Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Posts tagged “Feminism

It’s Time to Talk Replacements

American Horror Story Minotaur


In an essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books Anne Helen Petersen mused on the presence of abjection in American Horror Story, noting how the secondary understanding of the term—that of transgression and destabilization—appears in the series through references to duality and unheimlich. In some ways, horror is the genre that is best summed up by the phrase “…but not”: most obviously in that things are rarely as simple as they initially appear to be but, more subtly, also that they are both more and less than they seem to be. Gothic horror writers delved deep into this concept, exploring how young female ghosts were present (…but not) or how vampires were alive (…but not) and to this day horror remains the domain for things that are there…but not (or at least not in the way that we often fear that they are). What complicates things, however, is that horror often demands that we take a turn from either/or thinking (i.e., that spirits are either there or they aren’t) toward a realization that horror is often about both/and thinking (i.e., that presence is both there and not there and these two ideas aren’t contradictions). Horror, in short, is a genre capable of nuance and subtlety at the same time that it is about outright terror.

In her essay, Petersen noted how American Horror Story (in addition to, I would argue, Ryan Murphy’ other series) can contain both elements of feminism and misogyny. This revelation should not come as a shock for any viewers of Murphy’s past work as many of his series (including American Horror Story) often espouse a sensibility in which characters seemingly have a pass because they are also somehow disadvantaged. And ultimately, I think that this emphasis on persecution is what constitutes a consistent failing in Murphy’s series:  from bullying, to LGBT issues, to women and race, it seems like many of the story arcs in Murphy’s shows are preoccupied with exploring what it means to be marginalized from a very specific vantage point that itself remains unexamined. Credit should of course be given for a show like Glee that tries to think about the problem of bullying in youth or addresses the horrible ways that LGBT youth can be driven to suicide. And yet, despite this good intent, the treatment of the issues on the shows continues to be one that is reactionary (in that I do not think that the show is actively thinking about the tribulations of being a youth and only addressed the bullying/LGBT issues because they happened to trigger Murphy) and not particularly thoughtful in the way that they present solutions to problems.

But getting back to the notion of feminism and misogyny being intertwined (and muddled), we have the opening of tonight’s episode, “The Replacements,” where Fiona’s predecessor as Supreme (Anna Lee) references “bra burning” as a inaccurate, if ultimately widespread, shorthand for feminism and then calls Fiona a “vicious gash.” (Is it worth noting that Fiona did not attend the bra burning party?) Are we to believe that the derogatory attack is supposed to be more palatable or enjoyable because it is coming from a woman? It seems like any man who dared call a woman a gash (and let’s not even get started on the way in which that, like Naomi Wolf’s Vagina, reduces a woman down to a body part) would immediately be labeled as misogynistic, so shouldn’t we expect the same animosity toward a woman? The problem with American Horror Story is that even if we were to take a second to think about what this use of language actually implied for Anna Lee, Fiona, and a cast of witches who Murphy is determined to cast as oppressed, the show does a poor job of linking together other feminist moments/issues into a cohesive position about women, power, and patriarchy.

Going back to last week’s episode, I surmised to a friend that Madison’s refusal to admit to the rape had very little to do with her fear of the police and much more to do with the way in which she was unable or unwilling to cop to the violation of her body. From the beginning, I had a feeling that Madison embodied this postfeminist mindset wherein power flows from the body (not as literally as Queenie but through the standard concept of looks/beauty) as is hinted at in her behavior during the frat party in the first episode. It is without much surprise, then, that we see Madison in a skin-tight dress espousing the view that her body will win the affections of her new neighbor (Luke). Given that the other enticement for Luke is Nan’s homemade cake, there is fertile ground to launch into a discussion about women’s power in the magical and “real world” senses that goes untouched. In and of itself this is not a major issue but if Murphy’s express goal is to craft a season around persecuted minorities, and we are choosing the motif of witches as our central horror figure, and we are drawing a unsubtle connection between youth/beauty and power (again, both magical and postfeminist), it seems like feminism as a redress to the power imbalance must be a thing that is always on the table. And yet it is not.

