Stranger Things: More normal than you’d think.

I’ve been trying to write some kind of review on Stranger Things for a while now, but every time I sit down to do it, I find I just don’t have the energy.

So here goes. Really gonna try this time. Definitely gonna contain plot spoilers. This is probably best read after you’ve seen all eight episodes.

There’s about a million reviews on Stranger Things out there, the vast majority of them are full of positive hype, much of which the show deserves. If you like a nostalgic retro-feel 1980s homage, this is your jam. It’s Super 8 meets Stand by Me meets ET meets The Goonies, complete with an awesome soundtrack, solid casting, and an engaging (albeit not terribly original) plot. And it’s creepy. I’ve been craving a creepy show, and it’s been hard to find one that isn’t one rung down from torture porn (Hemlock Grove, what a crushing disappointment).

However.

Stranger Things has some major shortcomings that made it cringingly hard to watch at times. As happens with most things I watch/read, at one point I said aloud, “If they kill Barb, I’m gonna stop watching this.” Obviously I didn’t. :P But that I found myself saying that at all points to ST‘s first major weakness: predictability.

ST is at its heart a reverential throwback, playing on all manner of (especially Spielberg-esque) 1980s movie tropes, which as The Atlantic‘s Lenika Cruz points out, is both good and bad. The nostalgic ambience makes for an immersive environment, on the one hand. But on the other, the temptation to fall back on, er, other historically relevant tropes certainly makes the show less relatable for some of us.

I wasn’t upset that they killed Barb because I believe characters should never be expendable. Rather because from the moment she appeared on screen, she is immediately recognizable as precisely the kind of character deemed expendable in 80s cinema, as well as the present: nerdy, not conventionally attractive, peripheral, marginal. All things that I (and many other people who don’t generally see themselves represented in media) can connect with. And all things that, in combination with being feminine, female-bodied, and/or a woman, can be lethal for a character. The giveaway for me was the short hair. “This girl’s a goner,” I thought. Man, I hate being right.

It isn’t merely that characters like Barb are pathetic tagalongs, tripping up the much more glamorous adventures of their more conventionally attractive (in all its senses) counterparts– in this case, Nancy. And it isn’t that they rarely-if-ever are the hero protagonists. It’s that they have to die. In Barb’s case, a gruesome on-screen death. “Unnecessary” doesn’t begin to describe it. The creators, the Duffer Brothers, felt the need to dismember Barb and then later show us her rotting body to reinforce this violence.

“But but but,” I can hear the refutations of the DnD ST fandom begin, “the four heroes of the story are nerdy, not conventionally attractive, marginalized characters. They’re always getting beat up by bullies, their only ally at school is the science teacher.” That’s wonderful. I’m glad the nerds/misfits/outcasts get to be heroes for once (except that this is arguably another 80s trope– à la Goonies, Weird Science, Bill & Ted). But all those heroes have something in common: they’re (cis)boys. Barb can’t be a hero, or even a hero tagalong, and in fact it’s okay to disembowel her– ’cause she’s a girl. It’s pretty straightforward misogyny, really.

“But but but,” another refutation may start, “what do you call Eleven, if not a hero? And she’s a girl.” Sadly, the most interesting character in the story becomes a martyr for the boy-heroes, but not before they play out their heteronormative fantasies playing dress-up doll with her. Cruz’s review is a very solid description of ST‘s failures when it comes to El’s plotline, so I won’t reiterate them here.

I suppose some might try to raise Nancy as a girl-hero, but whatever character growth she accomplishes is certainly dampened by her choice to stick with her abusive boyfriend. To be fair, her alternate love interest is also her stalker at one point, so…

At the end of the day, it’s the Duffer Brothers who mold the girl/feminine/female-bodied characters on the show and choose their fate. The Duffer Brothers play out their fantasies (and the fantasies of countless [especially nerd] boys) in ST, through boy and girl characters alike– oh, and it is really that binary. Friendships, adventures, romances, and heroism all revolve around the boy characters.

