Today I reprint an important blog post from Dannielle Miller of Enlighten Education. Danni is passionate about helping girls and young women be all they can be and has received many awards for her innovative approach to girls’ education. Danni, like many of us who engage in the public square, has received abuse for her efforts. I’ve been told I’m ‘as ugly as a hat full of arses’ (my personal favourite) and as ugly as a Shar Pei dog ( the ones with the roly poly skin folds – they’re actually quite cute…but I digress). I think it’s important for those of us speaking out on the issues we care about to remember we are not alone in copping hate mail, and that perhaps it means we are making some kind of mark. And of course there are many women in the world who pay a much higher price for speaking out. Also (as I say in a comment to Danni’s piece) we need to maintain perspective and remember who were are in this fight for.
Sticks and stones
May 28th, 2010 by Danni Miller
Last week, I did a post sharing media I have been doing aimed at encouraging schools to be more proactive in dealing with sexual harassment. I received a comment from one of my blog readers that at first shocked me . . . and then got me thinking about another issue that affects all women and girls: the tendency in our culture to demean women for their looks rather than to engage with what they have to say. The comment was short, and cutting:
We’ve seen your talks at schools. If you’re so keen to set a good example then don’t turn up to school looking like mutton dressed as lamb. — Kim
I wondered exactly what it was about me that came across that way to her. When I do my self-esteem and skills-building workshops with girls, I wear an Enlighten Education uniform of sorts. We are often up and jumping around with the girls, so skirts and high heels are definitely out. It’s jeans or tights in winter, or mid-length shorts in summer, and then a black T-shirt embroidered with our butterfly logo.
Then I realised that the comment had drawn my attention away from the real issue: too often, when women raise their voices, they are criticised not for what they say but how they look.
Even now, in 2010, is that the currency of a woman or a girl — her looks? Is a female’s Achilles heel still her appearance? If you strike her there, do you take away her only power?
It isn’t the first time I’ve spoken out about sexual harassment or a women’s issue and been criticised not for my arguments but for the way I look. I have been helpfully informed that I seemed to have put on weight. I was sent an e-mail telling me that I couldn’t be a feminist because I have blonde hair. During the 2009 scandal involving Matthew Johns and teammates having sex with a 19-year-old girl, I wrote an article in defence of the young woman, who was being blamed and insulted in the media and on the internet. A reader commented that I was just jealous because I was wasn’t desirable enough to get a football player of my own.
I’m in good company. The woman whose writing had the most profound effect on me when I was young, Naomi Wolf, received a torrent of criticism for being too pretty to be a real feminist. On the other side of the coin, Germaine Greer has long been attacked for all sorts of supposed flaws in her appearance and femininity. Earlier this year, Louis Nowra described her in The Monthly as “a befuddled and exhausted old woman” who reminded him of his “demented grandmother”. It should be noted that Greer herself is no stranger to flinging looks-based insults, famously describing a fellow writer as having “hair bird’s-nested all over the place, ****-me shoes and three fat inches of cleavage”.
Comments that target a woman for how she looks, rather than her ideas, are designed to do one thing and one thing only: to shut her up.
Yet it only spurs me on. The same can be said for other Australian writers and commentators I spoke to who also regularly receive such criticism. When I discussed this phenomenon with Emily Maguire, author of Princesses & Porn Stars and a regular writer on gender and culture, she told me:
There’s no way you can present yourself that won’t attract criticism from the kind of people who think that criticism of a woman’s looks will hurt more than criticism of her ideas . . . It only makes me more sure that this stuff is worth speaking out about. — Emily Maguire
Melinda Tankard Reist is an author and commentator who often appears in the media to speak out against the sexualisation of girls and women. She publicly commented on the decision of former Hi-5 performer Kellie Crawford to pose for a lingerie shoot in Ralph in order to ”find the woman in me” after so many years as a children’s entertainer. Melinda asked people to question why the Wiggles didn’t need to “prove their manhood by stripping down to their jocks”. Much of the criticism she received afterwards didn’t address that question but told her that she was “a bitter ugly woman”, ”sad, old and dog-ugly” and that she had “saggy breasts and a droopy arse”.
