Geek authenticity and sexism

Much as I love Scalzi, his response here to the clumsy denouncement of con babes here is kind of missing the point–and also making things worse.

That this comes on top of last week’s debacle with Simon Pegg drooling over Slave Leia cosplayers is just continuing to muddy the waters.

So, let me see if I can clarify this a little bit: I’m sick and tired of straight men and sexism-compliant women defending booth babes, geek-ignorant cosplaying models, etc. by derailing the complaint into issues of authenticity, rather than the real problem, which is how these women reinforce the sexist standards that are killing other women–us geeks included.

Geek culture of course exists within a sexist metaculture, which means that it’s going to have its share of that no matter what we do. Some subsections–comics and gamer culture in particular–are worse than others, but yes, there’s a whole lotta sexism out there. Feminist geeks have for decades been fighting against sexist portrayals of women in geek media, and against the way women are often treated by male geeks.

So when prominent members of the geek community defend a practice that’s reinforcing those harmful standards, yes, we’re going to be upset.

For what it’s worth, I get that not everyone is going to understand this. Sexism is an incredibly complex and pervasive thing, and most of us acquiesce to it unconsciously, because that’s what our culture trains us to do. So expecting people–even seemingly intelligent folks–to know how to buck that conditioning isn’t all that reasonable. Honestly, it’s a massive load of cognitive dissonance when one first realizes exactly how much one’s behavior is shaped by the culture around us. Unlearning that can take years–decades, even–especially because we’re constantly getting more reinforcment from the dark side (so to speak.)

I also get that many women, who have been conditioned to see self-objectification as empowerment, are going to react badly when the reality is pointed out. When your culture’s been telling you that slavery is autonomy, any suggestion that you might not want to be a slave is going to be interpreted as an attack on your freedom. (See also: working class folks arguing against labor unions. Man, false consciousness sucks.)

But if women are ever to escape the violence that comes with pervasive objectification, we’re going to have to keep fighting against stuff like this. We’re going to have to keep pointing out that equating female sexuality (or even sex itself) with objectification and subjugation isn’t healthy. We have to stop, for instance, arguing that asking women to stop reinforcing sexist standards of attractiveness and behavior is slut shaming. On the contrary: NONE of this is about denying women’s sexuality, but about working toward a sexual culture in which all women, no matter what they look or act like, are entitled to have all the healthy sex they want. Women shouldn’t have to look and dress like bikini models to get laid–not least because the sex that such behavior attracts is almost always awful, because the guys who want women like that don’t care about the fact that they’re human beings.

And here, let me note one of my biggest pet peeves in how other women often argue against this: the “you’re just jealous.” one. Am I, as an ugly butch chick, jealous of the attention that the bimbos get? Not really, no. I’m happily married and get plenty of attention from someone who loves me the way I am. And because I’ve had that experience–the experience of being loved and desired in an authentic, sustainable way–I see that other “attention” for the shallow, social junk food it really is. It’s incredibly sad to see so many women actually harming themselves in a desperate attempt to get attention that isn’t even all that fulfilling. If you try to attract men with just your boobs, you’re going to attract men who only like your boobs. Not only is that degrading to your own sense of self, but it usually leads to lousy sex, too. Guys who see you as a two-dimensional object are crap in bed.

But, I digress!

Again, the underlying issue here isn’t about whether a conventionally attractive woman can be a real geek. Many of them can be, and are. I know a lot of women who were blessed by the gene fairy who have a genuine interest in some nerdy thing or other–often many nerdy things. The issue is with a very narrow subset of women who think so little of themselves and other women that they merrily submit to their culture’s demand that they shut their brains off and put their bodies on display.

If, as I’ve seen argued, women are supposedly empowered enough to make a choice to dress and act like this without being influenced by a sexist culture, then we’re empowered enough to make a choice NOT to dress like this in the service of improving the lives of other women. If your immediate reaction to a request not to do this is one of panic and anger, maybe it’s worth taking a step back and asking yourself whether you really are all that empowered after all.


