The Pink Tax is Some Sex Difference Bullshit

A while back, I was in the market for a day hiking backpack. I needed something that could carry more clothing and more food than my current pack. I settled on two packs that had the same water capacity, same size number, basically same pocket, strap, and pole-carry features. One was red-gray and the other was “reflecting pond/Andean toucan” color. Guess which was the “women’s” backpack (clearly denoted by the “women’s symbol” on the description tag)? Now guess which was $15 more?

I went to a local outdoor store that sold both packs for the different prices and asked the manager what the fuck was the difference. I assumed he would tell me the women’s pack had special cushions for my ovaries or extra pockets for my many, many tampons. He said the only notable difference was that the red-gray pack, the “men’s” pack (so called  on Amazon), was one inch longer. The men’s pack was made slightly longer in the torso because all men are taller than women. ALL OF THEM. Because I’m tall, the manager recommended I buy the men’s pack as it would actually fit better. I got to save $15 and get one more inch of space, which was the whole fucking reason for getting a new pack. Yay me! But also, fuck cultural assumptions of sex difference that result in bullshit like the pink tax.

Exhibit #1: cultural binarism, or the idea that binary sex difference (male or female) is the most important difference in the universe and that’s why we have to separate bathrooms and locker rooms and toy aisles and backpacks. Sex difference is basically this “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” bullshit. Don’t get me wrong, every single person has a specific and unique body with specific features and unique capacities. And even though human bodies are largely the same and function largely the same, bodies do have biological and genetic differences. Like I’m taller than some and thinner than others. So the deal with sex difference is that it presumes the sex assigned to your unique body (generally based on genital appearance, but also sometimes hormones, gonads, and chromosomes) makes you fundamentally different from some people and fundamentally the same as other people.


I’m pretty sure all ladies basically have this inside them. It’s why we like pink so much. Genetics.

I’m a lot taller than some people and that can be a significant physical difference but we don’t see height as a fundamental difference. That’s why we don’t have bathrooms and locker rooms organized by height. BUT WHAT IF WE DID??? We have this idea that men and women shouldn’t use the same bathroom because they’ll be having sex in there or be sexually stalked or it will be the end of the world or something because ANARCHY. Caveat: some people do weird and fucked up shit in bathrooms. But this cultural binarism argument—that men and women are fundamentally different and thus need separate bathroom spaces—could really be made for any difference. Watch me do it:

  • We need to divided bathrooms by height: over 5’9 bathrooms and under 5’9 bathrooms. People above a certain height are able to look over stall doors and peep; people under a certain height are able to look under stall doors and creep. We need separate bathroom spaces because this critical physical difference leads to uncomfortable, sexually dangerous situations.

Watch me do it again:

  • We need to divide bathrooms by age: over 50 bathrooms and under 50 bathrooms. People over 50 take more time and thus need more space. They are are also more susceptible to being sexual victims of the high-sex drive of the under 50 crowd. We need separate bathroom spaces because this critical physical difference leads to uncomfortable, sexually dangerous situations.

Just to be clear, this “fundamental body difference leading to sexually threatening or compromising situations” is the same argument used to keep Black people out of White bathrooms.

Exhibit #2: the pink tax,* or when a product or service for women is arbitrarily more expensive than an equivalent product or service for men. The pink tax might extend to when female-body products like birth control pills or tampons are more luxury-taxed or harder to obtain than men’s similar products. But often the pink tax is way more sexistly overt: it’s when identical products like razors or services like dry cleaning are just different prices for men and women. So that pink razor sitting in the “women’s shave needs” aisle is a dollar more than the gray razor made by the same company but sitting in the “men’s shave needs” aisle. Or a lady is charged more for the blouse she took to the dry cleaners even though it’s the same fabric and ACTUALLY LESS MATERIAL than the men’s shirt. The pink tax is some arbitrary bullshit but it feeds on cultural binarism aka the idea that women and men are fundamentally different and thus cannot use the same products and services even if there’s little difference in the actual product or service.


So back to my pack. According to the store manager, the major difference was length; the men’s pack was designed for a slightly taller body. Yet instead of labeling the packs according to height difference, they were labeled according to sex difference. (We were left to fill in the blanks with stereotypes about all men being naturally taller and thus in need of man pack and women as generally shorter cause vaginas or something.) The ladies pack was then sold at a higher price even though there was literally less pack. And women, who historically earn less than men in the U.S., have to pay more for less, unless a kind store manager tells them the skinny and gives them an awesome local’s discount to boot.

The pink tax is some sex difference bullshit.