Old, saggy, mutton dressed as lamb — age is a common theme to this type of criticism. Rather than seeming to gain wisdom, experience and authority — as is virtually expected of men — women are often deemed of decreasing value with each year they move beyond their 30s. We see it throughout our culture. How many good roles are there for actresses over 40? How many women newsreaders have career longevity without resorting to Botox? It is as if once women have passed a certain age, it is time for them to step off the stage. It’s no wonder that many women are angsting and trying to achieve the body of a 20-year-old — an impossible and time-wasting task. Zoe Krupka put it perfectly in a post on the website New Matilda:
How are we meant to do our work in the world and develop wisdom if we are still focused on the size of our butts? — Zoe Krupka
One would hope that the situation was improving, but in fact, it seems to be getting worse. And it is often women who use the strategy of attacking a woman’s looks. Dr Karen Brooks, social commentator and author of Consuming Innocence: Popular Culture and Our Children, told me:
I have had my appearance criticised ALL the time . . . This has been happening to me for 13 years and it’s getting worse . . . I should add that most of the negative comments are from women. — Karen Brooks
Perhaps there is an element of fear of change that drives women to this type of criticism. Perhaps this technique just comes all too naturally to women who have spent their whole lives learning how to play the “compare and despair” game. Perhaps the ultimate sin for women is to show confidence and to love themselves, so critics feel that outspoken women need to brought down a peg or two.
Whatever it is that drives looks-based criticism, the thing that hurt me the most about the comment I received on my blog was that this woman claimed she had seen me present to girls. At every school Enlighten Education has worked in, the girls line up afterwards to ask for a hug, a kiss and to tell us they love us. They tell us that it changed their lives. So it made me sad to think that in the presence of all the joy and positivity and love that bursts out of these girls, for at least one woman the lasting impression was my looks, something that the girls never notice or comment on.
Imagine the change we all — women and men — could make in the world if we took personal attacks out of public debate. Imagine if we all engaged in the debate, made respectful counterarguments, added our own ideas into the mix. Imagine if we all pledged to stop trying to silence one another. I have the greatest respect for the women thinkers and activists I have mentioned here. Do I agree with them on every single issue? Of course not. But I pledge to always argue my case while according them the respect they deserve. It will always be their ideas that I engage with, because ideas — not physical appearances — live on forever.
A comment I received from another woman sums it all up:
Common sense, dignity, rights, respect, responsibility — these basic human values should be blind to looks, age, gender. — Paola Yevenes
Recently I wrote a post Boys, Babes and Balls: Hooters mascots for U16 boys footy about Hooters restaurant entering a sponsorship deal with a Gold Coast Under 16 boys club. The deal included money and two cheerleaders in tight clothes cheering the boys on. I argued that ‘…embedding busty mascots in with 15 and 16 year old boys [teaches] them that women are really part of the entertainment and rewards of playing the game. Why can’t boys just get on with the game without the dancing girls? We have seen so many times, evidence of demeaning views about women by too many sportsmen in this country. And too often, abusive behaviour has been made possible through a culture of collusion within male dominated sporting bodies.’
I quoted from terms and conditions in the Hooters Employment Handbook which employees had to agree to, including:
The Hooters concept is based on female sex appeal and the work environment is one in which joking and entertaining conversations are commonplace and I do not find my job duties, uniform requirements, or work environment to be offensive, intimidating, hostile, or unwelcome.
In other words, sexual jokes and possible harassment is really just part of the job, and as a Hooters employee there is no room to complain.
Now the AFL has stepped in and dismantled the arrangement.
According to an article in Gold Coast.com – complete with breast-related nudge nudge wink wink lines such as ‘Hooters support goes bust’, players ‘deflated’, and in accompanying video ‘You’re looking swell girls’ – AFL Queensland, having consulted with AFL Australia and the State Government, recommended the deal be stopped.
AFL Queensland chief executive Richard Griffiths said it had concerns over the ‘appropriateness of the respective organisation’.
“Following discussion it was agreed with the club that the nature of the arrangement was not in the best interests of the club and the code at a junior level,” he said.
… Bernie Kern, who brokered the deal, believes the organisation felt the restaurant was at odds with AFL’s promotion of female equality.
The Miss Australia Hooters contest video linked on Gold Coast.com provides further evidence of the impact of Hooters culture and the attitude to women it perpetuates.
