Tag Archives: women

Beards and Armpits: The Tired Sexism of the Walking Dead

walking dead sexism

The Walking Dead, like any show, has its problems. While it is one of the most diverse shows on television, many have criticized its revolving door of people of color: killing one off before adding the next, as if having too many non-white people onscreen at one time would be too much. And while there are lots of women onscreen—including women of color: Michonne kicks ass as well as kicking the ass of stereotyped writing—there is another small thing that continues to irk me when I tune in every Sunday.

Rick, Darryl, and the other dudes look fit for an apocalypse: their scruffy faces get scruffier every season, and flashbacks to the smooth-faced Sherriff Rick of Season 1 are almost shocking in their stark difference. It’s an effective plot device, really; a way of illustrating both the passage of time and the ways in which priorities/capabilities have changed. In last night’s episode, Rick finally says the title, admitting, “We are the walking dead.” And it’s true, they are. They collectively stagger down the road, zombie and living alike, both men and women: dirty, bedraggled, and weather-beaten. So why then, if the dudes are forced to wander the ruins of the United States with Castaway beards, do the ladies have underarms as smooth as Baby Judith’s cheek?

It’s a small beef, I know, but one that is repeated in too many post-apocalyptic, science fiction, and dystopian films to go unnoticed. BuzzFeed made a hilarious listicle last year cataloging the ridiculousness: 12 Female Characters Who Keep Shaving Despite Constant Peril. And it is ridiculous, the notion that with death around every corner, women would still take the time to slip away to the bathroom and shave their armpits. In last night’s episode of Walking Dead the group couldn’t even find water. You mean to tell me the women not only shaved—but dry shaved? No. I can’t believe that. I don’t think any woman would be that desperate.

This ridiculous hairlessness is confounding considering the lengths the show goes to be convincing in other aspects of the zombie apocalypse: sickness, zombie gore, hunger, violence. It’s bizarre that a show with a scope as wide as The Walking Dead’s can imagine many things, but women with armpit hair is not one of them.

Part of this problem is the writers: I could find reference to only three women writers in a list of over twenty credited for The Walking Dead. Much has been written about the mixed results of male writers penning female characters, and we see the results in the media we consume every day: female characters who are unrelatable and lacking in complexity…who shave their armpits during the zombie apocalypse. This is part of the reason so many—myself included—have latched on to Shonda Rhimes#TGIT shows: women! Complex women! Relatable, diverse women! It’s an oasis in a dry desert of missed marks.

But it’s not just the male writers, of course. Even many female writers wouldn’t stop and think, “Hey wait, the women should be fuzzier.” Our culture informs our media, and in a culture that both infantilizes and sexualizes women, it’s unsurprising that no one would consider the absence of body hair: we’re so used to its erasure (in advertising, in film, in television) that its absence is somewhat realistic: women don’t have body hair, we’re told. So when it’s missing—even in the most unlikely scenarios—we don’t even notice.

It’s disturbing that women in other realities (dystopian, post-apocalyptic, or sci-fi)—stories of which, unfortunately, are few and far between—are subject to the same sanitization that women in our own sexist world are. In the past I’ve written about the limits of the white imagination when it comes to imagining characters of color in fictional worlds, and the same is true for the collective imagination when it comes to women: our imaginations are stunted by the -isms of our time.

Perhaps this is why there are so few stories—books and film—that tell the stories of women and people of color in worlds beyond our own. The future, it seems, belongs mostly to white men, another reflection of the values we see in our day-to-day realities. Whether the scenario is alien invasion, zombie apocalypse, or government-gone-mad, the story tends to center on white men, with everyone else in their role rotating around them in their “proper place.” Hairless women. One black character killed off to be replaced by another. Would it be a stretch to point out that Glen in The Walking Dead is the least bearded of the men in the cast, a reminder of the traditional emasculation of Asian men in American media? Maybe. Maybe not. But it’s something to notice.