*I didn’t even know this term until a student came to my office and talked to me about it. You’re never too old or too educated to find out something new and fucked up about the world, and then process the shit out of it.

Posted in culture, gender, society

(Don’t Call Clinton a) Bitch, Please

The New York Times says we should want a bitch in the White House. Or, a little more specifically (and a little less clickbaity), writing for the New York Times opinion page, Andi Zeisler of Bitch Media proposes embracing the term that’s been so maliciously lobbied against Hillary Clinton. Zeisler’s argument is that Clinton’s called a bitch because she doesn’t put being likable above all else and because she has presidential-level tenacity and ambition. Zeisler evokes Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s 2008 declaration that “bitches get stuff done” and asks “what if that’s not a bad thing”?


I like where Zeisler’s going but, before jumping on the bitch bandwagon, I want to take a little stroll down language, meaning, and reclamation lane.

Most words are what we in the biz call sign systems or sign chains: they communicate complex and extended meanings. Take the term “public bathroom.” In the U.S., a public bathroom probably won’t have a bath but we all know what’s in there and what it’s for. Here’s another one: “9/11.” It’s just two numbers. But for those in the U.S. of a certain age, these two numbers immediately evoke images of death, destruction, fear, loss, and war. The meaning tied into those numbers is much more than just the sum of the numbers themselves. Here’s one more: “feminist.” It characterizes a person who has particular social and institutional views, politics, and goals. And yet when a person is publicly called a feminist, it might have little to do with her political leanings and everything to do with how she is perceived as shrill, unfeminine, opinionated, and man-hating. In other words, a bitch.

Some words are loaded with histories of abuse and degradation. Some words were created for the explicit purpose of dehumanizing and justifying oppression. You know that old kiddy rhyme “sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurts me”? That rhyme is BULLSHIT. Words can absolutely hurt. They can invalidate. They can belittle. And, very significantly, some words are used to incite and justify violence.

Reclamation is the project of taking the shitty part of a particular term and dispersing it, then replacing with more positive stuff. Reclamation has been fairly successful with the term “queer.” Sixty years ago (let’s get real, twenty years ago), queer was not something you could just call people. Or actually you could if you wanted to demean or belittle that person. Today, I teach for a Queer Studies program; in my classroom, the term is not only acceptable, it’s considered more appropriate than some other terms. Queer is now often used to give people respect and humanity, to create inclusion. My 69-year-old mother used to avoid using that term like the fucking plague, and she now proudly tells people her daughter teaches queer theory. Queer shows the power of reclamation.

Now let’s look at the N-word. That’s right, I’m not even gonna write it. That’s because this term has not been successfully reclaimed. Mass inhumanity and violence happened alongside this term and, while some have tried to bend it toward an inclusion and family meaning, it’s not been able to fully shake the filthy legacy. It’s unusable by ethical White people, and still controversial when used by Black people (see Larry Wilmore’s Correspondents Dinner speech).*

I don’t know exactly why some terms have a chance at reclamation and others just don’t. I’m guessing it’s an intricate balance of the histories and legacies poured into the word plus time, distance, and respect. My point is this: reclamation has a ton of potential but isn’t a guaranteed success. Some words never shake free.

Back to the bitch. Zeisler acknowledges that people are never gonna stop calling Clinton a bitch (cause haters, also cause gendered expectations). So Zeisler’s like, cool let’s just fucking reclaim this term then. Let Clinton embrace her bitchness, let the term signal her get-things-done attitude and her ceiling-breaking pathway to the Presidency. Zeisler urges us to frame Clinton as “the bitch America needs.”


I found this by typing “Clinton bitch meme” into Google images. If I can give you one piece of advice today: don’t do this.

Great. Cool. I like it. In theory. But also, bitch is deeply historically and socially situated. It doesn’t just name a tough person who doesn’t fall into gender line, it’s systematically used to invalidate women by dehumanizing them, effectively reducing them to a breeding animal in need of control. Bitch is also frequently used to create an allowable context for violence, rape, and murder against women. That’s why every Law & Order creeper says: “the bitch got what she deserved.”

Not everything is equivalent, but let’s play the equivalent game. If mass publics were systematically calling President Obama a “porch monkey” (yes, I know some did and yes, I know, GROSS), I wonder how many articles would declare that he should embrace and reclaim the term because his Blackness is a strength and a valuable asset to his Presidency. I’m guessing that few people asked President Obama to channel his strength and value through a really disgusting racist term.

There’s power in flipping negatives into positives and simultaneously justifying behavior that doesn’t fall into stratified gender ideals. But I don’t know if we can just flip the script on bitch, or if Clinton should feel obligated to embrace this label as something that empowers her and validates her kick-assness. I’m not sure if bitch can be totally reclaimed, and I’m not totally convinced it should be.

