Leave Beyonce, Lena, and Rihanna Alone Already

145340717ac002beyoncepeIn the past several months, Beyonce, Lena Dunham, and Rihanna have taken intense heat for the following ills of society:

1. Sexism overall, specifically their own capitulation to sexism by refusing to wear pants, or clothes, at given times in their performing lives. Other problems apparently include their sexiness, their sexuality, and, in the case of Lena, the sexiness of others on screen with her.

2. The fraught history of women taking their husbands’ last names upon marriage.

3. Racism.

4. Violence against women.

5. Promiscuity.

6. General lack of morals and possibly the decline of civilization.

Now, I am the first person willing to overanalyze pop culture, to hold up its artifacts as evidence of social issues or, at minimum, accessible entry points into serious discussion. I do believe that Beyonce’s displays of extreme feminine empowerment, coupled with unapologetic sexuality, are worth noting. I do think Lena Dunham has given us a perspective on young womanhood worth dissecting. I do feel that Rihanna’s public persona — tough, edgy, and sexually voracious — and the parts of her sad private life that have become common knowledge — her abusive relationship with Chris Brown — are a juxtaposition we must process at some level, if only to make sense of them for the young women watching it all.

But we need to make a distinction between starting interesting discussions inspired by these women and blaming them for every issue they evoke. And we need to remember that the end result of these discussions needs to be action on the issues, not against the performers who bring them up.

The crazy amount of Beyonce chatter online over the past few weeks, namely due to her Super Bowl performance and subsequent announcement of her “Mrs. Carter World Tour,” directed an awful lot of its bile right at the brilliant Ms. B. According to her critics, she pranced around too suggestively in too revealing an outfit, and then gave in to further sexist pressures by adopting her husband’s last name for her tour. We already debated these specific issues in another post, but my point today is this: Whether you think Beyonce is demonstrating against sexist pressures is one thing; but you cannot blame the woman for creating those pressures. If anything, she’s a victim here. (Even though we maintain she definitely isn’t, of course.) Oh, and the Mrs. Carter business? She did not invent the tradition of women taking their men’s names.

Now, Lena Dunham. She has taken a lot of criticism, some of it quite sound, for not making her show, Girls, diverse enough. (We’ll refer you to the paragraph above on the sex stuff and the naked stuff, and to this post we wrote about her.) But, you guys: She did not create the entertainment industry that has shut people of color out for its entire history, and she cannot reverse this problem by herself.

Rihanna is a particularly fraught case of victim-blaming, given the history of victim-blaming in cases of domestic violence. But the fact remains: She is a product of our society and her specific environment, not the one who is the problem here. We need to work on the root of the problem — what drives partner violence — not on Rihanna. I maintain that we can still refuse to watch or listen to Chris Brown, and urge others to do the same; he is part of the problem of violence against women.

We get it. It’s much easier to rail against pop stars and writer-actresses than it is to fix sexism, racism, and violence. But at some point we need to start figuring out the hard stuff, and leave the famous ladies alone.

Give Love A Chance: Break Up with ‘The Bachelor’ For Good

In this guest post by Katie M. Lucas, we reveal why the number-one rated show among women is killing romance one rose ceremony at a time.

redrose-247x300The Bachelor is terrible television. It’s anti-feminist, emotionally damaging, insulting and wildly unrealistic. We all know that – even me, who up until last Monday had never watched a single episode in the 11 years the program has been running.

I finally tuned in because I was curious. Not about the actual show – I knew enough about the premise (a group of tanned, size-zero women compete for a man’s heart AND a lifelong commitment on national television) to be offended. But I wondered how and why the show had garnered a loyal following of women. Now in Season 16, The Bachelor consistently wins ratings with all key women demos; the episode I watched was the #1 program for ladies the ages 18-34.

