Why We Should All Want to be Bad-Ass Superwomen (And Why We Don’t)

This week, I really want to put an emphasis on this concept of Straw Feminism. Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency defines the Straw feminist as “a trope that is  a deliberately created, exaggerated caricature of a feminist that is used to undermine and ridicule feminist movements.” Straw feminism is probably the main factor behind why many people associate feminism with crazy, radical, militant women, fighting against sexism and inequality that really doesn’t exist.

I know Straw Feminism works, because it worked on me. For a long time this was my exact opinion on Feminism. But the thing is, I grew up idolizing a lot of really awesome female characters from some really awesome shows. I mean, my friends and I were constantly playing some variation of Xena: Warrior –Moon-Princess-who-also-slays-vampires-while-wearing-a-yellow-Ball-gown-because-Bell-is-the-best-Disney*-princess-but-I’m-also-secretly-Spiderman (not Spider Girl because she was lame and why do the boys get all the cool superheroes?”) If I had all these great bad-ass women to look up to, where did this anti-feminism ideology come from?

*I was not immune to Disney, okay? I can’t help it. I didn’t know what Stockholm syndrome was when I was a kid.

Answer? Everywhere. There has been a strategic attack against feminism that continues to this day – and I know this may sound like an extreme thing to say – but when you start to think about it, you see it literally everywhere. If you don’t believe me, check out this villain from the Power-Puff Girls.

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Her name is Femme Fatal. The logo on her outfit is the “woman” symbol. Her gun matches. The beginning of the episode starts by showing us the happy and peaceful wherever they live, where everyone gets along and there is no such thing as gender inequality. Femme Fatal comes along and manages to convince the Powerpuff girls to see sexism where none exists. Then they start TERRORIZING the men of the town while screaming in the name of feminism. This is a kids show. Aimed at little girls. They are telling little girls that feminism makes you crazy.

I mentioned Anita Sarkeesian in my last blog, and she takes a really in depth look at this episode in her video on Straw Feminism. Her other examples are Phil and Lil’s mother from Rugrats, the group of Women’s studies majors and self-proclaimed feminists featured in Legally Blond, and, this one breaks my heart because I love her so, the 3rd season of Veronica Mars. I cannot emphasise enough how much I want to you watch this video. It will wrinkle your brain.

Since I watched that enlightening video, I’ve been playing a game I like to call “spot the Straw Feminist.” I was really just trying to be more aware of it, but the game became so easy I was really glad I didn’t make it a drinking game, because my liver really can’t handle that kind of abuse. So out of the group, I picked one that at first glance is a pretty trivial moment in a movie trailer, but actually really illustrates just how ingrained straw feminism is within pop culture, that not only do we not really notice, we laugh at it.

Let’s check out this trailer for Pitch Perfect. Click Here For the link

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Looks fun right? If you didn’t bother watching, let’s sum up. Boys Vs. Girls. Battle of the sexes. Classic, harmless, entertaining. The film is basically Glee for University aged kids too embarrassed to say they watch Glee*.  It’s so much fun in fact that they live in a world where needing a rape whistle on campus is a ridiculous over exaggeration of university life! HILARIOUS!

*me

Go back and watch just the first 10 seconds of the trailer. Kendrick’s character arrives to her first day of University and is greeted by an enthusiastic student rep, whose first action is to give Kendrick a rape whistle, informing her in a happy chirp “not to use it unless it’s really happening!”

Kendrick responds with a sarcastic eye roll, clearly dismissing the advice. Now, upon first glance this may seem a little trivial. It sets up Kendrick as an above it all character that doesn’t want to deal with the over enthusiastic people that tend to come with the whole university experience.

But it also accomplishes something else. (It touches on the same problems Anita brings up for Veronica Mars) The film is about an all-girls singing group versus an all-boys singing group. SO MUCH FUN! So in these first few seconds of the trailer, it creates a world were a young woman receiving a rape whistle is viewed as over enthusiastic, and therefor unnecessary (i.e. women on a university campus in the world of this movie don’t really need to worry about being raped), and it sets up a space where a group of women can get together to sing and to compete against a group of men, but it’s not feminism. Because the only inequality they face at this University is that maybe the boys are better at group dance numbers.