But this is just one bitch’s opinion.


*rather than saying “the N-word,” some of my Black students will replace the term with the word “ninja.” I don’t know exactly why this happens, but it’s clever-as-fuck.

Posted in culture, feminism, gender, popular culture, queer, society

We Should All Be Feminists (Even Our Presidents)

Barack Obama is a feminist. So says Barack Obama in a self-authored article for Glamour. This is big news, not just because he’s a man but because he’s a famous and powerful man: things that are rarely connected to people who identify as feminists. Ok, so he gets his cookie (even though, as a close friend reasoned, “all men should be feminists anyway”). But they don’t because masculinity or whatever. So cookie given.barack-obama-feminist-375x500I’m not as interested in President Obama’s self-definition as a feminist as I am in what he thinks a feminist is. You see, those in the public eye have been notoriously bad at explaining feminism. At worst, feminists are characterized as man-hating women. At best, narratives follow that feminism is about the equal right of women to work as, say, sexy lethal assassins. As you know, every time a celebrity misidentifies postfeminism as feminism, a feminist media scholar dies (inside, at least).

Some public figures such as (my forever crush) Chimamanda Adichie accurately explain feminism as the work of people who acknowledge and address complex, interconnected issues including gender boxes, socioeconomics, sexuality, violence, work, parenting, race, culture, and domestic relations. But no matter how much Adichie slayed her “We Should All Be Feminists” TedTalk, it won’t get the attention or audience that a Glamor article about feminism written by a sitting male president will. So my question o’ the day: what exactly did President Obama tell us feminism is?

Here’s his article. Read it. It’s good. Ok, there’s a bit too much American exceptionalism and progress narrative. That’s those statements of, gee ladies, look how far we’ve come, you went from being secretaries and housewives to astronauts! There’s certainly some truth to that, but it’s a narrative that ignores issues and inequalities tied to race, socioeconomic status, and citizenship. Many Women of Color were barred from those secretarial positions, and some women didn’t have the socioeconomic standing to be housewives. A White, upper-class woman may become the next U.S. President, but deep and systemic issues around work and domestic opportunity still exist. You know that “women make 79 cents to the man’s dollar thing?” White women make 79 cents to a White man’s dollar. Women of Color, transwomen, and undocumented women make wayyyyy less.

I was prepared for a sitting U.S. president to give me the exceptionalism and progress narrative thing. What I was not expecting was the clear and thoughtful way he addressed masculinity, intersectionality, non-hegemonic identities, and privilege. These are critical aspects of feminist inquiry and activism. So, according to Barack Obama, who is a feminist?

A feminist is a person who acknowledges masculinity is a construct too. In discussions about the constricting and stratified box that is femininity, we often fail to mention how femininity is constructed as a binary contrast to masculinity. President Obama names that dichotomy:“the attitude that raises our girls to be demure and our boys to be assertive, that criticizes our daughters for speaking out and our sons for shedding a tear. We need to keep changing the attitude that punishes women for their sexuality and rewards men for theirs.” He also articulates how masculinity is constructed via a particular type of “toughness” or “coolness” that forces men to be “assertive” (aka violent) and prevents them from “shedding a tear” or taking on full-time parenting roles. In short, gender boxes fucking suck. We’re getting marginally better at verbalizing those feminine/female boxes, but male/masculine boxes are just as stifling and damaging.

A feminist is a person who acknowledges that gender intersects with other categories of self. Both Barack and Michelle Obama are good at articulating this, but it bears repeating: gender does not exist in a vacuum and not all women are the same. In his article, President Obama notices and acknowledges that Michelle faces unique and specific gender stigmas and obstacles: “we need to keep changing a culture that shines a particularly unforgiving light on women and girls of color. Michelle has often spoken about this. Even after achieving success in her own right, she still held doubts; she had to worry about whether she looked the right way or was acting the right way—whether she was being too assertive or too ‘angry.’” The Combahee River Collective would agree.


Hey Girl, I acknowledge your overlapping intersectional inequalities.

