Posts Tagged ‘Concepts’

There is a recently published article on Scientific American, “Are Men the Weaker Sex?” This article has been getting a good deal of attention in my Facebook feed. From the article:

Contrary to cultural assumptions that boys are stronger and sturdier, basic biological weaknesses are built into the male of our species. These frailties leave them more vulnerable than girls to life’s hazards, including environmental pollutants such as insecticides, lead and plasticizers (Source)

I agree with many of the things in this article, but I find it a little hard to read. It seems to be doing something similar to what Emily Martin identifies in “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Created a Romance Based on Stereotypical Gender Roles.”

The article is full of normative comparisons of non-normative developmental events. For example, it says that the male foetal development is “more complicated” and that

In our species, the female is the default gender, the basic simpler model: Humans start out in the womb with female features (that’s why males have nipples).

Fair enough that ‘female’ is default, but does that necessarily imply “simpler?” Sure males have nipples as a result of vestigial similarities, but also (according to Elisabeth Lloyd) women have clitorises and orgasms as a developmental vestige of male reproductive function.

The article states:

The simpler female reproductive system has to turn into the more complex male reproductive tract, developing tissues such as the testis and prostate.

But is that empirically true that the male reproductive tract is “more complex”? Each seems to have their own unique complexities.

The whole thing kind of strikes me as a bit creepy. Can’t we acknowledge differences without trying to rank them as “more complex, “more advanced,” “simpler,” or “more basic?”

In fact, women and men evolve at the exact same rate. That is what sexual recombination is all about. One is not more simple or more basic and the other more complex or more advanced. This seems all kinds of distorted.

I am emphatically not saying that we should not look at particular vulnerabilities that men might face. I think we should. In addition, we should also look at particular vulnerabilities that women might face. I just don’t see why in doing so we have to rank these differences.

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An image of Chell from Portal 2: A woman of slender to medium build with somewhat messy dark hair. She wears an orange jumpsuit, the same jumpsuit as she was in Portal 1, but now it is tied around her waist to reveal a white tank top. Chell has braces on the back of her calves, and carries a handeheld portal device, which looks like a futuristic ray gun. She is modelled on a woman of Brazilian American and Japanese descent. The image also has a portal to Chell's right and we can see GLaDOS in an environment over-grown with weeds. (Thanks to rho and bluestar for elements of this description; photo from The National Post).

In June, after the release of the Portal 2 trailer at E3 I wrote about some concerns I had reading interviews with the developers of Portal 2. Now it has been released and I have finished the main story and co-op, gone through again for the trophies and to listen to the developer commentary, so I thought I should return and assess whether the worries I had were warranted. [Note: The following discussion contains spoilers]

1. Portal 2 and Gender

This version of portal is certainly more gendered than the first version was. But just because something is gendered, that does not necessarily make it sexist. Gender can be used in subversive ways as well as being used in sexist ways. Arguably, the first Portal game used gender in subversive ways (for an analysis see Joe McNeilly’s discussion here).

Portal 1 is not very explicitly gendered. When I first played I did not notice Chell’s gender much at all. Some elements of the environment were gendered (GLaDOS was clearly a female computer, if such a thing makes sense).  McNeilly argues (pg. 4) that many of the elements of the environment are gendered (the turrets are ‘boys’ and the companion cube is male–from the GLaDOS line (about 3:30; the link is a spoiler for Portal 1): “A big party that all your friends were invited to. I invited your best friend the Companion Cube. Of course, HE couldn’t come because you murdered HIM,” which I took as the generic “he” but perhaps McNeilly is right).

In the first game you really did not get a sense of Chell’s gender unless you happened to catch a glimpse of yourself through one of the portals. That lead to some magical moments for many gamers, as Jenn Frank wrote about and I discussed in a previous post. It was really great to play a woman in a game without that making a huge difference to the story or the heroism of the protagonist. As Frank writes,

But here is the next surprise: your being a girl doesn’t mean anything. It means nothing. You play on, and nothing has changed, and the game is still the game, and you are still you. But something has substantially changed, and fundamentally changed, because now you know. You have seen yourself.