About Shawna (A Mediated Life)

Writer, singer, parent, fan, media maven, and general ne'er-do-well. Fierce protector of the rights of the disadvantaged and endless pontificator on subjects both ridiculous and sublime.
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10 Responses to Geek authenticity and sexism

  1. Denise Winters says:

    For the most part, I think this post has merit, but where I see problems is:
    1). Peacock only singles out women. That is sexist.
    2). Cosplay in and of itself is a geekdom.
    3). The criticism seems to be lobbed at only a certain body type. For instance, right now I am 265lbs so dressing in a certain way that is deemed “sexy” would be called subversion/transgressive, whereas if I were conventionally attractive I would be playing into the patriarchy’s hands.
    4). Who gets to be the decider of what is fulfilling with regards to attention/sex?
    5). Who gets to decide when a woman is dressing only to be sexy?
    6). This reinforces the idea that only women who dress a certain way should be respected. It really does.

    Also, I think people who make these accusations tend to have double standards when it comes to themselves. For instance, they will have no problem with make-up or shaving and it creates a criticism in which there is a line drawn between acceptable and unacceptable behavior that often ignores reality. For instance, I do not have to shave or wear make-up now, which is nice because I do not do either, however, if I worked at another location, then yes it might be required of me and of course I would in order to do things like pay rent and have food.
    It also tends to create reactionary responses in which women are constantly asked to do things in opposition to sexism as oppose to critically examine their behaviors and expectations of them, and proceed from there. It tends to use the same discourse as people who on one hand argue that requiring women/shaming women into dress that is deemed modest are actually respecting them. Shaming women for displaying their body, in fact shaming women’s bodies, is no different from demanding they be put on display. Both discourses regulates women’s bodies to commodities for the wider cultural landscape and removes the agency of the women involved turning women into pawns who have little choice but to react to one side or the other.
    This harkens back to some Second-wave beliefs that all penetrative sex is wrong and that all sexual relationships with men promote patriarchy. I think it is disingenuous to say the view of all sexual relationships with males being a bad thing is ridiculous and then try to use the same arguments to say that wearing make-up, etc. is always wrong. After all, some women who were attracted to men chose to have women as romantic partners in order to not reinforce the patriarchy, so what is so bad about asking other women to do the same? It also gets into the shaming of women who engage in BDSM and other fetishists with male and female partners.

  2. Denise Winters says:

    Also, I think it is worth pointing out that women also get punished for living up to the social ideal, especially that of attractiveness. Not only is there the Madonna/Whore complex, but women are punished for being on either side of the dichotomy, and constantly punished for stepping outside of the box. A woman can be expected to be the epitome of patriarchal sexiness, be demure but not to demure, be hot but not hot, be nice but too friendly, etc.
    That’s why I think self-objectification is a problematic term. Being a woman makes one objectified and categorized. For instance, as a fat black woman, my willingness or unwillingness to respond to a greeting is rife with implications that will see me categorized several ways. It is also something that robs me of my individuality because I am held up as an example of my race, sex, and class. Not only is my individuality forfeit by society, but I am expected to sacrifice it at the alter of some people’s definition of feminism as well?
    I also think it is telling that your post ignores race, as some bodies are inherently sexualized regardless of how they are wrapped and what may be seen as deliberate on one body would not be seen as so on the other (which also goes back to body type and size, in addition to race).

  3. Denise Winters says:

    Sorry for the lack of coherence and if these make it through please feel free to combine,but I would argue that the people who enforce behavior, such as declaring shaved legs and stockings professional, are the ones engaging in oppression, not necessarily the women who shave their legs and wear stockings. My managers shave their legs and often wear stockings, but they do not require the same of me. If I were to be in a job where it was required and refused, I wouldn’t be helping other women, I would be replaced by someone who would follow the rules. I could try to challenge but I am in a conservative state where gender presentation discrimination isn’t outlawed, and in the meantime my family is not in an economic situation where I could fall back on them.
    I get that adhering to a standard to keep a job and doing so for cosplay are different and one can be ruled as not as dire (seeing as how one is for living expenses and the other a use of discretionary income for recreation), but I think the same principle applies. Adrien Curry standing around in a slave Leia costume and Adrien Curry accusing other women of being jealous because they aren’t hot are not one in the same. One is existing in an outfit, the other is shaming women for not meeting those standards.
    And your assertion that cons would be safe places otherswise is extremely disturbing.