A feminist is a person who acknowledges that, while all people are subject to the sex/sexuality binary, not all people fit that binary. Even very good social justice campaigns tend to employ discourses such as “men need to support their wives.” This presumes that people are cisgender and heterosexual (men and women/men marry women). I know, this is an overwhelmingly dominant and unquestioned belief about bodies and desires. But dominant and unquestioned beliefs are not always true. Actually, there’s a lot of variety in terms of bodies and sexualities, but that variety has been stuffed into those same fucking binary and dichotomous gender boxes. Twice in his essay, President Obama notes that “gender stereotypes affect all of us, regardless of our gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation” and “forcing people to adhere to outmoded, rigid notions of identity isn’t good for anybody—men, women, gay, straight, transgender, or otherwise.” As a queer studies scholar and a feminist, I’d like to see a whole lot more of this. But acknowledging this part of feminism is an important part of being a feminist. So it’s a start.

A feminist is a person who acknowledges their own positions of privilege. Audre Lorde says that when People of Color/women have to continually explain racism/sexism to White people/men, it saps their time and energy that they should be using on themselves/their own liberation. Peggy McIntosh says that people with racial or gender privileges have a responsibility to see and name their own privileges. Several times in this essay, President Obama notes his own gender privileges vis-à-vis Michelle. He notes that few people questioned his choice of occupation even though it took him away from his family for long periods of time. He notes his ability to support his family on his own time schedule, even though it meant his female partner had to pick up whatever slack was left. He notes how men such as him are congratulated for changing their child’s diaper because it is framed as an aid rather than a duty. In short, he notes how he was able to succeed in part because of institutionalized gender privileges regarding work and family.

I must admit that I avoided reading this essay for two days because I was fairly certain President Obama would articulate that glossy, surface, faux version of feminism that is so often the pop culture best-case-scenario. And he did that a bit. But he also hit on several key ideas that are not only essential in any compete definition of feminism, but also critical for informing the actions of any feminist. We should all be feminists, and I agree that that President Obama is one too.

Posted in celebrity, culture, feminism, society | Tagged

Feminist Consumerism is Goddamn Confusing

Have you seen this commercial? WATCH IT.

Ok, let’s discuss. This is from UK-based Bodyform, a company selling period pads and liners. It’s part of Bodyform’s campaign, which is about encouraging women to be active even when menstruating. The commercial is getting a lot of media attention for one overtly expressed reason, and another that’s less clearly articulated but still significant.

#1: it’s a period commercial that shows blood.
Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 2.17.24 PM.pngUsually period commercials represent periods with blue liquid or ice tea or whatever else might be excellent stand-ins for expelled uterine lining. In this commercial, we’re not seeing expelled uterine lining (we know that periods are mainly not blood but expelled uterine lining, right?) but we are seeing bodies expelling a substance similar in color and viscosity (kind of) to periods.

#2: it’s a period commercial where women are doing real active shit rather than just chilling in a white room, or maybe swimming in a white bathing suit, or maybe getting ready for a romantic dinner date with hubby because everyone with periods is a cisgender heterosexual woman. Actually, it’s pretty cool that this commercial positively represents active female bodies and also positively represents the byproducts of that activity: dirt, blood, broken skin.

So these are two things to think about. And here are some other things to think about too.

#3: this is feminist consumerism. What is feminist consumerism you ask, because it sounds amazing!?! Actually, it’s capitalistic manipulation. It’s when a company gets you to buy their product by selling it via feminist or otherwise liberal and progressive messages and images about women. To be clear: the product does not have to align with feminism. The product might actually reinforce sexist ideas, or racist ideas, or limited ideas about gender. But we’re supposed to buy it anyway because of how its marketed. Here’s perpetrator numero uno:
doveDove sells beauty products. Women are supposed to buy beauty products to feminize themselves, make themselves pleasing to others, alter their bodies to better conform to hegemonic beauty standards. Here’s how Dove sells its beauty products:imagesYou’re perfect inside and out, don’t change. Except change how you smell and your natural oils and your wrinkles. Do it with Dove.

Ok, you get the picture. Feminist consumerism is the selling of something that might be entirely unrelated to feminist ideals or goals via words and images that our society associates with feminist ideals and goals.

#4: feminist ideals and goals are popularly depicted with that ol’ post-feminist chestnut “Girl Power.” Girl power women are strong, fit, ass-kickers, and desirably hegemonic too. This might be represented by, say, good looking, thin ciswomen trail-running or surfing or rock climbing. When these women get hurt, what do they do? They get up and continue on without crying or stopping to bandage that nasty head wound.

Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 2.29.20 PM.png

…except the blood from a gaping head wound.

It is awesome that these women can be physically strong and really good at sports (and apparently medieval knightery as well). But that’s not the only vision of feminism, and it’s actually a pretty privileged version of feminist ideals too.

#5: last but not at all least: that cool-as-fuck background music is “Native Puppy Love” by the cool-as-fuck A Tribe Called Red: three Indigenous individuals who mix native music, often PowWow singing, chanting, and drumming, with dubstep. A Tribe Called Red is cool-as-fuck and you should learn more about them.

