Hey, I’m Back!

7 Dec

Hey folks,

So, we’ll see how long I am able to keep up with this, but I’d like to get things rolling with this blog again. Sorry for the super long blog drought, I’ve been insanely busy with things over here.

The good news is though, that amid being busy I’ve made the time to take the next step with this paper – which is, to present it at the SXTX PCA/ACA Conference. It’s going to be a problem to fit this dense 20-pager into 15 minutes, but I think I can do it. I just won’t play any example clips (alas!!). Now all I have to do is buy my plane ticket and a ticket to the conference – it’s going to be great!

In the meantime, I have also started a Twitter for this blog, since I often see things in my FB pop up with Miss Representation that are worth retweeting, but not a full blog post. You can now follow me at : @ViragoBlog. Simple, right?

See you in the Southwest,

Mishy

A Bit about Berlusconi

6 Jun

Hey Virago fans!

March was pretty busy for me and my laptop has been out of commission, which is why you haven’t heard much!  It’s been extremely weird, since I’ve always had my own computer since middle school – being without my own PC has been just bizarre and made me think a lot about how so much of my life is mediated through screens! I literally do everything via the internet – whether it be business (online banking, working, applying for jobs via email), basic communication between friends (email, facebook), or even…cooking (well, I look up recipes through a veritable blog-o-dex of food blogs). Plus, I spend a lot of time getting my news from the internet or various apps through my smart phone. I guess this relates a little to what I blogged about last time: cyborg-ness confirmed.

Wa-chaa! It's Lady Sif

Lady Sif - Not a defenseless Marvel damsel for once!

Anyway, just wanted to let you readers know where things stand. I plan to return, but I’d like to have a working laptop set up in order to get back into the swing of things. I’m still working on refining my paper for publication and have a small backlog of articles that I’ve been mining out of (gasp!!) the physical newspaper that are excellent blog fodder. Plus, Thor and X-Men just came out, and you can bet that I’ve got plenty to say about those. (Did Thor pass the Bechdel test? Yes, but only barely! But, Lady Sif…interesting new take on things!).

But here’s a taste of what I’ve been reading lately, so you don’t feel too deprived of your “women in the media” news: You ought to read this article in the New Yorker about the slimebag that is Italy’s PM, Berlusconi. (There’s also a better full-length version, minus the youtube clips available in print or online which is well worth your time if you have time to actually sit, read and better yet, analyze!). The article concerns the PM’s taste for prostitutes – occasionally, he promotes them to a low-level political office when the mood strikes – and what women in Italy think of all this nonsense. Basta is right, le donne! When I was in Florence last summer, I was a little surprised to find out how backwards seeming Italian society is about women’s rights – which on some level, kinda makes sense since it wasn’t until the late 70s/early 80s that laws were changed in order to make things more equal between the sexes…but it still doesn’t excuse the kinds of crazy objectification that has been woven into the fabric of Italian society over years and years. Part of this has to do with artistic history and the incredibly dense tradition of viewing the female form as an object through art in the forms of sculpture, painting, etc. Part of it also has to do with Italy’s intense obsession with motherhood and the religious values behind La Familia as well as an intense valorization of Mary. If there ever was a country that embodies the idea of the angel-whore complex, it’d be Italy. (I also happen to think it’s no mistake that the country is called La Italia…). So…there’s some things to think about.

Ciao for now,

Mishy

Are We, as Geeks, Cyborgs? Bazinga!

28 Mar

Although this blog will be published a little after the fact (thanks the amazing technology of writing posts in advance!), I wanted to talk today about my experiences at Emerald City Comicon over the weekend.

Briefly, ECCC was great. I managed to sample all aspects of the con-going experience – from working as a volunteer, to meeting media guests, to attending panels, to buying merchandise from those people who you idolize on the internet, to searching through old comics to find that one glorious back issue, to attending masquerades and social meetups. I even managed to attend a movie showing of a fan-made sequel to Firefly and helped to deliver messages (and a maple bacon cupcake) to Wil Wheaton.   

