better.

It kind of boggles my mind that a person would ask a stranger for their photo, a stranger who is not even a celebrity or performer (though see above re: asking burlesque performers for photos), as if she were a pretty flower or piece of scenery they wanted to be able to look at again later. I’m not a thing. I’m a person. Next time someone I don’t know asks for a photo with or of me I’m going to charge them for it.

What’s interesting is that I had no such experience at the Glitterdome dance party the following week, even though I presume the crowd present was probably pretty similar and contained many of the same people. Is this because a performance gives some audience members a feeling of entitlement to be performed for? Was being at Glitterdome with a dude who was obviously my lover a protective factor (depressing thought)? Or was I just luckier the second time?

I most definitely don’t think Va Va Boombah or burlesque are the problem. As I’ve said already, I loved the show and felt moved and empowered by it. The problem is sexism and the belief that women’s bodies – of whatever type – are objects for men’s personal enjoyment. Both fat hatred and objectifying fat admiration reduce our bodies down to a thing that exists for someone else’s pleasure, the difference is that fat haters think the body is failing and fat admirers think it is succeeding. A self-entitled fat admiring man is just the flip side of the kind of man who hates fat women for being unattractive to him, because both believe a woman’s job is to look nice for his enjoyment.

Yes, the Boombahs are sexy as hell, but they’re also excellent dancers and musicians and artists. You can let them know you think they’re hot stuff in a respectful way, like cheering and whistling for them while they’re on stage as you have been invited to do. And you should also appreciate that they are complex human beings, and skilled and hardworking performers who aren’t just there to please you.


Disclaimer: Any “not all men!” or “not all fat admirers!” comments will not get past moderation. I hope men and fat admirers who would not behave this way don’t need to be patted on the head for not being assholes.

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