Gender and superheroes

My Open University mate Helen Owton and I just got together to write a piece about gender and superheroes in the run up to the new Batman v. Superman movie (with huge thanks to Joseph de Lappe for his expert input)…

Why is Wonder Woman only playing a secondary role in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice?  This article looks at the role of gender in superhero films. 

The new Batman v Superman film, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, is coming out on 25th March 2016 so we thought this would be a good chance to reflect on superhero movies: particularly the place of gender in them.

 

We’re particularly interested in the role of binaries and hierarchies in these kinds of films. Batman v Superman pitches two well-known superheroes against each other in a binary way, and – of course – the superhero genre as a whole is based on the linked binaries of hero v villain, good v bad, and right v wrong, with the former winning out in the end. More recent versions of superhero movies trouble these simple distinctions somewhat. For example, The Dark Knight version of Batman is less clear cut, and the two groups of X-men can be seen as more about assimilationism v radical approaches to activism. However, audiences may well not pick up on such nuances.

An additional binary and hierarchical consideration in Superhero movies is needed. Characters are male or female, with predominantly male characters, and masculinity is privileged over femininity in various ways.

Currently, we are living through a golden age of comics, with a vibrant independent comic and graphic novel scene which includes strong representations of womenExternal link  and LGBT+External link  characters, much of which has been taken up by mainstream superhero comicsExternal link  too. Nonetheless, there is a serious disparity between this shift in comics, and the continued limited representation in the movies which are based on these comics.

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Non-Binary Feminism: The personal is still political

Content Note: There’s mention in this article of the heated debates around feminism and trans, of societal gender inequalities, and of gender-related bullying in schools. I’m using non-binary and genderqueer interchangeably here to mean genders outside of the male/female binary.

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Tensions between trans and feminism rarely seem to be out of the news these days. The so-called TERF wars (where TERF stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist) smolder on and on, flaring up again every so often, as with the latest spate of articles about Germaine Greer’s inflammatory comments about trans women. The TERF wars fit well into the tired old media trope of feminist infighting, where conflict between feminists tends to be reported far more than, for example, areas of agreement between feminists, key developments in feminist thought, or campaigns about continued societal gender inequality. Unfortunately this kind of reporting seems to be a rather good way of discrediting feminism and keeping people’s eye off the ball of social injustice more broadly.

Over the last couple of weeks attention has turned to non-binary trans with Laurie Penny’s article on being a genderqueer feminist and Suzanne Moore’s response. This is interesting/challenging timing for me as I agreed to speak to my feminist reading group at work about non-binary gender this week. I had already been wondering what wider debates were likely to be swirling around us as we had our discussion, and how I could articulate my own thoughts clearly through all of that. I decided – as I often do – that blogging about it first might help me to figure out what I wanted to say.

What’s at stake here?

Reading Laurie Penny and Suzanne Moore’s articles helps to get to the heart of some of the deep feeling that’s in play in these discussions. This can aid us in understanding why they become so fraught, and why there can be such a temptation to polarise into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘them’ and ‘us’ – mapping those onto other perceived divisions (e.g. older and younger, authentic and inauthentic, natural and unnatural, etc.)

As I’ve said before, I think it’s useful to recognise the ways in which these kinds of tensions echo and reverberate up and down our multiple levels of experience: in our wider culture, in our communities and organisations, in our interpersonal relationships, and in our internal conversations. I’m struck by the looming, potentially explosive, cloud of emotion which seemed to be present as I read the social media responses to these two articles, and which has also been there each time I’ve been at a feminist event where these kinds of tensions have played out in person. I feel the same roiling, sparking thunderhead settling over one-on-one conversations when these issues come up. Also – like Laurie and Suzanne I suspect – I feel it inside myself as I try to make sense of my own experience of these matters, and to articulate it. This fact was underlined for me by the fact that I just spent 30 minutes staring at my computer screen wondering how to begin the next paragraph!

I think that one of the main things at stake here is the concern that non-binary people – particularly those who were assigned female at birth (AFAB) – are somehow betraying women and/or feminism in their rejection of the category of woman. Laurie explicitly addresses this in their own retaining of the political identity of woman, in additional to her identity as genderqueer (whilst acknowledging that any genderqueer folks who don’t do this are equally legitimate). Jack Monroe – who also recently came out as non-binary – reports that they have been called a ‘traitor to women’. Suzanne hints at the sense of betrayal with her concerns over young ‘sexual tourists’ adopting ‘pick and mix’ and ‘hall of mirrors’ identities. She questions why AFAB genderqueer people could not use identity terms that retain their womanhood (e.g. butch dyke) or recognise that no women feel ‘at one’ with all of what being a woman entails (physically and socially).

