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 Red.fit 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 , | Leave a comment

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 | Leave a comment

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 | Leave a comment

What is “Female-Femmeing” You Ask?

The Saucy Scholar will tell you… via academic article! =======>QEDcover

My new article “Female-Femmeing: a Gender-Bent Performance Practice” just dropped in QED: A Journal of GLBTQ Worldmaking vol. 2, no. 3 (2015): 1–23. This article illustrates theatrical performances of femininity by female-identified performers that just so happen to pervade the contemporary west coast drag king scene. In the article, I’m like: wait, let’s check this shit out. Also, lets call this drag because it bends hegemonic identities. Werd. Except I use a whole bunch of fancy words.

Click on the above link to read the electronic PDF version, or check it out on the QED/MSU Press website (aka here). And just for good measure, here’s a little old school paperbound taste:
qedAnd yes, there are some theoretical terms and ideas the the article (scholar, obv), but also several mentions of dildos (saucy, obv). Several. I had to consult on proper pluralization. I went with phalli.

Posted in academia, gender, gender-bending | Leave a comment

this is not my first campus shooting

Wasn’t I just here? Yes, I was.

Saucy Scholar fans may remember my inaugural post was on the UC Santa Barbara shooting. I was teaching at UCSB, and I had also been a grad student there for five years prior. It was my first campus shooting. It was intense and traumatic to the campus community. It was shocking. It was unexpected. I immediately contacted my students to ask if they were safe and ok.

UCSB held a memorial service at the outdoor soccer stadium. Probably 25,000 people were there. As I was heading to the memorial, I saw a friend sitting at the campus bus stop, waiting to go home. I asked why he wasn’t going to the memorial. He said: “this is not my first campus shooting.” I remembered he was from Virginia Tech.

This morning I have been contacted by many people asking if I am safe and ok. You see, there was a shooting on my campus. The one I currently teach at. Like my friend, I can also now say this is not my first.

Lots of public figures are sending their love and their thoughts and their prayers. I don’t want that. I want outrage. I want shock. I want action. But we don’t do that anymore for campus shootings. They are upsetting but normal. School shootings are no longer aberrations. And they should no longer be unexpected by me.

This is now part of the life of the academic. This must now be part of the pedagogy of professors. In addition to job market advice and tenure advice,  can The Chronicle and The Professor Is In start writing advice columns on ways faculty can deal with this?

This is how I ended that first post, the one on the UCSB shooting:

“I honestly don’t know how to end this. So I won’t. Because this is a conversation I’m going to have to have in every fucking class I teach from now on at UCSB. And it’s going to have to constantly evolve.”

Bingo. Bingo. Here I am again.
Screen Shot 2015-10-09 at 8.31.20 AM

Posted in academia, social media, society, violence | Tagged | 1 Comment

Insurgent: 16 Going on Sexy

Last week, I realized I didn’t know when the next installment of the Divergent film series, Insurgent, was coming out. Turns out, five months ago. The Saucy Scholar cannot account for this unforgivable lapse in pop culture consumption (actually I can: university faculty position). But I’ve watched it now. Spoiler Alert: it’s terrible. The special effects are hokey, key parts of Tris’ and Four’s inner struggles have been changed, and it’s focused way too much around this weird simulation tube chair thing=>Hy7lq-Jvyj4x

But the worst part is the romance between Tris and Four. I understand this is a key part of the books and essential to the plot. In the first film, quite a few love scenes were cut out or glossed over. I like to believe this was related to the production choice of aging the male love interest from 18 to 24. In the book, Tris is 16 and Four is 18; in fact, the significance of this two year age gap comes up repeatedly. In the film, Tris is still 16. And whereas Theo James (who plays Four) is actually 28 and is hard pressed to come off as young as 24, Shailene Woodley (who plays Tris) is actually 23 but has NO PROBLEM looking and acting 16. For example, Woodley makes baby bird squeaking sounds when her character is upset. And, in Insurgent, Woodley’s hair is not the angled bob from the book but a choppy boy cut that makes her look even younger… and kind of like a boy band member.insurgent-movie-review-720x494So what’s my issue? It’s not that Woodley looks boyish or androgynous with short hair. In fact, I like this slightly aesthetically different version of the female super hero ass-kicker. Yes, she’s white and thin and able-bodied and hegemonically beautiful (I did say slightly). But aside from a few plunging necklines and one scene where her bare back is exposed (apparently, in a post-apocalyptic world, people don’t wear bras under their zip-front vests), Tris is not hyper-feminized in that typical way super heroines ususally are…


You know what’s practical for crime fighting? A pony tail.

