Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Keeping up appearances

I've realized lately that the more things change, the more they stay the same. And that because I'm female, no matter what I write on this blog or say in real life, there will always be someone who'll be more concerned with the way I look than anything else.

We've seen it happen often in the last year or so, since the premiere of the HBO series Girls: star and creator Lena Dunham takes her clothes off onscreen and people are suddenly up in arms that a woman who is not model-pretty would dare to do so. The debate got even noisier after a recent second-season episode in which her character, Hannah, spends a lot of time naked, mostly in the presence of Patrick Wilson, who just happens to be really really ridiculously good-looking. And sexually interested in her. And somehow it was implausible that someone like him would be attracted to someone like her. We get it. She's not very tall, and she's a little chubby and a little pear-shaped, and you probably would never see her in a Victoria's Secret catalogue. But people are acting as if she shouldn't be on TV or something. This is a woman who, in her mid-20s, made a film that caught the attention of HBO to the point that they basically asked her to write a show for them. Young writers are often respected in writers' rooms because they often have fresh and different ideas - that's something I won't deny. But very few series creators and showrunners are both female and in their twenties. That trend is changing, but will continue to change only very slowly. The fact that a woman (or anyone, really) has garnered so much attention for her writing and directing in her mid-twenties is impressive. Now, I know that there are a lot of people out there who can easily point out some problems in Girls' writing, and I won't get into those here. Anyone who criticizes a writer for their writing probably has a reason to make their argument. Anyone who criticizes someone on TV for not looking like George Clooney's arm candy needs to be put in check. It's basically akin to saying that someone should not be playing a sport because they're the wrong nationality. It just doesn't make any sense. The idea that people would publicly express their disdain for someone else's body, and try to find excuses to justify it, disgusts me. Dunham probably grew up surrounded by the same movies and magazines and whatnot that we all did; the ones that informed our opinions of what is beautiful and what isn't. All she's doing is proving that some people took all of that far too seriously and can't stand the thought of seeing something or someone different. So she's expressly pushing their buttons, and somehow they don't realize that. People have a problem with her body? She responds fearlessly, by continuing to do nude scenes, and writing dialogue (for Hannah, as well as other characters) that expresses the fact that people are often unhappy and uncomfortable, and that this is informed by what other people think is "normal."

But people continue to think that a woman's looks are the most important thing about her.

Take this dumbass beer commercial, for example. Molson was smart enough to start airing right around early January, when everyone resolves to lose some weight this year or something, but the advent of a new NHL season means that most people will go back to drinking beer a little more regularly than others. The ad also tried to be a little interesting by not jumping right into the common cliché of throwing as many Barbie-doll girls onscreen as possible (see: cheerleaders screeching their way into a sports bar, because a man told them to.) Instead, it lauds some guy for jogging from his parking space to the pub, where he orders a low-calorie beer and a manly burger. (It's manly because it's red meat, and bacon, and crispy onions, and you eat it with your hands, like a man. Oh and also because an American restaurant literally called it the "Manly Burger.") This, apparently, is called a "guyet." With a G. It, as the voice-over dismissively explains to us, is not some diet. Because diets are for girls, I guess. Because only girls are supposed to obsess over their bodies and make sure they look good enough. Thanks, "guyet," for not only being ridiculously stupid, but also offensive!

Part of the intro to the NBA All-Star Game was a video sequence of a woman talking about what it means to be a baller. But it didn't really feel like she herself was one. It kind of felt like, rather than being dressed up as various types of successful women, she'd been dressed up as the kind of woman attracted by various types of successful men. (That, and the excess of pre-game ceremonies made me feel as though it could have been cut out and no one would have been the wiser, and we all could have started watching a basketball game that much sooner.) Despite the fact that the All-Star skills competition always includes WNBA players, this intro basically perpetuated the idea that a woman's role in professional sports is basically to be pretty.

This is reflected in much of the coverage surrounding Reeva Steenkamp's death. It felt as though her modeling career added a lurid twist to the whole story, which was explained by some outlets as "SUCCESSFUL AND INSPIRATIONAL ATHLETE (shoots and kills) PRETTY BLONDE WOMAN!" Literally, a man whose body can break world records in track killed a woman whose body could sell products. No mention of this man's psyche. Very little mention of this woman's life.
This was also seen by some as some kind of misfortune for Oscar Pistorius that could end up causing a huge blow to his career. Not enough people were shocked that an athlete who had brought so much joy to his spectators was capable of something so awful. I'm not accusing Pistorius of murdering his girlfriend, but I am saying that there was allegedly a history of "domestic disputes," which means that Pistorius may very well have exhibited violent behaviour in the past. I'm also saying that pictures of a woman in a bikini shouldn't be all over the newspapers the day after she's been shot and killed. The fact that she was beautiful is more important than the fact that she is dead. Certain media outlets had the good sense to go beyond this, and actually mentioned the fact that she tried to use her fame for good, and to inspire others to do the same. She spoke out about violence against women, and ended up being a victim of it. Not enough people have taken notice of this, even though it should be a wake-up call. What makes this worse is the fact that both Pistorius and Steenkamp were more successful than Jovan Belcher and Kasandra Perkins, whose story might be similar in a few ways but who received less media coverage. Did this crime actually receive more global attention because the killer was more famous, and because the victim was a white swimsuit model? And yet even after her death, people are publishing shots of her in a bikini? This all makes me question our standards: as men and women, as consumers, as passive.

It's time that our bodies stop being the only thing that measure our worth.

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