Co-host Mike Goldman urges his fellow host Jaime Wright to “Get em out! Do it! Get em out!”. This behaviour would normally constitute sexual harrassment, but because it’s a Hooters event, that seems to make it OK.
The winner is asked what gave her the winning edge. What are ya? Stupid? “Hooters is a restaurant but at the end of the day everyone thinks of hooters as hooters and that’s what got me over the line”. She then goes on to add, as though an after-thought “and my personality and presence”.
In one fell swoop, she cuts through the company’s “family restaurant” spin.
While the AFL has done the right thing, there’s a hell of a lot more it needs to do to address the behaviour of its players.
Tell Nick: “Naughty” Games are Not for Young Children
Nickelodeon, the children’s media empire, is promoting sexualized and violent video games to children as young as preschoolers. Its popular gaming website, AddictingGames.com, features games such as Candy the Naughty Cheerleader, Bloody Day (“Back alley butchering has never been so much fun. . . . How many kills can you rack?”) and the Perry the Sneak series, where gamers take the role of a peeping Tom trying to catch revealing glimpses of scantily clad and naked women. Nickelodeon promotes, and links directly to, Addictinggames.com on its Nick.com website for children and even on NickJr.com, its website for preschoolers.
TAKE ACTION! Tell Nick: Stop Promoting “Naughty” Games to Young Children.
After some of the games – and Nick’s links to them on its websites for children – were featured in this YouTube video and this report on Good Morning America, Nickelodeon pulled a few (e.g. Vanessa Naughty Pics and Whack Your Ex). But Nickelodeon was clearly more concerned about protecting its reputation than protecting children. They continue to link to AddictingGames.com on Nick.com and NickJr.com.
AddictingGames.com, which boasts about its large collection of “naughty games” and “shooting games,” continues to features many games with sexual and violent content, including the following. All descriptions are taken directly from AddictingGames.com: Stick Figure Penalty Chamber 2: “Small, black, stick figure death can happen in so many different ways! Do you choose shotgun to the face, or acid in the lungs?”
• Naughty Classroom – “Hot for teacher?…Here’s your chance to fulfill your ultimate childhood fantasy. Naughty Classroom will leave you begging for more homework.”
• Dark Cut 2 – “More macho surgery! No anesthetic. No antiseptics. Just rusty knives, corn whiskey, and lots of blood!”
• Foxy Sniper – “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful. Fear me, because I am a crack shot! Assassination isn’t just a job; it’s a way of life.”
Please take a moment to demand that Nickelodeon stop promoting sexualized and violent videogames to young children. And be sure to let other parents know what Nick is up to. Please spread word to friends and family and promote this campaign on Twitter and Facebook .
The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood is a national coalition of health care professionals, educators, advocacy groups and concerned parents who counter the harmful effects of marketing to children through action, advocacy, education, research, and collaboration. CCFC is a project of Third Sector New England in Boston. For information on how to take action against Nickelodean, visit CCFC’s site.
How do you know when a teenage girl singer is now all grown up?
What are the tell-tale signs that she has left the foolishness of her immature girly days behind and become a real woman?
Her coming-of-age is easy to detect.
She will launch a sexy new look and a song that tells us how hot she is. She will tell us she is unique and different and breaking all the rules. In reality, she’s following the same script as others before her. It’s part of the music machine. Strip off, writhe around on the floor, do a photo shoot for a lad’s mag and tell the world: I’m a big girl now.
The music clip that goes with her metamorphosis usually involves one or all of the following elements:
Sex, poles, fetishised clothing, lingerie, some black leather and killer heels for good measure, lots of groping and grinding against men – and women of course, because “bi” is just so in right now and our big girl doesn’t want to be locked in to any rigid form of sexuality. There will be intimations of group sex, including simulated oral and anal acts and her newly outed breasts (proving she’s a woman) will be groped. Ah, our little girl is all grown up. Read entire article.