There are plenty of reasons to watch trashy reality TV – escapism, voyeurism, even for a confidence boost. A recent survey on Today.com deduced that many loyal viewers actually turn to reality programming to “make them feel better about their own lives”. The same is likely true for The Bachelor, where single women can take solace in the fact that their beautiful peers are no less unlucky in love, while attached femmes can feel extra grateful for their committed man.

Yet with The Bachelor, there’s a larger reason that women are flipping to ABC on Monday nights: the romance. Paulina, a 20-something in a committed relationship, explained: “There are so many reasons why I am sucked in… my completely unrealistic hope to one day live out the extravagant dates they go on, the beautiful men, and of course the hopeless romantic in me relishing every moment of the love story, likely scripted, that unfolds.”

Last month, the New York Times declared “The End of Courtship”, validating the prevalence of a culture of hook-ups and the casual hang. Women look to shows like The Bachelor as a reprieve from this depressing status quo. It seems like now that traditional love stories are fading into the background, women are realizing more, or are at least more comfortable in admitting, that they want a romance of their own – a lovely idea, even for the most independent feminist. And a dream that The Bachelor and shows like it are killing one ill-fated rose ceremony at a time.

The issue is that we’re watching a connection that’s doomed to fail. In an article for Psychology Today, Dr. Shauna H. Springer documented how ABC manipulates the bonding process, creating lavish situations where contestants are likely to displace their feelings of love and affection to the suitor instead of their actual source – the new, exciting experience. The result is what Dr. Springer refers to as an “unsustainable collision”. It’s a rush of feelings likely to fade and fall apart, which the track record of the show ultimately reflects – not one of the couples from The Bachelor are still together.

On the episode I watched, Bachelor Sean set up a “Pretty Woman” date where he took one lucky lady shopping on Rodeo drive to pick out a dress and shoes to match the diamond earrings he bought for her. (It’s never mentioned that Julia Roberts’ character was, ahem, a prostitute.) The woman was delighted, reiterating that such treatment was “every woman’s dream.” Very quickly, this date turned into a nightmare when Sean didn’t feel the romance and sent the contestant home, devastated. As the program ended, I felt sorry for everyone involved – the bachelor for having to reject this suitors so harshly, the woman who didn’t receive a rose and even the other girls who did, who had to live in a house full of animosity and false hope. Even for the remaining women who’ll be no doubt taken on the most elaborate fairy tale-esque “dates,” the collision will always be unsustainable. The cameras turn off, the dust settles and there’s nothing real behind the scenes. For the viewers at home, the takeaway is that relationships shaped by romance are a sham.

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying mindless TV or focusing on the good nuggets of kindness and connection, but these implications of The Bachelor are larger for a generation of young women. As we grasp to the last straws of traditional dating, the show projects romance as a ridiculous, orchestrated charade. The program draws a straight line from courtship to heartbreak (whether immediately after a rose ceremony or in national headlines after the finale). Even as we realize the show is scripted, this idea is absorbed into the cultural consciousness.

The Bachelor is light, easily digestible, processed fluff. It’s the TV equivalent of cotton candy – the problem is that we’re hungry for a meal of substance. The show exploits not only the idea of romance, but also the thrill of falling in love. Whether you adore or hate the show, we should all agree that we deserve more.

Katie M. Lucas is the founder and editor of CharacterGrades.com.

Amy Schumer, Mindy Kaling, and the Evolution of Girl Humor

600x400_insideamyschumer2Given the early coverage before the debut of Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Schumer this spring, I figured we were in for another dirty-girl comedian — Schumer was most often compared to Whitney Cummings and Sarah Silverman. I don’t dislike either of those ladies, but both of them, when at their best, retain the whiff of women trying to make it in a man’s comedy world. Of course, it is a man’s comedy world, and I can’t blame them, and I loooved every bit of the shock value of The Sarah Silverman Program. (I also happen to enjoy the show Cummings co-created, 2 Broke Girls. We won’t talk about Whitney.) Cummings and Silverman do the comedy equivalent of business women wearing hyper-masculine, shoulder-padded suits in the ’80s as they fought their way to boardroom levels: They made it in an astonishingly male-dominated profession by out-boying the boys.