This is why I never stop hunting for science fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction that gives a glimpse at another vision of the future. Kenyan short film Pumzi is one. Upcoming sci-fi romance out of Ethiopia Crumbs is another. Anything by Nnedi Okorafor. Anything by Octavia Butler. Chang-rae Lee’s recent book On Such a Full Sea. There are others, but there are not enough.

Our sexism (and racism) is ingrained in us. It permeates the stories we tell and how we imagine the future. Many have called the apocalypse—in whatever form it arrives in—“the great equalizer.” The thing that brings all of humankind together against the thing that threatens our survival. But when I look at many of the stories we have that tell the story of our future—sci-fi or speculative—too many of them look just like the past.

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On Women, Friendship, and Ass-Kicking in Fiction

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Do you remember my piece about isolationism in American media? In it, I wrote about the way Hollywood takes characters of color and isolates them on screen and in the imagining of their character, effectively tokenizing them and driving home the message of solitary existence. Those characters are cut off from other characters of color, making them more easily dominated by the white characters onscreen. We know the same thing is happening with female characters. I wrote about the Bechdel test in that same post and the way women in Hollywood rarely interact with one another onscreen, making female bonding impossible.

Well, the same thing is being done in popular fiction, and I’m sick of it.

For one, I’m sick of the focus of relationship-building in books like The Hunger Games being on romance over friendship. At this point, the genre of Young Adult Fiction should just be called Young Adult Romance. Sure, Katniss kicks ass. But where are her bonds with female characters? Yes, there are her sister and Rue (briefly) but the majority of the series focuses on the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale. And don’t even get me started on Twilight. Bella Swan kicks far less ass (far, far less ass) than Katniss, and the relationship between Bella and Edward’s sparkly behind is weird and unhealthy. Even in Harry Potter—which I hate to slander—the brilliant Hermione Granger doesn’t have any real girlfriends. Harry and Ron are it, and one of them is a love interest. And what about adult books? 50 Shades of Grey? Don’t even get me started.

What’s happening to female friendship in fiction? It scares me that it’s going the way of the dodo in the face of popular romantic plotlines, in which the only important relationships are the ones in which sex is involved. Hermione Granger was smart and no-nonsense, but she was alone. It is not enough to simply have one dynamic female character. There must be many. They must talk to each other. Otherwise, we are teaching young readers (and adult readers) that strong women exist alone, in competition and at odds with other women. “You can kick ass,” we tell them. “You can take on the world. But you’re gonna be kicking ass by yourself.” The books that have resonated with me throughout my life—and, indeed, the ones that have shaped the person I am—aren’t like that. They’re books like Sula, The Color Purple, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Bell Jar: books in which the relationships between women are strong and deep and complicated. The books in which women are not alone, even as we come apart and put ourselves back together again. Characters that, even as they set out on long journeys to discover themselves, do so with a tribe of women to support them along the way. I’m not seeing these relationships in mainstream books: I’ve been missing a book that explores the connections between women, the bonding we do that is separate from men and sex and romance.

So I wrote one.

I’m telling you this because there are over 2,000 of you that are subscribed to this blog, and if you’re still here by now, something tells me you might be missing this book too. So far you’ve only read my nonfiction: my ranting about #WhiteGirlsRock, my disgust for Miley Cyrus. Now I feel it’s time to share my fiction with you, with the hope that it might give you something you’ve been looking for.

I’m self-publishing it because….well, mainstream publishers want a love interest that takes up half the plot-line. They don’t believe in the power of a book that exists to highlight the bonds of women, especially in the context of the apocalypse, which is what my book takes place within. But I do. I do believe in it, and if you’re still here, you do too. In Panther in the Hive, as this book is titled, Tasha Lockett is a biracial former fashion-addict who fights for survival in a post-apocalyptic Chicago, all the while learning that it may not be only a blade that saves her life, but the friendship of other women as well.

I’ve started a campaign for the book here. I urge you to contribute. $3 from each of you could put this campaign at goal. And if you share this campaign? Who knows what will happen. Maybe we’ll finally have a mainstream book that tells the lives of women as whole human beings.

ps. Want a sneak peek into Chapter 1? You know you do. Peep it here.