    • Hello!

      Apologies for not addressing each point individually — too much else to do today.

      Briefly, however: First, you may want to read my followup post, which hits some of the points you raise.

      Other than that: I don’t grudge women doing the things they feel they must to get by in a culture that pressures them to look a certain way. However, I do feel that women who have more choice–particularly middle- and upper-class women who aren’t likely to lose their livelihood for bucking these standards–ought to be making choices that help dismantle those standards.

      Additionally, there’s a key matter of context. The same manner of dress and behavior can be either innocuous or perpetuate sexism depending on who’s doing it, where and why.

      For instance, many of the actors and other well-known women I like often wear revealing clothes for events or photo shoots, etc. I have no problem with this, because the women in question are wearing these in appropriate contexts, and–this is key–they’ve made a point of presenting themselves as more than their bodies. Anne Hathaway, for instance, isn’t necessarily perpetuating sexism by wearing a tight costume as Catwoman, nor by being topless or having sex scenes in some of her movies, because she herself has consistently presented as a well-rounded person. Her body and her sexuality are part of her overall public persona–not the sum total of it. There is a meta issue about body type in that a woman without her physical standards would be hard-pressed to incorporate her sexuality into her public persona, but generally speaking, Anne has managed to integrate all these aspects of herself very well. She’s well-known not just as talented in her craft, but intelligent, articulate, thoughtful, kind and generous. A revealing dress in this overall context of who she is therefore isn’t problematic.

      On the other hand, the women in question–and here, I must point out that I’m not talking about genuine cosplayers, but the models who hang out at cons just so people can take pictures of them–aren’t presenting themselves as anything more than a body. Do they have names? Yeah. Sometimes they’ll even mention them. Do they have skills, interests, ideas? They might, but you’d never know it. They are presenting only their bodies as if that’s all that matters about them. Undoubtedly, it is NOT all that matters about them, but they’ve made a point of deliberately drowning out everything else just to present this one aspect of themselves.

      Now, this wouldn’t be a problem if the environmental context in question were appropriate. I don’t, for instance, have any inherent problem with porn because objectification is the point, there. People who wish to make a living by getting naked and having sex on camera don’t bug me a bit because of the limited context that this exists in. Likewise for strip clubs. People go there expecting to see naked women, not expecting them to expound on astrophysics. And no, I don’t buy the idea that sex work creates an expectation that all women are supposed to be sexually available. Again, it’s all about context. Millions of men–and women–indulge in porn without expecting the non-sex-working women in their lives to behave the same way. (FWIW, I do have some problems with the business practices of these industries, and with the meta issues in that many sex workers choose it out of financial desperation rather than actually liking the work.)

      But a con is not a strip club. It’s not a porn site. It’s a mixed environment that does have some elements of sexuality here and there, but isn’t built around it. They are supposed to be open to all ages, and comfortable for a wide range of people. The women who go there don’t do so because they intend to be eye candy for the “real” het male congoers. They go there because they’re interested in the subject matter–not because they want to be part of the entertainment.

      And that’s why these models are a problem. They perpetuate the idea that women at a con are there for the pleasure and entertainment of men (they also perpetuate the idea that female sexuality in itself is defined as objectified and passive–but that’s another post.) This is enough of a problem already that cons have had to institute anti-harassment policies. Models/amateur porn stars/attention seekers who cater to this harrassment mindset are only making it more difficult for other women to go to these places. They help normalize the idea that women at a con are public property. In essence: they help create a hostile environment for women congoers, just as strippers hired for an office party would create a hostile work environment. The strippers may want to take the job for the paycheck because they themselves don’t mind being objectified, but they have a responsibility to the other women at that workplace not to take that job.