But the surprise at playing a woman was never really an option for Portal 2, once they made the decision to keep Chell as the main character (and thank goodness they ditched the jumpsuit revision they were considering at the time. This Chell is somewhat more sexed-up, but not overly so. I don’t find her to be any more sexed-up than Faith from Mirror’s Edge. Also, they seem to have kept the racial ambiguity that allows players to project their own race onto Chell. Chell is still modelled on Alesia Glidwell, a Japanese-Brazilian actor.). So now that the player knows they are a woman, there is a choice about how that will be treated.

Chell is definitely more gendered than she was the first time around. As a few people have already written, some of the jabs that GLaDOS levies at Chell involve calling Chell fat as a particularly gendered insult (see below). For example, loodmoney writes,

Secondly, it seems a poor way to write female characters. In Portal 1, the player might very well have completed the game without knowing the protagonist was a woman. Her sex was irrelevant to the circumstances, thus it was not worth commenting on. Chell is a stronger character as a result.
But here I get the impression that the writers got lazy: ‘Chell is a girl, right? And GLaDOS is also a girl, right? And they’re enemies? Well then, obviously the latter is going to say stuff about the former’s weight! I mean, that’s something that girls do, right?’

I agree with loodmoney that Chell is more gendered in this game. I also agree that ‘fat’ is a gendered insult in this particular instantiation. Why is it a gendered insult? Because Chell is not fat, and despite the obvious truth that (fat) men are sometimes called fat with the intent to insult them, and men can also be hurt by being called fat, it remains a gendered insult because non-fat men are not usually called ‘fat’ whereas non-fat women often are. Further, it is generally considered more important for women to maintain their appearance than it is for men, and men get greater leeway before the label ‘fat’ is applied to them. But this is the text, and there is (I think) a different subtext.

I disagree that this is lazy writing or that it fails characterization and feminism 101. The reason is because of the relationship to power that Valve has included in the game.


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Vodpod videos no longer available.
Here is Hillary Clinton’s Speech in response to the news that Osama Bin Laden was found and killed yesterday.

At about minute 3:30 Clinton Says:

“You cannot wait us out. You cannot defeat us, but you can make the choice to abandon Al Quaeda and participate in a peaceful political process.”

This seems like an odd construction to me. Is it possible to have a “choice” when there is only one option? It seems to me that a “choice” involves at least two options. If there is only one option then it is no choice at all. Why is the rhetoric of ‘choice’ being invoked when the speech also makes clear that only one so-called “choice” will be supported?

It is not that I think other options (e.g. continuing to support Al Quaeda, or engaging in violent political processes or something else) should be supported. But nevertheless it still seems odd to couch this in the language of choice. It would be more honest, I think, to simply say something like:

“You cannot wait us out. You cannot defeat us, but we will offer you support if you decide to abandon Al Quaeda and participate in a peaceful political process.”

Why is volunteerism being invoked in a place where it so clearly does not belong? To support a “choice” is to support both (or many) possible options. But that is not what Clinton is suggesting. The USA will not support any option other than the abandonment of Al Quaeda. They are not therefore supporting “choice,” but instead supporting an outcome they desire. With force, if necessary. That is not choice, but coercion. It might be a justified form of coercion, but it is coercion nonetheless.

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There are many excellent introductory descriptions of rape culture available on the internet. For example: Wikipedia, Shakesville, Yes Means Yes, and Finally, a Feminism 101 blog all have good descriptions (note: the Shakesville post begins with a quote that addresses what I intend to explain in this post, but does not go into detail). They provide an introductory level understanding of rape culture. This post is not introductory; instead of rehashing the basics, I engage some of the different kinds of assumptions that lie behind descriptions of rape culture.

