I wrote a piece for The Telegraph today!
In it, I talk about the media representation, dehumanisation, and apathy towards black women who are victims of violence.
Read more here –
I wrote a piece for The Telegraph today!
In it, I talk about the media representation, dehumanisation, and apathy towards black women who are victims of violence.
Read more here –
“I love Asian women!” “Asian women are so hot.” “Japan, Korea, China?” “Asian women know how to treat a man!”
Do any of these phrases sound familiar to you? If they do, congratulations, you’ve come across (or you are) a man — probably white — with so-called “Yellow Fever”.
As an Asian woman living in a country full of white men, I meet these guys a lot. You know, the ones who blurt out all of the above sound bites, who try to guess what ‘type’ of Asian I am, whose favourite actresses are Gong Li, Lucy Liu and Zhang Ziyi, who insist on discussing Korean/Japanese/Chinese dramas with me despite me not having seen the series in question, who tell me about all the other Asian women they’ve dated, who complain about how ugly white women are and why Asian women are so much better, and who try to get me to tell them that white men are so much better than Asian men.
Of course, such exotifiying sentiments are meant to be complimentary. After all, the patriarchy asserts, what could be higher praise for a woman than the approval of a white man?
Only…it isn’t praise. It is patronising and dehumanising, and inextricably bound up with the social power of race and gender. To them, ‘Asian’ is our defining characteristic, in a way that ‘white’ would never be used to define themselves. When the “Yellow Fever”ed men speak to me, they aren’t speaking to me, they’re speaking to their idea of an Asian woman, their fantasy made flesh. They’re speaking to every Asian woman they’ve ever seen in the media, every Asian porn actress they’ve ever leered at on their computer screens. My personality tries to push itself forward, but is rendered invisible, obscured by the lenses of racial stereotype.
And what a horrifically misogynistic stereotype it is too. Have a wander round any online dating site or Internet forum discussing Asian women, and you’ll notice that one of the most attractive things about Asian women, according to white men, is our apparent ability to “treat our man right”. But what does “right” entail? Well, to put it simply, “treating a man right” is to treat him as superior. Time and time again, Asian women are lauded for our supposedly meek and gentle natures, for our submissive attitudes, for our rejection of feminist values. (Hah!) Through their fetishisation and racist assumptions about Asian women, they reveal their attitudes towards relations with women in general: one should be quiet and meek, contented with a subordinate status, and eager to serve.
How, you may ask, do these men reconcile their ideas of Asian women with the existence of Asian feminists? Easy; they decide that she has been “brainwashed” by Western feminist values, has been contaminated, and has neglected her cultural roots. The fact that they assume submissiveness to be so inherent in Asian women that any feminist ideas must be mere parroting of the ideas of white women, is insulting in the extreme. Nor do I appreciate their assumption that Asian culture is static. I would love for them to cast their eye over their own cultural history, going back hundreds of years, and then tell me — what is “Caucasian culture”? And by rejecting the values their ancestors espoused, have they betrayed their cultural roots?
So please, men with ‘Yellow Fever’, stop objectifying, fetishising and exotifiying us. Instead, try seeing us as individual human beings with individual, unique personalities. Cool idea, no? And next time you have the urge to tell me about all the Asian women you’ve dated and how much you loved Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or Memoirs of a Geisha — don’t.
Picture the following scenes. It’s November, 2012, and President Obama has just won the US election. Amid the celebrations, keyboard warriors take to social media to comment, “Obama? President? What a joke, he can’t tap dance at all.” Or perhaps a group of students are in the classroom learning about Einstein, and wonder aloud, “Why is Einstein so admired? He clearly didn’t know much about hairdressing.”
Naturally, we recognise these to be completely absurd. One’s ability to tap dance has no impact on one’s effectiveness as a leader, and to be a theoretical physicist, hairdressing skills are unnecessary. To link them is simply ludicrous. Yet, this line of ‘logic’ was precisely what drove the actions of a horde of social media users in the wake of Marion Bartoli’s victory in the Wimbledon final.
