Monday, 24 June 2013

Irreducibly collective sexism?

I've been thinking about sexism (still).  In particular I've been thinking about particular discussions of sexism that I've encountered on various blogs, and videos on Youtube.  There is a certain tension that often seems to arise in these discussions that I want to explore, but in a return to form I'm going to do so via a quasi-frivolous discussion of the metaphysics of sexism (if I've just invented a thing, then you should totally reference me).

A good place to start for this is in sexist tropes in the media.  I've recently been watching a Youtube playlist that highlights certain media tropes that the author takes to be sexist (or at least reinforcing sexist preconceptions).   These usually come with a cool name like "the Smurfette principle" (the inclusion of 'token minorities in the casts of tv shows, made worse in the case of women because they... well, they just aren't a minority!'), or the "mystical pregnancy" (plot lines where a female cast member is impregnated by some mysterious force/alien/magical doowhatsit, but by the end of the episode everything has returned to normal and no serious consequences ensue from this gross violation).  The main example I'm going to talk about here is the "damsel in distress".  The common trope in films and video games where the brave, usually male, hero has to go off to rescue the helpless woman who has been abducted by some dastardly (usually male) villain. I won't bother talking about why this trope is perceived to be harmful, because I think that's pretty obvious.

In response to feminist citing this trope as being representative of what's wrong with a lot of our media, there is a common response (that is, after the abusive ones).  This response is usually made quite eloquently, and has a certain appeal to common sense that I can imagine might be quite convincing to a lot of people who perhaps haven't thought through the issues that much.  It's because of this prima facie convincingness of the response that I think it's important to show what's wrong with it, rather than ignoring it as someone being ignorant.  The response goes like this:

"What's wrong with a storyline that involves a man  rescuing a woman?  The whole point is that the villain has taken away someone that the hero loves, and the hero is doing everything they can to get them back.  The fact that it's a woman is not what's important.  what's important is that it's someone the hero cares about, and since the hero is a man, his love interest is most likely to be a woman.   If the woman could stand up for herself, then there wouldn't be a storyline, so that's why she has to be helpless."

Okay, ignoring anything else that might be wrong with this kind of defence, I first want to focus on what I take to be a rather convincing (though ultimately point missing) aspect of it.  This is the idea that portraying a woman as weak isn't bad.  After all, there are weak woman out there.  There are strong woman, weak men, tall children, etc.  So it really isn't being sexist, it's just giving a story that is compelling, and happens to contain a strong man and a weak woman.  This kind of reasoning applies to the other tropes as well.  The mysterious pregnancy might be a compelling story.  The angry straw feminist might just be someone who is a rubbish feminist, that group of friends might just contain one woman, one disabled person, and one ethnic minority (so what if they're all efficiently run into one character?).  This presents an interesting point.  It does seem to be true that (some) instances of these tropes aren't particularly sexist when considered on their own (some rally are though, but we'll ignore them for now).  

Here's where the defence goes wrong.  We shouldn't consider them on their own.  Just because a single instance of treating/representing a female character shittily isn't sexist, doesn't stand up to scrutiny when you consider how incredibly pervasive these tropes are.  The sorry fact is that most TV feminists are represented as ignorant militaristic vagisaurus rexs, damsels in distress are a staple of most modern entertainment, and a crazy number of weird pregnancies happen in sci-fi and fantasy shows.  It's the sheer volume and proportion of these instances that make them sexist, not the individual occurrences of them.

Right, time to get metaphysical (and proportionately more whimsical).  We can now ask the question, could it be the case that there are instances of irreducibly collective sexism?  That is, trends or tropes which are sexist, but where this sexism cannot be directly attributed to any of their instances being sexist?  Assume it is the case that there is a media trope, call is X, none of the instances of which are sexist in themselves (I realise this is a big assumption).  It seems plausible that this could still be a sexist trope, if the pervasiveness of it, rather than the specific instances of it, causes it to be sexist.

Well, in theory I guess so, but in reality, probably not.  The unfortunate fact of the matter is that individual instances of such tropes are rarely as innocent as the (fancily italicized to distance it from my views as much as possible) quote above.  It's not just how common such instances are that makes them harmful, it's usually not just representing some woman in a bad light, it's usually doing so by playing off the fact that she is a woman.  It's effectively using the fact that she is a woman (in thus, often a rather shallowly written character) to present this negative feature.  Incidentally, the same is often done for poorly written characters of other disadvantaged groups, and even of advantaged groups.  Next time you watch a load of TV, look out for the two-dimensional white middle class guy.  there's a lot of them around, just be thankful that we don't have to suffer too much for them.

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