I had other issues with ST, including the treatment of madness, single motherhood, and the show’s overwhelming whiteness. It’s not perfect, but Stranger Things is entertaining, and a wonderful fantasy, especially if you’re a cishet boy. Who knows, maybe Season Two will have something for the rest of us.

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Reblog: Dangerously Provocative

Feminist Philosophers

Jessica Wolfendale (co-editor of Fashion: Philosophy for Everyone)  is currently completing an article on sexual modesty. Her most recent article, “Provocative Dress and Sexual Responsibility,” is forthcoming in the Georgetown Journal of Gender and the Law. and now she’s just published a piece on being “dangerously provocative” here.

The provocatively dressed woman is dangerous. She is disruptive; a distraction and a temptation. She can lead good men to thoughts of infidelity; she can distract men and boys from the important tasks of work and education. The dangers posed by the provocatively dressed woman mean that she must be monitored and controlled. Girls must be forbidden from wearing provocative clothing to school, so that they don’t distract boys.[2] As a principal of a Canadian High School wrote in a letter to parents: “Girls wearing short skirts should think about how they sit and what is revealed when…

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The End of Men (…or not.)

A friend got me Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men a couple of months ago (thanks, E!); here (at last) is a review.

Rosin’s book has a rather pejorative title, no? But don’t fear, penis-bearers, she doesn’t intend it in as antagonistic a manner as it sounds. Rather, this book could serve as a warning for those stuck in antediluvian concepts of gender, family, and work. The most pitiful “characters” in TEoM are those guys who have lost– wives, jobs, hope for the furture– because they refused to adapt to a new and different kind of gendered environment.

Rosin suggests that there is a shift taking place in American society, one that finally puts ‘feminine’ concepts in a positive light, particularly in the workplace. It would behoove men, she says, to adopt more traditionally (and stereotypically)-feminine traits and qualities in order to move ahead in the workplace, as their traditionally-masculine traits and qualities are no longer so beneficial– and, indeed, may be hindering them.

She points to this shift as the reason for Women’s Rise, which presumably means more money-making and keeping capacity, and associated benefits: more power in family decision-making, higher status in the sociocultural realm. I enjoyed her in-depth analysis and interviews of women in managerial positions, as well as her observations of women on other up-and-coming career paths, like the pharmacy business.

The most important and provoking lesson that I took from this book, though, is that this may be the End of Men, but it is certainly not the End of Patriarchy: I was struck by how patriarchal the “successful” women featured in this book truly were. Their competitiveness, desire to achieve status and status-lending commodities, aggression and even violence– yes, women of the past were “kept down” by the Patriachy, but our liberation from It does not signal the demise of It. No, we have only obtained more power to participate in the system in a different way… And participate we do.

Nor does the End of Men free women from the oppression of Patriarchy, as the “career women” feature in Rosin’s book still very much adhere to culturally-dictated norms of sexuality and gender.

Nevertheless, TEoM provides hope, too– for women, and for men. It’s a fast read and inspires fun discussion; read it!

Hester Prynne

In American Lit during 10th grade we read the timeless, dreaded classic The Scarlett Letter. Perhaps the bane of the anti-lit student’s existence, I quite enjoyed this novel, you know, for its level of meaning and motif of struggling with sexuality, among other things.

My teacher, “Cruel” Juel, was a big fan of symbolism. From her I learned how Hester Prynne’s hair is symbolic of feminine sexuality: long and lush, Hester wears her hair down despite the disapproval of her Puritan neighbors. Maybe I took it the wrong way, but I read Cruel Juel’s interpretation as the longer a woman’s hair, the more sexual she is. Later I thought maybe she meant, the longer her hair, the more expressive of her sexuality she is. Perhaps it should be the longer the hair the more sexualized a woman is. I don’t know. But I’ve head plenty of people make the connection between hair and sexuality. And it was really awkward for me, in that class, having the shortest hair of any girl in the 10th grade (and the whole school, really). Does that mean I’m not a sexual being? I wondered.

