Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Can we take it too far?

I tend to agree almost uniformly with the opinions expressed in the feminist blogosphere (with the obvious exception of issues like porn where, even in the most homogeneous community, civil blood makes civil hands unclean). So I always end up a little surprised when I run across a post where I think the author is completely off the mark. They tend to be knee-jerk "blame patriarchy" posts, where I have to wonder if the chip we feminists inevitably carry on our shoulder hasn't gotten a bit too easy to knock off.

Here's a good example: Pandagon's post a couple weeks back on the pixar film, Ratatouille. I'll quote it in full, because it's short.
Ratatouille in brief: a male rodent makes a better French chef than the female human who’s been slaving away at the restaurant for years.
Huh? Let me get this straight. Any film that features a prodigious male character is sexist, just because there are hard-working women out there? Or is it only if it also features the struggles of a woman in a male-dominated profession? Feminist critics of Ratatouille who point out that, for example, all the rats in the film were male are on better ground. But the suggestion that every film about a male-dominated profession kowtows to patriarchy unless it has a female lead seems like holding the good hostage to the perfect, especially when the film in question goes out of its way to draw attention to gender inequalities. (The comments section of that post is a good read, especially if you're interested in the Ayn Rand connection to Brad Bird's movies).

The recent example of knee-jerk patriarchy blaming that I came across was one of bean's posts on LGM, about a new clothing line for women in labor. Weird? Sure. Oppressive? Bean thinks so:
The end result is to focus attention on women's appearances and to continue their sexualization....I mean, if a woman still has to worry about her appearance when pushing a bowling ball through her vagina, what hope is there for us to escape an appearance-focused sexualizing and objectifying society?
This line of thought is deeply troubling for me, because it assumes that women's clothing is inherently sexualizing and androcentric. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought that was the argument made by rape apologists—"She was wearing attractive clothing, and there's only one thing that can mean." Now, I'm not an expert, being a man, but every straight woman I have ever heard from on the subject of clothes has told me that she dresses in attractive clothing for herself, not for men who might look at her.

We can't have it both ways. Either clothing inherently says something about sex (EDIT: and can only possibly say something about sex), in which case women who dress provocatively are responsible for harassment and men control yet another sphere of women's lives, or clothing is personal, in which case there's nothing wrong with someone wanting to look good (and consequently feel good) during what is otherwise a pretty stressful time. I'd much rather live in world two, and I think it checks out with the way most women see the way they dress.

What do we do about unreasonable patriarchy blaming? I'd certainly rather we blame patriarchy for too much than too little, and interrogating systems of power is never a bad thing. Except that I suspect that taking unreasonable stances alienates people from feminism, and feminism doesn't need any bad press that it deserves—it gets enough already that it don't deserve. We should be careful not to become wingnuts—even if something's really bad, it isn't responsible for all bad ever. And, as the folks at Pandagon did, we should remind each other to pick the right battles: there are plenty out there.


Anonymous said...

I came from Feministe self-promotion, and had to comment to say that I do not understand this post AT ALL. How exactly, does acknowledging that women's clothing has a meaning linked to the sexual objectification of women make women "responsible" for street harassment? Did I read that right?

In my opinion there is nothing contradictory about the fact that women dress in clothes they think make them look attractive to feel good about themselves and the fact that women are expected to dress attractively to look good for men. One of the REASONS you feel good when you look good is because people respond to you differently, and because you have internalized the idea that looking good is important.

None of this makes women "responsible" for street harassment. Even if clothing is conveying messages (and who can deny the fact that wearing a suit sends a different message than wearing sweat pants?) that doesn't mean that women should be "responsible" for the fact that some men will interpret their choice as an invitation to harassment.

I think some of your posts were interesting, and like reading male feminist perspectives, but I just don't get this post at all.

Will said...

Let's get this out of the way: I certainly did not mean that women are, in any situation, responsible for street harrassment. They aren't, ever. I meant that the logic behind that thinking and the thinking in bean's post seemed to me to be the same.

Bean's argument, best I could follow it, was that any women's clothing that isn't completely utilitarian is inherently objectifying and the decision to wear it is an entirely androcentric decision. That argument seems to be the same argument that rape- and harrassment-apologists use: "she knew what she was doing when she put that dress on."

