Pecking over scraps and calling it feminism

Spoiler warning: if you have been asleep since 1997 and only recently woken up, this post will contain Buffy spoilers.

Lately, I have been watching a lot of Buffy.

I adore Buffy. It is far and away one of my favourite shows. The characters are wonderful (except two-eyed Xander), the dialogue crackles, the fight scenes are awesome and generally I love it. It is also rather refreshing to have something which passes the Bechdel test with flying colours–a lot of conversations between the multitude of female characters revolve around “how do we kill it?” instead of shoes and boys. Buffy herself kicks arse, as do Willow and Faith and Anya and even Buffy’s mum sometimes gets in on the action. Buffy also gives us good female villains, ones that subvert the traditional dull femme-fatale-villain role. The creator of the show self-identifies as a feminist. Surely, then, Buffy is a feminist show?

Except it isn’t. A lot of people more eloquent than I have explained exactly why it is not. For those not click-inclined: the arsekicking strength of the female characters tends to come from supernatural means rather than their generally being awesome. The show has a strange attitude to sex and female sexual agency: Buffy’s sexual actions make Angel turn evil and Spike turn into a rapist, for example. There are rather a lot of scenes of women being attacked by hyper-masculine monster figures–and most of these women do not have the magically-bestowed powers of Buffy: Dawn and Cordelia fit into the trope of women who need to be rescued far too easily for what is supposed to be a feminist show.

In short, it is problematic as hell.

I also rather love Lady GaGa. Catchy pop music is something of a guilty pleasure of mine. GaGa has been declared a feminist icon by some, including Caitlin Moran. GaGa certainly subverts the usual sort of narrow sexuality found in pop music videos and acts: she takes “sexy” to such an extreme that it becomes thoroughly ridiculous. You are not really supposed to fancy Lady GaGa. She is there to shock, instead. GaGa works hard campaigning for gay rights. She writes her own music. She seems strong, independent, in control of her personal brand.

Lady GaGa is not a feminist icon. She has a nasty habit of appropriating cultures and disability in order to shock. She is still a cog in a machine of objectification of women. She recently came out with this quote:

“You should wait as long as you can to have sex, because as a woman, you don’t even begin to enjoy it until your mid-twenties. When you’re 17, you don’t even know how to operate what’s going on down there and you shouldn’t try.”

Like Buffy, Lady GaGa is too problematic to represent feminism.

Why do we do this? Why do we leap upon something so flawed and stick the label of feminism on it? I think the answer may be because there is nothing else out there.

The film, television and music industries are run by men. They are patriarchal institutions which produce patriarchal goods. Feminism, to these industries, is thoroughly unmarketable, as the point of women is to scream, get rescued and look cute in a little skirt, or to fall deeply, madly in love. Media for men, by men. Media for women, by men.

Every so often, they throw us a bone of apparent female empowerment. Buffy. Lady GaGa. Perhaps even Sucker Punch was an industry attempt at female empowerment. It was one of the worst films I have ever watched. If they were aiming for empowerment, they missed the mark by miles.

Often, we jump on the scraps, the little thing that they give us, because there is nothing else for us to have. When we switch on the TV and see a woman kicking arse, it is a damn sight better than the usual sight of her screaming. When we see a woman wearing a dress made out of meat at an awards ceremony, it is a refreshing change from the standard-issue floor-length Dior gown.

In the mainstream, there is precious little for feminists to enjoy, as it has all been processed and greenlit by the patriarchy. It is like how Fox allow The Simpsons to put in the odd joke about Fox. Permitted subversion that is not subversion at all.

And yet we take what we can get. We delight in GaGa’s speeches about gay rights, or Buffy fighting the forces of capitalism with a hammer and sickle. We delight because there is nothing else to delight in. We push the twinge of cognitive dissonance to the backs of our minds, minimising the flaws just so we have something to enjoy.

It has been this way since time immemorial. Consider Jane Austen, who is generally thought to be somewhat feminist. Her feminism is said to be down to writing novels where the female characters are presented as intelligent and independent. Despite this, they still spend an inordinate time talking about men. The addition of zombies makes Pride and Prejudice far more tolerable, demoting the guff about marriage to a subplot, and promoting Lizzie Bennet to an arse-kicking heroine. Nothing has really changed since Austen. We still seize what we can and call it feminism.