      Again, yes, men bear the lion’s share of responsibility for perpetuating sexism, but let’s face it: they’re not going to stop on their own, no matter how much we try to talk them out of it. If we want it to stop, we have to take our own responsibilities seriously, and that includes not paving the way for sexist men to do their worst. We women should be protecting each other, not standing aside while men abuse us, or–worse–cheering them on, in some misguided notion of personal freedom. Idealism about the responsibility for positive change is all well and good, but if that change is ever to actually happen, we have to be practical about it. In this case, that means not creating an con environment that helps boorish men think they’re within their rights to abuse women attendees. People who commit bad acts don’t do so in a vacuum. They do so if they’re getting benefit from them without any consequences. If we want those bad acts to stop, someone has to hold the actors accountable for their actions. We can’t just sit idly by and hope that they someday grow a conscience.

      To paraphrase: all that is necessary for sexism to triumph is for good women to do nothing. Women who cater to the worst instincts in men–or who pretend that such catering is irrelevant–are making it impossible for the rest of us to get by.

      • Denise Winters says:

        Thanks for the reply, and I agree until the last paragraph or two. Insisting that men are justified in seeing all women as sex objects at a con because some women dress that way insinuates that dressing a certain way is inviting sexual harassment. Women aren’t harassed at cons because they are dressed a certain way, they are harassed because they are women. The same can be seen online where just having a female-sounding voice is enough to invite harassment.
        Those last paragraphs sound really disturbing because the seem to be saying that if all women wore sweatsuits cons wouldn’t have to institute anti-harassment policies (shouldn’t those policies be in place from the beginning anyway?).

      • With respect:

        People who commit bad acts are, of course, primarily responsible for those acts, and their victims are not. However, that doesn’t mean that there can’t be third parties who contribute to an environment in which those bad acts are enabled.

        People who stand idly by while others are abused are in part culpable for that abuse. People who contribute to an environment that supports that abuse are also culpable.

        Women should not be assumed to be fair game for sexual attention from strangers unless they are in an environment that is specifically supportive of that. When models/amateur porn stars show up at a non-sexualized event, that changes the tone of the event, and gives the message that it is, in fact, an environment in which men are expected to objectify women.

        Obviously, overt abuse and sexual assault are not acceptable in any environment, but the kinds of behaviors that would be acceptable in a strip club are most definitely NOT acceptable at a con. Unfortunately, when there are dozens of women at these events who treat them like a large-scale strip club at which to perform, that becomes very unclear.

        Again, the men doing the objectifying are of course responsible for their acts, but women who, by their actions, tell those men that women at cons are in fact there to be objectified, it shouldn’t be a surprise that that’s going to happen.

        This is not victim blaming. It’s enabler-blaming.

      • Also, just because I won’t feel right if I don’t reiterate this:

        Obviously, boorish men objectifying women need to stop. But let’s be completely honest: without consequences, they won’t. They just won’t. We can talk ourselves to death trying to plead with them for good behavior, but until they actually suffer some real consequences for it, they’re going to keep doing it.

        Like it or not, that means that women–and ally men–need to step in and ensure that those consequences are there. We need to make it absolutely clear to these men that their behavior is unacceptable.

        And one of the ways we do that? We STOP telling them that it’s OK. Women who cater to these guys’ shitty behavior are telling them, over and over again, that what they’re doing is perfectly fine, and they’re well within their rights to objectify every woman they see at a con. That makes it next to impossible for those of us telling these men to stop to be heard.

        Think of this like a drunk driving case. Obviously, the drinking driver is primarily responsible for any damage they do, but anyone who provided those drinks and let him drive have part of that responsibility, too. Consider it criminal negligence, if you will.

        No bad act has only one person who’s responsible for it. The same with good acts, for that matter. In addition to punishing/rewarding the people who directly do an action, we have to blame/credit the people who made that action possible.

        Calling out the women who enable bad behavior in men isn’t ignoring the culpability of the men. It’s pointing out that these men wouldn’t be able to do what they do if there weren’t women making it easier for them to do it.