Schumer and the also-rising talent Mindy Kaling represent a subtle shift, however, from Cummings and Silverman. They don’t shy away from indelicate topics like sex or body humor — because most modern women are a few steps beyond Jane Austen-style manners. But they don’t try to beat the guys at their own game, either. Kaling showed with her Fox sitcom The Mindy Project this season that she can do a killer awkward-shower-sex scene and poke elaborate fun at women’s love-hate relationship with romance. Schumer’s show, which is wrapping up its first season, takes a similarly female approach — not “female” humor like an eye-rolling Cathy comic strip, but humor that’s simply unique to a heterosexual person with a vagina coming of age during the early 2000s. She gives us a sketch on, for instance, “porn from a female point of view,” which shows mostly how ridiculous (and occasionally gross) sex is for women, all hairy chests coming at them and being slammed repeatedly from behind. This stands in stark contrast to those “porn for women” send-ups that show men with waxed chests doing housework. Because, ha ha, women have no desires beyond a clean house! Schumer acknowledges both female desire and the silliness of what we must endure to fulfill it. And don’t even get me started on the sketch about the guy who falls in love with her because of her terrible perm. You just need to see it.

In fact, you just need to see both The Mindy Project (now in summer reruns!) and Inside Amy Schumer. They both make great summer viewing.


The Feminism of ‘Soul Train’

35_soul train dancerTalented Friend of Sexy Feminist Lauren Ramidrew this tremendous illustration of a Soul Train dancer (don’t you want to frame it and put it in some inspirational place in your apartment?) in homage to the women she loves to watch on the quintessential ’70s dance show. She wrote us a guest post about what inspired her.

I really, really love ’70s-era Soul Train. The powerful soul and funk music. The innovative, talented Soul Train Gang. The laid-back, effortlessly cool style. I’m fascinated by early seasons of the show for many reasons, but especially by how surprisingly feminist they were.

Now, I have no idea how women were being treated behind the scenes. While the cameras were rolling, though, the gender equality on that 1970s dance floor was remarkable. Dance moves weren’t gender-specific (the funky penguin didn’t discriminate), clothing was pretty unisex, and almost everyone danced independent of each other. No exploitation. No sexualization. Just people being together and expressing their love for music and dance. Unfortunately, this level playing field seemed to fade somewhere in the ’80s, after the onset of music videos…

The woman I’ve sketched above was a standout on one of my all-time favorite episodes, filmed in 1972. I don’t know her name, but I do know she was a dynamic, athletic, creative, and skilled performer. She was portrayed on the show as a dancer first and a woman second.

This illustration is my way of paying homage to the world Don Cornelius created in the early ’70s. Love, peace and soul.


HBO’s ‘Love, Marilyn’ Gives Us a Thinking Sex Symbol

All hail Marilyn Monroe as the thinking girl’s icon trapped in a sex goddess’ body.

Feminists have long been fascinated by the life and death of the self-made siren, who came from nothing and became anything Hollywood wanted her to be so she could rise to fame. (Gloria Steinem wrote a book about her at the peak of her own notoriety as a women’s lib leader.) What Hollywood wanted, of course, was a sex symbol of mythic proportions, and it got just that from her. If it also wanted a source of endless material for years after her death, it got that, too: Reams of books have been written about her from every vantage point imaginable, from Steinem to Joyce Carol Oates to murder conspiracy theorists to Norman Mailer and the many men who admired her. Smash dedicated two ill-fated seasons to a fictional musical about her life. Michelle Williams, Ashley Judd, Mira Sorvino, and Madonna are among the many who have played the star in one way or another.