A Tribe Called Red is getting some commercial visibility here and I hope some dollars too. Their music is all about Indigenous people using their own local or culture-specific music and performance practices to create new art. Their work is also a means for native people to expose non-native people to native culture, instead of what usually happens, which is White people appropriating, reducing, and commodifying native culture. But also, A Tribe Called Red is not credited in the commercial. And whereas A Tribe Called Red use images in its videos and during shows that highlight native bodies or deconstruct White-created images of native bodies, this song is laid under images of what appear to be non-native women, many of whom are engaging in activities associated with colonization (ballet obv, but also the knight thing is a bit crusadey for me).


Welp, off to colonize brown people.

Conclusion: is this commercial super cool or super problematic? I dunno. It’s using feminist tropes to get me to consume pads. But pads are used for a physical rather than a beatification process, and they’re not really a trendy or super expensive product either. The commercial is associating women’s bodies with blood and dirt and injury, but we aren’t supposed to see this as vile or even unfeminine. The relationship between how we should feel about women doing bloody activities and women with periods is clear: it’s not gross, it’s awesome. But also, am I going to buy this product because I want to be one of those kick-ass, tough-as-nails, bloody, post-feminist ladies with expensive workout clothes and a soundtrack of cool PowWow dubstep as the background to my White cis life? I JUST DON’T FUCKING KNOW.

Every year I get bad evaluations from students who are pissed that I’ve told them “the social sciences doesn’t offer answers, only  questions.” Yes, they hate that. What it means is that value doesn’t always reside in the black or the white of a conclusion. There’s value in the ability to see and to name the gray, to understand what you’re consuming and why. Can I tell you to buy or not buy this product? To celebrate or revile it on social media? No. What I can offer you is all those critical thinking synapses we just built. And that’s cool too.

I can also offer you this:


Posted in gender, popular culture, postfeminist, social media | Tagged ,

What the Fuck is Wrong With You, HBO’s Game of Thrones?

*Game of Thrones spoilers. Also spoilers about if Donald Trump is sexist. Spoiler: yes*


A few days ago, Donald Trump responded to a comment Secretary Clinton made  by emphasizing that she was shouting and shouting wasn’t womanly. This is sexist, obv. I’m sure Trump knew it was sexist because this thing about Clinton shouting had already come up and the media/Clinton supporters/Clinton had already explained why it’s a sexist thing to say. I think Trump said it precisely because it had already been vetted as sexist. That is, he said it to get a rise out of people and maybe appeal to sexist members of his constituency. Today I’m wondering this: are the producers of HBO’s Game of Thrones willfully ignorant of their continued sexism, or are they pulling a Donald Trump on me?

Let’s not beat around the bush: I enjoy Game of Thrones but it’s been pretty heavily criticized for it’s fucked up treatment of women. For every kick-ass Brienne or Arya scene, we get unnecessary shots of women’s naked bodies, often during scenes of sexual violence (I’ve argued here how dangerous this particular representation is). They’ve also transformed consensual sex acts from the books into rapes, denied they filmed a rape scene based on the very old and very tired “rape to consent” argument (see Steve Attewell eviscerate this here). And last season I wrote about how they manufactured a repeated rape and sexual torture of Sansa Stark plotline—just for funsies.

Game of Thrones has been blasted for these representations by the mainstream media, by bloggers, by fans that refuse to continue watching. So there’s a pretty palatable message out there: your treatment of women can really suck. Now, after watching the season six premiere, “The Red Woman,” I’m truly wondering if producers are willfully clueless or if they’re actively trying to push a misogyny angle.

What’s my Saucy beef with an episode unusually free of rapes and gratuitous nudity? In answer, let me tell you a little story about George R.R. Martin’s vision of Dorne. Like everywhere in the GRRM A Song of Ice and Fire world, bad shit goes down in Dorne. But unlike every other place in the books, the Dornish don’t ascribe to the ol’ gender hierarchy lineage bullshit. Women can be in charge and, if the oldest child is a woman, she’s the ruler. There’s more gender equality in Dorne, which is probably why there are so many hard-core female political players in Dorne. Arianne Martell and the Sand Snakes actually want to help Princess Myrcella claim her birthright to the Iron Throne, which they believe has been stolen from her by sexist Westerosi gender laws.


Yea it’s a political snake pit, but at least we don’t have that 79 cents to a man’s dollar bullshit.