A recent example from pop culture is Katy Perry’s “Part of Me”. In the video she breaks up with her neglectful, apparently deceitful boyfriend, cuts her hair, and joins the Marines. The hair cutting is presented as a crucial element of her cutting ties with the past/a bad relationship/etc.

Someone I used to know once made a “mistake” with her friend– maybe it was a mistake because it didn’t turn out like she thought it would. I didn’t know about it as I hadn’t seen her during a long summer break. When I did see her again, I was stunned to see that she had cut all her hair off. She used to have hair to the middle of her back, and she now had a pixie cut. It looked fantastic on her, too– not just physically, but psychic-ly as well, like something better had been released by losing part of her physical being.

Rather than losing part of her sexuality, she had inadvertently discovered a deeper part of her sexuality. And through her, so did I. She probably didn’t understand the affect it had on me.

Maybe there is a connection between sexuality and hair. I think my hair is symbolic of my sexuality in a way– not because of its length, but because of my autonomy over it, and importantly teenaged-me owning my choice to take decision-making control over my hair as I was “coming of age.”

Patriarchy: How Everyone Suffers

I’m fond of using the word Patriarchy (especially capitalized). Lots of people are. It’s a catchy, encompassing term. The problem is, Normal People tend to associate it (and thus its most ardent users, feminists) with crackpot conspiracy theory.

Can we take a minute and dissect this concept?

A few definitions of Patriarchy I have stumbled across recently are:

from Wikipedia: “Patriarchy is a social system in which the males, especially fathers, have central roles of political leadership, moral authority, and property. Many patriarchal societies are also patrilineal, meaning that property and title are inherited by the male lineage. The female equivalent is matriarchy.”

from blogger ballgame: “Patriarchy is a system of rigid rules and expectations around gender that unjustly overvalues certain qualities and undervalues others. Typically, dominant males are overvalued, and the average woman’s macropolitical agency is significantly constrained. (Patriarchal societies also frequently devalue the average man’s emotional value and possibly his micropolitical agency, though I don’t know whether this is necessarily a hallmark of patriarchy like devaluing the average woman’s political agency is).”

from Kamla Bhasin: “[The concept of Patriarchy] is a tool to help us understand our realities.” She continues, “The word patriarchy literally means the rule of the father or the the ‘patriarch’, and originally it was used to describe a specific type of ‘male-dominated family’– the large household of the patriarch which included women, junior men, children, slaves and domestic servants all under the rule of this dominant male. Now it is used more generally to refer to male domination, to the power relationships by which men dominate women, and to characterise a system whereby women are kept subordinate in a number of ways. In South Asia, for example, it is called pitrasatta in Hindi, pidarshahi in Urdu and pitratonto in Bangla.” She also adds that Patriarchy assumes different forms in different times, places, and cultures.

(Also, interesting essay here.) 

Parts and conceptual sums of these definitions, among others, have shaped my [working] concept of Patriarchy. I guess I don’t have a simple definition, but this is generally what I mean when I say it…:

Patriarchy is both a system and a way of thinking which holds certain values that benefit some peoples and individuals and necessarily discriminates against others. Although these values and their manifestations vary by culture, location, and time, a general pattern can be identified: value for competition; value for strength, power/authority, and domination; value for role conformity; value for hierarchical structure; value for masculinity. Patriarchy also devalues femininity, weakness, subordination, and deviation. The forms these values take are necessarily shaped and expressed by culture, by which ‘masculinity’, ‘femininity’, gender roles/norms/expectations are defined, and the specific values of a culture in terms of race, age, sexual orientation, etc. Hierarchy within Patriarchy is multifaceted; multiple hierarchies may exist which are interconnected or interdependent and function around concepts not only of gender but also race, age, sexual orientation, and so on.

Thus can it be that “progressive” America (in which women can vote, run for office, work outside the home, have sex with other women, and so on) is a Patriarchal society and “backwards” Afghanistan is a Patriarchal society, as well.