Bungling another attempt to comment intelligently on states of oppression and power imbalance, we see the character of Madame LaLaurie continually espouse racist remarks (but it’s okay because she’s from the 19th century and didn’t know any better!) in a way that tries to employ the Mad Men gambit without any of the latter show’s skill or sensitivity. If I were being gracious, I would say that there is some sort of meta commentary here about how Fiona cannot abide racists and yet uses the term “slave” unproblematically given its implications and associations for the world that she inhabits. (I would also note that Madison uses the term at the frat party and it seems as though we are witnessing a trend of white witches who can only recognize their own form of oppression and not how they belittle others. That these women are so distanced from the historical weight of the term “slave” as applied to a person in a position in servitude is not itself the problem, but the failure to develop, comment on, or challenge that is. For example, what then what do we make of the way in which Queenie uses the term to refer to Madame LaLaurie? Is this a form of reclamation or is she simply adopting the framework of Fiona, relishing in her power of another? Contrast this against her confession to the Minotaur that she has been called a beast herself and you begin to see how the seeds for a very productive discussion about the nature of power and its effects on people are in the show but remain untapped!) I suppose, at the end of the day, my breaking point is that I just don’t trust the show to come out on the other end with anything insightful about oppression. Hell, even the way in which Fiona’s desperation to maintain power speaks to the way that women in power draw mentees in and then work to keep them down (Diane on The Good Wife anyone) is also a line that fits well within the provenance of modern day feminism and notions of oppression. In a sad and unfortunate way, I think that the show will be beholden to its white liberal upper-middle class mentality and understand persecution in a very narrow way that is ultimately unhelpful.

My biggest issue with “The Replacements,” however, was that “large moments” of tonight’s episode just didn’t make me feel anything. Now granted, I came from a background of both Biology and horror so my tolerance level may be higher than most, but I think that American Horror Story is at its weakest when it mistakes shock for genuine development. Shock, jump scares, and the grotesque of course has its place in the genre of horror and, when used appropriately, does a great deal to dislocate the viewer from his or her surroundings and reexamine the everyday from a new perspective. For me, tonight’s episode just seemed to be trying to throw too much at the viewer for no reason other than to shock and that is just not good story telling (or horror, for that matter). Are we, for example, supposed to be shocked that Kyle is returning to an abusive home? Hardly, since that whole reveal was telegraphed from the beginning of the episode. And while it would be interesting to have that have some bearing on Kyle’s current mentality, he seems to be operating much more as an animal and thus it seems unlikely that this particular bit of history will have large implications for the character moving forward. In contrast, the long slow pan into Kyle’s mother, Alicia, with her head in a noose is much more in line with the dread that horror embodies than the sight of her putting her hand down Kyle’s pants. Now, if the sexual abuse caused us to rethink Kyle and/or his mother in a drastically different way, we might also experience the slow horror of the realization but this is lost to us thanks to the show’s desire to shock. (We might also mention the way Misty mentions that Zoe won’t come back for her after Kyle leaves and then begins dancing as a quieter, but much more effective, moment.)

And, speaking of Alicia, it is here that we again see American Horror Story’s refusal to consider oppression that exists outside of the scope of the witches. (I mean, I know the #firstworldproblems and #whitepeopleproblems memes are old, but, seriously.) There is a wonderful potential here, I think, to consider the ways in which lower class people are subject to discrimination (and Alicia is certainly made to be emblematic of white trash). And let’s not even get started on the way in which black culture and voodoo is continually othered by this show, making it seem full of “primitive” ritual (because sophisticated white witches surely don’t butcher goats).

Alternatively, were we supposed to feel something when Fiona killed Madison (who I sincerely doubt is The Supreme given the anvil that witches can have four to five powers)? With Misty in play, death looses its meaning and it never seemed to be of any doubt that Fiona would do something like that in order to main control over her life and powers. Add to this that Madison was never drawn to be a particularly sympathetic character (unless we were somehow supposed to buy that Fiona and Madison had turned a corner in their “night out” montage) so really, who cares about all of this anyway?

Admission + Confession

If I were feeling generous, I might be inclined to argue that the conflicted nature of Admission (Weitz, 2013) is a purposeful gesture designed to comment on the turmoil present in the process of admission (in both senses of the word). Unfortunately, however, I suspect that the movie simply lacked a clear understanding about its core story, relying instead on the well-worn structure of the American romantic comedy for support. Based on a 2009 book by Jean Hanff Korelitz, the movie adaptation focuses on the trajectory of Princeton admission officer Portia Nathan (Tina Fey) after the Head of School for the alternative school Quest, John Pressman (Paul Rudd), informs her that one of his students, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), might be her son. Confused as the movie might have been, it was startlingly clear in its reflection of current cultural themes; evidencing a focus on the individual in a neoliberal environment and various manifestations of the sensibility of the post-, Admission remains a movie worth discussing.