I’ve never attended a con before – so it has been a ton of fun trying to understand how everything works and the kinds of social structures that nerds employ on themselves, versus those put on them by regular society. Just how do nerds show themselves, when they are all together in one place? (Jayne Hats are just the tip of the iceberg, it turns out). Who are the geeks? Despite the glamorization of pseudo “Geek Chic” by fashion magazines and the rise of mainstream male-dominant nerdiness (“The Big Bang Theory”) – I found that a much higher percentage of women are involved in geek fandom than you might expect. I’d have to say that at least half, if not more than, of the con goers at ECCC were women.

Furthermore, I’d like to point out that in the “Anthropology of Firefly” lecture, presenter Daryl G. Frazetti pointed out that much of Firefly’s popularity stems from the fact that Joss Whedon is able to successfully write a strong female character. And, he added – not just strong female characters, but a variety of them. Kailey, Inara, Zoe and River are distinctly different personalities – but the show is all the better for it. (All this was wildly cheered on by the fans in the audience, of course).

My point here is simple, though not scientifically measured: Geeks – they’re not just dudes, for real. Seattle might be exceptional, since we’re a very geektastical city (we have the Geek Girl Con specifically for geeky women, as well as the title of second-most literate city in 2010) but I think there is something to the fact that women actually do populate a culture which allows them to be more than what mainstream society has to offer.

Part of this has to do with the topsy-turvy nature of fandom and con-settings in general. Cons appear to be a physical liminal space – they allow gender, genre and just general fluidity of participants. They’re a space for women to dress in ultra skin tight catsuits or men to dress in kilts. You can come as a gender neutral storm trooper or as a hypersexualized dragon-like being, and no one apparently cares. On the contrary, they’d like a photo with you please, if you could just pose over there?

Online geek spaces, such as fanfiction sites generally say “Sure, you want to slash those two characters together? Have at it! Create some unique content and gather your shippers!” There is a space of acceptance and invertedness – while many of these writers would never be interested in for example, buying a book of gay erotica down at the local Barnes and Noble, they’re happy to read, review, create and shape it online. And consider the fact that such practices have a relatively “long” (for pop culture) and documented history – Star Trek slash was going on in small fan published newsletters before the internet!   

There certainly may be a significant amount of judgment going on in geek communities (for example, a panel I was listening to denounced people who go to anime conventions on the basis that those fans are too obsessive and creepy), but the atmosphere of these spaces is much less judgmental than the regular everyday world.

I think this is something to consider in light of the ideas of boundary crossing as described in Donna Haraway’s concept of the cyborg in “A Cyborg Manifesto.” Despite Haraway’s science-fiction like description of a future world in which everyone is only partially human, her article gives readers a detailed look into a new definition of the word “woman” through her definition of a cyborg. She calls cyborgs “a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” who have “no truck with bisexuality, pre-oedipal symbiosis, unalienated labour, or other seductions to organic wholeness” (315-6).  Haraway predicts that with the advent of more sophisticated technology, people of any kind of gender will be able to remove themselves from a cycle of “natural” reproduction and also be able to embrace embodying the spaces in between animal, machine, and human. Haraway also adds that this new cyborg figure will be able to play within the boundaries between “physical and nonphysical” (318). Perhaps we ought to consider the idea of cons or even more generally, geek culture, as a culture of cyborgs? Or maybe as a whole, geek culture is a cyborg?

I’ll leave you to chew on that for a while. Join me next week!

Mishy

PS: I’m aware there’s a difference between geeks/nerds…I’ve seen that chart. But for lack of synonyms, I use them here interchangeably with the meaning of geek.

Image from here.

See you next week!

21 Mar

Dear Readers,

Due to an extra busy week this week at work, I’m not sure I’ll have time to write up this week’s post. Please feel free to catch up on the posts in the archives and I will return for next week.

In the meantime: check out the zillions of concerts going on at my work with the American Handel Festival taking place in Seattle: http://www.americanhandelfestival.org.