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While Wearing Their Pretty Dresses, They Ruined Lives: 12 Years A Slave & the Role of White Women in Slavery

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I saw 12 Years A Slave this weekend. Aside from crying uncontrollably for about 80% of the film—not an exaggeration: please take a box of tissue to the theater if you see it—I was struck by many things the film did in its portrayal of the institution of slavery and the people that upheld it. For starters, I think a spectacularly effective job was done in imparting the terrifying helplessness and profound unfairness of the system: long moments of silence juxtaposed with instances of extreme violence emphasized the normalcy of brutality; the environment that black children were raised in and alongside, an environment in which their parents and elders were subject to torture, degradation, and murder. That was life, 12 Years informs us. A life in which a child can play tag alongside a man hanging from his neck by a tree…because there was nothing that could be done. There is much more, but what I want to talk about is something that 12 Years A Slave illustrates that is often glossed over in other depictions of American slavery: the complicity and cruelty of white women in upholding the institution.

Mistress Ford is the first white woman we encounter, the wife of the first slave master Solomon comes into contact with. When Solomon and Eliza, a black woman who, like Solomon, was kidnapped and brought to the South, are brought to the Ford plantation, Eliza is weeping in the back of a wagon. Mistress Ford appears and asks why and is told that Eliza has been separated from her two young children. Mistress Ford looks something like sympathetic, and for a moment I thought we were going to see the traditional representation of white women: the sensitive counter to her emotionless husband, the empathetic Eve in the midst of a savage system in which she lacks control and finds herself as much a prisoner as the black humans being treated as chattel. But 12 Years had other plans, something more along the lines of reality. Mistress Ford’s regard for the humanity of black people is made explicit in her next line: “Some food and some rest,” she says. “Your children will soon be forgotten.” The idea of a black woman as a mother—a human mother and not merely a baby machine whose uterus is a factory more slave labor—is completely foreign to Mistress Ford. Her countenance is emotionless as Eliza is led away sobbing. She eventually has Eliza sold because she “cannot tolerate that sort of depression.”

Later, when he ends up on the wrong side of the insidious overseer Tibeats, Solomon is nearly lynched, saved only by another white man under the employ of Mr. Ford who was concerned about the debt that Solomon’s death would incur. Solomon is left hanging by his neck, his toes barely touching the ground to keep him alive, for an entire day. For a short time, Mistress Ford watches from the porch, doing nothing. Her coldness is tangible. All the supposedly feminine qualities of tenderness and regard for other people is absent.

The coldness of Mistress Ford is minor, however, when we meet Mistress Epps, the wife of Solomon’s next slave owner.

Mr. Epps, her husband, is a brutal—and insane—man known to be a “slave breaker.” He is notorious for his cruelty, which Solomon and the other slaves on the Epps plantation witness firsthand, and often. He is also obsessed with one of the slaves, a woman named Patsy. Mistress Epps is aware of this, and her cruelty toward Patsy knows no bounds. She strikes her in the face with a heavy bottle, scars Patsy’s cheek with her fingernails, denies her soap, and more. She delivers one or two monologues about the animal nature of black people, how they are prone to violence and should be beaten and ground down. She demands that Mr. Epps sell Patsy, but he refuses, partially because Patsy picks more cotton than any other slave on the plantation and partially to let his wife know that he is in control. Patsy endures rape and harassment at the hands of Mr. Epps, and brutality and cruelty at the hands of Mistress Epps. Her life is so tortured, she begs Solomon to kill her as an act of mercy, an act he cannot commit. There is a brutal scene in which Patsy is whipped, and Mistress Epps is there in the midst of it, demanding that Patsy be whipped harder. Mistress Epps cries that she wants to see blood.