Individualism and Neoliberal Thought

Although the decision to anchor the story in the character of Portia makes a certain amount of narrative sense, the focus on the individual at the expense of the process represents the first indication that Admission is driven by a worldview that has placed the self at the center of the universe. But, to be fair, I would readily argue that the college admission process itself is one that is driven by individualistic impulses as high school students learn to turn themselves into brands or products that are then “sold” to colleges and universities around the country. In large and small ways, college admission in its present form demands that American youth mold themselves into a somewhat elusive model of excellence. (Let’s be honest, we all know parents who teach their toddlers French or insist on lessons of various kinds in the hopes that these skills will place children on track for a “good” school.) In short, college admission sets the rather impossible task for students to, as Oprah would say, “Be your best self” while remaining authentic and not presenting as packaged (although that is secretly what is desired). The danger here, I think, is failing to realize that what is deemed “authentic” is, by its very nature, a self that has been groomed to meet invisible expectations and therefore is understood as natural.

Tracing one factor in the development of the current primacy of individualism Janice Peck performs a close analysis of Oprah’s Book Club in her book The Age of Oprah:  Cultural Icon for the Neoliberal Era, illustrating how Winfrey’s continual insistence on the self-enriching power of literature is reflective of the situation of the self as the most relevant construct for individuals immersed in a culture of neoliberalism (186). Through her examination of Oprah’s Book Club Peck suggests a manner in which culture has reinforced the adoption of particular values that are consistent with those of neoliberalism. Admission is not exempted from this reflection of a larger sensibility that judges worth in relationship to self-relevance as we see the character of Portia only really advocate for a student once she believes that he is the son that she gave up for adoption. Although I am willing to give Portia the benefit of the doubt and believe that she has been an advocate for other applicants in the past, the choice of the movie to conflate Portia’s professional and personal outreach grossly undercuts the character’s ability to effectively challenge a system that systematically promotes a particular range of students to its upper echelon.

Moreover, having previously established the influence of the 1980s recovery movement (7), Peck then suggests that for those who ascribe to the ideals of neoliberalism the therapeutic self—the self that is able to be transformed, redeemed, rehabilitated, or recovered—is of utmost importance. As example of this sentiment’s pervasiveness, although it would appear to be a clear conflict of interest, in discussing the merits of her applicant son Portia stresses the way in which Jeremiah has blossomed in the right environment and thus exemplifies the American ethic of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps. Here Portia urges her colleagues to overlook the first three years of high school that are riddled with Ds and Fs and to focus on Jeremiah’s transformative capacity.


The Manifestation of the Post-

And yet perhaps Portia’s insistence on the power of change makes a certain amount of sense given that she is the female lead of a romantic comedy and embodies transformation herself. Initially portrayed as a bookish middle-aged woman whose life is characterized by resigned acceptance, Portia inevitably has her world shaken by the introduction of a new male presence and proceeds to undergo the transformation that is typical of female leads in this scenario. Indicative of a postfeminist sensibility, Portia’s inner growth manifests as a bodily makeover in fashion that mirrors Rosalind Gill’s reading of Bridget Jones’ Diary (2007).

The most telling way manifestation of the logic of the post- in Admission is, however, the film’s express desire to “have it both ways” with regard toward attitudes on female identity/sexuality and race. In her article “Postfeminist Media Culture:  Elements of a Sensibility” Gill argues that the deployment of irony to comment on social issues is a central feature of the post- mentality and a practice that is ultimately damaging as it reinforces inequalities through its insistence that difference has been rendered innocuous enough to be rendered the subject of a joke (2007). In this vein, Admission introduces Portia’s mother, Susannah (Lily Tomlin), as a second-wave feminist only to undercut the power of the message that she represents. Although not expressly stated, the presentation of Susannah is suggestive of a radical feminist but also features a scene in which Susannah exemplifies postfeminism’s connection between the body and femininity by electing for reconstructive surgery after a double mastectomy and later ultimately admits that Portia’s conception was not an act of defiance but rather simply a mistake made by a young woman.

Admission also demonstrates ambivalence towards issues of race, not broaching the topic unless it is specifically the focus of the scene. To wit, John’s mother is a one-dimensional stereotype of a New England WASP whose articulations of racism (despite having a Ugandan grandchild) ostensibly indicates that she is not a “good white liberal.” This scene is indicative of the way in which irony has infiltrated popular media, going for the easy joke as it winks to the audience, “We all know that racism is awful, right?” Insultingly, Admission then fails to comment on the way in which John’s son Nelson (Travaris Spears) perpetuates a very specific presentation of young black males in popular culture as rascals and/or the way in which issues of race continue to be a very real point of contention for the admission process as a whole. Similar to issues of feminism, Admission exemplifies the sensibility of the post- in that it expresses a desire to gain approval for acknowledging social issues while not actually saying anything meaningful about them.