The BBC just had an article on Men’s Rights activists. The reason why I am so irritated by this movement is not because I want to subjugate men, don’t believe in their rights, etc. Obviously not (see my definition of feminism). What is so utterly bothersome is that these proponents are either a) complete ignorant of their victim-agent status within Patriarchy (and sometimes Patriarchy, itself), or b) want to have their cake and eat it too. That is, they want all the benefits and privileges of their Western White Wealthy Phallocentric Patriarchy without any of the consequences. Well, I’m sorry people, but if you subscribe to hierarchy (and even if you don’t), you had better know there are drawbacks for those who are not at the top.

Some of those consequences/drawbacks are nicely illustrated by the article. I will go through some of them. Please note the irony of blaming feminism for these “ills upon men” (nevermind their Patriarchal origin).

As described in the article, David Benatar’s new book addresses the various ills of men which include: being conscripted into the army, being victims of violence, losing custody of their children, and taking their own lives.

1. Conscription into the army. Last time I checked, there was a lot of hesitation (confusion?), even disgust, about women joining the army in “the West”. Yes, they can do so in a lot of countries. Yes, publicly they are praised as patriotic for their service. But American women are still not allowed into combat. Hatred of women by the military apparatus, itself, manifests as [tolerated] violence against their own. And the Ideal Soldier will never, ever be recreated as feminine or female in the eyes of the Patriarchy. Fighting for one’s country is a classic Patriarchal value in America and much of Europe, not to mention elsewhere. Blood-letting is considered masculine and unfeminine, and unfeminine women are often portrayed as “butch” and repulsive. But ultimately, allowing for the conscription of women into the army would not reduce Patriarchy, at all: the very purpose of the war machine as a tool of domination is both a manifestation of and means of perpetuating Patriarchy, regardless of whether the fighting puppets have penises or not. (Personally, I don’t think anyone should be conscripted into the army. But I’m radical like that.)

2. Victims of Violence. It’s true that men are more likely to experience and die of violent crime than women (excepting rape).  It’s also true that men are more likely to commit violent crime than women. This probably has little to do with the inherent nature of men or women as more or less violence-prone, and more to do with our socialization within a Patriarchal society. Patriarchy often dictates that men are naturally (and should be) assertive, aggressive, even forceful if that is necessary to get what one wants. Women, on the other hand, should not be aggressive, or are “naturally” more nurturing, passive, and empathetic. Men who display these attributes are labeled emasculated, effeminate, even gay (oh god, not that!) the world over, from the States to Cambodia. Women who are assertive, aggressive, or forceful are abnormal, unnatural– “bitches”, reallly. All this masculine-identified aggression is partly responsible for violence in all forms. This is not to say that women aren’t violent– of course they are, but statistically they are far less likely to be physically violent– perhaps because the Patriarchy has many recourses to put them back in their subordinated place. The other aspect of this is risk-taking; both as perpetrators and victims, men are encouraged to do more risk-taking than women. The leading cause of death for young men is accidents, and more men die of accidents than women, generally. Women are encouraged to adopt “safer” lifestyles than men. They are child-bearers and raisers, after all.

3. Losing custody of the kids. Alas, the Woman as Nurturer motif has finally come back to bite men in the ass. Patriarchy, of course, doesn’t only discriminate against women in its sometimes ironic functioning. Discrimination has long worked in apparent favor of women in this regard: women are Mothers and innate Nurturers; men are (or should be) distant, emotionally-detached Providers. You can’t rightly expect a Provider to properly raise babies, now, can you? But also, the realm of babies and children is a necessarily feminine one, for babies and children are weak, just as women are. This is why women and children need the Protector/Provider male, and why single motherhood equates to child abuse.

4. Suicide. Higher rates of suicide among men can be partly explained by the methods men employ as differentiated from women. Suicidal men statistically resort to more violent means than women, which results in higher rates of success. Although women attempt suicide more often (and have higher rates of self-harm), men actually succeed in killing themselves more often. It has been suggested that men are not only encouraged to seek out more violent means to commit suicide, but also are able to attain those means more easily (such as acquiring and using a gun). Mental illness is a major (if not the major) factor leading to suicide, and men are less likely than women to seek help over mental health issues. This tendency is also founded in normative masculinity: “real men” don’t show weakness, don’t cry, and don’t talk about their feelings. [Interesting side note: the suicide rate is actually higher for women than men in China. Between that and female infanticide, the future sure looks grim for Chinese women.]

