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.

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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Who Writes the Rules

Who decides what the rules are when it comes to gender and sex?

The short answer is, the People at the Top. You may not be surprised to discovered that, in patriarchal cultures (which describes most cultures), this is men. We can be more specific, however: bottom-to-top position in this hierarchy is determined by many things, and the closer one gets to the top, the richer, more educated, and lighter-skinned these men get. Upon discovering that the People at the Top are predominantly wealthy, white, Western males, understanding gendered rules and expectations becomes a lot easier. Patriarchal hierarchies of dominance vary from place to place (and even time to time), but the patterns of wealth, education, skin colour, ability, age, sexual orientation, and so on are fairly consistent.

As many people have discussed, not only in terms of gender but also in terms of race and other categories, the People at the Top do not actively and consciously determine and define gendered rules, necessarily; rather, it is largely through their mere existence as Normal and Best (or Default, as some say– I like that) that definitions of other persons are shaped relative to them. Male equals normal, female equals abnormal or deviant; male equals default, female equals Other.

That’s the short answer, but it’s not whole answer. The more accurate, complete, and much longer answer is: everybody. We all decide what gendered rules and expectations will be, by following them. And perhaps even more importantly, by punishing those who deviate. It comes so naturally to us it seems biologically innate to call the boy in your eighth grade class who was caught wearing toe nail polish a fag. Hatred and fear of deviance, however, is not innate; it is learned. We are taught early and often that deviation is bad, most appreciably by being punished, ourselves. Normal/good little boys do not play with dolls; they pretend to shoot each other. Normal/good little girls do not pretend to shoot each other; they sweetly and passively care for their dolls. Full-grown men do not cry. Full-grown women do not have double mastectomies. Et cetera. This is reinforced to us all our lives. We witness what happens to those who deviate, and we learn to participate in their persecution, be it in the comments section of Youtube or NPR, or on sports teams, or in ballet class, or in our classrooms, or within our own families (this is often referred to as gender policing). If you are not doing the persecuting, chances are you might be persecuted– so which side would you want to be on? This is the question faced by every single person who lives within the confines of patriarchal culture.

The next time you hear someone tell a young man “boys don’t cry” (or “you throw like a girl”, or whatever), call to mind the question: Who decides what the rules are when it comes to gender and sex? You do. Either through your inaction or by validating that young man’s feelings, you are helping to decide what the rules are.

In order to contemplate the rules and think about how you’d like them defined, they first have to be recognizable. For most people, gender rules are normative and it would never occur to them to question them. Those who do are said to be “challenging Nature” and pushing “unnatural ideas”. Challenging our conceptions of “natural” is a good place to start.

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 good 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, at least, 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.

Interestingly, it turns out that Cruel Juel was right in my case, that 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, my choice to take on full decision-making for it as I was “coming of age”, and because I don’t let other affect my self-perception of my own image– and thus my sexuality.