While Bartoli, overwhelmed by happiness, hugged her family and friends, these men (for they were mostly men) took to Twitter and Facebook to express their anger over how “ugly” and “fat” she was. And judging from their tone and language used, there was some serious rage going on. Laura Bates of @EverydaySexism captured and tweeted a tiny selection of the comments, which you can see below. (Warning: abusive, violent and misogynistic language)
What is most bewildering is this idea that Bartoli “didn’t deserve to win”, and that she “shouldn’t have won”, due to the fact that she was apparently, to them, so unattractive. I’ve always thought of the Wimbledon Championships as a tennis tournament, and wasn’t aware that it was a beauty pageant as well. I can think of plausible reasons why an athlete might not deserve to win — perhaps they simply got lucky on the day, perhaps they constantly display unsporting behaviour, perhaps the referee/umpire/judge made a mistake. But an athlete being less attractive than their opponent is not one of those reasons, and to say so is every bit as absurd as condemning Einstein’s achievements on the basis of his hairstyle.
Of course, this weird logic only seems to apply to women, and Marion Bartoli is not the first female athlete to be judged on her looks instead of her skills. During the Olympics last summer, British weightlifter Zoe Smith had to defend herself from a bunch of sexist Twitter trolls, keen to share with her their thoughts regarding her appearance. After some pictures of Olympic triple-gold medallist Leisel Jones appeared in the media, showing her with a tummy that was (oh, horror!) not completely flat, the public was abuzz with criticisms. And we hardly need to be reminded that Serena Williams has always been on the receiving end of similar vitriol.
This isn’t confined to female athletes either; women in every possible field are somehow expected to meet with the approval of the male gaze, even when physical beauty has nothing whatsoever to do with their jobs. From politicians like Hillary Clinton, Julia Gillard and Angela Merkel, to Professors like Mary Beard, to singers like Susan Boyle, it seems that beauty is a compulsory attribute for every woman to have, if we do not wish to be bombarded by misogynistic trolls publicly declaring their fury and hatred.
What does physical attractiveness have to do with sport? Absolutely nothing. And if we want to encourage little girls to pick up a racquet, to throw a ball, and to aspire to sporting greatness, then we need to stop cementing the notion that female athletes, and indeed all women, will only be successful and appreciated if they happen to meet societal beauty standards as well. Marion Bartoli is a tennis player who has just won her first Wimbledon title. Let us rejoice with her and recognise her for her sporting success.
When feminists decry the objectification of women, most people immediately think of the images that saturate our magazines, movies, adverts and the Internet, of women in varying stages of undress, dolled up and presented for the male gaze. Yet, while sexual objectification is a huge problem, it is, sadly, only a fraction of the objectification of women that permeates our world, from the moment we enter it.
Because it is all too obvious and difficult to ignore, we tend to focus on sexual objectification. The difference between the way women and men are portrayed in national newspapers and other media is stark— women are too often reduced to the sum of their body parts, heavily photoshopped to fit into an ever narrowing ideal of female beauty. It grabs our attention, we recognize that something isn’t right, and we confidently assert that this is sexism in action.
And we’re right, of course. Yet, an overemphasis on the ‘sexual’ aspect can obscure the much more problematic aspect of ‘objectification’, the iceberg of which sexual objectification is the visible tip. After all, being presented in a sexual way doesn’t always mean objectification. Sexy pictures of men, in contrast to sexy pictures of women, frequently portray them as sexual subjects, actors exercising their sexuality, instead of objects meant to gratify someone else’s sexuality.
So, what do I mean when I say that sexual objectification is simply the most visible part of objectification? Well, let’s start by differentiating between subject status and object status. While a subject is active, with agency, an object is passive, being acted upon. This dichotomy is reflected in our grammar; when we hear, “Fiona stroked the cat,” we recognize that ‘Fiona’ has subject status, while ‘the cat’ has object status. Now in an ideal world, we would find ourselves randomly cast as either subject or object at different times, depending on the situation, with no problems. However, in society’s dominant narrative, subject and object status is heavily gendered, with men granted subject status the vast majority of the time, and women severely objectified.
These messages start right from the cradle. A study by Janice McCabe showed that male characters in children’s books far outnumber female ones, and that even when characters (eg. animals) are gender-neutral, they are often referred to as male when parents read them to their kids. This pattern is consistent in children’s TV shows, where only a third of lead characters are girls. The Smurfette principle, where only one female character is present in an entire cast of male ones, still holds true for many TV shows, with ‘female’ seemingly a characteristic of its own.
Having been brought up on a diet of stories revolving around boys and men, this male-centeredness continues to dog us throughout our lives. The vast majority of films produced tell the stories of men, with women cast as girlfriends, wives, or mothers, or in other periphery roles. In a typical year, only about 12-15% of top grossing Hollywood films are women-centric, focussing on women and their stories.