Problematizing Irony as Social Critique

How, then, do we go about unseating irony as a prevalent form of social critique when the response to challenges is often, “Can’t you take a joke?” I was surprised to see, for example, a response to Seth MacFarlane’s opening Oscar bit that argued that the feminist backlash was misplaced—according to Victoria Brownworth, MacFarlane was using satire to point out the inequalities in the Hollywood system. Although Brownworth fails to recognize that acknowledging a phenomenon without providing critique or an alternate vision only serves to reinforce the present, her reaction was not an isolated one.

One of the things that I have learned thus far in my life is that it is almost impossible to explain privilege to a person who is actively feeling the effects of that position and so a head-on confrontation is not always the best strategy. (This is, of course, not to say that one should allow things to pass without objection but merely that trying to breakdown the advantages that a party is experiencing in the moment is incredibly difficult.) If we recognize that the logic of neoliberalism constructs individuals who primarily understand importance in relationship to the relevance to the self—or, worse yet, do not think about interpersonal and structural forces at all—and that irony can be used as a distancing tactic, how to do we go about encouraging people to reengage and reconnect in a meaningful way?

Some Call It Fiction: On the Politics of Domesticity

Some Call It Fiction:  On the Politics of Domesticity

Nancy Armstrong




Armstrong, N. (2004). Some Call It Fiction: On the Politics of Domesticity. In J. Rivkin, & M. Ryan (Eds.), Literary Theory: An Anthology (2nd ed., pp. 567-583). Malden, Ma: Blackwell Publishing.[1]



I regard fiction, in other words, both as a document and as an agency of cultural history. I believe it helped to formulate the ordered space we now recognize as the household, that it made that space totally functional and used it as the context for representing normal behavior.

—Nancy Armstrong, p. 580

Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life and ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it, even as…recreation.

—Robert Southey to Charlotte Brontë (1837)



Nancy Armstrong, the Gilbert, Louis, and Edward Lehrman Professor of English at Duke, has research interests in the novel, eighteenth and nineteenth-century literatures and cultures, and critical theory. Her first book, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel argued that domestic fiction written by, for, or about women first imagined the forms of the household that serve as the conceptual units of the modern liberal state. Much of Armstrong’s work is situated in investigating the relationship of the reader to the text, the impact of literature in culture, and how literature evidences the politics that surround gender and desire.


With work that sits at the intersection of history, literature, and feminist studies, Nancy Armstrong’s essay “Some Call It Fiction:  On the Politics of Domesticity” seeks to problematize traditional understandings of history by interrogating how such frameworks are built from models that exclude or ignore the potential influence of women in literature. Drawing upon work by Michel Foucault, Armstrong seeks to explore how power was constituted in Victorian England and structured around concepts of the political and the personal.

Armstrong begins her argument by examining the way in which, in the writing of history, culture and politics have been categorized as distinctly separate spheres, with culture being made subordinate to politics. Using the work of Antonio Gramsci and Karl Marx, Armstrong argues that this distinction is ultimately unproductive in the context of social relations as political revolutions are accompanied by a corresponding cultural revolution. Put another way, part of the way in which a ruling class maintains its power is through the way in which hegemony creates and sustains a cultural logic of self-legitimization.

Having argued that history has traditionally been limited in scope to the (male) recounting of activities involving the State, Armstrong then advocates for the inclusion of “minority” viewpoints in the reexamination of history (i.e., those that are considered to belong to cultural, the personal, the domestic, and women). In some ways this tact seems to represent an outgrowth of radical feminism’s mantra that “the personal is political” as Armstrong asks readers to consider influences on history that have traditionally been overlooked or discounted. For example, in a discussion of alternate power structures that challenged dominant perspectives, Armstrong writes, “By equating good reading with what was good for women readers, a new standard for reading laid down the semantic ground for common sense and established the narrative conventions structuring public opinion” (573).

Connecting her various ideas, Armstrong then illustrates the key contribution of writing to a cultural revolution that occurred in Victorian England on page 570:

[Foucault’s] Discipline and Punish mounts a detailed historical argument to show that the truth of the modern individual existed first as writing, before she or he was transformed successfully into speech, thought, and unconscious desire. Thus Foucault enables us to see the European Enlightenment as a revolution in words, which gave writing a new and awesome power over the world of objects as it shaped the individuals who established a relationship with that world through reading.

Armstrong’s essay, however, is not just about the role of women in literary culture but also how feminine identity intersected with and manifested disciplinary practices. Armstrong refers again to Gramsci as she explores how power was structured through the segmentation of society into gendered categories. Here Armstrong introduces discussion of mass educational systems in order to begin examining the linkages between literature, gender, and the socialization of individuals to support regulation/order. In the context of a culture that was shifting power away from the monarchy and relocating it in the province of the home/family, Armstrong notes that women became associated with the domain of the domestic/personal (as opposed to men’s association with the public/outside). Concurrent with this shift, Armstrong argues, was a rise in self-regulation and a self-identity that was increasing dependent on gender.

