Friday, 6 July 2012

Spiderman and women

Hey, it's been a bit of a while, but I finally have something worth posting.  I went to see a movie a couple of days ago which I would not have normally seen -- Spiderman.  In 3D no less.  I'm not so big on superhero movies, I find the trite plots and strong patriotic overtones a little overbearing, but I enjoyed it more than I expected.  I also failed to notice the obligatory American flag, although I'm sure it's there somewhere.

An example of the cheesy nationalism I was so glad to not see.  As an absence of something is quite difficult to depict, I've taken an alternative approach

The failure of my predicted frustration to eventuate was to a large part due to the work done on creating a relatively three dimensional love interest in Gwen who manages to have (shock, horror) interests beyond dating the hero.  Gwen is an exceptionally talented science student who has managed to secure a position as head intern at the prestigious institution researching cross species genetics which is so key to the plot of the movie.

Emma Stone, looking clever, having interests

I won't spoil the ending for you, but Gwen has a major role to play in the last 20 minutes of the movie and it's not just keeping the hero's spirits up with a quick smooch or anxiety inducing damsel in distress routine.

However, other elements are not so great.  In particular, Emma never speaks to another woman.  What's this got to do with anything, you ask?  The Bechdel test is a way of assessing, on a large, industry wide scale, the state of the representation of women on film and tv.  It was first enunciated by Alison Bechdel in her comic Dykes to Watch out For, and to the surprise of everyone involved, became a major sensation.

The test is simple:
(1) Does it have more than one women in it?
(2) Do they talk to each other?
(3) When they talk, do they talk about something other than a man?

I could go into more detail at this point, but this ground has been covered before.

The number of movies which do not pass this test is astonishing and indicative of the deep, pervasive and continuing influence of the patriarchy on our society.  A running tally is kept here, but the site appears to be down for maintenance at the moment.  However, a more meaningful analysis might involve looking at a list of recent Oscar winners, or the IMDb top 250.  Melissa Silverstein argues that the Oscar nominees skew more white, conservative and middle class than the majority of movies actually produced, but a list of the movies celebrated by society for their artistic merit holds some significance nonetheless.

There are a number of factors at work in creating a world where we are not telling the stories of women, or including their voices in the stories of people and events.  I would like to briefly discuss two: tokenism and being defined in relation to men, and not as independent actors.


Where women appear on screen, they are outnumbered by their male counterparts.  This is obvious not only in the Avengers poster, where the Black Widow's fetching pose makes a sharp contrast with her fellow heroes' fight-ready stances, but also in that sacred institution of young adult plotlines, the boy-boy-girl trio.
Harry Potter
The Famous Five

Eustace, Edmund, Lucy and Caspian in Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Sure I could cite isolated examples where the opposite is true, such as the original Buffy - Willow - Xander scooby gang, or the four Pevensie children in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, butt the boy-boy-girl grouping is incredibly pervasive.

Relation to plot

Another area where movies commonly fall down in relation to women, is in linking them strongly to the plot.  In Spiderman I counted five women with speaking roles: Parker's Mum, Aunt May, Gwen, a teacher and a secretary at Oscorp.  It is notable that two of these women actually have their relationship with the main character designated in their names.  That is not to say that the caring work they do is any less valid, but that their relationship to the actual plot is peripheral at best.  They are not fellow fighters, police officers or scientists.  They are not depicted as engaging with the world at large, but with the hero in particular.

Given that their characters are related to the plot only as support characters to the main male plot drivers, it makes sense that they are only depicted in relation to the male characters.  Parker's Mum never spoke to Aunt May about her fears and apprehensions about what might happen to her, just about Peter's vegetable intake.  Aunt May missed a wonderful opportunity to make Gwen squirm in that special way only meeting the parents can do.  Gwen's relationship with her mother is never mentioned and she seems to have no friends other than Peter.

But answering this question also means asking about the women who aren't there.  The women who have no relation to the main male characters and who are therefore superfluous.  About the female research scientists and the fifty percent of the population who weren't recruited as extras into the NYPC in Spiderman world.  It's about asking why the rude clerk in the convenience store was male and not female, why Gwen has no friends, why the male bully was beating up another boy.  Was a conscious decision made to not have women in these roles, or did unconscious prejudice take lead when a conscious decision was NOT made?

