Recently in feminism Category

women and video games

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my friend and fellow grad student Morgan Romine was featured on Fast Company earlier this month, blogging on "Why Women Should Play Video Games." Here's an exerpt:

I realize that gaming is still a decidedly male-dominated pastime and industry, and I understand that mainstream culture is still deeply influenced by the notion that games are only for the stereotypical antisocial, tech-nerdy, teenage male. But I’ve been advocating games for years now, and playing them for longer, so I’m impatient for the change in popular perception that I’m sure is waiting right around the corner.

QUANTOproject: prostitution for sale

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this website showcases a really interesting selection of graphical images that address issues of sexual exploitation and trafficking around the world, apparently submitted for a contest juried by QUANTOproject, an Italian organization trying to increase awareness of the topic.

many of the images are stark and powerful, but at the same time, they reveal particular cultural perspectives on prostitution. many of the images portray women and women's bodies, often alluding to pigs, meat, and money. i'm continually fascinated by how debates on prostitution tend to center around the women who sell sex for a living -- where are the customers, mainly men, who fuel this trade? if demand is understood to create supply in a market economy, why don't we crack down more on the men responsible for supporting the sex trade? where are the damning images of men objectifying and exploiting women and children?

as a related issue, i think a large part of the problem around sex work is precisely this constructed view that women sell their bodies, rather than selling sexual services. doctors, massage therapists, and other healthcare workers sell their skills to help people physically, but we never construe their actions in terms of making their bodies available wholesale. what is it about sexual services that connote temporary physical ownership of another? i'm find sexual slavery and forced prostitution abhorrent, but also i think we need to radically revisit our understanding of sex work in the first place, and how that view implicates particular cultural notions of women, bodies, gender, and sexuality.

(thanks to jwz for pointing out some of the images)

leering after girlhood

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Goodbye to Girlhood - As Pop Culture Targets Ever Younger Girls, Psychologists Worry About a Premature Focus on Sex and Appearance
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vinyl and fishnet may be acceptable for the spooky set, but the Post reported this week that, according to researchers from the American Psychological Association, increasing sexualization of young girls contributes to harmful outcomes such as eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression. this kind of alarmist article inevitably incites pricks of trepidation as i read through it. i share the researchers' concern for the impact of marketing and consumerism on young people (both male and female, of a range of ages) -- at best, marketing exploits insecurities about body image, attractiveness, and social self-worth to motivate consumption of products that purport to ameliorate our perceived flaws. consumption practices, moreover, tie into broader schemas of social status, in which accelerated consumption promises to keep us ahead of the latest trend curves to maintain our social position, when fundamentally, the economic system benefits the small minority who hold power in our society.

yet despite my deep reservations about this cycle of marketing and consumption, i remain equally concerned about the kind of moral hyperventilating over girls emulating adult sexuality. the APA researchers appear to be dovetailing Ariel Levy's superficial line of reasoning around "raunch feminism," the notion that pop culture has co-opted feminist values of sex-positivism and female empowerment, regurgitating them into a raunchy obsession with stripper fashion and porn imagery -- pole-dancing classes and waxed nethers, chintzy thongs and salacious baby tees. ever since bobby socks came into fashion, if not earlier, adolescent girls have been clashing with their elders over the sexual propriety of their sartorial choices -- often in collusion with marketers who benefit from selling the image of maturity to young people.

but in examining this issue of girls and "sexualization," we need to look more closely at the ways in which our society tends to project fears about social and sexual reproduction onto young people -- especially young women. while the researchers acknowledged that boys can be targeted as well, social fears about sexual precocity inevitably revolve around girls, whose bodies are far more likely to become objects for control and obsession. in a culture that continually defines women's worth in terms of their appearance and attractiveness, why are we surprised when younger and younger girls are targeted and affected by these messages? and how ironic is it that we sexualize young girls as part of marketing schemes, and at the same time, attempt to punish and control sex offenders more and more harshly. are we really so repulsed by the sexualization of children, or are we continually lured by it?

of course, the liberal media and blogosphere (like Salon's otherwise excellent Broadsheet) just lap up this kind of study with little thought or criticism for the underlying assumptions or methodology.