By documenting the extreme suffering of black women during slavery—the explicitness and unapologeticness of which I have only previously seen from Toni Morrison—12 Years A Slave shines a light on the experience of millions during American slavery: the lives of black women, the double-edged sword of black femaleness; victim to violence from all sides. And by shining this light on black femaleness, 12 Years also shines a light on white femaleness, which, in my opinion, has previously gone without serious examination in mainstream film, and even in the way that we talk about slavery. I have distinct memories from middle school and high school history classes in which we discussed the role white women played in slavery…lessons in which that role was described as a non-role. White women’s economic inequality translated in my education as a complete lack of power (and responsibility) not only in the plantation household, but in slavery as a whole. When I heard about white women in the teaching of American slavery, it was as abolitionists, friends on the Underground Railroad, spotless conveyors of goodwill and empathy. 12 Years A Slave calls this representation of white women a lie, and I applaud it.

Although lacking in significant legal and economic power, white women generally controlled the household, existing in the domestic sphere as society dictated. The way we talk about white women in this context paints them—indeed, us—as the gentle, docile, humane creatures that a woman is “supposed to be.” White women upheld notions of feminine morality, history tells us; they didn’t uphold the institution of slavery. The Mrs. Epps and the Mrs. Fords are absent in this characterization. The Delphine LaLauries are absent. The cruel, racist women who called for the blood of women like Patsy—out of hatred for their black bodies and also out of jealousy as white husbands raped the black women they owned—aren’t mentioned when we talk about the people who upheld slavery. We talk about men, both rich and poor, but rarely of their wives; women who were as participative in the perpetuation of white supremacy and human bondage as their male counterparts, as eager to dehumanize, debase and brutalize black bodies as their men.

It’s true, white women lacked the agency of their husbands, fathers and brothers, so their hand in slavery did not extend to the buying and selling of human chattel, the laws being made that called black people only a fraction of a human being. But white women whipped black bodies. They burned them. They posed next to the murdered bodies of black people who were lynched. They called people n*ggers. They scratched faces. They separated families. While wearing their pretty dresses, they ruined lives. If we’re going to talk about slavery and the people that upheld it, we should talk about everyone, as 12 Years A Slave does. If we are going to continue to heal this nation that remains torn and disfigured by its brutal past, then we must take accountability and not hide behind the gentle stereotypes that present day feminists struggle against: women are fully capable of committing acts of savagery, fully able to dehumanize other human beings, truths exhibited by the many Mrs. Epps and Mrs. Fords we know existed in the history of this country. The privileges white supremacy afforded were not handed only to men: women accepted (and accept) those benefits that provide them status and wealth. If we’re going to talk about white supremacy and its role in the foundations of American slavery, no one is exempt. No one. Not even me.

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Brainless Bits of Misogynist Flotsam in Star Trek: Into Darkness

ImageSaw Star Trek: Into Darkness this weekend. Great movie except two little bitty scenes, which I will discuss here.

Scene 1: The first came early in the movie. Chris Pine (Captain Kirk) is in bed with a ridiculously beautiful woman. His phone rings, and he sits up. So does the beautiful woman. There’s a lump in the bed. When he reaches for the phone, the other lump turns out to be—surprise surprise!—another beautiful woman in bed with him.

Scene 2: Later, Alice Eve (Carol Marcus) is explaining something to Captain Kirk in weapons jargon. She says, “Turn around,” and he does, while she goes on explaining.  He’s listening (barely) but turns around to peek anyway, giving us a look of what we knew we’d see: Carol in her sexy lingerie in a sort of bizarrely posed position.

My beef? You know what it is.

How did either of these scenes add anything—anything at all—to the film?

Both scenes occupied mere seconds of the film. Kirk sitting up in bed alone would have changed nothing. Alice Eve being fully clothed during the second scene would have changed nothing. The film gained nothing by adding these things, and thus would have lost nothing by removing them.

The predictable argument that Star Trek is a “guy’s movie” and that guys expect to see some T&A when they go to the theater is an outdated one, I’d say. Most of the self-proclaimed “geeks” that I’ve spoken to regard this kind of random sexual insertion as distracting and taking away from the film. Also, the idea that a male protagonist has to be a womanizing rebel is played out. Yawn. Snoozeville. “Oh, the second lump is…another chick! Threesome?! Score! I’ve never seen that in a movie before!” …..said no one ever in their life.