It isn’t just the media that does this. In everyday conversation, male pronouns dominate our speech and ideas. Every dog we see is a ‘he’, every stick figure a ‘he’, humans thought of as simply ‘mankind’. There are exceptions, though. Boats, cars, bikes and ships always seem to be ‘she’, but this is hardly exciting once we realise that they are all objects, and possessions of (usually) men, at that.
Anyway, the cumulative effect of all this is that we are socialising generation after generation to view the world, and the women in it, from the point of view of men. As a result, only men are seen as full and complete human beings, not women. Women are objectified — this means we are denied agency, and are seen from the outside, our own consciousness, our thoughts and feelings, utterly overlooked.
It is because society tells us that women are objects, not subjects, that Tomb Raider’s executive producer, Rob Rosenberg, finds it natural to assert that players “don’t project themselves into [Lara Croft’s] character,” that they think “I’m going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her.” Even though they are actually playing as Lara.
It is because society tells us that women are objects, not subjects, that Stephen Hawkings can declare women to be “a complete mystery”, and have newspapers gleefully latch on to this, declaring women “the greatest mystery known to man”. It is a common refrain for men to bleat about not understanding women, but this is because they have simply never tried, because society has trained them to never look at life through the eyes of a woman.
It is because society tells us that women are objects, not subjects, that when society is presented with a case of male violence or sexual abuse, everyone looks at it from his point of view: “Oh, he must have been provoked to have done that,” “He was a nice man who just snapped,” “He must have been confused by her signals,” “Maybe he’s been falsely accused, how terrible to have to go to jail for that.” With every victim-blaming, rape / violence apologist comment, society reveals through whose eyes it looks, and the answer is invariably the man’s.
It is because society tells us that women are objects, not subjects, that even good men, when speaking out against violence against women, tell other men to imagine her as “somebody’s wife, somebody’s mother, somebody’s daughter, or somebody’s sister,” it never occurring to them that maybe, just maybe, a woman is also “somebody”.
It is frightening to consider just how deeply entrenched objectification of women really goes. We must certainly combat sexual objectification, but the battle will not end there. Women are objectified in more profound ways than we realise, and we must tear down every entwined shred of the patriarchy, in order to achieve our modest goal of being recognized and treated as human beings.
Who owns your body? Well, you do, of course. But if you’re a woman, I’m afraid society doesn’t quite see it that way.
Earlier this week, Angelina Jolie made headlines when she disclosed her decision to undergo a preventative double mastectomy, to reduce her risk of breast cancer from 87% to less than 5%. While many were supportive of her choice and courage, hordes of outraged men (and some women) took to Twitter and Facebook to mock and condemn her for it. Among them were comments expressing sympathy for Brad (“Poor Brad”), jeering at Brad (“Serves him right for leaving Jennifer Aniston”), sadness for themselves that Angelina’s breasts had been removed (“There is no God”, “The best thing about her is gone”), as well as downright commands that she reverse the procedure (“Please put the boobs back on your chest”).
Here’s a small selection, credit to @isawfireworks on Twitter:
Let’s think about that for a little bit. Here is a woman, who is a world-famous actor, director and screenwriter, with Golden Globe and Academy awards to her name. Not only does she have a great career and a loving family, she is a UNHCR ambassador, and has invested her time and effort in bringing humanitarian aid around the world. But apparently, none of that matters. The greatest thing about her, that she should never let go of, no matter what the cost to her health, are her breasts.
We’ll come back to this later, but for now, let’s move on to another incident that ignited social media in the UK this week. UKIP, a far-right political party, has always been associated with offensive views, and yesterday saw them the butt of many a joke as it was revealed that one of their biggest donors believed that women wearing trousers were being deliberately hostile towards men. In fact, he believed this so deeply that he wrote an entire book about it, entitled ‘Women in Trousers: A Rear View’.
Here are some priceless quotes:
“Women have big bottoms, they are meant to have big bottoms. Countless women who would look lovely in dresses or skirts are embarrassingly unattractive in trousers.”
“Walk along any street and you see women using trousers like a uniform every single day. This is hostile behaviour. They are deliberately dressing in a way that is opposite to what men would like. It is behaviour that flies against common sense, and also flies against the normal human desire to please.”
Fortunately, his remarks were met with hilarity and ridicule, but as pointed out in the blog HerbsandHags, his comments are merely an extreme example of what many men truly feel — that they have a right to be pleased by the female body. Any, and every, female body.