The term ‘pornification’ has recently been given prominence in books by Melinda Tankard Reist and others. Naomi Klein has also been decrying the effects of pornography on women’s sexual self-confidence and the re-shaping of men’s desire. Young girls are the target of earlier and earlier sexualisation, especially through the fashion market, and boys it seems have acquired deeply sexist attitudes by their early teenage years. Indeed young girls’ and young women’s fashion can be read as a ‘sluttification’ of what is seen as desirable in women, while contemporaneously young teenage girls and boys are likely to count both oral and anal sex (read girls giving over in both cases) as normal practice amongst their heterosexual peers.
Of course this isn’t the reality for every teenager, but the research from various quarters is convincing in building a general picture of a trend. Left-liberal critics have, over years now, argued that the neo-liberal market has set this trend in motion, with advertising and markets being key factors; a story of exploitation through the selling power of sex. Conservatives typically pinpoint the issue as the moral bankruptcy of a certain ‘postmodern’ coterie who promote porn as liberating or, more mundanely, simply an aid to good sex. Needless to say, the conservative position neglects the fact that neo-liberalism has indeed unleashed an amoral market calculus in just about every sphere of personal and social life—the same one whose economic growth they celebrate—and if there is a morally bankrupt ‘postmodern’ understanding of sex and porn, it hasn’t emerged out of a vacuum.
Pornification refers not just to a revaluation of sex and sexual freedom—the message of the 1970s—but to the mainstreaming of porn in raunch, the style typical of Ralph and other mid-level-porn men’s magazines and represented over and over in sporting magazines, bill-board advertising and television shows revelling in the license now given to a certain range of men’s fantasies. Hard porn is certainly an object for both sets of critics mentioned above. But it is the filtering down of the pornographic gaze and attitude of barely contained salaciousness that is the larger cultural presence, and which is of special concern when we’re talking about children and the forming of sexual attitudes.
The idea in psychoanalysis and social theory that fantasy is important in individual and social life has by now filtered down into popular culture. Few would deny that how we think and act in the world is at some level mediated by fantasy. But the cultural inclination to see this as meaning our sexual fantasies should be ‘freed’, so that our unique needs are expressed, or amorally cultivated as an exploration of a performative self (sex is a complete construction), are already tired ideas. They certainly offer no critical help in grasping the meaning of pornification as a broad-ranging phenomenon. Sexual fantasy has jumped individual experience and the self’s individual projection in fantasy to return as an ideological object in the pornification of society as a whole. As there is no generally accepted social or cultural constraint in operation around the expression of sexual desire, we don’t know where to turn for justifications to limit it or why we should be cautious when it takes on a public life of its own.
Most of us register the greater presence of porn today, both its greater accessibility and the libertarian justifications put forward for it by business organisations like the Eros Foundation. But how we engage with pornography can no longer be contained within the terms of earlier understandings, where debate about porn assumed its limited circulation, a private sphere, a self capable of sustained reflection upon its actions and a market where the circulation of images and identities for sale had limits. Today porn circulates ceaselessly and is virtually ubiquitous in expanding networks of digital media, colonising and commodifying the body, sexuality and the private.
* * *
Germaine Greer was recently pilloried in The Monthly by Louis Nowra. As some feminist commentators noted, it might have been more appropriate to ask a woman to comment on The Female Eunuch’s 40-year anniversary (one might add, especially someone equipped to analyse Greer’s texts seriously and, even better, the meaning of the whole feminist, and now post-feminist enterprise). Nowra so badly missed the point about Greer, and The Female Eunuch, it was almost ludicrous. He thinks she doesn’t really like women, a view echoed by some younger women intellectuals over the years as part of their critique of second wave feminism’s emphasis on structure and patriarchy. But this is a view clearly not subscribed to by lots of women who see in her work a fearless advocacy on their behalf. Nowra also ridiculously criticised The Female Eunuch for not having got women into a better place over forty years—for having not got the future right—when surely its major purpose was to show how masculine power has worked to shape the lives and subjectivities of women. Does Nowra think that would have ceased to be the case?