Thanks!
Mishy

A Troubling Dichotomy

14 Mar

Today I’d like to talk about the whore/Madonna complex. Since I’d like to distance our discussion today from Freud’s original (and kinda wacky) ideas about this subject, I’m going to rename it the whore/angel complex. For the purposes of the blog, I’m going to define the whore/angel (or vice versa) complex as stated below. I’m kind of making this up on the fly, so feel free to jump in and correct me if there actually is a good definition of this phenomenon floating around, or chime in with additions. I’m just describing what I see (not very scientific or scholarly of me, but…that’s why this is a blog and not a research paper!).

A western societal meme that stereotypes women by placing them into one of two categories: angel or whore. The angel personality tends to be stereotyped as: pure, good, giving, the mother, non-sexual, perfect, child-like, iconic, chaste, disembodied, worthy of worship. The whore personality tends to be the reverse: dirty, the bitch, the prostitute, hypersexual, bodied, animal/beastly, fertile, demonic, violent, deviant. With this meme, there is no middle ground – a woman is one or the other, and can shift between these personalities, but cannot bridge the dichotomy.

This meme goes way back in time for western society. Think about all those fairytale stories, and you might notice that the princesses tend to be in the “angel” column and their stepmothers tend to be in the “whore” column. The step-mother can never be the mother (who’s usually so chaste and perfect that she’s literally become disembodied in death). It’s Queen Guinevere’s deviation from her position of “angel” and her shift to “whore” when she takes up her lover Lancelot that causes a lot of the destruction of Camelot that happens in the King Arthur legends. It’s also probably a visual meme in our social psyche – think about the history of western art and the prevalence of the Madonna icon, which embodies the “angel” half of this complex! Or consider how this stereotype lives on in modern media – have you ever watched Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman in Batman Returns? While Selina Kyle is mild-mannered and lives in an apartment that’s candy-pink and full of stuffed animals, Catwoman is like literally and figuratively, the bitch in heat. (By the way, Tim Burton’s other take on female characters in the previous film, Batman is just as bad – Vicki Vale’s bedroom is outfitted with like a zillion teddy bears. How old is she supposed to be again!?)

So what does this have to do with the virago? you might be asking. Because of the way that I’ve structured the virago rules, the virago is more complex than this dichotomy and she can’t just be one or the other. In fact, at best, she’s probably neither. However, this doesn’t mean that representations of her aren’t above trying to shove her into one of these categories or the other. I’m all for diversifying the virago and changing models of women that just don’t work very well, and I feel like the angel/whore complex is one of them. While Catwoman from Batman Returns gets a pass (and only maybe) as a virago according to my rules, she doesn’t add anything new to the idea of being a virago and possibly reinforces negative stereotypes of women and their sexuality. I’m not saying that Catwoman isn’t wildly entertaining or fun to watch – part of what makes her so dynamic is the change between the angel and whore personalities – but I often think that part of what makes her character so satisfying is the fact that she is a western society staple and that her character is so incredibly predictable. (You may disagree with me here, that’s fine!). However, there’s very little (to no!) space for a woman who doesn’t fit this restrictive model of women’s sexuality on screen – and I’d like to see that change.

 And, more fascinatingly, we, as audience members (regardless of gender) may also be unconsciously using this meme to categorize these women. I’m all about being aware of how we “read” the virago and under what circumstances she can “live” as a body, so to speak, so I’m going to take an example of a space where she just doesn’t appear – and that’s the popular show, Sex and the City.