And that is what links the incident of the hostile trousers with the backlash against Angelina Jolie. It stems from the idea that women’s bodies are public property, in particular, men’s property, and thus everything that a woman chooses to do with it is viewed as a way of pleasing them, or as an affront to them. It is for this reason that strange men on the Internet feel entitled to chastise Angelina Jolie for prioritizing her health over their right to ogle her breasts, and it is for this reason that whenever a woman is unhappy about her weight, random men think it a great comfort to her to proclaim, “It’s fine, I prefer larger women.” Because, didn’t you know, women’s bodies exist primarily for male pleasure.
The unspoken notion that it is not women, but men, who possess the rights to our bodies, is a dangerous one. Today, I was dismayed to find out that three men in Sweden had been cleared of rape charges, despite the horrific nature of what they had done, and the fact that they clearly had not had consent. (Read more about the case here. TW.) The judge’s verdict? “People involved in sexual activities do things naturally to each other’s body in a spontaneous way, without asking for consent.”
You see, when we are not considered to be the legitimate owners of our bodies, then our decisions regarding them become unimportant. Thus, the Swedish woman’s desire to not have something done to her body was seen as less valid than the rapists’ desire to carry it out; Angelina Jolie’s desire to have surgery was seen as less valid than men’s desire to leer at her breasts; and women’s desire to wear what they like is seen as less valid than men’s opinions on what they should be wearing. These vary in severity and the horror of their consequences, but it is the same pernicious mentality that underlies them all.
Who owns our bodies? We do. And it’s time the world knew that.
Society has long known the power of words. In 1838, Edward Bulwer-Lytton coined the phrase, “the pen is mightier than the sword”, a phrase that has proven its own point by marching its triumphant way down the generations. Books and speeches have been immortalised as turning points in history, ideas that have taken root and changed the world. And as the power of words has been celebrated, the power of silencing has emerged as a crucial tool of the patriarchy, a way of keeping women underfoot. This is why old texts like the bible contain the following lines – “Let your women keep silence in the churches, for it is not permitted unto them to speak” (1 Corinthians 14:34), and “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence” (1 Timothy 2:12). It is why many cultures around the world require women to be demure and soft-spoken, speaking infrequently, and why, even in what we think of as the progressive West, outspoken women are regularly labelled ‘shrill’ or ‘hysterical’. It is a pattern cut from the same cloth, a way of ensuring that women’s views are kept hidden away, that we are kept compliant in the face of a system that has always been stacked against us.
Of course, it isn’t only women’s words that are erased. Any man bold enough to speak out against the patriarchial order is mocked for it, called a ‘gender traitor’ or ‘pussywhipped’, sometimes even leading to social exclusion. Given the immense social pressure to go along to get along, it is no wonder many choose to stay silent, no matter how much they may disagree with the rape joke that has just been told, or how much they dislike seeing their friend sexually harass a passing woman. And in this way, by meting out punishment to its critics, the status quo maintains itself.
And when it comes to domestic violence, the silence can be deafening. There is an overwhelming tendency in society to see it as a personal problem between two people, something they should sort out for themselves, and that it isn’t our place to judge the relationships of others. Our judgment centers around the woman in the relationship—we wonder why she doesn’t leave, speculate on her individual character, all the while viewing it as her problem to bear, rather than as a crime plain and simple, committed by the perpetrator. But here’s the key thing. Whenever we portray domestic violence as somehow less bad than random violence against a stranger, we’re furthering the idea that being in a relationship automatically gives a man the right to a woman’s body, and that being with him is tantamount to consenting to be hurt in that way. I feel this is really important, so I’ll say it again: Whenever we think that a woman who just doesn’t leave is responsible for what a man does to her, and that he is less culpable than if he had beaten a stranger, we’re implying that being in a relationship with him is akin to giving consent for whatever he might do to her. In other words, we’re equating a relationship with ownership, and decide that what goes on within it is nothing to do with us.
We need to break this silence, and decry domestic violence as an epidemic that is everybody’s problem. In the aftermath of the Cleveland kidnapping horror, it has emerged that warning signs aplenty were ignored—Castro’s long record of violence against women, neighbours’ calls to police treated lightly, and not followed up on. Could it be that, given that these incidents were taking place in a house, it was seen as ‘just’ domestic violence by the police? A personal relationship problem, and not a ‘real’ crime?