What’s well-covered territory feels fresh again in HBO’s new documentary, Love, Marilyn. I started watching it out of a sense of obligation, as a feminist and pop culture writer. But I came away feeling, for the first time, what it was like to be Marilyn, a sensation strangely absent from every other depiction I’ve ever seen. I loved Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn, but even that performance, which depicted her exquisite sadness and loneliness, still couldn’t convey to me why she was so sad and lonely. It also couldn’t show me how smart she was, and, perhaps more poignantly, how smart she wanted to be in a world that wouldn’t let her.


The She Hulk-Mary Tyler Moore Connection

Marta Acosta, the author of  The She-Hulk Diaries, guest blogs here about her heroines — She-Hulk and The Mary Tyler Moore Show‘s Mary Richards.

Sometimes we think we’re the only ones still crazy about an old television series. We channel surf and always stop when we see the images we love, listening to dialogue that still makes us laugh. The Husband says, “Haven’t you seen that before?” and I say, “Haven’t you seen documentaries about the Ottoman Empire before?” Because, really, no matter how many of those documentaries he’s seen, he’s never been able to explain the Ottoman Empire connection to footstools, so what exactly is the point? Okay, I’m going to get back to this in a minute.

When I began my novel The She-Hulk Diaries, based on the iconic Marvel character, writing about a snarky, sexy 6’7” green party girl superhero was easy as pie. (Theoretical pie because I have never mastered making a crust, which my pie-shop owning neighbor recently informed me is a genetic ability. But I digress.) She-Hulk, aka Shulky, is as big, bold, and badass as she wants to be. However, I struggled to find the authenticity in her human identity, Jennifer Walters, a highly-accomplished and painfully shy attorney. I was stepping into more than 30 years of She-Hulk canon, but most of it centered on Shulky and all of it was written by men. I wanted to give Jennifer Walters the attention she deserved.


Why I Loved ‘Behind the Candelabra’

Most critics reviewing HBO’s Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra mentioned director Steven Soderbergh’s brilliant decision to temper the flamboyance of Liberace’s life with a gritty and unflinchingly realistic framing of the story. Even the slightest tic toward taking the movie over the top could’ve felt like farce, and besides, there was plenty of over-the-topness in the story — the sets, the costumes, the plastic surgery. Maybe Soderbergh overcompensated a little, thus sapping a bit of the joy Liberace clearly took in sparkly and ornate things. But I liked his approach more than the alternative.

Because he shot it like any straightforward, serious biopic, he instead brought out both the intimacy and the intensity of Liberace’s relationship with Scott Thorson. He also, through that relationship, focused on the politics underlying their lives, and thus the lives of many gay men in the ’80s. The closest they could get to being married was for Liberace to adopt Thorson, a bizarre realization that ought to send everyone running to do whatever we can to get gay marriage legalized. And how heartbreaking to see people still trying to pretend, even after Liberace’s death, that the great love of his life was a woman! There’s something so devastating about not being acknowledged for your place in your great love’s life — even as an ex-spouse, you get some recognition at the funeral for your loss.

And, oh, the vanity! Being gay and famous made Liberace, and thus Thorson, as vulnerable to the pressure to be beautiful and young as women are. I loved the brutal cosmetic surgery sequences — I couldn’t even watch them, which I think is a good thing. We too rarely acknowledge how painful cosmetic procedures are — calling them “nips” and “tucks,” cutesy names that make us forget that this is major surgery. Not to mention that this is the creepy end result. Something about seeing men go through this on screen makes a difference, too, highlighting the inherent weirdness of it all because we’re not as used to it.

Most of all, the film normalized even a rather bizarre relationship between two men, something we could stand to see more of as we march toward the (hopefully) inevitable breakthrough of legalized gay marriage.


Gendered TV: Is ‘Game of Thrones’ for Boys, ‘Girls’ for Girls?

wallpaper-cersei-1600Pop quiz: Whom is the show Game of Thrones“made” for?

A.    Men

B.     Women

C.     All people

“All people” seems like the obvious choice, right?  No one involved with the show – not HBO, the network that broadcasts it, not showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, and certainly not George R. R. Martin, author of the books upon which the show is based – has ever said that the show is intended only for a certain gender.