  4. Adjutant says:

    I’m pretty satisfied with this entry in general, but I don’t see how a celebrity gets a pass to conform to sexist standards just because they’re not presented as purely sexual. Obviously, a celebrity has a lot more influence than a non-celebrity; their message is a lot louder. I don’t really stop and interview every pretty woman in a “little black dress” to find out exactly what motivated her to choose it, and what messages she hopes that it would convey. I’d imagine most people would just say “It makes me feel pretty”. Part of that is definitely because the culture tells them that, but where did the idea come from? Random arbitrary standard? Well, partially, but also fitness for childbearing… sexual display is definitely something that all species do. Our is really, really, really complicated. There are things that people are attracted to (like clear skin) that don’t REALLY make for a better mate or co-parent, but our bodies are like “yeah, go mate with her, your babies will be healthy”, because our instincts don’t quite understand that acne is not really a disease marker. We can kind of trace the pull between “arbitrary sexist culture message” and “natural desire to look attractive” by watching beauty standards change from time to time and culture to culture. You know, Rubenesque vs. “roaring 20’s flapper”; decently wide range I suppose.

    Anyway, a celebrity who chooses to publicize and commodify their sexual display in a conventional manner, like Anne Hathaway or pretty much any celebrity, that DOES reinforce the ur-message in a way that a non-celebrity woman making that same choice doesn’t to any reasonable degree. Cause, you know, one is influential to a great degree, and one is not nearly as influential.

    Mainly, I think the problem is the… range and strength of the message. Lack of diversity, lack of other options, lack of a (large number of) competing models. I think naked women and revealing dresses everywhere would be fine if there were enough well-publicized examples of the many other options for being a valid woman/human floating around right next to them. I guess because we’re still thinking in the stone age and living in the future (same reason we store so much damn fat. I believe that racism, xenophobia, male dominance and a score of other horrors including maybe violence itself were beneficial adaptations… until they stopped being so, maybe three-five-six- thousand years ago, and became big problems. We’re just adjusting a glacial pace)

    I agree that humans can sometimes be shortsighted regarding their own motivations; “I wear it because I like it”; “but WHY do you like it?”. It’s a circular argument, though, because often the take-home is that they DO like it. If a woman becomes exposed to some brand of feminist message, comes to understand that she’s being coerced on some level into dressing in a certain way, and rejects that, that’s fine with me. What about all the women who have been exposed to that message, are aware of the pressures on some level, but happily accept the roles that have been assigned to them? You could call that cowardice, or say that’s it’s really sad. It would be accurate to say that sexism had a heavy hand there, but if they still WANT that, there isn’t much you can do. Lipstick is a big one. I know a lot of women who self-define as feminists and wear lipstick and makeup. They’re aware that this might seem like a contradiction to some or that it opens them up to a certain critique, but… that’s not enough to stop them or really even bother them much. Either the prevailing cultural message is too strong, they honestly love lipstick, or they’ve just decided to pick their battles and give up in that particular arena. No one is entirely self-consistent. That’s something I only learned in the last five years or so.

    Incidentally, this doesn’t have to involve gender, I suppose. Tracing our motivations, even if it leads to a questionable source, just doesn’t do much to change them. It’s almost like we’re back in the 1800’s, arguing about god and predestination. So how would you know if you “honestly” liked something? There’s really no way to tell if someone likes lipstick in their truest heart or they like it just because it’s been pushed on them. Internally, there’s no way to find that out. There probably IS no distinction. Even if you DID know, would you want to stop? Knowing where a preference comes from, even if it’s from a very bad place (BDSM preference from child abuse, etc), doesn’t necessarily rid you of that preference. You could still decide to just go ahead and indulge in it, with or without guilt, depending on how you felt about it at that time, whether you LIKED having that preference, or wished that you didn’t. Kind of like how people do drugs, even though they know the risks; maybe even if they understand that deeper motivations drive them to the drugs, they still want the drugs. Maybe they wish they didn’t, and work towards NOT wanting the drugs. I like that option better, sure, but it’s not super-common. Ok, well I’m tired and feel like I am spinning my wheels. This might be a little jumbled. Sorry