Of course, conscious decision must obviously have been made to result in the endless stream of rom coms about women married to their jobs who need to be saved from endless monotony and a frustration of their maternal and feminine instincts by the right man.  This needs to stop

If any progress is to be made, it is not enough that directors, screen writers and producers refrain from deliberately enforcing the status quo, we need active support for stronger female characters, and more of them, so that they can be directly involved in important plot points.

Since I've come out and started embracing my identity as a queer woman, I have found myself reaching out for representations of people like me in the media, a lack of which I did not know I felt before I first fulfilled it.  This makes me even more aware of what the scarcity of three dimensional female roles and role models in the movies and on our tvs must mean for the girls and women who grow up surrounded by it.  Not seeing yourself on the screen or in books affects your ability to dream, to imagine who you might become.  And dreams are important.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

In her own words

I've finished!

I'm so sorry if I'm alienating some of you, your whole fucking culture alienates me
They call it climbing, we call it visibility, they call it coolness, we call it visibility, they call it way to rowdy, we call it finally free!
When she talks, I hear the revolution, in her hips, there's revolutions, when she walks I hear the revolution coming, in her kiss, I taste the revolution
The Sylvia Plath story is told to girls who write, they want us to think that to be a girl poet means that you have to die
Hey do you believe there's anything beyond troll-guy reality?
I believe in the radical nature of pleasure babe
You're a big girl now, you've got no reason not to fight; you've got to know what they are before you can fight for your rights.  Rights?  Rights? You DO have rights! (unfinished in this image)

And pride of place: Rebel girl she is the queen of my world
I'm so excited to have finished this awesome project, however I'm already thinking about my next one.  I'm planning to do a series about women who write and are awesome.  As I mentioned last time, Virginia Woolf is high on my list of awesome women who write, but I've been unable to think of the right quotes to put with it.  Instead I've decided to go with Gertrude Stein and an apt metaphor my English teacher used of her work being a coded window into her life with Alice.

The image I'm starting with is this one:

Surprisingly, this looks pretty awesome when run through a pattern maker: (10 colours, 150x120 st)

I probably won't fill in the background completely, but instead will have words spilling out from underneath the billowing curtain.  I'm also considering putting a rose (or three) in a vase by the right window, or maybe in a window box.  I'll be rereading "Tender Buttons" for the quotes.

My other project is less difficult: I found this awesome pattern in an etsy store for a image which says "Tardis, sweet tardis"  It's going to be perfect for a Dr Who obsessed friend's 21st which is coming up.  I like the idea of reappropriating the trite phrase as well.

Because I stumbled across an awesome border pattern by Rayna of Radical Cross stitch this week, I've decided to use that as the border instead.  The free pattern is on the Radical Cross Stitch facebook site.    I've been playing around with the demo version of WinStitch pattern maker, and this is what I've smushed together: 

The writing is rather small -- I might move the tardis over a bit and do cross stitch letters rather than just reproducing the existing pattern.

So that's what I've been up to, that and exams, which explains my quiet presence on the internet this week.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

"Radical feminist" agendas and silencing women's voices

"This Vatican's been busy fighting American nuns hard this year, claiming that they'd broken completely from the Church and were promoting a "radical feminist agenda." To be fair, though, everything that isn't directly in line with the Church's teachings is a "radical feminist agenda," according to the Church. But when I read "radical," I like to think of it like how the Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles meant it as a synonym for "totally cool." Imagining Pope Benedict flashing a thumbs up and telling American nuns that they're way awesome/tubular makes this whole saga less headache-inducing."
Erin Gloria Ryan writing for Jezebel

This has got to be one of the best responses ever to women being incorrectly labelling as radical feminists in an attempt to silence them.

I notice this happening a lot.  The socially conservative vice president of gender and sexuality of my student union once wrote in the union newsletter that one of the goals of her term was to reclaim the women's room from the "radical feminists."  I believe she meant lesbians, there being no active feminist group on campus until she tried to squash them out.  Does the non-feminist contingent of the world struggle to grasp that radical feminism is the name of a separate form of feminism as opposed to a more militant variety of garden variety feminism (if such a thing exists)?  