If you’re looking for viragoes, this show sucks, since it doesn’t contain any (the only one that comes closest is Samantha, who I personally feel breaks rules #3, 4b and 5 in many episodes. She may be able to fulfill these rules in one episode, or part of an episode, but her inability to keep the rules consistently is what disqualifies her). However, Sex and the City is good for something else for we virago-purporters – it’s a good example of some of the pressures which the virago faces in modern media. While Carrie and her friends cavort around the city, living impossibly glamorous lives and having sex with those who catch their fancy, the fab foursome are constantly under the pressures of the whore/angel complex. (I find it especially ironic that a show which stakes its premise on women’s sexual liberation reverts back to this myopic divide.) It gets a bad rap from feminists for a variety of reasons, but I’m with Orson Scott Card on this one – he writes that the show was one of the “best-written […] shows in the history of television. It was also a moral nightmare.” The dialogue is certainly snappy, although I often feel the show tries too hard to make the characters fit into either side of the Angel/Whore divide. Some characters are pretty much entirely based on this (Samantha, representing the Whore and Charlotte representing the Angel).

But, why aren’t there any viragoes in this show? Why doesn’t Samantha, or any of the women on this show, get the proverbial “room” to count as a virago on this show? we might be asking ourselves. What keeps this show from presenting alternatives to the angel/whore divide? I think it’s because of the way that Sex and the City lays out the world structure of its “New York” and the guidelines of its narrative structure, the virago cannot exist fully.

I’ll admit that a lot of this is dependent on rules 4 and 5 in my definition of the virago. It’s got to be a challenge to get around rule 5 (a virago’s sexuality must make sense according to her as a character, not simply to appeal to a mass market audience) when you’re writing a show like this. However, that’s no excuse for Carrie and her friends to type themselves according to this angel/whore model.  Certainly, they get the complex from the outside judgment of society, but it’s odd to me that these women who spend the majority of their time together discussing their sexual exploits, have so few ways to describe themselves outside of this societal model.

The episode “Cover Girl” in the fifth season of the show exemplifies this nicely. When Carrie walks into Samantha’s office and sees her having sex with a delivery boy, Samantha takes offense, thinking that Carrie has typed her as the “whore.” While Samantha later defends her actions, Carrie admits that she still harbors a little judgment against her friend. The reaction is typical for the show – as Samantha’s exploits are usually met with judgment by her friends when they all sit down and have brunch. Samantha, who has the most healthy self-esteem and most powerful career out of all the girls, constantly has to take some flak for her expressions of sexuality and she is constantly the measuring stick of “inappropriate.”

In “Unoriginal Sin,” Carrie and Charlotte are sitting around watching men walk down the street, and they mark which ones they would sleep with. Carrie points out that Charlotte has marked down a lot of men already, and states, “You’re an imaginary whore […] you’ve slept with eight men and we’ve only had appetizers!” Granted, these kind of one liners makes for snappy dialogue, but it’s kind of sad that Carrie can’t see outside the boundary lines of “bad girl vs. good girl” when it comes to her friends.

My point is simple – we may employ these judgments on our own, without realizing it. Just like Carrie, perhaps we’re judging our friends and their actions according to an outdated model that doesn’t do anything but demonize anyone who’s not the picture of virtue. And I do, quite literally, mean picture of virtue – the angel is a disembodied image, an icon, that can never be fully human. The virago should not have to compromise between having a body as well as desires and being respected. I’d like to see more human viragoes, and that means scrapping this model or at least reworking it to become more flexible and different.

Just so you know, I am headed somewhere with this argument – keep it in mind when I discuss the idea of the cyborg woman in upcoming posts! And, as always, I invite you to join me again next week!

Mishy

Image from here and here.

Today is International Women’s Day

8 Mar

It’s International Women’s Day! Hooray! Here’s a random assortment of links, pictures and quotes to celebrate.

If you’ve never heard of the Guerilla Girls, do them a favor and pop over to their website. I actually saw an exhibition in the Pompidou this summer about the topic of women in art, and a lot of their posters were featured.

A quote to think about from Jane Fonda:

Jane Fonda, from “Why Famous Actress Became a Peace Activist” in the Philadelphia Bulletin, October, 1, 1972, found in the book Jane Fonda’s Words of Politics and Passion, a collection of essays. Photo from here.