Through her examination of how this change was wrought by developments in education[2] Armstrong importantly identifies a moment when the history of politics became divorced from the history of sexuality. As a product of educational policy, the movement of women toward the domestic was seen as an apolitical move, or, as Armstrong writes, “It no longer constituted a form of resistance but enclosed a specialized domain of culture apart from political relations where apolitical truths could be told” (577).

Armstrong ends her essay with an analysis of Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley and, in so doing, illustrates the way in which women regulated and directed “correct” modes of reading. Articulated as a different kind of power, Armstrong writes that “This power—the power of representation over the thing represented—wrested authority from the old aristocracy on the grounds that a government was morally obliged to rehabilitate deviant individuals rather than subdue them by force” (579).

[1] The original version was published in Juliet Flower MacCannell’s The Other Perspectives in Gender and Culture (1990) but I was unable to track down a copy so I am using the version located in Literary Theory.

[2] Armstrong gives a brief section on the influence of Maria Edgeworth’s Practical Education (1801) in bringing about this gender schism.

True Women and Fruitful Femininity: Evangelical ideology and women’s bodies

The rhetoric of war has become somewhat commonplace in the contemporary American political sphere, used by pundits and journalists to describe everything from the ongoing physical conflict abroad in Afghanistan to contestations over domestic ideology manifested via the War on Christmas. War, it seems, has become the de facto term used to label conflict on a national scale and the casual use of the phrase is rather indicative of the heightened political rhetoric of our time. Noting the prevalence of this existing sentiment, it makes a certain amount of sense that a phrase introduced via Tanya Melich’s The Republican War against Women in 1998 would be resurrected during the 2010 campaign season and popularized during the elections of 2012. Primarily used to describe the deluge of legislation related to women’s healthcare on both national and state levels—for example, restricting or eliminating funding for Planned Parenthood, the institution of “right-to-know” laws and waiting periods for abortions, accessible birth control, and transvaginal ultrasounds—“the war on women” was coined in order to signal a new round in the ongoing efforts of socially conservative politicians to institute control over women’s bodies.

            It is against this backdrop that Ann Romney took to the stage during the 2012 Republican National Convention to announce, “I love you women!” Regardless of Romney’s personal feelings on the subject, her declarative statement served as a recuperative effort to address the Democratic Party’s accusations that Republicans were engaged in an assault on women. Described as a “myth” by conservative sources (Merkel, 2012), or alternatively addressed by a tu quoque argument about conditions facing women elsewhere (Van Susteren, 2012), the Republican assertion that the party was women friendly stood in contrast to the very real ways in which Republicans, as a generalized political bloc, had systematically attempted to curb the rights of women in the 20th and 21st centuries. Although novel in their wording, the movements encapsulated by “the war on women” are not radical in their position; best understood in a context of Republican legislation reaching back to the 1970s, the war on women can be seen as an on-going battle. Without diminishing the important potential implications of current bills like House Bill 290 in Ohio, which would deprioritize Planned Parenthood clinics for funding in a manner that effectively eliminates federal support, these acts must be located within a broader socio-historical context in order to gain a fuller understanding of the situation at hand.

            In order to help situate the aforementioned war on women, this article will attempt to look at the intersection of conservative politics and religion as they pertain to the discipline and surveillance of the female body. Although an initial correlation can be readily made between these two categories, the relationship is not one of simple causation; rather, it will be argued that a deeper ideology about the body that springs from Protestantism has coevolved with American concerns about the body in order to inform the current legislation that comprises the war on women. Through explorations of issues surrounding recent mentions of rape and abortion, this article hopes to illustrate how ambivalence over the body that arises from a Protestant tradition results in conflicting views over the regulation and management women’s bodies and how the resurgence of the Evangelical movement in America has helped to transmit these ideas to a new generation of Christian youth through the creation of a lifestyle that successfully integrates politics and religion into everyday practices. One important limitation to note in this endeavor, however, is the way in which discussion of groups like women, evangelicals, and politics demonstrates a sensibility that is decidedly white and middle class. Although there are undoubtedly ways in which segments of the populations mentioned in this article reflect an experience that deviates from what is described, these minority positions derive their identities from their oppositional stance to the white male ideology that dominates evangelical Christian culture and, thus, the exploration of this phenomenon through such a lens remains valid if admittedly incomplete in its scope. Additionally, a longer paper would benefit from analysis of different forms of feminism, paying particular attention to the way in which modern American bodies are defined in part through practices of consumption on literal and metaphoric levels. Ultimately, the article aims to argue for feminists to situate events like “the war on women” in a broader socio-historical context that recognizes the importance of deeply-rooted and seemingly unrelated beliefs.