This reminds me of a ploy the same union ran when they faced a protest against their corruption: they ran flyers alleging that the protest (actually organised by a centre left group) was a protest by the radical Socialist Alternative (socialist is not a pejorative term in Australian politics) against bans on whaling (thereby ensuring that not even the environmentalists would attend).  Knock off the straw man arguments please?  On this side of the fence we are capable of mature and well reasoned arguments.  Grow up.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

At the intersection of cross stitch and feminism

Here's some pics of my finished and in progress cross stitch pieces.

"Feminist rage is not a finite resource -- there is enough for all the doomed rebellions"
Inspired by a quote from Twisty at
I like this quote because it seems to be such an apt response to that ever present question -- "you think you have it bad?  What about Afghani women?"  I also enjoyed applying a very feminine skill to those very angry words "feminist rage," it seemed delightfully ironic.  I'm not sure what to do with it yet -- I made it with a scrap of fabric and it's not really an easy shape to use.

As I said under the picture, I was inspired by a quote I read over at iblamethepatriarchy.  I always used to be fairly ambivalent about radical feminism, but some recent stories of members of online radical feminist communities engaging in transphobic bullying, my ambivalent respect for their doctrinal purity has been replaced with a firm belief that the exclusive nature of their feminism does not represent any doctrine I can support.

The font chart I used is from here and I used a slightly fancier edging stitch than normal.  I found the instructions at stitch school, where it's called up and down button hole stitch

Here are another couple of pics which include the edges which are cut off in the frame above -- the pitfall of scanning images in rather than taking pictures is that what you gain in lighting and clarity is lost in the strictness of the A4 size of the image.

My other finished project is not explicitly feminist, but I chose to believe that subverting traditionally feminine forms of craft can be an implicitly feminist activity.
The pattern is not mine and can be purchased here
The Futhark is an ancient Norse alphabet.  It's a phonetic alphabet and was used by a variety of cultures for quite a significant period of time.  The name is the sounds of the first six letters (fehu, uruz, thurisaz, ansuz, radio and kenaz).  The third letter of the alphabet, thurisaz, was used in mediaeval English until the invention of the printing press, when it became cheaper to use separate "t"s and "h"s than the single letter thorn, as it was called during this time.

I decided to do this because I liked the idea of stitching something a little bit shocking.  In this I'm following the lead of Julie at subversive cross stitch.  I like how geometric the designs looked.  Counted embroidery and runes go quite well together, probably because things designed to be carved into rocks and bone have fewer of those pesky curves which are so difficult to stitch.

My current project is something I've talked about on here before: a cross stitched project of Kathleen Hanna, surrounded by her own words (alphabet chart here).  Here's a progress shot.

I'm so sorry if I'm alienating some of you, your whole #@%*ing culture alienates me

They call it climbing, we call it visibility! They call it coolness, we call it visibility! They call it way to rowdy, we call it finally free!

When she talks, I hear the revolution; in her hips, there's revolutions; when she walks, the revolution's coming; in her kiss, I taste the revolution! (in progress).

... More text to come.
Normally, I'm not massively fond of my own work, but something about this fascinates me.  I don't think I'll be able to give it away when I'm finished!

There's still got plenty more to be stitching round the edge, but I'm already thinking of making a companion piece.  The most famous image of Virginia Woolf is a black and white photo, which I would like to reproduce using backstitched letters instead of cross stitch.  My idea is to delineate the areas of her face and then use different coloured threads to backstitch the one large quote across the whole expanse, starting with her mouth for instance, and then the quote restarting in her eye.

My other option is to do something in the same manner as the Kathleen Hanna portrait -- cross stitch the face and then embroider the words around the outside.  I'm tempted because I really like how that looks to be turning out, but another part of me sees something really confrontingly true about Virginia Woolf drowning, almost, in her own words.  Confronting images in a ironically domestic setting is part of my modus operandi with this project, so that bears some looking into.