    • Let me see if I can address your main points, here. :)

      First, as regards biological imperative: you’re talking about a field known as evolutionary psychology–trying to determine why we act the way we do in the 21st century by comparing our behavior to that of our earliest ancestors, or even non-human species (that’s an incomplete description, but them’s the basics.) While there is some merit in this as a very vague foundation for other study, it tends to lack a critical component: self-awareness. Unlike other species or rudimentary humans, we here in the modern age are incredibly self-aware, and capable of making decisions about our behavior based on factors other than immediate biological imperatives. If this were not the case, we’d never have developed agriculture, indoor plumbing or space exploration. What this means is that people can’t excuse boorish behavior by chalking it up to caveman instincts.

      It also means that the lion’s share of our motivation for social activity (of which sex is a part) isn’t based in biological urges, but far-more-complex social ones. And those social ones are developed from cultural conditioning. However, just because a thing is culturally conditioned rather than organic doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It means we can shape it, to some degree, given enough time and effort, but we still have to work around it. A building may not have grown there on the spot, but we still have to walk around or through it to get to the other side.

      After centuries–millenia, really–of male cultural dominance, and the conditioning of women to believe that their second-class status is natural and even desirable, we have a lot of cultural conditioning to unlearn if women are truly going to be equal in economic and political power. That we’ve come as far as we have in just the last century or so is actually quite remarkable, and a testament to just what clever little primates we are. However, the rapid pace of that change has also been a shock to the system, and people who have based their concepts of how the world is and should be in any large part on gender stratification tend to balk. Hence, the Backlash. And also hence, the way that industries built on selling products to second-class women had to change their marketing to convince those women that their second-class status (and the products necessary for it) was natural, desirable and even–appropriating the language of the movement–liberating.

      This particular part of the Backlash happened mostly in the ’80s, when today’s 20- and 30-somethings were growing up. Instead of internalizing the earlier messages of second-wave feminism about independence and casting off the shackles of hardcore gender roles, they instead got a message that embracing commodified femininity was “real” feminism and that those “hairy-legged lesbians” in the second wave were, and are, anti-sex and even anti-woman. This generation benefited from the sexual revolution (although AIDS did throw a monkey wrench in that) in that they felt entitled to desire and ask for sex, but they were also told that they weren’t going to get any unless they continued to dress and act in a way that aped the old subjugation.

      Of course, there is a hint of truth in this. Men, though they have more economic and political power which grants them more choice, are equally subject to cultural conditioning. And when their culture tells them to be attracted to a certain kind of presentation of female gender coding and sexuality, that’s what they’re going to develop their desire around. So, a young woman who wants to get laid goes looking for partners and finds that the vast majority of available men want something that looks like Barbie and acts like a porn star. Her choice, then, is either mold herself around those expectations or forego sex (at least until she finds a partner who doesn’t have those expectations–and they are out there. They’re also considerably better lovers than the guys who want mindless spooge receptacles.)

      (FWIW, there are similar expectations on the other side–women expect male partners to be strong and wealthy, and reject ones who aren’t–which of course makes the whole thing more complicated.)

      So, bottom line is that it shouldn’t be surprising that many, if not most, young women who are seeking a partner will feel it necessary to ape a gender presentation that’s actually based in reinforcing passivity and their second-class status. Women of this generation are no longer afraid to be bold and strong in many other areas–they merrily pursue sports prowess, combat, political and economic power–but sex and relationships are the last holdout, because they depend so heavily on commodified gender stratification.

      So, this is why many young women not only still do this, but defend it, and pitch a fit when others point out that they don’t have to be this way–and shouldn’t, because it’s reinforcing the problem.