The Rape Thing

            The months leading up to the 2012 election seemed to be rife with socially conservative politicians on all levels of government voicing a series of positions on rape that became highly publicized:  Linda McMahon’s mention of “emergency rape” (Vigdor, 2012), Ron Paul’s use of “honest rape” (Benen, 2012) and John Koster’s employment of the phrase “the rape thing”[1] (Kaminsky, 2012) all helped to illustrate the various ways in which the issue of rape is understood and deployed in American culture at the present moment. Perhaps the most memorable story from this series of events, however, was Representative Todd Akin’s invocation of the now infamous term “legitimate rape” during a televised interview (Moore, 2012). Although Akin would later claim that he used the word “legitimate” in order to distinguish between true and false reports of rape, the context of the phrase made such a reading rather unlikely. To quote Akin from his appearance on The Jaco Report, “It seems to be, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, it’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down” (2012).

            In response to the outrage that followed his comments, Akin claimed that he “misspoke” in a move that essentially deflected attention away from the ideology underlying the original statement. Suggesting that Akin’s position was not merely a poor choice of words, Orange County Superior Court Judge Derek G. Johnson reportedly made the following statement during the sentencing of a convicted rapist in 2008:  “If someone doesn’t want to have sexual intercourse, the body shuts down. The body will not permit that to happen unless a lot of damage in inflicted.” (Goffard & Marble, 2012; Moxley, 2008). Although Johnson did not use the term “legitimate rape,” the choice of language here is eerily similar to that of Akin, replete with the notion that the (female) body somehow “shuts down” in order to prevent unwanted and/or unsanctioned sexual intercourse.

            Although the comments of Representative Todd Akin and Judge Derek G. Johnson suggest a way in which science has been commandeered to support inaccurate medical positions, they also raise an important point regarding the way in which rape is popularly conceptualized:  rape is something that only happens to women and is perpetuated by men. Before castigating Akin and his conservative colleagues, however, we should consider the way in which this view of rape is enshrined within the American legal system as a whole:  according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program, “forcible rape” has been defined as “carnal knowledge of a female [emphasis added] forcibly and against her will” since 1927 and was only revised in 2012 to read as “the penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim” (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2011; Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2012). Here, the modifier “forcible” is employed in order to differentiate this particular type of rape from statutory rape, which is, by definition, excluded from this particular category.

            Consistent with this differentiation and demonstrating that a firm definition of rape is not just a problem ascribed to socially conservative individuals, Whoopi Goldberg’s asserted on the television talk show The View that director Roman Polanski was guilty of statutory rape, but not “rape rape” (Kennedy, 2009). On some level, viewers of may have understood that Goldberg was trying to differentiate between degrees or types of acts based on use of force or violence but the statement revealed an underlying assumption that a form of “true” rape exists; to put it another way, Goldberg’s phrasing suggests that although “legitimate rape” may not exist, particular categories of rape are indeed legitimized.

            Indeed, the issue of rape has only become more confused in recent years with terms like “gray rape” appearing in Cosmoplitan to describe, as the author puts it, “A New Form of Date Rape” (Stepp, 2007). In her article, Stepp points to the apparent gray zone that exists when consent is unclear and effectively introduces a measure of doubt designed to attack the popular understanding of what constitutes rape. Here, it should be noted, Stepp’s words reflect an established position regarding consent given by women that is rendered ambiguous by intoxication and enacted as part of a hookup culture. Encapsulated by individuals like Katie Roiphe (1994)—who suggested in The Morning After:  Fear, Sex, and Feminism, “If a woman’s ‘judgment is impaired’ and she has sex, it isn’t necessarily the man’s fault; it isn’t necessarily always rape”—is a stance that remains entrenched in a moralizing and apologist discourse. Yet, aside from reaffirming the notion that rape is something happens solely to women by men, perhaps the most damaging aspect of this article is the way in which Stepp comingles the language of empowerment for women with restrictive gender roles in a manner that garners approval as it avoids blaming the victim even while proffers a solution reminiscent of the arguments that stemmed from the backlash to Second Wave Feminism.