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The future of gender

Since Rewriting the Rules was published I sometimes get asked to do email interviews with journalists on various topics. Some of these get published in an edited form and some never see the light of day, so I thought I’d post some of the original interviews here.

Here are my thoughts when asked about the future of gender.

I think we’re at a really complex time in relation to that question. The future I would like to see – and there is some evidence of movement towards it – is one where:

  • Gender isn’t such a defining feature (i.e. we’re only interested in it when it’s actually relevant rather than being the first thing we ask or notice about someone);
  • There is a lot more flexibility in what we regard as being male/masculine or female/feminine – as well as realising that many people don’t fit well into either box;
  • There is an understanding that gender is fluid and can be – and is – expressed differently throughout life (e.g. think about how femininity is expressed by a toddler, a teenager, a middle aged woman and and old woman);
  • We get that gender is complexly biopsychosocial – it has all those elements running through it and woven together – so we stop asking about nature vs. nurture and start respecting people’s experience of their own gender as well as acknowledging just what a major part our social rules about gender roles have on people’s bodies and brains.

However, there seem to be constant pushbacks to more rigid and limited ideas of gender, where women and men are seen as being from different planets, and where masculinity and femninity are narrowly defined in specific ways and there is no room for anything between or beyond these two.

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DIVA article on non-binary gender

I wrote an article for  DIVA magazine last month (the September 2013 issue) on non-binary gender. DIVA kindly allowed me to reproduce the article here:

Beyond the binary: Gender outside of the two-box world

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Last month, when I flew to the states, the flight attendants frequently referred to me as ‘Sir’ when they appeared behind me with the drinks trolley. Once I’d spoken they’d correct themselves, flustered, ‘I’m sorry Madam’. Neither word really feels like it refers to me.

Once out in America a waitress greeted me and my friends (a cis lass and a trans guy) as ‘ladies’: a term which none of us related to.

Later on it felt good to share stories about the confusion and discomfort we’d received from department store staff when shopping for clothes. The group I hung out with included transmasculine folk, butch women, and people who identified as non-binary.

This latter term is one which I increasingly relate to myself. So what is it like if neither of the accepted gender labels fit?

DIVA spoke to several non-binary people, as well as to professionals who work across the gender spectrum, to find out how it is to occupy a place outside the binary. The main message is that, like bisexual or gay people, non-binary people are ordinary folk who should be treated with the same respect as anybody, rather than as some kind of special case.

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The inevitability of treating partners as things? Romance in Ruby Sparks (and why I like the ending)

Recently I got round to watching last year’s Ruby Sparks on DVD. I’d been looking forward to watching this film for some time because it is a mediation on what would happen if we could create our perfect partner. The film was everything I’d hoped for. However, when I gushed about it on facebook, several people said they had felt let down by the ending. Here I want to present my take on the film, and to explain why I think the ending needed to be the way it was.

Ruby Sparks

In the film an isolated writer (Calvin Weir-Fields) has writer’s block having published one highly successful book when he was pretty young. His therapist encourages him to write a brief account of a positive encounter with another person. He invents a scenario where he meets his perfect girlfriend in the park. Soon he is writing more and more about her because he enjoys imagining her so much. He describes her to his therapist:

Calvin: Ruby Sparks. Twenty-six years old. Raised in Dayton, Ohio.

Dr. Rosenthal: Why Dayton?

Calvin: Sounds romantic. Ruby’s first crushes were Humphrey Bogart and John Lennon. She cried the day she found out they were already dead. Ruby got kicked out of high school for sleeping with her art teacher… or maybe her Spanish teacher. I haven’t decided yet. Ruby can’t drive. She doesn’t own a computer. She hates her middle name, which is Tiffany. She always, always roots for the underdog. She’s complicated. That’s what I like best about her. Ruby’s not so good at life sometimes. She forgets to open bills or cash checks and… Her last boyfriend was 49. The one before that was an alcoholic. She can feel a change coming. She’s looking for it.

Dr. Rosenthal: Looking for what?

Calvin: Something new.

Spoiler alert: Don’t read on if you want to watch the movie without knowing what happens.

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The H-word: Happiness

On May 22nd the magazine DIVA and the mental health charity PACE are holding an evening event called The H-word. The H-word in question is happiness, and the plan is to have a discussion about happiness, health and well-being and about how people can support each other towards ‘happier, more meaningful lives’, with a particular focus on lesbian, bisexual and queer women.

The focus on these groups is appropriate because both women, and lesbian, bisexual and queer people, are particularly highly diagnosed with mental health problems such as depression and anxiety (when compared with men, on the one hand, and heterosexual people on the other). They also self-report higher levels of distress and lower levels of happiness and well-being than other groups.

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