APA report:

freaky fashion feature

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A Piercing Look At Goth Culture And Fashion -

goth is back in the news media again--not as dangerous, deviant teen cult, but as fashion interest item! The Post has featured Gothic Beauty magazine, a slick goth lifestyle rag that largely conflates "gothic" fashion with busty women in tight corsets and heavy eyeliner, suggesting in the article that contrary to popular image, goth is really very forward-thinking and cutting-edge.

while it's nice to see goth treated a little more fairly in the media, Gothic Beauty offers a rather vapid representation of a subculture that has more going on creatively than implied by photoshoots of women in their undergarments, parading about in tight vinyl and poofy synthetic hair. Gothic Beauty largely propels itself by capitalizing on the sex appeal of its tattooed and pierced models, reducing goth fashion to freaky chicks in skimpy outfits. and as much as i'm in favor of alt models and creative clubwear, i think it does goth and other alternative women a disservice when our aesthetic is exploited for its purely erotic allure (reminds me of a certain quasi-controversial alt porn website...).

for something a little less shiny and more diy, check out Drop Dead Magazine (devoted to deathrock music and fashion, the horror-tinged, punky side of goth). sadly, the days are largely past of goth/industrial magazines that featured both music, fashion, and culture, at least in the US (r.i.p. Carpe Noctem).

as usual, though, the news media still can't quite decide if goths are just edgy, misunderstood artistes, part of the emerging "creative class," or an appropriate trigger for moral panic over loners who obsess over the occult and plot to murder their schoolmates. i suspect that context will reveal some of the disparity -- at times, media outlets are content to exploit the latter trope, dipping into broader social fears about youth to explain some sort of violent act or tragedy, yet the rest of the time, reporters prefer to mine colorful (or monochrome!) subcultures for their value as spectacle. at the risk of proffering an overly simplified explanation, both cases give off more than a whiff of prurient sensationalizing.

a new study, from the Institute for the Obvious...

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i meant to post about this earlier, but apropos of my thoughts on discouraging all women under thirty from having sex, a recent study at Columbia University has demonstrated that yes, access to birth control really does reduce teen pregnancy, moreso than "abstinence" education:

Birth control credited with drop in teen pregnancy�

these results just reinforce my conviction that many on the right are more concerned with unmarried women having sex than with any concerted effort to reduce unwanted pregnancy. as you'll recall, Wade Horn at the Dept. of Health and Human Services suggested advocating abstinence to women aged 19-29, "because more unmarried women in that age group are having children."

yet this new study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, supports what many of us have been arguing for a long time -- consistent access to contraception and sexual health information is a much more effective way to reduce teen (and other unwanted) pregnancy. if reducing unwed pregnancy is the goal of rightwing policymakers, why continue to support abstinence education that clearly doesn't work? unless, of course, that's not really your ultimate intent.

blaming teen girls -- the latest craze!

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While Salon's feminist blog, Broadsheet, has been excellent since its
inception, I wish I could say the same for the rest of their coverage when
it comes to teen girls and young women. In their lastest hand-waving over
those wacky coeds, "Live girl-on-girl action!" Whitney Joiner highlights a
few studies and talks to a few real, live girls and warns us of the dangers
of pseudo-empowerment through sexual manipulation and faux-lesbianism.

Just to step back for a moment, I'm not even sure why this is news -- my
queer friends and I have been complaining for years about women who make out
with other women for male attention, and many have suggested the
connection to male-fantasy lesbianism as portrayed in mainstream porn.

Is this kind of behavior demeaning to straight women and insulting to queer
women? Sure. But why do we automatically blame teen girls for the sex and
gender norms to which we subject them? And how exactly can you qualify "real
desire?" Sex and desire are culturally specific in how we experience them --
who's to say that kissing can only be an expression of "authentic" sexual
desire to be enjoyable? Many girls may only feel safe kissing other girls
for male sexual attention, but does that mean they can't also enjoy it?