And yet, some critics seem to be under the impression that Game of Thrones is a “man’s show,” and that it does not appeal to women.  In one of the earliest reviews of the show, New York Timestelevision critic Ginia Bellafante argued that the showrunners include romance plots and sex in the show “out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise.”  Bellafante goes on to state that women are uninterested in fantasy and that Game of Thrones is “boy fiction.”  More recently, in one of the worst-argued pop culture pieces I’ve ever read, Renata Sellitti of Thrillist made the sweeping generalization that women don’t like the show because it caters solely to men with its ickiness, swordplay, and nakedness.  Sellitti’s arguments were made without citation to any evidence and were insulting to both women (one of her arguments was that the plotlines are too complicated to follow) and men (they only like the show because it’s “gross” and features lots of naked breasts).

This idea that television shows, or, for that matter, any work of popular culture, is meant to be consumed by only one gender is one that needs to be eliminated.  It is not only insulting to both genders, it is bad for our culture.  Many people who would otherwise enjoy a work will dismiss it based on a silly prejudice, and many potentially great works will go unproduced out of fear that not enough people will consume it because of said prejudice.


‘The Cosby Show’: One of the Most Feminist Shows of All Time?

I’ve been overdosing on Cosby Show reruns (6-7 p.m. EST weekdays on Centric!), and watching the series as an adult, I’ve discovered something surprising: It’s feminist. Like way feminist. Like stridently feminist. The show overall is not an exercise in subtlety, of course — Bill Cosby meant to teach you all some things while making you laugh — but wow. Cosby carefully and famously avoided taking on most modern issues — namely racism, but also anything political or topical. Except, it seems, the issue of where women stood in Cosby’s vision of a perfect world. As a man who was preaching strong family, he wanted to make one thing clear: In his mind, “family” was not a euphemism for patriarchy like it is for so many others.

Countless plots and subplots involve Cosby’s character, Cliff, schooling his son-in-law, Elvin, in what amounts to feminism. Elvin arrives in the Cosbys’ lives as a blatant sexist and eldest daughter Sondra’s on-again, off-again boyfriend. This amounted to a clever plot device, since Sondra was a smarty pants going to Princeton. It made for funny, teachable conflict. And woman-power always won, though the show was careful not to get too aggressive toward the men. The men who were sexists simply didn’t know any better, and had to be taught. One episode I recently watched had Elvin trying to endear himself to mother-in-law Clair by learning to cook. After several verbal missteps — saying he was learning to do “women’s work,” for instance — he’s put in his place by nearly every Huxtable female. Then Cliff teaches him to cook a simple meal, and everyone wins.


Links For Sexy Feminists: Oscars’ Opening Fallout, Sephora Addiction, Body Acceptance, and more

Solve for XX: For a nice antidote, check out this talk by Geena Davis on media portrayals of women and girls.

Makeup Addiction?: Sephora can be fun, but beware: it’s an expensive habit. To keep it fun, moderation is key!

Women’s Health: Heart disease is a leading cause of death for women, yet too many people see it as a “men’s issue.”

The Body Beautiful: You don’t have to fall for the trap of trying to lose weight specifically because you’re getting married. Find a bit of courage from photographer Haley Morris-Cafiero, who documents others’ reactions to her body. From a medical standpoint, this article offers insight intohow doctors should approach a “weighty” conversation.


5 Feminist Shows to Watch This Winter

BunheadsGet your teen show fix from Amy Sherman Palladino’s returning ABC Family ballet drama, which is rife with great female characters of all ages. Will it change your life? No, but the banter will make your head spin.

Game of ThronesSticking by this one, too. The women of Westeros are getting more kick-ass by the second. We can barely even remember the dudes anymore.