HBO’s translation of this world: Arianne is rolled into Ellaria Sand. Ellaria wants to kill Myrcella as a fuck you to Cersei, even though it’s a terrible political move. The motivation for this is, of course, a man (sorry Bechdel test, not today). After Ellaria succeeds in revenge-killing Myrcella, she then kills the ruler of Dorne, a very sweet, gentle, disabled, protector of children. She stabs him in the heart. Why? Apparently he is a WEAK MAN (because he won’t revenge-kill a child) and WEAK MEN WILL NEVER RULE DORNE AGAIN HAHAHAHA. The Sand Snakes then butcher their sweet and innocent cousin Trystane JUST TO GET RID OF THAT WHOLE MARTELL MAN LINE HAHAHAHA.


Take that Dr Bashir!

Game of Thrones took strong political players who do rational things based on feminist-eque principles and made them into straw feminist caricatures. The straw feminist is a fallacy of a media representation, it’s a figure who calls herself a feminist but she’s not a feminist; she’s an irrational, man-hating shrew who wishes to suppress male power and men at all costs, give herself power over others, and hates all women who don’t follow her lead. She’s mean, loud, and generally out of control. The point of the straw feminist trope is to show how grotesque powerful women are, and how dangerous and destructive their irrational desires for equality and self-governance can be.

Game of Thrones has made Dorne into a place where powerful women  1) get into petty and ultimately really harmful cat fights and 2) do totally irrational things like murder their family/royalty for the sake of hating on and castrating “weak men.” It’s a sexist representation, and it’s a harmful one.

So thanks Game of Thrones, for an episode without gratuitous and sexualized rapes. Here’s your cookie. But also, fuck you for your construction of a very recognizable but also very empty and pejorative representation of Dornish women, and a twisted depiction of what women would do to a society that recognizes their equality and sovereignty. This representation is so blatantly twisted from its original intent, from George R.R. Martin’s own characterization, I just have to wonder… it is because not one writer or producer on this show has taken even an introductory level Women’s and Gender Studies course, or are they Donald Trumping me?


Brienne of Tarth is still my motherfucking jam

Posted in #MediaGettingItWrong, feminism, Game of Thrones, gender, television, Uncategorized, violence

Sense8: how queer is this queer show?

Controversial. Edgy. “Pushing LGBT.” Full of the “gay agenda.” So says the over 4000 Netflix user reviews about Sense8.

I’m sure this show is floating around your queue alongside Master of None and Jessica Jones. Like Master and Jessica, Sense8 is a Netflix Original that received a lot of buzz, a lot of views, and a lot of debate about whether the show was worthy of buzz and views. Judging from the tone of the reviews section, it seems Sense8 is perceived as having an “agenda” of LGBT visibility, content, and politics. In other words, Sense8 is a gay show.

Sense8 is intriguing and a bit overstyled. I’m not really interested in debating the merits of the show in-and-of-itself here; I enjoyed it as much as many other Netflix Originals. I am interested in debating the merits of its label as a LGBT-focused show with graphic representations of gay sex. I disagree on both points.

Netflix User Reviews:
“The only reason I can imagine why some decide to love (and then passionately defend) this show is because it uses LGBTQ and minority characters.”
“heavy push for the Gay agenda. I don’t mind gay characters. I just wish I could watch a good show without being constantly reminded of the writers political agenda.”

From these reviews, one would guess that the entire cast of characters identifies as LGBT and that the show only revolves around their “gay issues” (whatever that is). Spoiler here: two out of the eight main characters identify within the LGBT spectrum. Two. 25%. Or, to put it another way, 75% of the main characters are heterosexual or their sexuality never comes up (in our compulsory heteronormative society, not identifying as homosexual means presumed heterosexuality. I don’t make the rules kids, I just point out the hypocrisy).


Yes! No. No. No. No. No. No. Yes!

But back to my point: two of eight. I understand that two is way more than zero, and probably twice as much as you find in other “progressive” shows. But it’s not a lot. In fact, it’s a really small percentage. I suspect the user reviews that focus on this “overwhelming” LGBT presence do not pay attention to how our usual media fare is constructed to be almost exclusively (and inaccurately) heterosexual. 25% is more than 0%, I’ll give you that. But it’s far below a failing grade.

Netflix User Reviews:
“It shows rampant gay couplings and includes two lesbians rolling around on the bed using a toy”
“Super graphic gay sx scenes (and, being straight, not very comfortable to watch)”

One of the best/worst things about series produced off mainstream TV is that they show a lot of naked bodies and sex scenes. This is HBO’s bread and butter, y’all. Sense8 is no different: we see breasts and bodies and group sex and a used dildo. Honestly though, if you’re a Game of Thrones watcher, this is like the kid’s table.