I would do it in blue or sepia tones, I think, but this is a while away yet -- I probably won't start until after exams.  I've still got to finalise the most important detail: which quote to use!  I'm a massive Woolf fan, so trawling through her vast body of work will be a pleasure, but choosing a difficult task.

That's all for now, but I will keep posting as I get more words out on the Kathleen Hanna portrait and get closer to finalising the plan for the Woolf portrait

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Hey gorgeous, nice tits!

The first time I tried talking about street harassment with a male friend, he told me that he would be flattered by the attention.  This sort of stymied me, because I couldn't agree with him, but didn't have the words to describe how being the subject of street harassment feels.  That experience prompted me to consider precisely why street harassment is more than just compliments from strangers.

What is street harassment, I hear you ask? It's catcalls, and compliments yelled from passing cars, whistles directed at 14 year old girls and 40 year old women alike.  It's feeling nervous when walking down the hill from my school at night because of the one time there was a group of teen-aged boys leaning nonchalantly on the fence by the tennis courts.  The inevitable hoots (and less inevitable but still depressingly common offers from passing drunks to be the man in a lesbian sandwich) when two women are seen holding hands in public.  I could go on.

At its mildest, street harassment reminds me that I do not belong on the streets.  Being told to smile, having the driver of a passing car yell out "nice tits," or "show us your map of Tasmania" (which is apparently a thing), or feeling the need to stare intensely at the pavement as I pass a construction site, reminds me that I am there on sufferance.  It is not my place. It's the feeling that not even my body is mine.

The idea that any woman volunteers for this sort of treatment by wearing a low cut top or a sexy red dress has been shot down many times.

Too many times, street harassment is also just plain scary.  Fortunately for me, my experiences rank towards the lower end of normal; I've never seen a man jerk off while staring creepily at my face, or rub against me in a crowded train.  One time I was riding my bike, just around the corner from my home in a suburban area, and a car full of young men slowed down behind me.  [Its reflective of how we talk about street harassment that I initially described my outfit here].  I didn't look behind me at first, but when I reached the end of the road, where I had to turn right (across the traffic here in Australia), they were still there. When I stopped, waiting for them to pass me so I could turn, they stopped too.  They called out to me, winding down the window, and the man in the front passenger seat opened his door and started putting his foot on the ground. I don't remember what they said, or their faces, but I remember his foot very clearly.  I just bolted.  I swung my bike round, cut in front of the car and started pedalling furiously for home.

"Man getting out of car" does not bring up masses of intimidating images, funnily enough.  

A week later, I had a similar, although less scary experience.  I was on my way to uni, on my bike.  I came to a stop in front of a set of traffic lights, where a line of cars were also waiting.  As is my habit, I waited for the lights to change just in front of the leading car, and was off the minute the lights changed, my torso low to the handlebars and my legs pumping to accelerate quickly from a low-ish gear.  The temptation proved too much for the driver and passengers of the white sedan which had been next to me at the lights, and they started cheering and hooting.  I was so incensed I kept pace with them until I had to turn off onto a side road, trying to work out what I could yell back which would convey how unsafe and objectified they'd made me feel.  I couldn't think of anything.

I bet she's tired of  street harassment too.

Interestingly, this image was illustrating a post on a conservative American blog about the rising price of petrol.  
My next experience took place while overseas in France, and probably falls more under stalking than harassment, but I'll post it here regardless.  I was heading out to Versailles to see the famous palaces, and successfully navigated buying a regional train ticket and finding the right platform.  I wasn't sure, so I struggled though asking someone on the platform if I was in the right place or not in my then meagre French. He said I was, and asked me where I was from.  We were in the midst of a relatively pleasant conversation when my train arrived.  Unfortunately, it was also his train, and when I unthinkingly took the window seat, he sat down on the aisle, blocking off my escape route.  The journey took roughly 45 minutes, and what where at first relatively innocuous questions about my travels so far and my home country began to get more ... uncomfortably serious.  He asked me if I had a boyfriend, and I responded that I was single but gay, and really-seriously-not-kidding-this-time-not-interested.  The questions continued in this vein for some time.  It was only when I got off at Versailles that I realised that he had stayed on the train past his stop.  He had to go buy another ticket to get out, so I took my chance and powered on ahead, although he caught me up when I stopped to ask for directions.  He asked me to lunch, and continued to walk beside me.  I debated telling him to stop following me, but thought that he would not be willing to pay the museum admission fee.  He was.  By this point I was revising my French phrases, desperately trying to remember if I knew how to say that I was being followed.  I told him to go away in English and French, but he pretended not to understand.  Eventually, I came up with a crafty plan -- I said that I needed to go to the bathroom, and we set off to find the restrooms.  Once there, surprise surprise, there was a queue for the ladies, which I joined.  He rounded the corner to the gents and as soon as he was out of sight I took off for an exhibit on 18th Century horticulture, sure that it would be the last place I'd be likely to bump into him.
I actually quite enjoy looking at stuff like this, and learnt interesting things about the introduction of the potato and tomato to France, but I still wish I'd been comfortable returning to the royal chambers