            In her article, Stepp tells the story of Alicia[2] who is hesitant to describe her post-hookup experience as rape because Alicia considers herself to be a strong woman and sexually independent (2007). Here, the insistence on understanding the categories of “strong woman” and “rape victim” as mutually exclusive is particularly problematic for individuals as it not only prevents the reporting of a crime but also reinforces a good-bad binary:  under this false construction, to declare oneself as a victim of rape is to necessarily disempower oneself. The solution that Stepp provides to this dilemma is decidedly anti-feminist as she states that “A generation ago, it was easier for men and women to understand what constituted rape because the social rules were clearer. Men were supposed to be the ones coming on to women, and women were said to be looking for relationships, not casual sex” (2007). The emphasis on the good-bad girl dichotomy is clear, with a desire for casual sex (as stand-in for poor judgment in general) being associated with negative consequences. Undoubtedly influenced by social conservatism and postfeminism, we see here that Stepp’s clever choice of words asks readers, who are ostensibly women, to align with the perspective of Alicia as independent and sexually powerful person while attributing the root cause of gray rape to the ambiguity that stems from modern gender roles; the paradoxical problem, then, is women as a whole but not women as individuals.

            On one level, this debate over rape would appear to be about the issue of consent:  what is it, whether it is revocable, and who can give it.[3] While further exploration of this concept is certainly warranted, we can draw upon work by feminists like Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin to consider the larger framework in which sexuality and choice are framed. What this discussion ultimately points to is the way in which rape has yet to be singularly defined in American legal and social spheres and this, in turn, stems from varying views on who should be in control of a woman’s body. In contrast, consider that domestic violence, an issue that has historically predominantly affected women, has become utterly abhorrent due in part to the 1994 campaign, “There’s no excuse for domestic violence.” Although the campaign is subject to criticism for its overrepresentation of white middle-class women, the series of public service announcements ardently worked to establish a common definition for what constituted domestic violence (The Ad Council, 2003). Stepp’s elaboration on her article in a panel discussion at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice on the topic of gray rape reinforced apparent themes of vagueness and confusion while opponents responded with the finality of “rape is rape” (Chan, 2007). The note of uncertainty in Stepp’s position and the corresponding desire to find reassurance in retreat is important to note, however, as it speaks to the way that, in a world of ambiguity, the female body is the thing that we return to as that which we can control.

The Cult(ure) of Life

            In order to more fully understand the themes of retreat and uncertainty, it is helpful to remember the context in which the discussion of rape was placed during the 2012 election season:  in most cases, discussion of rape was nested within a larger ongoing discussion about the Republicans’ positions on abortion, a political issue that becomes almost inseparable from religious beliefs in contemporary debates. Abortion, very much a Catholic concern in 1973 when the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, became an Evangelical issue partially through the work of Francis Schaeffer, who produced a book and film both entitled Whatever Happened to the Human Race? On some level, the idea that religion influences abortion policy seems rather obvious with suppositions made about the pro-life leanings of conservative Christians and indeed, as a rule of thumb, such assumptions may not be incorrect. However, a deeper examination helps to illuminate how elements of Christianity, in addressing questions of ambiguity and uncertainty, support the particular policies that are currently manifesting. In this, it is particularly instructive to situate the current political and religious climate within a larger history of American religious activities.

            Awakenings, movements born during times of upheaval and uncertainty, characteristically began with an appeal to traditional values as large numbers of people converted to, or reaffirmed their faith in, Christianity. Although a detailed discussion of America’s Great Awakenings is beyond the scope of this paper, consider that the First Great Awakening occurred roughly between 1730 and 1760 while the Second appeared between approximately 1800 and 1830; both of these movements foreshadowed the most pivotal domestic wars in the history of the United States and were indicative of periods of civil unrest that precipitated conflict on a massive scale. A Third Great Awakening then came at the start of the 20th century as concerns over modernity and industrialization once again introduced ambivalence about the future and man’s place in the world.[4] Understanding that the notion of uncertainty is vital to the appearance of Great Awakenings and we might consider how current developments in science and technology have once again worked to decenter mankind’s position as the center of the universe, causing us to engage in an ongoing renegotiation of our senses of self. In this context, the intellectual retreatism that manifests around issues like climate change and the body makes a certain amount of sense; whether or not we are ready to label the current project as the Fourth Great Awakening, it is difficult to deny that the framework of the Awakening provides a possible lens through which we can attempt to understand the phenomena that we have witnessed in recent history with the late 20th and early 21st centuries playing host to a number of interrelated issues that range from abortion to stem cell research and artificial life support that are united through their exaltation of life.