“I wasted thirty two years of my life. I’m going to be thirty-five in December. I know how important it is for people to be aware of what’s going on. I know that when women get active – and it tends to happen to women more often because we are put into cubbyholes – we are told, like it said in the paper about my being in Kensington yesterday, “Why doesn’t she go back and be content being a housewife?”

I was a housewife for seven years. And I was like a leaf that dried up on a branch. I was defined by my husband. I was defined by the roles that I played in movies. My hair wasn’t even my own color. I was defined in many, many different ways. And I know what that does to human beings.”

(I’m not saying that being a housewife is not a noble endeavor in of itself, but…it’s definitely not if you’re not being defined by terms that you choose and want for yourself!)

Also consider watching the video below, which is making the rounds on the interwebs today. Although some of the facts presented are possibly contestable – I do a lot of reading about wage discrepancy, and studies vary from saying that it’s vastly unequal to totally equal, given experience inequalities – so you might take some of what’s presented here with a grain of salt – it’s still a good reminder of the inequality between the sexes!

You may also want to check out the organization, Women for Women International, which allows you to sponsor a women in foreign countries who need aid. If you’re into that micro-lending sort of thing, you might also want to give Kiva a look over.

And, did you know that there’s a blogging network devoted to women?

Just for kicks, here’s a quote from my favorite sci-fi woman leader of all time, Laura Roslin. (Photo from here).

“I was a teacher long before I was Secretary of Education, and causes are only lost when we give up.”

The Superwoman Myth

7 Mar

The myth of the “superwoman” pervades American society on many, even everyday levels. This is particularly evident if you scan the magazine rack while checking out at the supermarket. Magazines proclaim that it is possible to be a kind of “superwoman” who has everything – the perfect figure, the powerful job, the great husband, the active sex-life, the approximately 2.5 organically-fed, perfectly coiffed children and pristine pooch. She is fashionable, beautiful, a great cook, the ideal mother, the perfect hostess, but she also knows the “75 Very Naughty Moves to Try on a Man” (Cosmo). It doesn’t hurt for her to be busty and cellulite-free, either. One of the latest issues of O Magazine suggests that readers can have “your ideal body, a better job, extra energy, more love, less stress, [and] a fresh outlook” if only they open up this special “Make Your Dreams Real” issue. Shape Magazine’s February 2011 cover declares that five ways to beat your winter blues reside “inside your makeup bag.” I suppose this view of women is more faceted than that of the 1980s tough, childless woman executive image, but…both seem equally ridiculous.

Clearly, the people marketing magazines think that women can truly “have it all!” But where did this idea of “having it all” even originate? I hadn’t given it much thought until I came across an anecdote in some of my research. Turns out, the phrase was popularized by the editor of Cosmopolitan magazine (from 1965-97), Helen Gurley Brown, when she published her book Having it All in 1982. After JStoring my way through a bunch of reviews of Gurley Brown’s work, it seems like academics are mixed about her books. While she did a lot in the 1960s to advocate for women’s sexual liberation, she went too far when she suggested that women use business lunches as excuses to get dates with men in the office, and that women should use their sexuality without a second thought to get ahead at work.

Interestingly, the idea of extra pressure on women to be more than just career woman, fighter or mother is not unique to the print media either, but appears to be a wider social concern in current western society. Lillian S. Robinson points out that “in real life, nowadays, we’re using another word from the comic book lexicon, Superwoman, to characterize someone who is a competent professional and a competent homemaker and mother” (Robinson, 20). She furthers her argument by noting that this term often excludes those of a certain class or race. She states “that heroic epithet is rarely applied to a woman raising a houseful of kids on her earnings as  waitress or a switchboard operator or a domestic servant…you seem to earn the “Super” label if you are not only able to do it all superbly, but if you have to do it all” (20). This kind of perfect ideal is rare in real life, but even rarer in the form of an onscreen virago –there is only one primary example of a virago who is a mother, a waitress and a warrior, and she is Sarah Conner from the Terminator series.