One of Greer’s shocking observations that has always stuck with me is that it will be hard for men and women to achieve equality because of there being a hierarchy of those who penetrate and those who are penetrated. This is one of the things those younger intellectual women hated: the idea that women may be always-already vulnerable. Three other, not unconnected, contributions include Greer’s early observation of the tutoring of young girls in ‘how-to-look-after-your boyfriend’-type sex articles in girls’ magazines. Another was her rejection of the idea that a man who becomes a ‘woman’ is a woman. The third was her idea that the vagina is being replaced by other mere receptacles. Of course there is hyperbole in all this. But as people are more generally starting to worry about the pornification of society, devaluing of girls, the often criminal antics of footballers, with Ralph playing on prime time everywhere, it’s possible that Greer has a good nose for some of the brute-masculinising trends in our culture.
But should we be, as Nowra seems to be, worried about the kind of tough talk about sex that feminism itself has bequeathed us? Does it contribute to a general coarsening of sexual talk and imagery? Is it implicated in the pornification of society?
Of course feminists have been in an unenviable position in relation to the ‘exposés’ they have mounted in the spirit of laying bare gendered structures of power. ‘Making the personal political’ on one definition is pornographic itself, where practices once embedded in private life are flattened out and displayed on the cultural surface of conscious reality. Whether it’s domestic violence, incest or rape, the content is unseemly. But how is the unpalatable to be raised if not by breaking certain types of taboo?
An argument about the flow-on effects or unintended consequences of talking tough about sex might be applied to post-feminism too: if sex and gender are performative, in this view porn is just another sexual game, sophisticatedly understood as constructed in ironic narratives that only pious fools take seriously. But it follows that men’s-club-type fantasies and mass ‘sluttification’ are simply ‘what men want’, with lap dancers and swimsuit models enjoying being in on the joke. So billboards for men’s clubs are put up beside primary schools, while any basis in thinking as to why this might be a problem has been so undermined that those wanting them removed are called prudes.
* * *
Critics of feminism who blame the tough talk of feminist critique for adding to a culture of degradation and obscenity miss the deeper change that it going on around us. Older understandings of sex, desire and gender are being gathered up within new relations of power that draw upon older debates but also transform them. What is new here are our culture’s hyper-individualist belief in autonomy, a deep-going visual fetish fed by high-gloss advertising and screen culture, and the high-tech accessibility of porn; the old is inescapably patriarchal, but recreating itself in new forms. What might feel like an uncontrollable contagion moving through society is in fact a social process working its way through culturally authorised practices along old faultlines in our species being, part of which is that we are sexed and gendered and have an ambivalent attitude to our ‘animality’.
It’s unlikely that we are going to get over this ambivalence or complexity around nature/culture, an always volatile anchor point of sexual relations and the raising of children. Cognisant of this, not only should markets in sex and sexualised markets be restricted but moral discourse should be re-valued as a necessary adjunct to adult autonomous decision making.
Second-wave feminism was strongly focused on the question of women’s autonomy in the sense of women being able to act on the basis of their own decision making, when it was considered that women’s capacity for serious moral deliberation had been denied in historical patriarchy. This was itself a modern notion of autonomy; the rights of men, to their own conscience and sphere of personhood, applied to women. Post-feminism has been far more radical in its practices and understandings of autonomy, not unlike the culture in which it has emerged and flourished (although a reversion to young women calling themselves feminists seems to be underway).
In the context of the break-up of the modern social structures in the post-war period and the rise of neo-liberalism, autonomy can no longer be individual in the sense of the person exercising serious moral thought, including individual choice, about a taken-for-granted world. Rather, women, like everyone else, now experience a shifting world offering radically new kinds of choices built on technical means for dispensing with prior physical and social boundaries and the obligations that once attached to them.
Porn via high-tech massification of product, in a context of autonomy from cultural constraint, is exactly one such break out from obligation. It is also a break out from moral thoughtfulness as viewers of its content, as with pornification generally, are likely to believe it’s ‘just fantasy’. Yet the figures produced for and justified in porn culture will act back with the force of social facts, defining girls and women and enforcing their identities.
Some critical version of feminism, attuned to the new, will still be necessary.
Women, we’ve arrived. We’re equal now with men. The conditions for equality have been met. Am I talking about political, social and financial equality? No.
Access to maternity leave, child care, the opportunity to balance work and family life? No. The ability to live free from harassment and sexual bullying. No.
We know we are empowered because now we can buy men like they buy women. Men can be prostituted to provide sexual services for women. Here is proof of our newly won freedom: we can participate in the sexual objectification of men in the same way we have been objectified through history. Read more.