As the reviews point out, the two LGBT-spectrum characters do have sex and we do see their bodies and that of their same-gender partners. But let’s do a wee analysis on these scenes, shall we? Couple #1, main character Nomi and her girlfriend Amanita, are very beautiful and very thin and have long hair and wear makeup and have toned, relatively hairless bodies. They are very feminine. We see them having sex with each other so, yes, this is queer sex but also it’s not really that queer. In fact, it looks an awful lot like the type of girl-on-girl porn created for heterosexual male audiences.


I heart Jamie Clayton’s eyebrows forever

Couple #2, main character Lito and his boyfriend Hernando, are very handsome and have short hair and rugged beards and perfect, hugely muscled bodies and are very masculine. We see them having sex with each other so, yes, this is queer sex also but it’s not really that queer. When they have sex, their female friend actually watches them and masturbates to it, which leads me to believe this is intended to replicate a pornographic scene that would appeal to heterosexual female audiences.


working out is important for health

Lets also analyze why these particular characters, as opposed to the other six mains, are so often portrayed having sex. New flash: these are the only two characters in long-term, stable, fairly monogamous love relationships. We see them having sex more because their couple-sex is a more socially acceptable and accepted type of sex. So there’s this thing called homonormativity. Super scholar Lisa Duggan (2003) uses this term to name LGBTQ+ identities, desires, and lifestyles that are “normafied,” or patterned to fit into mainstream hegemonic society. So yes a person is gay but they also support marriage, capitalism, consumption, military, likely they love kids, and are white and thin and cisgender (also probably wealthy). Think Ellen and Portia. In every way except for their sexual orientation, they glide into mainstream society. Homonormativity is what one of my very clever students calls: “P.S., I’m gay.”

I get wanting to have a homonormative lifestyle. Society constantly tells all of us we should want to be normative, to fit in, to value what the hegemony values, and to be valued by the hegemony. Also, I adore Ellen and Portia. But here’s the key: homonormativity is not queer. I’m drawing on the core definition of queer, not as a noun for sexual or gender orientation but as an adjective and a verb. Queer (adjective) is those identities, desires, and lifestyles that are askew from or out of sync with mainstream society. Queer (verb) is those identities, desires, and lifestyles that actively confront to break down mainstream society. A person who identifies as LGBT and is also homonormative might identify themselves as queer (noun) but are not really queer (adjective and verb).

Saucy scholars: lets put all this together. Sense8 is apparently heavy-handed with the ol’ “gay agenda” (whatever that is). Except the percentage of main LGBT characters is extremely marginal. And the sex they have replicates heterosexual pornography. And it’s within the context of their homonormative relationships. Guillermo Avila-Saavedra (2009) argues that just because gay and lesbian people have more visibility on TV doesn’t mean our media is more progressive. In fact, he argues that if gay and lesbian characters are always homonormative then what society accepts is the “we’re just like you” part and not the queer part.

Bottom line: it’s nice to see 25% of the main characters in Sense8 identify within the LGBT spectrum. And is it nice to see them with their partners, being affectionate and creating their own sexual connections. But don’t let this fool you, Sense8 is not really that queer. So stop writing about it like that, Netflix review section. Focus more on the overstylization. Including this logo:
p11677721_b_v8_abIs that a fucking baby head or something? I just don’t know.

Posted in gender, queer, television | Tagged , | 4 Comments

curious adventures and cautionary tales of a self-made postfeminist

Have you ever eaten too much candy and, although it was delicious, the second you stopped you felt empty and kind of sick and craving more too? That’s how I felt reading Holly Madison’s memoir Down the Rabbit Hole: Curious Adventures and Cautionary Tales of a Former Playboy Bunny.


be veerry quiet. we’re hunting rabbits.

The book is about Madison’s 7-year shared relationship with Hugh Hefner, her starring role on the reality show The Girls Next Door, and the psychological fallout she suffered living at the Playboy mansion and also after extricating herself from that situation. The book was not good. Nevertheless, I consumed it with fervor and then felt terrible immediately afterward.

Processing this strange craving/empty feeling, I wrote to one of my besties: “I feel sorry for her that this was her vapid lived experience, but also sorry for our society that this is what we want to consume so fervently that it made the best seller list.” Highly hypocritical of me; I purchased the damn book specifically because I watched every episode of The Girls Next Door. I am the social consumer. I chose to eat all those jellybeans.