A similar event happened in Lyon two weeks later.  I was walking down the street, and a man smoking in a doorway called out to me.  When I didn't respond to French, he switched to English and started walking beside me, asking me to go get a drink with him.  I was clearly uncomfortable, and again kept moving and making minimal responses.  He followed me to the train station where I was going to buy a ticket for a trip to Marseilles that weekend.  I did not want him to know the details of my travel plans, so I gave him a phone number.  My dad's Australian mobile number, without an area code.  Maybe this was a bit of a bitchy thing to do, but just two weeks previously I'd felt very threatened by a man following me who would not take no for an answer, and I worried that if I said no this time, he would continue to bug me.  Also: the fact that I DID feel threatened, should have been enough to make him back off, whether my feelings were justified or not.

So what hope is left in the world, now that men cannot hit on women in the streets?

This advice is nothing if not equal opportunity.

To answer this question, I spent a long time looking for a blog post I remember reading last year, which was written in response to Rebecca Watson of Skepchick's story of feeling threatened by a man asking her up to his room after a short conversation in a hotel elevator, which went viral after Richard Dwarkins posted a highly demeaning and sexist response.   I found a whole pile of other really interesting responses, but I think I was thinking about this blog post by PZ Meyers of Pharyngula about how Decent Human Beings hit on strangers.  His point was that asking a woman up to your room for coffee in an elevator  does not give a woman a graceful way to refuse and is insensitive to the legitimate anxiety she may have about being alone in an elevator with a man.  In another post on the same topic he suggests that the sceptical reader google "elevator rape," and consider it is a moment where a woman is actually, physically, unable to get away.  I am happy to take his word that the images are brutal and numerous.  He suggests strategies like giving a woman your number rather than asking for hers, creating opportunities for her to gracefully decline and watching for her reaction, ready to back off if she looks nervous.

She looks to be having fun, even though her escape route is cut off.  It all depends on context.

Also, is anyone else freaked out by tanned-guy's hair?

I have one good story to share: I was at an ice rink with some friends who'd come up with the crazy idea of going skating while in formal wear.  One of the better skaters slid up next to me partway through the evening to say that I looked lovely.  It was awkward, largely because he was obviously nervous, and skated away immediately, and because I'm bad at accepting compliments (I once completely cut the cute girl I'd been talking to all night when she asked for my number, because I was so shocked.  Fortunately I got her number from a mutual friend once I'd had a chance to think about it and rectified the damage), but his compliment did not make me feel unsafe, or like an object.  He didn't call out "nice tits" while racing past, or put me in a situation where I had no graceful exit.  Copy this.

I believe this is a problem we can solve by talking about it loudly, please share your stories in the comments.

PS: I really can't say anything on this topic without linking to this article by Annika of Transgender Express at Autostraddle.  It's a fascinating analysis of the male gaze, not least because Annika's life experiences have allowed her to see the phenomenon from both sides of the street.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Rebellious cross stitch

My current project is a cross stitched image of Kathleen Hanna.

I turned it into a cross stitch pattern at, and am planning to add text to the final image.  Here's a few of the quotes I've gathered:

I believe in the radical possibilities of pleasure, babe.

Rebel girl she is the queen of my world.

