Saturday, March 10, 2012

Sports Illustrated, Feminism, and my Forthcoming Novel

In concert with the annual release of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, the media is barraging us with articles about feminists on the warpath. These feminists are determined to overthrow our notion of beauty and the portrayal of women in the media. A typical such article, “Sex, lies and media: New wave of activists challenge notions of beauty” appeared this weekend on an organization that shares a parent company with…Sports Illustrated.
The article is rife with cliche statements like
They receive weekly action alerts on how to spread the message, from calling out sexist Super Bowl ads on social media...or talking to men in their lives about the social impact of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition.
The research to come out in the last 10 years shows just how damaging this idea of self-objectification is, the idea that your value of self-worth is dependent on the amount of sexual attractiveness you have to the outside world.
While I don't want anyone talking to me about the social impact of the Swimsuit Edition, I do enjoy articles like this. They always have very beautiful women in them. I suppose an unattractive woman can’t be a spokesperson for this cause: it would sound like sour grapes.

In any case, the heroine of my forthcoming novel, a lady wrestler named Cheri Tarte, doesn’t share the feminists' view of the world. In this excerpt, she is having dinner with the protagonist, Gimbel O’Hare. The opinions expressed are those of the characters. I neither endorse them nor dispute them:

          Her green eyes told him that she enjoyed the ribs, that she knew he was fascinated by her enjoyment, and that she enjoyed that too. She held his gaze as she gnawed on a bone. Finally she said, “You can watch me eat, but if you’d rather look at my breasts, that’s okay too. There may be some barbecue sauce on them.”
          “Don’t you mind?”
          “A little barbecue sauce never hurt anyone.”
          “No, I meant your breasts.”
          “They don't hurt anyone either - most of the time. And no, I don't mind if you look.”
          “You're not like other women.”
          Cheri Tarte took that as a compliment. “Most women are afraid they won’t measure up,” she said through a mouthful of pork. “I’m not. I’m definitely not like those feminists who object to being judged on their looks. They insist on being judged solely on their intellectual accomplishments, but their great intellects haven’t figured out the truth about men and women.”
          “I’m handicapped with a good intellect myself,” Gimbel replied. “What truth you mean?”
          “In spite of the claims of the feminists to the contrary, men and women are pretty evenly matched in intelligence. The war between them has to be fought with other weapons.”
          “Is it a war then?”
          She freed a piece of meat from her teeth with a fingernail. “War is the natural state in any relationship: man and woman, boss and employee, corpse and necrophiliac. Okay, maybe not the last one, but when two living people come into contact, there is going to be a fight to see who’s in charge.”
          “If intellect doesn’t decide who’s in charge, what does?”
          “Sex,” she said.
          Gimbel thought about it. “I need you to explain that too.”
          “Your intellect really is a handicap, Gimbel. Don't you see how guys act around beautiful women?”
          “When there’s a beautiful woman around, I’m not paying attention to other guys.”
          “See what I mean? A pretty smile or a sinful pair of legs and the rest of the world fades to black. We have something you want. That makes us powerful.”
          “Some women don’t have a pretty smile or a sinful pair of legs. Aren’t you being unfair to them?”
          “Nature is being unfair to them; she distributes her gifts unevenly. But every woman gets something – she should use it. Instead, the feminists hide their assets under bulky sweaters and prison haircuts. Then they gather once a month for a book club in some wealthy suburban living room where they nibble petits fours and complain that they're oppressed. Of course they're oppressed. What do they expect, when they throw away their most potent weapon? They convince themselves they’re victims, so that is what they become.”

You'll have to buy the book to find out if Gimbel agrees with her. Like my blog, it's called Full Asylum. Available soon – watch for it.


  1. You're not really being fair to feminism. There isn't one kind of feminism, and that's where a lot of the problems with the movement lie. While there are many feminists who object to being judged by their physical attributes in any way (and these women do often try to hide their bodies in baggy clothes and unattractive hair), there are just as many who look like pretty much all other women and, yes, even invite the "male gaze".

    The point that feminism tries to champion in terms of sexualized images of women, though it often does not articulate this very well, is that women are not themselves the sexualized images. That when most public images of women depict them with a certain vocabulary of dress, body position, and standard of beauty the women themselves are reduced to the physical and are therefore devalued as people. This is not to say that women can never use this vocabulary as a means of communicating sexuality, but rather that when they do they should be respected as people and not as sexual objects. Furthermore, if they choose not to employ this particular vocabulary, they should not be demeaned, cast aside, or considered differently as people than those women who do present themselves in a certain way.

    In fact, I think many feminists would consider Cheri Tarte a feminist herself, since she advocates for the equal standing of men and women, and she has a strong sense of her own sexuality and desires, which mainstream feminism values as an empowered perspective.

    The issue here is more that feminism is presented as a single movement, but it has many different and even opposing perspectives. What most feminists agree on in regards to popular images of women is that these images do not depict the diverse catalog of female bodies or beauty, and that therefore encourage anxieties in women and expectations in men that respond to only a selective standard of beauty. While some feminists, myself included, would say that it is entirely acceptable for a society to have a very limited standard of beauty, the issue is that feminists largely feel that this representation of a particular standard of beauty does not actually correspond to the society's current standard of beauty, and so it influences women who are otherwise considered attractive to fixate on aspects of themselves that are not within the very narrow standard. Furthermore, by drawing attention to these outliers, these images place unnecessary emphasis on physical features, thereby assigning greater value to physicality than to any of the other characteristics that make up a person. It is not that these things should never be paid attention to, but rather that they are given disproportionate focus.

    Feel free to message me on facebook if you want to talk about this further.

  2. Robin: Thanks for the comments. I confess that sometimes I hesitate to post something that might be too politically incorrect. But I got to say, when I do post it, the responses are always thoughtful and interesting. I'll reply at greater length in Facebook.

  3. Your comments about feminism are not politically incorrect...just incorrect. Your idea about feminists is a description that has faded into history. Also, your idea about war is an interesting one, but is a bit more complex. I hope this idea will be expanded upon as your story unfolds. I like a strong woman, who is not afraid of her sexuality, and will use it.I am thinking Roseanne Barr's character in her sitcom or Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City, Beyonce, Lady Gaga, and Madonna.I don't know where wealthy woman in 2012 sit around and convince themselves they are victims..even on Bravo!

  4. Suzanne:

    What aspect of this view of feminism do you think is outdated? Certainly the CNN article shows that "feminists who object to being judged on their looks" are alive and well and considered a "new wave".

    In response to Robin's comment, I added a line further in the conversation where Gimbel points out there are other kinds of feminist out there. Cheri Tarte thinks they need to speak up. The first kind is getting all the headlines.

    > I don't know where wealthy woman in 2012 sit around and
    > convince themselves they are victims.

    Facebook. I'm sure you noticed the posts out there concerning a largely mythical Republican war on women: some of them are on your wall!

  5. Sure woman object to being judged on their looks, just as men are. Woman like to be told they look fine. They like when men flirt. Watch "The Bridesmaids" and see which character is the one who uses her sexuality.
    Sheryl Sandberg is the new feminist..and she always makes sure she is dressed well..and for other women (which most women do)
    And you think we sit around and play "victim"! Your perception is so wrong! It is not victimization, but the use of "war" makes the discussion take on an urgency. We speak up tdoay where our counterparts in the 50's would have sat around and played victim.