More Reasons to Hate Lad’s Mags: Zoo advises spurned lover to slash ex girlfriend’s face
I’ve written before about lad’s magazines which thrive on the objectification of women and act as porn training wheels for boys.
Now Zoo has run an advice column by British hardman actor Danny Dyer urging a heartbroken reader to “cut his ex’s face, so no one will want her”. The advice was written by regular British columnist and actor Danny Dyer.
As well as the suggestion that he slash his ex girlfriend’s face, the reader was told: “You’ve got nothing to worry about, son. I’d suggest going out on a rampage with the boys, getting on the booze and smashing anything that moves.”
Zoo said it was a “production error”. Like really what they meant to say was “Time mends a broken heart son, give yourself space to heal and relax in a bubble bath”.
Fortunately the reader rejected the advice and said he couldn’t ever hurt the woman he was with for a year.
Kira Cochrane has written an excellent piecewhich asks, if Danny Dyers slasher comments were an error, what about the rest of Zoo?
I’m glad that people have picked up on this comment, but I hope the anger won’t flare up and die away as it usually does. This shouldn’t be an excuse simply to lambast an individual…but to take notice of a magazine, and a wider culture, that depicts women as meat. If anything positive was to come out of this stupid throwaway comment, it would be that.
The Natashas: Inside the new global sex trade (Arcade, NY, 2003) by award-winning Canadian journalist Victor Malarek is one such book. A brutal expose of the lucrative trade in the flesh of women and girls from Eastern Europe, The Natashas is a testament to human cruelty in its most extreme forms. This scathing indictment demonstrates how the 21st century version of slavery is alive and well, thanks to the demand of men and institutionalised corruption. Young girls plucked from overflowing orphanages and sold into the trade; young women lured with promises of jobs or kidnapped and ‘broken in’ in slave camps in Kosovo and Serbia, killed if they refuse to comply; systemic complicity by police, local officials and governments.
Senior investigative reporter on CTV’s award winning investigative current affairs show W5, Victor Malarek has written a follow-up, titled The Johns: Sex for Sale and the men who buy it (Arcade, NY, 2009) which goes to the heart of the problem: demand. The insatiable demand of men for the bodies of women; men who care nothing for these women’s rights or dignity, for where they have come from and where they might end up. He describes this exploitation as “one of the most overlooked human rights abuses on the planet today”.
The Salvos and Collective Shout: for a world free of sexploitation, are hosting the following events with Victor Malarek as guest speaker. Salvos Social Justice Director Danielle Strikland will also speak and I’ll be MC.
Please show your concern for this horrendous violation of human rights with your attendance, and let your friends know too.
Listen to Victor Malarek:
Hear the stories of trafficked Eastern European women here:
Somaly Mam to visit Australia in June
Former Cambodian victim of sexual slavery, co-founder of a foundation to combat trafficking in women and children for sexual slavery and author of The road of lost innocence, Somaly Mam will be speaking in Australia next month.
Antoinette Jones – Principal – Mitcham Girls High School
“Intelligent, passionate, brilliant, fearless… I could not recommend her more highly”
Dr Michael Carr-Gregg
“You continue to reset my shock meter…”
“As a teacher and parent I recommend all parents, in fact all people, to attend a talk by Melinda- it will open your eyes and awaken your subconscious.”
Heather Douglas – Parent – Pembroke School
“Melinda’s presentations to our parents, staff and full day workshops to students was inspirational, transforming the attitudes and thinking of all involved”
Paul Teys – Principal – Hunter Valley Grammar
“Melinda Tankard Reist’s presentation to Middle and Upper School students at Pymble Ladies’ College was absolutely brilliant!”
Justine Hodgson – English Faculty, Pymble Ladies’ College
“Melinda Tankard Reist has had a transformational affect on our school.”
Ms Stephanie McConnell, Principal – Turramurra High School
“Melinda Tankard Reist is at the forefront of helping…educate the public on the link between pornography and violence…” – Di Macleod, Director, Gold Coast Centre Against Sexual Violence
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Do you read women’s lifestyle magazines? Have you thought about how magazines might affect you when you read them? Faking It reflects the body of academic research on magazines, mass media, and the sexual objectification of women.
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