To me it seems that directors like J.J. Abrams—and Hollywood itself—are a little behind in the times. Apparently no one told them that “chicks dig” nerd stuff too and that they are alienating a huge audience when they choose to include brainless bits of misogynist flotsam in their otherwise decent movies.

Hollywood, you need to do three things.

1) Stop alienating your female audience. We exist, we like space and aliens…and we have money.

2) Give your male audience a little credit. They don’t need boobs! boobs! boobs! boobs! to enjoy your film.

3) Be good filmmakers. If a scene contributes nothing, cut it. Period. Stop pandering to imaginary penises.

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Sluts, Whores, Skanks, and Tramps

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The word slut has many synonyms: hoe, whore, skank, tramp, promiscuous.

By age thirteen, I’d been called all of them.

By age thirteen, most girls I knew had been called all of them, by other girls, especially by boys, and even by authority figures. The words came down on us for many reasons:

  • We had breasts.
  • We wore a shirt that didn’t hide our breasts.
  • We wore shorts that showed our legs. (That’s what shorts do.)
  • We liked a boy, and another boy didn’t like that we liked that boy.
  • We liked a boy, and another girl didn’t like that we liked that boy.
  • We liked a girl, and no one liked that.
  • We were raped, touched, sexually assaulted.
  • We told someone no.
  • We told someone yes.

The list goes on.

When I was a teenager, I faced my abuser in court. The defense called me promiscuous. It was because of my supposed, thirteen-year old promiscuity that my abuser walked. Now, at age twenty-five, I am still called these words. Every woman I know has been called these words. People I know use these words. People I don’t know use these words. But other than our femaleness, the women who are called these words have nothing in common:

  • We are black and white and brown.
  • We are virgins and not.
  • We are fat and thin and muscular.
  • We have big breasts and small breasts.
  • We are adults. We are children.
  • We wear all different kinds of clothes. Some of us wear burqas.
  • We say yes and no.

The list goes on.

If every woman has been called these words–regardless of her sexual activity; regardless of her clothes–what does that tell you?

It tells me that something is wrong with the words–with the world. Not with the women.

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For men who don’t understand how street harassment is a problem

ImageThis started as a series of tweets. I think it deserves a blog. For men who don’t understand how street harassment is a problem, let me explain.

You know those Greenpeace workers who block your way on the sidewalk and demand your time and money? Who stare at you as you approach? The ones who you can see in your peripheral and you try not to make eye contact with? The ones you really don’t want to give any time or money and you know that they’re going to say something no matter how much you pretend to be on the phone and you just wish you could be invisible for the ten seconds it takes to pass?

It’s like that. But imagine they want your dignity instead of your money.

Then take it a step further. Imagine them blocking your way on every sidewalk. Imagine they follow you onto the train. Imagine you want to take a cab to get away from the Greenpeace workers, but it turns out a Greenpeace worker is driving the taxi and is staring at you in the rearview mirror. Imagine those Greenpeace workers staring at your ass and telling you what it looks like, imagine them cussing you out and threatening you with violence for not caring about the environment. Imagine you want to tell the cop on the corner to tell the Greenpeace workers to stop harassing you, but then he tries to start telling you about whales too. It’s midnight, and you just want to get home. But it’s whales, whales, whales.

You would hate them, wouldn’t you? Those Greenpeace workers. Every time you saw one you’d be pissed, afraid, suspicious, cold. You’d do anything to avoid them. People would say “They’re not all like that” and you’d say, “Prove it.”

Image courtesy of http://stopstreetharassment.com/

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Wednesday: A Poem

This is a rant. A soft rant, but a rant.

I made this video in 2010 with a dear friend while in college. I have never made it available for public consumption, but now seems as good a time as any. Only three years ago, but I was such a kid when we collaborated on this. Still….I feel much the same now as I did then when I wrote this poem. Some things never change.

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