My point is that, if we assume that "women dress in clothes they think make them look attractive to feel good about themselves," there's nothing wrong with producing or wearing designer clothes for labor. You're right that clothing is much more complicated than that, but I don't think those complications make a difference to this specific post as long as we acknowledge that there are reasons women wear nice clothes other than to impress men.

Clothing does convey messages, but bean's argument seemed to be that those messages are always and unavoidably sexual and male-centered. That seemed like assigning patriarchy more reach than it has.

Kaan said...

Will, I think you're right to point out that Pixar made the effort to draw attention to the gender inequalities that make culinary professions male-dominated. As a Feminist male, it's always a joy to see movies (so powerful in their influence on the public) create powerful female personas via pertinent skills (such as the ability to cook, or in this case, teach the puppet character and Remy how to properly cook), and not via the more ambiguously empowering female sexuality--in other words, a solidly 2nd wave feminist heroine (in that she has risen to her otherwise male-dominated job through otherwise male-dominated aggression, assertiveness, and "cold" thoroughness).

Things start to become contraversial again, however, when she fulfills the romantic expectation. Instead of macing his clumsy ass, she gives into the kiss manipulated by Remi. I am, to be clear, not saying that women allow themselves to be dominated by men by giving into their kisses. Just like clothing, sexual contact is not necessarily degrading, or inherently socially sexualized, or a clear request to be used for a man's pleasure. And clearly she does not lose her 2nd wave assertiveness when talking to the press later in the movie: "I hate to be rude, but, we're French!"

Quoting, however, her first speech to the puppet character: "I have worked too hard for too long to get here, and I am not going to jeopardize it for some garbage boy who got lucky!" The thing is, he does get lucky! A dork (if you'll pardon the hierarchizing jargon) falls into a romantic relationship with the otherwise ballbuster. How often do we see this in commercials (like for AXE deodorant) where "hot" women attack (in a sexual, often animalized manner) a plain-looking, near-bum guy? My point is not that Collete's romantic persona is essentially problematic, or actively represents a society in which men dominate women, but that it passively fulfills the expectation that she wants a boyfriend--that it's common, and therefore, at least passively expected.

Do we know the actual quality of their relationship? Not really. I feel that if Pixar goes the distance to draw attention to gender inequalities, it can perhaps go the distance to develop the quality of her romantic choice. Maybe she's bi-sexual. Maybe she dresses him in women's clothing after work and paints his toe-nails crimson before they gorge each other on Doritos corn chips and large pizzas and then pass out in a ecstatic bed death (fa-la la!). My point is that if Pixar couldn't conceivably have fit this into the movie, it's because these issues should involve entire movies by themselves. We shape and are shaped by culture; I just want to see a movie that challenges female roles multi-facetedly, and preferably without backlash...

Finally, I have a problem with Pixar's "cultural relativist" conclusion. Up until the end, the movie does an admirable job showing how humans' prejudices of rats allegorically precludes the trans-ethnic conversations that develop societies for the better (as Remy's vision of ratatouille is evidence of). At the end, however, the rats have a restaurant separate from the human's. Separate but equal. This might sound familiar. Some might argue that there are hygienic limitations to the interactions between rats and humans, but this line of thought seems to share a border with biological justification for separate but equal. This is clearly problematic. How hard would it have been to show rat table settings next to human's? How hard is it to grasp that a clean rat is of no harm to human codes of health? Anti-globalizating, transnational feminist solidarity is disappointed, to say the least.

Will said...

My point is that if Pixar couldn't conceivably have fit this into the movie, it's because these issues should involve entire movies by themselves.
They don't? Have you seen Short Bus?

I think you're falling into the same trap pandagon does—you are trying to write a different movie, one with expressly political themes. That makes as much sense as criticising Ratatouille for not being enough like Citizen Kane They're both good movies, but where's the opportunity cost to having them both exist? Sure, there could be a movie where Linguini is a Paris-famous drag queen and Colette pegs him on the nights where she's not with another woman. Is that a childrens' movie? Absolutely not—not because of the queer themes, but because of the sexual themes. We don't know anything about their sex life, vanilla, queer, or non-existent. We also don't know much about their relationship, except for what's implied through their behavior. There is a bunch implied through their behavior, enough to justify Colette's decision to return at the end, and her decision not to mace him. But at the end of the day, the movie is about Remy, and their relationship is important mostly to the extent that it defines Remy's character. I don't think that's a weakness of the movie, it's just a concise choice of whose story to tell.