In each of the descriptions of rape culture that I link above, there are rich examples of “rape culture in action.” But each example also contains an implicit shared assumption that is not made explicit, and understanding this assumption is essential to understanding what feminists mean by rape culture.

The assumption that is shared among these descriptions is that rape is systemic, or in other words, rape is akin to terrorism or hate crimes. This understanding contrasts with the understanding of rape as a crime that one individual commits against another.

Note: If this entry is to long, you can just read the summary in part 3.


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So Sarah Palin finally responded to the criticisms of her “cross-hairs map.” But I find her response really odd for two reasons.

First, according to the New York Times she said:

“Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own,” Ms. Palin said in a video posted to her Facebook page. “Especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence that they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.”

So when she says something it cannot be interpreted as an incitement to violence, because acts of violence “stand on their own” and should be considered the “acts of a single evil man” (in video about 0:59 ETA: She made the video password-protected but it is now on YouTube here).  But when journalists and pundits accuse her of saying those things then those accusations have the ability to incite violence. When someone other than Palin speaks, suddenly any ensuing acts of violence no longer  “begin and end with the criminals who commit them” (video about 2:05 the video is now on YouTube here), but can be at least partly attributed to the journalists who incite violence.

Second, the accusations against her amount to “blood libel,” which might sound good but could be read as anti-Semitic (if it makes any sense at all):

By using the term “blood libel” to describe the criticism about political rhetoric after the shootings, Ms. Palin was inventing a new definition for an emotionally laden phrase. Blood libel is typically used to describe the false accusation that Jews murder Christian children to use their blood in religious rituals, in particular the baking of matzos for passover. The term has been used for centuries as the pretext for anti-Semitism and violent pogroms against Jews.

A full transcript of the video is available at Shakesville.

A description of why the use of the term “blood libel” is anti-Semitic at Religion Dispatches Magazine.

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There has been a lot of buzz about “Male Studies” this week, since the announcement of The Foundation for Male Studies, which won’t get a link from me. Now I am all for studying men and masculinities, but I don’t think it sounds like there is much value to this particular approach. I don’t want to write about that, though, because I think it has been adequately covered by the articles linked above. The salient issue for what I will discuss is that “Male Studies” positions itself as a rejection of “feminist ideology” and will draw nothing from the work of feminist theorists. In contrast, Men’s Studies, looks at masculinities in particular and draws from (while still sometimes criticizing) feminist theory. “Male studies” positions itself in opposition to women’s studies, whereas Men’s studies does not. What I would like to look at is this question:

Comrade Kevin makes this comment:

Honestly, I fail to understand why men’s studies [sic] have to be run in opposition to women’s studies, since the two are so completely intertwined and, moreover, cover the same ground. As a man, I understand where attitudes like this are coming from, but know also that it usually takes a personal process of challenging established norms and with it a kind of maturation to see beyond the anxiety that is just as virulent in men as is advancing unrealistic and unhealthy notions of body image for women.

I am not trying to single Comrade Kevin out; in fact, the question about “why run male studies in opposition to women’s studies?” comes up several times in the comment thread. I chose to highlight this comment because it is put clearly and succinctly.

Image from: http://www.tnr.com/blog/jonathan-chait/luntz-meet-focault

"This is not a pipe" Magritte


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Post-Feminism T-shirt from http://www.zazzle.com

I find the concept of “postfeminism” to be extremely troubling and confusing. There are many discussions of postfeminism on the web. I highlight a few at the bottom of this post, but I want to look at one particular treatment that sees postfeminism as aligned with postcolonialism or postmodernism. I think this particular way of understanding postfeminism is extremely problematic because of the way that it sets up a false-parallel among these three concepts. The discussion I want to look at is from Sarah Gamble’s chapter “Postfeminism” in The Routledge Companion to Feminism and Postfeminism (New York: Routledge, 2001)


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