Other points mentioned:

5. 90% of prison inmates are male. This ties in with much of the above. Value of male aggression and even violent competition are at the root of this issue, but it should also be pointed out that the majority of prison inmates are people of colour. The systems within the System are not simply based on gender, but privilege or disadvantage is based on a myriad of other factors, as well– including ethnicity and social class. Many styles of Patriarchy love White Wealthy Westerners, hence one reason why you don’t see a whole lot of them in prison. And class is of course derived from our status within the system of capitalism. Let me tell you, Patriarchy loves Capitalism. (Hehe.) They are old friends, although Patriarchy is a lot older. Capitalism has a lot going on that Patriarchy adores: cutthroat competition, domination, winners and losers, and so on. But as a way of life, Capitalism sets up a situation which almost ensures that some groups of people are going to be underrepresented in the upper classes and overrepresented as the bottomfeeders or criminals; Patriarchy helps shape how those groups are defined (as by colour, religion, etc.). As a fortune cookie once told me, “Society prepares the crime; the criminal commits it.” It should have added, “And Patriarchy unfairly molds certain groups of people into the criminal role.” If you’re about to say, “Crime is an individual’s choice,” say no more Dickensian nonsense; crime as an individual choice complete removes both the crime and the individual from the context of culture and thus makes it into a moral dilemma-scenario in a philosophy book. In other words, completely detached from reality.

6. Men are invisible victims. An American web designer in Ohio is setting up a domestic violence shelter for men. I think this is an absolutely pro idea. A lot of people, though, are probably going to laugh their heads off at this. Why? Because MEN HIT WOMEN NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND, DUH LOL. Well, that is certainly what Patriarchy wants us to believe. And, more often than not, that is the reality; most perpetrators of violence are men, most survivors and victims women and children. But not all. And an increasing number of women are becoming perpetrators (which, by the way, women have long perpetrated violence against children, no surprise there) as the physical and psychological moorings of Patriarchy continue to shift. Women are Patriarchs, too, after all. Anyhow, this shelter: it directly points to how Patriarchy does not simply function on gender, but is multidimensional. Hence why white middle class American men should think again about their fervent support of Patriarchy, for when they becomes its victims, who is left to turn to? Suddenly the marginalizers have become the marginalized. Men are supposed to be the aggressors, not the victims. Am I being redundant? Is a pattern emerging here?

7. Men’s body image. Pressure and negativity surrounding male body image has grown steadily from an almost-neutral standpoint in the industrial era of “the West”, to a nigh-obsession today. Women have experienced this since…well, who knows when, and that’s not to say male beauty standards have not also been prioritized for a long time. But for modern men, I can see why these changes should come as a shock; they’re not the fair sex, after all– women should be the ones worrying about their appearance, dammit! A man can and should be able to fuck anyone he wants regardless of how he looks, and to be loved by anyone without them caring about his appearance. My, how the times have changed. Vanity and beauty are suddenly no longer so, well, feminine. Does this mean we are now going to admit to the subjectivity of beauty and toss out antiquated “ideals” and norms that control people’s lifestyles and cognitions? Somehow I doubt it…

There are a lot of other points mentioned in the article that should be addressed within a conceptual framework that accounts for Patriarchy. Maybe I’ll get to them later, but I don’t want to bore you… The point is, Patriarchy is shit. It’s not just bad for women. It’s bad for men. It’s bad for black people. It’s bad for Cambodians. It’s bad for Canadians. It’s bad for the elderly. It’s bad for kids. It’s really really bad for young, black, poor single moms, and it’s the least bad for White Wealthy Western males. This is not just about sex. This is not just about colour or class. And no, Men’s Rights Activists, you cannot have your cake and eat it, too.