If you follow my blog or regularly read feminist writings, you’ll be familiar with the fact that 1 in 4 women will be a victim of domestic violence in her lifetime. Yet despite this staggering statistic, it is still largely marginalized as a ‘women’s problem’, and virtual silence in the mainstream about it as a pressing social issue. Male celebrities (especially white male celebrities) who have committed domestic violence, like Charlie Sheen, John Lennon, Mel Gibson, and Gary Oldman, have been subject to a ripple of condemnation, before the curtain of silence fell again. And while many brave survivors have spoken out about it, the onus cannot be placed solely on them. Every single one of us has a part to play in breaking the silence that has served to protect perpetrators for so long.
So what does ‘breaking the silence’ entail, exactly? Well, we could start by firmly disagreeing whenever someone makes a joke about violence against women. We could write to our MPs, asking them to make tackling DV a priority, and to increase funding for women’s shelters and other support services. We could volunteer at said services. We could contact companies selling products that promote or trivialize domestic violence and let them know how abhorrent we find it. We could air our views online, take to Twitter, write a blog, post on Facebook. We could challenge those who make excuses for violent men, and publicly refute those who mock or blame the victims. And we (especially the men amongst us) need to be far more vocal in challenging other men, and ask what it is about male culture that continually churns out men who abuse and control women.
None of this is easy. But if we keep turning a blind eye to the rampant problem of domestic violence in society, and insist on seeing it as isolated cases of relationships gone sour, if we excuse celebrity men for their actions and stigmatize the victim instead of the perpetrator, then the culture of male violence against women will continue to flourish in the silence of our complicity.
* If you know a friend or family member who is experiencing domestic violence, please see this guide from Women’s Aid on what you can do to support them.
The next time you’re at a cinema, watching TV, at a play, or even just passing by posters on the street, try this little experiment. Keep count of the number of women you see, and weigh that against the number of men. And for each person that you see, ask yourself just one question — is this person being objectified? That is to say, is sexual attractiveness the main identifying characteristic of this person?
As you probably know, this category will, without a doubt, be overwhelmingly female. Everywhere you look, the voices and thoughts of men push their way to the forefront, while women lounge silently in the background in decorative poses. Out of the 100 top-grossing films of 2010, only 19 centered around women, and according to the Media and Gender Monitor, only 24% of news stories globally were about women. (See more stats here) In media, women are denied personhood, and are reduced to sexual objects of flawless outward beauty.
Far from being “harmless fun”, the battle cry of misogynists everywhere, this one-dimensional portrayal of women is deeply damaging. In a 2010 paper by sociologist Stephanie Berberick, she outlines how the rising rate of cosmetic surgeries and eating disorders is related to the objectification of women in the media, and draws a link between this and violence against women. Young girls, in particular, are incredibly vulnerable to this endless slew of messages that their worth lies in how they look, and their ambitions are pulled in the direction of achieving physical perfection, to the detriment of other goals and opportunities.
Last year, The MissRepresentation project summed up the problem with the line, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Generations of women have grown up in a world, reflected through the media, where men go off on adventures, save the world, run the country, go off into space, achieve sporting excellence, develop as human beings. And women? Women are beautiful. The lucky ones get fallen in love with.
Which is why I was excited when I received an email about a docu-series called The Empowerment Project: Extraordinary Women Doing Extraordinary Things. Led by Sarah Moshman and Dana Cook of Heartfelt Productions, the project aims to share the stories of inspirational women in a variety of career fields — how they got to where they are, their biggest challenges and how they overcame them, what it’s like to be a woman at the top of their particular profession. To make this vision a reality, however, the project needs funding, and needs to reach at least $25,000 by May 27.
You can have a look at the list of women they plan to interview on their Kickstarter page, and have a preview of their first interview, done with Jill Soloway, Sundance best director winner and director of Afternoon Delight, United States of Tara and Six Feet Under. The entire project will be undertaken by an all-women crew, who will not only do the interviewing, but will showcase their thoughts and experiences as they grow and learn on their journey.
If, like me, you’re tired of seeing and hearing only men wherever you go, if you’re tired of all-male expert panels on TV and endless male voices talking about their experiences on the radio, and tired of the constant portrayal of women as no more than instruments for male pleasure, then you’ll understand why this project is so worthwhile. Highly successful women are so often denied a platform that young girls have little opportunity of seeing what they could truly achieve, and too many believe that their only chance of success is through dieting, cosmetic surgery and a rich husband.
So get clicking, pledging and sharing, and together, let’s help make this happen. One project alone may not turn the tide on the abysmal state of female representation in the media, but we need to make it known that we reject the sexist depiction of women as purely aesthetic beings, and that we are hungry to hear and learn from women who have pursued their dreams and achieved great things. And in this mountainous battle, every little pebble counts.