      Now, in that context …

      I sort of misspoke about women celebrities, I think. I definitely do believe that pop culture images of women are damaging–far more so than non-mainstream ones, such as porn, due to the context thing I mentioned earlier. Western culture, and the US in particular, is saturated with celebrity worship, and with the notion that women who look a certain way are objectively better people. Anne Hathaway and, say, Conchata Ferrell are both very good at their craft and both intelligent, thoughtful women, but one’s a superstar and one’s just making a decent living as a working character actor. It’s definitely the case that Anne being blessed by the gene fairy, and being willing to play up those assets in a way that her culture considers ideal, has contributed to her ability to get considerably more and better-paying work than Conchata. Our culture rewards gender-role compliance and punishes non-compliance, and perpetuates the cycle by holding up these people as examples. Indeed, it could be argued that the entirety of celebrity culture–as opposed merely to acting and music as performing arts, outside of their personal-marketing components–is a tool used primarily by people who want to maintain the status quo of gender, race, class, ability, etc.

      On a personal level for Anne herself, however, that doesn’t mean that she’s a willing pawn in this game, nor that her sexual persona has been developed entirely by an outside hand in the service of furthering her industry. I think it’s worth reminding famous women that they have a responsibility to be good role models for the millions of girls and young women who look up to them, but I also recognize that completely dismantling their established gender presentation to do that is incredibly difficult, and likely career suicide. In essence, reengineering her own sexuality and the public performance thereof would likely be a too-heavy burden on Anne herself, and one I’m not willing to pressure her into taking on.

      However, dismantling a sexism-molded gender persona isn’t the only way its dangerous power can be mitigated. While there are elements of those personae that are, and always will be, damaging no matter what context they exist in, the more other context we have about a woman, the less power those personae have to do damage. Anne’s sexuality and its performance are undoubtedly molded by and perpetuate sexism, but she can–and does–do a lot to disarm their negative aspects by surrounding them with everything else she is. A single empowered aspect of a persona doesn’t drown out the negative ones–see: my strenuous objection to the badass babe archetype–but a whole lot of them do make a difference.

      In a better world, women’s sexual personae wouldn’t be molded so much by sexism and therefore incorporating them into a public-facing package wouldn’t be as big a problem. But that’s kind of the tail of the ouroboros. It’s probably easier to alter by putting enough other stuff into that snake’s mouth that it loses its appetite for its tail.

      The bottom line, therefore, is this: altering a given woman’s sense of self, especially her sexual sense of self, is a huge task, and one I can’t demand. Even though much of what passes for female sexuality in modern American culture is a vile construct of commodified sexism, it nonetheless still exists, and it’s still a big component of how many women define themselves. What we associate with sexual pleasure when we hit puberty has the power to shape our sexuality for the rest of our lives, and when those associations are built on sexist constructs, well, they’re going to be sexist–and in themselves perpetuate that. This sucks, but large-scale reconstruction of women’s personal sexual self-image just isn’t going to happen on its own.

      However, what I can ask women to do, if not reconstruct themselves or their sexuality, is to alter the rest of their behavior in such a way that the sexism-perpetuating aspects are rendered less powerful. In the case in question–models and amateur porn stars showing up at cons–I can ask those women to please exercise their sexuality in a more-appropriate venue. I can ask them to have respect for the other women in that space, who are already struggling with being objectified.

      Will some people still balk at this request? Of course. They already have and will continue to do so. There are millions of people out there who believe that the free exercise of some aspect of themselves includes the “right” to drag other people along with them, or to disregard potential negative effects on others. See: conservative Christians who believe that freedom of religion entitles them to pass civil laws that are in line with their version of religion. Once the exercise of one’s free will requires the participation of others, that exercise can be limited–the whole freedom to move your fist thing. Models at a con are not operating in a vacuum. They’re not expressing their sexuality in a bubble that includes only them and people who are willing participants in their act. Their actions can and do affect the experience of others at the event.

      I’m not asking them to change their sexuality, in other words. Like I say, dismantling the entire Western concept of female sexuality and everyone who expresses it is a Herculean task, at best. I’m only asking them to change their behavior around it so as to accomodate the needs of others, and hopefully in the process create more empowerment for everyone.

  5. Pingback: Authenticity | Playing at Leadership: Games, Gaming, & Leadership Studies

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