Art revolves around creating something that isn't there

You learn that the only way to get rockstar power as a girl is to be a groupie and bare your breasts and get chosen for the night.  We learn that the only way to get anywhere is through men.  And that is a lie

I need a short quote to go on her shirt, and more to go around the perimeter.  Any suggestions?

Complicating matters is the fact that I live at home, and my father views my feminism as personally antagonistic to him.  It's not, but  I value my relationship with him enough to try not to antagonise him.  This means that "I believe in the radical possibilities of pleasure, babe"; the quote which inspired me to undertake the project, will probably be relegated to the border.  Fortunately, he's never listened to Rebel Girl, so my allusion will not be obvious.


Saturday, 19 May 2012

Lesbian feminist or feminist and lesbian?

I'm fond of saying that everyone should be a feminist, because everyone either is a woman, loves a woman, is queer* or all three; which is why lesbians make such good feminists.  When I told my friend B this, she saw right to the heart of the matter, and asked if I had a girlfriend.  Astute friends like that make coming out easy.

I'm not a lesbian because I'm a feminist, and I'd always presumed the contrary was true as well; but B made me think about the link.  Am I a feminist because I am a lesbian?

Six months earlier I'd been expounding on a feminist point with another group of friends, and K asked me, whether, being a feminist, I was also a lesbian.  I denied this with the fervour of the still-in-denial-but-slowly-watching-my-certainty-fray-at-the-edges self-closetee.  Looking back two years later, I know I was wrong about me being straight, but was I also wrong in saying that there is no link between being a woman loving woman and fighting for gender equality?

Lesbians experience the power of the patriarchy in real terms.  Sex without men baffles a society which is deeply uncomfortable with female sexuality, and society's response may be seen in the prevalence of girl on girl porn and erotica for male consumption -- it functions as a way of bringing men into an act in which they are otherwise absent.  The pop culture norm of performative and male centred lesbianism is something that lesbians encounter regularly in jokes, but also in the inevitable straight man at the gay bar, looking for hot threesome action/creepy staring.

See what I did there?
The fact that women earn less than men,  even after factoring in pregnancy and children, has a greater impact in a household made up of two women.
[see for a persuasive breakdown of the American pay gap.  I can't be bothered looking up the Australian stats tonight, but last I saw they were pretty similar]

Gender studies classes are commonly prescribed methods of meeting girls.

Gay women may find it easier than straight women to live out feminist relationships, and are less likely to dismiss sexist behaviour with a fond, "boys will be boys."

Not only this, but while straight women might linger at the dangle-the-toes-in stage of feminism for fear of being labelled a lesbian, lesbian and bi women are more likely to jump right in upon hearing that lesbians await the intrepid voyager into feminism.

This last was probably what snatched my interest.

I was 14 or 15 the first time I called myself a feminist.  I had no idea that my ideal family structure would involve two substandard female paychecks.  I was largely unaware of the extreme objectification of the female form in lesbian sex as packaged to straight men.  I had no reasonable prospects of meeting gay ladies by venturing into feminism, did not know that I might even desire to.  But something in my adolescent brain started jumping around excitedly when I discovered the idea of lesbian feminists.  Something caught my eye, so to speak.  Inspired me to take a closer look.

My mother told us about lesbians when my sister and I were 9 and 10.  Someone had slung the word at my sister at school, and on the way home that day she asked what it meant.  Mum told us that gay means happy, and that homosexuals adopted it because people were insulting them and they wanted a word that described, but did not insult them.  She told us that our uncles T and D were gay, and that women could be gay too.  She didn't make it sound exciting.

There was absolutely no mention of this:

I immediately dismissed the possibility that I might be gay; I wasn't special or lucky.  I'd never be able to be so cool as to be an actual lesbian.  I'd just be a wanna-be lesbian feminist.

But I could be a feminist, and I got right on to that. 

So, maybe, my early feminism was a result of seduction by the sexy, sexy lesbians; sure, elements of my personal situation heighten my awareness of the patriarchy, and empower me to act on that awareness.  But largely I am a feminist (who happens to be a lesbian) and not a lesbian feminist.

*I see links between feminist causes and LGBT rights causes beyond any incidental alliances.