What exactly did this 10 second interaction manage to dismiss? The fact that Rape on University campuses is a real and serious problem. Between 2006 and 2008, Harvard University alone had 128 reported cases of rape. And those are just the ones reported. By laughing at the expense of this character trying to provide protection to fellow women on her campus, we dismiss the work of thousands of young women working on University campuses in real life to try to make them safer, by providing things like rape whistles, safe rides home, and on-campus security.

In addition, when the student rep says “don’t use it unless it’s actually happening,” it implies that women cry wolf about sexual assault. This is used a lot to discredit victims of sexual assault, and is really along the lines of “innocent until proven guilty” or I guess “totally fine until they can prove they were sexually assaulted.” The more prevalent this belief is, the more grief women who are victims of sexual assault have to go through if they actually come forward and report it. In the States is estimated that 54% of sexual assaults go unreported, in Canada, only as many as 6 in 100 are reported. This can be due to a lot of reasons, but a prominent one is that women feel too ashamed to come forward, and don’t want to have to publically deal with something so personal. If actual victims of sexual assault are that unwilling to admit it happened to them, what are the chances a woman would lie about it? In Canada, only 2-4% of reports are found to be false. It’s just so rare it’s insulting to imply otherwise.

I’m not saying to boycott Pitch Perfect. When it comes to sexism in films, this is pretty minor. I also don’t want everyone to start picking apart every minor detail of a film in a never ending search for sexism. But the fact that this was the very first line in the trailer? The dismissal of feminism is the very first thing they want the audience to know about this film. That is incredibly telling of anti-feminist attitudes so ingrained in mainstream popular culture. It’s amazing how we are just programmed to be dismissive of serious issues effecting women, like sexual assault and the concept or rape whistles. With little tiny jokes like that written into almost all media these days, it’s no wonder it’s hard to convince young women that we don’t have equality, and that Feminism is still something we need. So, be media aware. Think critically and shit. Pay attention, because little jabs like this do a whole lot of damage.

LINKS AND SOURCES

Sexual Assault on Canadian University Campuses

For more on American College safety Ranks

Sexual assault statistics

In Canada
In the USA

World Wide

9 thoughts on “Why We Should All Want to be Bad-Ass Superwomen (And Why We Don’t)

  1. I just finished watching the video of The Straw Feminist. And it really is such an interesting concept that I’ve never really given much thought to before. It is so strange to see such powerful, kick-ass, independent female characters, like Veronica Mars, be contrasted against the “feminist” villains. Because if there’s anything I consider Veronica to be, it is a feminist, or at least, a feminist icon. But according to the show, she can’t be, because the actual feminists are just men-hating villains. It sucks (and you know how I hate to say bad things about Veronica Mars). Even the Powerpuff Girls video is depressing, because Femme Fatale actually does bring up accurate, valid points about the existence of female superheroes, and she’s still the villain of the show. I did notice the reference when I first saw the trailer for Pitch Perfect, though, and it stood out to me. Don’t use it unless it’s really happening? That’s a horrible thing to say. But you’re right, it is relatively minor (not to be overlooked – recognized, but not obsessed over). Fortunately, I think the inclusion of Rebel Wilson as “Fat Amy” may make up for it – she’s awesome, talented, funny, comfortable with her own body, and can sing apparently too, and gives girls someone to look up to other than just all thin actresses all the time.

    • Yes indeed I find it very interesting that many women friends of mine (MA or PhD students in Psychology!) who agree with almost all of the positive fundamental principles of feminism (which really are fundamental human rights all people should expect) – equal rights and wage earning, reducing power differentials, protection against sexual harassment, right for women to choose whether to have kids or not or a career or not etc., are TERRIFIED and voice DISGUST to call themselves feminist. It is the “F-word” (check out the short documentary by the same name). I thought it was simply the old myths about what feminism that were causing this fear for awhile (also a few that were presenting a compliant image to the men in power in the department so it could help them gain their jobs as they retire and then have the power to say what they actually want, which is ingenious, though a little two-faced – this is not just my thoughts they have admitted freely that they believed this was the strategy they needed to take), but it didn’t really make sense that so many exceptionally talented, intelligent women would disconnect from anything with the word feminist just because of the easily spotted explicit image of the man-hating bra burner that most know is myth. In the updated war on feminism you speak of, the “straw feminist” image definitely makes more sense given how it is so subtly tied to the juxtaposed image of strong female leads in a variety of media.

