Proportionate response: sexism edition

Having a bit of deja vu this week that calls back to the Benedict Cumberbatch thing, and the fact that we hold famous people to dichotomous standards: simultaneously worshiping/defending them from reasonable criticism and tearing them to absolute bits when they do something that’s merely stupid, not horrible.

This week’s “honorees” of this hellish double standard: Kristen Stewart and Steven Moffat.

First up is this piece about Kristen Stewart and slut shaming. While I agree with the point of the piece, I’m really quite annoyed about the misuse of the slut shaming concept.

The disproportionate response to the infidelity of Stewart and her director paramour is nauseating, to be sure. He’s getting a pass while she isn’t, and the vitriol being aimed at her is disgusting.

But that doesn’t mean that her actions are defensible. She did, in fact, cheat, and have sex with a married man, and that’s not good behavior. Framing a defense against the horrible treatment she’s getting as one of defense against slut shaming waters down the entire concept of that very laudable movement.

The point of fighting against slut shaming is that women who simply like to have sex are not bad people, because men who like to have sex are not bad people. But women who conduct their sexuality in a way that would be unethical or harmful even if it were done by a man? Different story. Stewart absolutely should not be held to a higher standard of behavior than her paramour just because she’s female, but that doesn’t mean she qualifies as an ethical slut whose actions are worthy of defense under that banner. By all means, do fight against the disproportionate response, but don’t mislabel her actions when doing so.

(Side note: this is all, of course, subordinate to the idea of whether the public has a right to know/care about the love lives of famous people, but that’s a different beast entirely. I’d argue that Stewart has given some permission on this, by using her relationship as a publicity tool, but even if she hadn’t, the public is going to care. It’s far easier to shape how they react to it than to undo deeply entrenched human cultural standards that make us want to live vicariously through famous people.)

The second thing is the firestorm about Steven Moffat.

I’m not familiar enough with the man and his work to have a nuanced opinion about this, but I’ve seen enough to know that he’s basically the same as Joss Whedon: most of his female characters are thinly written and border on stereotypes, and he has an army of fans who will tear you limb from limb if you criticize his work.

But I’d argue that Whedon’s actually worse, and yet he’s never seen the kind of backlash that Moffat’s gotten recently. Whedon gets away with what he does because he writes enough ass-kicking babes to make it seem like he’s a feminist–and claims to be one, too.

But let’s be frank, here:

-All of his female characters are young and traditionally attractive

-Most of his heroines are sexualized, and often shot in a lascivious way

-Most of his heroines are also victimized, some in some rather nauseating ways

-He’s had no male/male relationships in his work, and the female/female ones are typical male-gaze-focused stuff.

-His Avengers script doesn’t even pass the Bechdel test. The only two female characters with more than a couple of lines barely interact at all. Yeah, source material … but still.

Truth is: Joss is a typical fanboy who just happens to have a thing for pretty girls with weapons, and that’s allowed him to masquerade as a feminist his entire career. He gets away with things that few other writers would simply because he’s managed to put his sexism in a package that makes it look like something else. Take away the combat skills of his women characters and what’s left? Women who exist almost entirely for their relationships with men or sexist cultural values, or the titillation of male viewers. Merely giving a pretty girl a weapon doesn’t turn her into a feminist icon.

Conversely, there are all sorts of criticisms lobbed at George R.R. Martin for how much sexual assault and brutality there is in his work, and yet people gloss over the fact that his women characters–all dozen-plus of them–are incredibly well-rounded, full human beings, of a wide range of ages, gender identities and sexualities. The only one of his combat-skilled women who could remotely fit into the tiresome ass-kicking babe trope is Ygritte (who, I will admit, does seem to exist only to give Jon some character development. Still, the same could be said of Drogo for Dany, so there’s that.) Not only that, but he also writes queer men and he’s an equal-opportunity brutalizer. Is his stuff perfect? Nope. But he’s miles ahead of Whedon, and yet Whedon gets all sorts of fangirl love for his “great” female characters. Sigh …

None of this is to defend Moffat from legit criticism, mind. He HAS said some rather awful things about women, and he does seem to have a chronic lack of understanding that women are people, and not props. But that doesn’t make him any different from hundreds of other writers working today–including women. Most chick lit features women characters who are even more vapid than the ones Moffat writes, and few (except me, apparently) dare point out how sexist they are. And don’t get me started on stuff like Tw*light, Sex and the City, Girls and virtually everything on Lifetime. Making your lead character a woman is useless if she’s little more than one of the same stock characters you find in anything else, and if the rest of what you’re writing reinforces sexist paradigms.

Moffat seems to suffer a bit from the idea that women don’t really exist outside the home or their relationships with men. I don’t think he hates women; I think he just doesn’t get that they’re not alien creatures. This is a problem, undoubtedly, and one for which he deserves criticism. But if you’re going to go there, at least do the same for virtually every other writer of something currently popular. And please, also aim it at essentialist feminists who argue that women are naturally best suited to be domestic and sexually passive, and that women who adopt “masculine” traits like self-sufficiency are being untrue to themselves. No, giving a pretty girl a weapon doesn’t mean she’s a feminist character, but nor does avoiding giving her a weapon if that’s the power currency in her culture. Really, folks, insisting that a woman’s power is between her legs is not feminist. Ever.

The bottom line, really, is this: we all exist in a sexist culture and we’re all going to express that sometimes. Even those of us who are aware of it step in it from time to time. While we should definitely hold famous folks–particularly those on the creative side–to a slightly higher standard because of how much cultural influence they have, that doesn’t mean that they should be hosannaed as saints or pilloried as sinners. Reasonable criticism aimed at Moffat’s lack of well-rounded female characters is warranted. Rageflailing harassment isn’t.


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.
This entry was posted in Books, Feminism, Geekery, Human Nature, Intarweebz Drama, TV and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Proportionate response: sexism edition

  1. Rosie says:

    It’s not easy to face the fact that our heroes are flawed. And it takes courage to tell the truth about them.

    Oh, and apparently today is Righteous Indignation Awareness Day in my world. :)

    Thanks for this.

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