Before we get our Playboy-themed thongs in a twist, I think it's worth
pausing for a moment to think about why we respond to these supposed
"trends" the way we do. Perhaps teen girls and young women do perceive less
of a stigma attached to same-sex experimentation, with or without male
voyeurs. Is "staged bisexuality" the problem, or the underlying gender norms
in which women perform for male attention, rather than identifying and
pursuing their own desires?

The broader context here requires examining why young women feel pressured
to attract men, and how exactly they absorb cultural norms about sex. While
faux lesbianism may (or may not) be on the rise, performing gender is
nothing new, and media freak-outs over young women's behavior just
reinforces the tendency to blame girls rather than examine the social
pressures they experience. Sadly, this should come as no surprise in a
society that emphasizes abstinence over informed decisions, punishment for
female sexual expression instead of reproductive rights, and "protection"
from promiscuity
(that dangerous HPV vaccine!) over real empowerment.

"raunch feminism" and popular culture: uncritical feminists gone wild!

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A new book seems to be garnering some attention in the liberal echo chamber lately, a journalistic account by Ariel Levy of New York magazine of the rising prevalence of porn imagery as female empowerment in pop culture.'s Christine Smallwood reviewed Levy's book, and her concept of "raunch feminism," suggesting that feminism has been co-opted for profit (supposedly because feminism has become too all-inclusive and therefore difficult to define). Smallwood, of course, is mainly recapping the gist of the book, and does offer a brief critique, but both she and Levy largely overlook the shifting role of leisure and consumption in contemporary late-capitalist society, which are integral to any interpretation of style or media content.

According to Levy, stripping is now on par with overt political activism. While Levy is right to identify the problematic ways in which sex-positivism has been embraced -- often reproducing existing gender norms rather than challenging them -- she misses how leisure activities and consumption have become the primary means through which people now express (and experience) identity. Is the problem strip parties instead of fighting for reproductive rights, or is it the focus on parties instead of activism?

Take, for instance, adolescent girls and fashion. Smallwood describes the prevalence of teen girls whose thongs peek out over their super-lowrise jeans, wearing baby tees with various cheeky, sexually suggestive messages. Is this proof that teenaged girls have embraced "raunch culture" and are attempting to assert their female empowerment by flaunting sexist imagery? Or are these girls engaged, instead, in a struggle between articulating their own budding identities (and sexuality), the expectations of their parents and the eager attention of marketers? A look at girls and consumerism in American history, for example, reveals how fashion has long been a site where girls attempt to establish their own independence, while their elders fret over the propriety of their consumer choices. Many in our society still feel strongly about what's "age appropriate" for teen girls, invariably invoking criticism and even moral panic when young women seem to exude excessive sexuality or maturity – whether it's makeup and high heels or visible thongs and Playboy logos.

More than a whiff of moral panic envelopes this whole line of thinking, that girls and young women are becoming too trashy, too sexually explicit, too fond of porn, and are therefore dismissing the hard-won gains of political feminism. "A quick glance at the T-shirts" writes Smallwood, "ought to be enough of a clue that all is not well in American mass culture." Of course, it's not that I disagree that sexism is alive and well, and deeply rooted in our culture. It does little to alter the underlying gender dynamics when women assume masculine roles of gazing and consuming images of other women, viewing them as objects rather than subjects with their own agency. Embracing a typically masculine approach to sex and sexuality certainly does not constitute equality, and feminism is not simply about having "choices." But I can't help but suspect that a simplistic, journalistic account of the prevalence of porn in pop culture is going to fail to grasp the broader context.

Unfortunately, Smallwood's review fails to take any of this into account. She critiques Levy for her blindly inclusive understanding of popular culture, focusing primarily on white, middle class women. Smallwood concludes that Levy offers little in the way of providing a solution to the damage supposedly inflicted by the popularity of porn imagery, but concedes that "Levy has done the good work of documenting raunch culture." I haven't read the book itself yet, so I suppose I should refrain from suggesting that Levy has offered a superficial account that is itself a product of pop culture (with a healthy dose of moral worrying). Instead, I should bite the bullet and read the book, so I can offer my own critique. But when the liberal media takes up and touts these easy-to-digest accounts of the decline of feminism and the dangers of teen culture, it only perpetuates an uncritical approach to the role of popular culture in society.

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