Here’s the thing: being a feminist does reduce enjoyment of music and films and TV, because so much the media is so horribly problematic. Sometimes I watch Buffy just to watch some women talking on TV. Once, I even ended up watching Sex and the City for that purpose. There was a small moment in SatC where they were talking about neither clothes nor men that I rather enjoyed (though for the most part I find it utterly insufferable).

It is gratifying to find something better than the usual bollocks that is out there, even if it itself is riddled with questionable content. We take what we can get.

With the bulk of production lying in the hands of the patriarchy, it is unlikely that this will change. Almost two hundred years have passed since Jane Austen began writing, and people are still vociferously defending her fluffy rom-coms as feminism. What comes out today is no different.

It is good that these small scraps get us talking. To discuss whether Buffy is feminist requires discussion of what feminism is, and flawed as these things are, discussion of feminism becomes more mainstream. The subversions of tropes become tropes themselves–Buffy brought us the arse-kicking woman; Austen brought us the intelligent, witty woman; GaGa brought us the beautiful freak. They still play by patriarchal rules, but slowly we talk. We discuss what the fuck that meat dress meant, or what the hell the writers are doing with the Buffy/Spike rape scene.

Outside the constraints of these media, ideas can grow. As we realise that nothing mainstream will be any good for us, we can work to change this. Change can take place in non-mainstream art, or by attacking the root cause of the lack of mainstream feminist media: smash the patriarchy.

In the end, Buffy taught me something very important: a gang of sufficiently determined women and allies can change the world. Who wants to join the Feminist Scoobies?


Special thanks to Jed for conversations which helped this post happen.

4 thoughts on “Pecking over scraps and calling it feminism”

  1. Hmm. Many good points, which I will ponder and consider before coming up with a meaningful response. However, wrt Gaga, which to be honest is my sticking point:

    ‘She has a nasty habit of appropriating cultures and disability in order to shock.’ That may be true, and it certainly is problematic if so. (Also, remember the Kanye West pics? She’s certainly far from ideologically unproblematic, although frankly if I hold out for an idol I find ideologically unproblematic in every possible context the entire world of human endeavour will disappoint me. However, that doesn’t make her unfeminist. Feminism =/= ‘ideologically unproblematic in every context’, although obv that would be nice. Like every movement, it’s abt disparate people and groups trying to challenge culture to achieve greater gender equality. It’s entirely possible to be feminist and accidentally racist/ableist/a jerk (I’m sure I have been.)

    Ftr, speaking as an Eng Lit academic, people (well, respected scholars) tend *not* to refer to Jane Austen as ‘feminist’, due to the completely anachronistic and ahistoric nature of the term. (Obv there’s an ongoing argument, cos this is academia, but in general it does, as you say, end up as a discussion of the term and concept of feminism rather than Austen’s embrace of it.) And the preoccupation of women with men in her books had much more to do with the cultural environment (eg, functional patriarchy) she was living in. None of us can think outside our cultural/ideological frameworks and influences. *I* spend a lot of time thinking or talking about men or things that include them, because I’m roughly 75% het and I live with three of them. I really don’t think that undermines my feminist credentials. (If so, I’ll bugger off and find a movement that allows me to write and think about true gender equality and analyse cultural misogyny, which both involve people of genders other than female.) Austen wrote that way partly because it accurately reflected contemporary psychoculture, and it certainly gave her books (unlike many others) cross-gender appeal. To try and restrospectively apply labels evidently problematic even today is, frankly, rather a waste of time.

    I suppose all this begs the question: how do you propose to create or find an idol or a series that completely fulfils all your ideological requirements? Surely ‘feminism’ should apply only to acceptable ideals in field of gender? Even those identifying thus disagree fervently about other things. Otherwise, we’ll all rend up in movements of 2 or 3 people. What brings us together is our perspective on gender issues in contemporary culture, not those on other issues. And we’re all human. And all occasionally jerks.

    1. Interesting ideas in here, and I very much agree with you, particularly re: retrospective labels. I hope I made it clear that my main problem was with slapping the label of “feminism” on something which was never really feminist in the first place just to have *something*

      For me, feminism is so intersectional with other battles that to be one, one must also have overlapping other beliefs, which probably colours my views rather a lot. Here, I think a lot of my problems are with *my* feminism rather than others–they bother *me*.

      We are indeed all human, and occasionally jerks. I just hope one day we’ll have a “feminist” TV show which doesn’t include sexy romantic rape.

      1. Oh, totes with you there. There was a reason I left Buffy *out* of querying you, I agree entirely!

        What do you think re Mary Wollestonecraft and the label of ‘feminist’, out of interest?

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