Additionally, an interesting opinion piece in the New York Times from 1991 Marin Gazzaniga points out that “Most families need two incomes, yet employers still act as if the man is the breadwinner, and the woman is just doing the career thing to boost her self-esteem or to do something until she has babies. Until “working father” is part of our vocabulary, Superwoman will remain. She may be haggard, but she’ll still be struggling to do it all — because somebody has to.” I find it interesting that she brings up the idea of a “working father,” and this plays into my next point: with superwomen come super-expectations. The virago, like other women in our society, is expected to be any number of idealized personalities. What intrigues me the most is not the fact that she “should” be so many personalities, but that she often works as a multiple sign (aka, she hold multiple identities), which actually makes her stronger and more complex as a character as opposed to the typically stable and less complex sign system of the male hero. Although it is easy to think of examples of the personalities that women must have, our society tends to think of men in general (but especially the male hero) as less complex sign systems. This is why the idea of being a “working father” just doesn’t come up on a regular basis – the business man is the business man, he is not generally made into a bizarre super-category of “business man/father/husband/sex god/great cook/excellent host/etc.” This sign mulitiplicity plays out in a number of ways for the virago– because she can whip identities on and off quickly, her character can literally do things and go places that male heroes cannot.

But let’s take a look at how the male action hero works in general, as a stepping stone to how the virago works. In my experience, heroes (as opposed to viragoes) tend to be embodied in the following ways.

He:

1.       Is in control of his body and rarely “vivisected” on screen.

2.       Rarely uses sex/seduction as a means of getting what he wants.

3.       May use disguise but rarely employs a sexually-motivated disguise

4.       Is hardly ever accompanied by children.

5.       Has a single, stable identity and sign system.

6.       Is rarely defeated through emotional manipulation.

7.       Often kills without experiencing any ramifications.

8.       Hardly ever works with others and is extremely independent.

Viragos tend to be the opposite of this list.

(For sticklers, it then makes her:

1.       Rarely in control of her body and is often “vivisected” on screen.

2.       Often uses sex/seduction as a means of getting what she wants.

3.       Often employs a sexually-motivated disguise.

4.       Accompanied by children much more frequently than the male action hero.

5.       Does not have a single, stable identity and sign system.

6.       Is often defeated through emotional manipulation.

7.       Rarely kills without experiencing any ramifications.

8.       Often works with others and may be less independent than the male action hero is typically.)

The above qualities (and probably a million more that I have not thought of and/or listed – feel free to share your imput) are part of what makes the male action hero so easy to spot and part of what makes him so likeable. He is predictable and stable. The virago, on the other hand, is anything but stable, as sign systems go. I personally feel that the lack of stable qualities to the virago is a double-edged sword – while she is flexible to be whoever, wherever, whenever…this is also the quality that makes her irritatingly hard to put your finger on and it can be difficult to both spot and identify with her. I personally feel that her instability as a stock character makes her less likeable (because she is less predictable), although you are free to feel differently. The other danger of being a multiple sign system in this particular case using the above strictures of the male hero in reverse, is the fact that some of her instability comes from the fact that she can switch identities between person and object through the course of a film, for example (see rules 1,2, 3 of the male hero).

Join me next week!

Mishy

Works Cited:

Robinson, Lillian S. Wonder Women. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Suggested reading:

Fascinating article about perceptions and expectations of women in the workplace in the 1940s-60s:

“The Joy of Work: Helen Gurley Brown, Gender, and Sexuality in the White-Collar Office.” Julie Berebitsky. Journal of the History of Sexuality. Vol. 15, No. 1 (Jan., 2006), pp. 89-127 Published by: University of Texas Press. Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4617245

An article about the breakdown of topics in Cosmo:

“The “Cosmopolitan” Ideology and the Management of Desire.” Kathryn McMahon. The Journal of Sex Research. Vol. 27, No. 3, Feminist Perspectives on Sexuality. Part 2 (Aug., 1990), pp. 381-396 Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3812809

Images from here and here.

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