In true academic-bestie style, I got this back: “I guess you could think of books like that as a gateway drug that could eventually lure people into more productive reading. Or think of reading/books as a neutral medium, like television, that has some worthy content and some just for entertainment. I think in the 18th/19th centuries, novels in general were frowned on because the genre of fiction caused too much frivolous excitement rather than somberly educating the youth.”

Thank you bestie, for foregrounding this important idea: it’s not whether a book is “worth” reading, it’s how we think about and evaluate the scenarios and issues presented in the book.

Here’s my evaluation: Madison is a classic postfeminist, but she’s not a successful one. And this is quite unusual because the postfeminist characters we encounter in our media are almost always successful. Postfeminist characters do have flaws and setbacks, but are generally able to “bootstrap” from their “equal opportunities” in education, domesticity, and professional prospects, and excel in the most important postfeminist areas: looking young and hot, “making it” in male-dominated careers, and exuding inner confidence and happiness. Oh, and they’re usually hard-core ass-kickers too. Let’s see a couple familiar postfeminist faces:

No question, Madison is a postfeminist woman too. She aligns herself with and finds value in hegemonic beauty (long, straight hair, large breasts, thin, hairless body). And she explains that she “made herself beautiful” through plastic surgery and consumption of clothing, makeup, and beauty treatments. That could not be more postfeminist! Madison is also intent on climbing the capitalistic success ladder. She’s always looking for ways to improve her social and socioeconomic position through hard work (in her case, hard work is connecting with famous and powerful people who might then open modeling and acting doors for her).

And actually, you could very well read the arc of her memoir as a postfeminist success story: Madison takes herself from humble, small-town Portland (side note: Portland is neither humble nor small) and transforms herself, like her icon Marilyn Monroe, into the object of male desire. She then trades on that desire, translating it into four Playboy covers, a reality TV career, and a starring role in a Las Vegas show. The book ends with her dream wedding at Disneyland after the birth of her first child.

Yet despite her eleventh hour happy ending, the Madison we follow throughout the book is painfully unsuccessful at making postfeminism work for her. Her biggest strategy for success–moving into the Playboy mansion and becoming one of Hefner’s girlfriends–actually cuts her off from career opportunities and also makes her fragile and paranoid. Making herself over as the ideal woman leads to a deep depression and feeling as if she’s lost all individuality. Thus, the main content of the book is not Madison kicking ass and taking names (as the postfeminist woman would do when presented with either opportunity or obstacle). Rather, page after page is Madison recounting the devastating effects of no one complimenting her new haircut or of Hefner telling her she can’t be in Playboy because she doesn’t “photograph well.” Even when she gets out of her legitimately abusive relationship with Hefner, she immediately falls into another romantic relationship and another career path that directly replicates the pitfalls of her Playboy mansion life. In fact, these after-Hefner stories starkly contrast with what we expect from the postfeminist woman: taking charge of her life doesn’t immediately make Madison a powerful, kick-ass success story.

The seemingly surefire methods of constructing the perfect body and advancing career opportunities by being flexible and adaptable—they all backfire on Madison. She doesn’t gain confidence and strength and success by leaving Hefner either. Madison is not a fictional character and these parts of her life really happened. But, frankly, it’s not a narrative we’re used to seeing in our postfeminist characters, or our characters who work the postfeminist steps so hard.

Back to that too much candy feeling. Madison’s memoir explains ad nauseam how injured she was when Hefner didn’t like her red lipstick; when a bodyguard made fun of her Prius; when another Hefner girlfriend (Kendra) refused to wear matching skirts. These are salacious details but they are also annoying: they’re not markers of mental, emotional, or physical success by any means. And they gave me little reason to like or root for Madison. She is no Katniss Everdeen winning  at the hunger games. She is no Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda. Madison is beautiful and financially stable and well-known, but she is without the fierce confidence and try-anything-and-it-will-work-out success that we expect–we crave–from our postfeminist characters.

Let me be clear: I’m comparing a real person to the unattainable imaginary construct of a postfeminist media character. Of course Madison falls short. We all would. That’s what makes the postfeminist woman so idealized and also such a false construct for gauging our everyday, real successes. So maybe it’s good for me to consume media about a postfeminist woman who fails with postfeminism. And perhaps what I should be thinking about is not Madison’s “vapid lived experience” but why I feel normal or satisfied after consuming properly postfeminist media. Madison’s book was both annoying and intoxicating, and I found that frustrating. But shouldn’t I feel the same when I read a book about an independent ass-kicker who always makes it happen for herself–and does it while looking amazing? Perhaps it’s not stories like Madison’s that should change, but rather my appetite.

Posted in beauty, books, celebrity, culture, gender, postfeminist, reality TV, sexiness