Also a plus: if you kind of squint, you could almost read Tris and Four as a male-male couple, or a butch male and someone who presents as genderqueer. By the way, this is actually a resistant media reading technique Nikki Sullivan (2000) calls the “gay gaze”: it’s where you choose to see queer subtext in an overwhelmingly heteronormative piece of media. You know, for spice.


I know you’re gay gazing.

I also don’t have a ideological issue with the romantic pairing of individuals of differing ages. However, I will point out that in our contemporary Western society, age is used (rightly or wrongly) to gauge maturity, competence, and consent. Tris is under 18, and Four is six years older than 18. So this particular eight-year age difference—16 to 24 rather than, say, 30 to 38—does translate to us as socially significant.

So then, what’s my beef? Saucy readers will be unsurprised to learn that it’s the nonchalant way producers construct a 16-year-old female character as the object of adult male sexual desire. As I’ve discussed before, the postfeminist female figure is an independent ass-kicker—smart and competent—and also super sexy. That super sexy quality is easily identified when others (mainly men) sexually desire her. Karin A. Martin and Emily Kazyak (2009) did a study on children’s G-Rated  films and noted how female protagonists were ideal characters not only when they were awesome, but also when male characters lusted after them. In a nutshell, women are both valued and valuable when men find them sexy. This is a very heteronormative theory because not all women desire men or are the objects of male desire. But our society is very heteronormative, yo.

So we place value on the sexiness of women, and sexiness can be identified in media when male characters lust after or sexually gaze at female characters. Second piece of the puzzle: this value formula is for youthful female bodies. In this context, I mean young. Very rarely in our media culture are older women labeled sexy, feminine, or beautiful because those particular qualities are tied to youthfulness. Evidence: Amy Schumer’s spot-on “Last Fuckable Day” skit. More evidence: every movie where a male protagonist ends up with a woman played by a female actor half his age. So if beauty is tied to youth, and female worth is tied to sexiness, and sexiness is connoted by male desire, then we’re growing a culture that doesn’t bat an eye when very young women and girls are sexualized. Lolita anyone?

Academic rock star Rosalind Gill (2007) talks about the “deliberate sexualization of children (girls)” and “the ‘girlification’ of adult women” in popular media (151). She argues that the valuation of female youth perpetuates a cultural sentiment that it’s normal for female children to be “desirable sexual icons” (ibid). And while the sexualization of young female bodies happens across race and ethnicity (in fact, to a worse extent for Women of Color), when it happens in Insurgent, it further builds Tris into the ideal female figure: she’s white and thin and able-bodied and hegemonically beautiful, and she has value—as evidenced by this adult male sexual interest in her:


Just your typical 18 year old dude.

Ok, so what’s my point? There are a lot of problems with Insurgent, but I doubt too many will focus on the infantalization and sexualization of the main female character. Why? Because our media has taught us to read older men’s desire for younger female bodies as not just normal, but actually a form of female empowerment. I like this Young Adult trend of centering plots around competent and adventurous young women (Katniss Everdeen is my patronus). But Rosalind Gill astutely warns us “on one hand, young women are hailed through a discourse of ‘can-do girl power,’ yet on the other hand, their bodies are powerfully reinscribed as sexual objects” (163). By portraying Tris as a less-than-adult female while at the same time the object of adult male desire, film producers are reproducing and perpetuating an invisible and insidious cultural trope: female youth is powerful because it’s sexy. Check where empowerment comes from, yo.

*Rosalind Gill, “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 10.2 (2007). 147-166.

Posted in culture, film, gender, popular culture, queer, sexiness, young adult | 1 Comment