Girls: Yep, we’re sticking by this one, backlash or not. It’s a great, gritty, realistic portrait of female friendship. It talks frankly about sex — and abortion, and HIV — like no show before it. Lena Dunham, love her or hate her, is a revelation, both for her balls-out writing style and her willingness to bare it all, literally, on screen, despite her unconventional (for Hollywood) body type.

The Good Wife: This show is so consistently good it makes us angry sometimes. And it’s feminist without wallowing in it. The amazing thing is that we stop thinking about “strong” female characters and just take them in when we’re watching. Afterwards, we realize how wonderfully varied, flawed, and admirable they are.

Portlandia: Yeah, they make fun of feminist bookstore owners, but in a loving way. And, hey, at least it’s a way to tackle feminism on TV! More importantly, Carrie Brownstein is a feminist goddess, and this show is just further proof. She rocks and does goofy comedy at least as well as the boys.


Links for Sexy Feminists: Gay marriage, ‘The Year of Heroine Worship,’ and more …

More gay marriage: Meanwhile, same-sex couples started getting legally married in Washington State this weekend. And Jezebel has a piece by a woman who grew up with two moms.

‘Year of Heroine Worship?’: New York Times critic A.O. Scott heralds 2012 as a golden age of strong female leads. New York mag’s The Cut says not so fast.

Gwen and Gavin are our aspirational-couple heroes: They are never allowed to break up. Here is some video of them singing “Glycerine” on stage together, via The Frisky, to reassure you that they are still awesome and together.

Links for Sexy Feminists: Vulvas, Sheryl Sandberg, Chelsea Welch, and more

Lights Out on Superbowl Trafficking: Beyoncé owned at Superbowl halftime. Don’t believe us?Check the NYT. But even our favorite independent lady can’t distract us from raising awareness of huge human trafficking concerns that come to light with the Super Bowl.

Vulvas are Vonderful: If the “Barbie” vulva offered by plastic surgeons makes you cringe, check out this awesome artwork with sex positive tips on a woman’s natural exterior “down there.”

Jesus the Feminist: Feminism and Christianity may not be as mutually exclusive as it seems right now.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is making waves as “a pom pom girl for feminism.” The WSJ got a sneak peak at her upcoming book, and points out that her privilege prevents her from understanding the struggles regular women face.

Chelsea Welch, the waitress who Applebee’s very controversially fired, speaks out in a new piece. Jezebel on the social justice aspects of tipping, and Feministe on the unacceptable service side of not tipping.

Sexy Feminist: P!nk

official-pnk-photos-300x154In one of her earliest songs, “Don’t Let Me Get Me,” P!nk sang, “I’m tired of being compared to damn Britney Spears/She’s so pretty, that just ain’t me.” We’ll respectfully submit that Ms. Alecia Moore has her own share of attractive physical qualities, and also assure her: Don’t worry, no one’s about to mix you and Ms. Spears up anytime again soon.

P!nk may well be the most outspokenly, unapologetically, and explicitly feminist pop-rocker currently on the charts. While many female pop stars continue to profit from “empowering” images while ducking the “feminist” label — hi, Katy Perry! — P!nk weaves feminism into the fabric of almost everything she does. She shoes off her buff bod when she feels like it, but never in a self-objectifying way. (Somehow, we’re pretty sure she wears whatever she wants and doesn’t care what anyone says about it.) She writes songs about loving sex, hating her husband, loving her husband, and hating superficial starlets. See “Stupid Girls” for quintessential example: “What ever happened to the dreams of a girl president?/She’s dancing in the video next to 50 Cent.”

Call her a mean girl if you’d like — there was a bit of feminist hand-wringing over “Stupid Girls” taking other women down. But P!nk would be the first to embrace the label; she simply says what she’s thinking. And sometimes, we need to call other women out if they’re the ones bringing us down.

If there’s anything girls need to see more of in culture, it’s women who express themselves no matter what — in love, righteous anger, or even misdirected anger. Nobody does that better than P!nk — who gives that quintessentially girly color a much-needed edge.