  2. So… there are 2 things I wanted to comment on this. 1. I noticed you spelled Belle wrong. The disney princess. She’s french so there’s an e at the end. 2. The stuff about rape made me think of these articles that bring up the gaming topic again http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/features/9766-The-R-Word and http://www.kotaku.com.au/2012/05/three-words-i-said-to-the-man-i-defeated-in-gears-of-war-that-ill-never-say-again/ Both of them are interesting and I figured you might have something to say about them. They talk about how people yell rape all the time online like it’s no big deal. Potential inspiration for a future blog post???

    • I only saw this now because apparently I don’t believe in reading other people’s comments are something. Also, I’m too lazy to sign in. Anyways, I just wanted to say that I’m glad you brought this up. I’ve actually read that second article before, and I’ve opened the first in another tab to read now. I just wanted to second the desire to see a future blog post on this because, my god, I could write a book about the prevalence of rape culture in gaming.

  3. The Pitch Perfect trailer showed up on my tumblr dash yesterday, and I watched it and was excited because a cappella groups are one of my weaknesses, you guys. But the FIRST TEN SECONDS already included a dismissal of rape as a problem lololololol. The timing was nice, since just the evening before I’d gone on something of a rant to my sister about the offhand jokes about sexual harassment and rape made in the 21 Jump Street movie (which…is a thing that happened) and how my inability to find them as anything but uncomfortable was simply because I didn’t jive with “guy humour.” But since Pitch Perfect is clearly not being marketed as a film aimed at male audiences, this is clearly not an isolated issue. I’m getting off topic. Point is, good catch here. The joke rubbed me the wrong way, but I didn’t peg it immediately as a way to separate what might be “mistaken” for a feminist film from that dirty f-word. I’m gonna have to watch out for that.

    “So, be media aware. Think critically and shit. Pay attention, because little jabs like this do a whole lot of damage.”
    My women and gender studies professor called this having an “educated and wordily suspicion” while emphasizing that suspicion is not always a bad thing. In other words (her other words, asked on a classly basis) always ask yourself: “How do I know what I think I know?”

  4. This is a great post, and I have been really interested in the Straw Feminist trope ever since I first saw Anita’s video about it! I find it interesting how you viewed the rape whistle and resulting eye-roll as a dismissal – I just saw the movie, and I took the eye-roll to be more of a reaction to the ridiculousness of the idea of someone using a rape whistle frivolously. I’ve read other reviews that think the joke itself is actually more of a satire of the ridiculous politicians that have spoken about ‘legitimate’ rape or false rape accusations, that the audience is meant to see the ridiculousness behind saying “well don’t use it if it’s not actually rape!!”.

    I think in the end though the movie could have done without the joke or maybe made it a little bit more obviously against rape-apologists. Rape jokes can be funny, but they need to be handled more carefully than that.

    • I finally saw the full film myself, and in the context of the rest of the scene, I totally agree with you. I still feel like the way they edited the trailer was a little iffy, so I’ll stand by it as an example, but I am actually working on a review of the film as a whole, because I think it had a lot of really great messages in it. It is always awesome to see a movie about women who aren’t souley motivated by relationships with dudes.

  5. another thing i noticed- which might not matter- is the fact that the girls said they only sing songs that are sung by women. the judges also said that they don’t have a chance at winning because they don’t have a baritone (manly) voice. at the end, they sing 80% songs that are sung by males and one of the girls end up magically having a baritone voice. and they win! go figure! not to mention all the fat jokes with “fat amy” REALLY got on my nerves. i get it, she’s fat, haha, she doesn’t want to exercise. also, they pretty much called the group farm animals when they saw the chubby people in it. it was gross. oh! one more thing is the girl who played the lesbian. how the other girls were so concerned and so uncomfortable around her. so stupid. idunno, i just wanted to rant! i hope other people caught these observations, too!

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