            Popularized by Pope John Paul II in the late 20th century, the “culture of life” was rapidly adopted by American evangelicals in order to connect a set of theological beliefs about life to public policy (1995). The culture of life assumes, in a manner reminiscent of the Great Chain of Being, that life is fundamentally different from inert matter and furthermore that human life is substantially different from all other forms of life. For those who ascribe to this particular philosophy, there is a particular way in which life evidences a measure of agency and self-direction with human life (as opposed to animal life) being distinguished by a unique animating principle. Although this specific view on life descends from a vitalist tradition that may or may not have considered the unique spark to be the soul, the “culture of life” as a product of Catholic theology unapologetically described this essential life essence in terminology that references the soul. Consequentially, the culture of life positions this human exceptionalism as a direct result of divine will, meaning that God has implanted a soul within each individual body. Given that this differentiation between forms of being is what structures the universe, challenges that threaten to upend this order take on increased significance; the fight for any one individual life, then, is a fight to preserve the sanctity of all life.

            Exemplifying the attitude of the culture of life in this matter was the case of Terri Schiavo, who was at the center of a protracted legal battle over the ability of Schiavo’s husband, Michael, to remove Schiavo’s feeding tube and thus end her life. Schaivo’s case was notable in that garnered national attention and resulted in the passing of health legislation—the Palm Sunday Compromise—designed solely to benefit a single person. The president at the time, George W. Bush, rushed back to Washington D.C. from a vacation in Texas in order to sign a bill designed to move Schiavo’s case from state to federal court and issued this statement of support:  “It should be our goal as a nation to build a culture of life, where all Americans are valued, welcomed, and protected—and that culture of life must extend to individuals with disabilities” (2005). A few months later, President Bush would go on to declare his opposition to embryonic stem cell research while simultaneously supporting an ongoing war in Iraq that is estimated to have killed between tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of Iraquis (Iraq Body Count, 2012). The culture of life, then, would appear to have an inherent ambivalence about the concept of life, or, at the very least, lives that are of value.

            Returning to the larger framework from which the culture of life derives, however, we see that any notion of ambiguity is addressed through the hierarchal structure of life that orders the universe. The underlying structure of a hierarchy—along with the presumption that white American males sit at the top of the heap—legitimates policy that works to support systemic social inequality and would otherwise appear unjust. This drive to fight for life at the expense of lesser forms slides readily into a justification for the domination of everything else under the guise of protection; a worldview informed by the hierarchal nature inherent in the culture of life is reflected in policy that covers everything from universal health care to advanced interrogation techniques and the environment.

The Issue of Women and Their Bodies

            One group, in particular, that the culture of life’s hierarchical structure often works to subjugate is women and, in this, the issue of abortion presents a fruitful subject of inquiry as it resides at the nexus of issues regarding theology, politics, gender, and the body. Bodies in general, and women’s bodies in particular, have traditionally represented an additional source of ambivalence and anxiety for socially conservative Christians. In fact, the concept of the body was used throughout early Christianity to reinforce the hierarchy established by constructs like the Great Chain of Being. Church doctrine formalized a gendered hierarchy that designated the man of the house as the “head” as the center of reason and logic while woman was associated with the body.[5] From Ephesians chapter 5, verses 22-24:

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

            For evangelicals, who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, this particular passage is key as it establishes the basis of female submission and lays groundwork for the belief that men not only have the right but the divine duty to control women and their bodies. This is not to suggest, of course, that this particular passage is cited as justification for legislation designed to restrict women’s health but rather to argue that evangelicalism forms part of an underlying ethic that then serves to inform such policy.

            Addressing this very issue, radical feminism argued to point out the way in which women’s identity has been historically defined in relationship to that of men. Here, in contrast to previous iterations of feminism that understood inequality in terms of legal and class systems (i.e., liberal and Marxist feminism), we witness a movement that calls the legitimacy of patriarchy into question and, with it, the primacy of heterosexuality’s influence in society. Radical feminism’s opposition to the ethic of evangelicalism is important to note because strains of thought established by radical feminism are precisely what socially conservative Christian culture continues to battle today. To quote conservative evangelist Pat Robertson, “[feminism] is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians” (1992). Admittedly extreme in its view, Robertson’s quote nevertheless speaks to the way in which contemporary forms of feminism are associated with radical feminism and, as such, are subject to an incredible backlash. The danger here is that, the disparaging of radical feminism and its core ideals means that patriarchy further solidifies its hold and works to further entrench the legitimacy of men over women.[6]

            But it is not just women as a category that is addressed by Ephesians for the passage also speaks to the subjugation of the body and it is the linking of the two that has historically been a feminist concern. By creating an association with the body and the material—as opposed to the idealism and rationality represented by men—women’s bodies, and women by extension, have historically come to be regarded as objects. Successes from liberal feminism have helped to ensure that women’s bodies are no longer considered property but contemporary forms of feminism continue to struggle with ways in which control and surveillance of women’s bodies has become integrated into culture.

            As a site of investigation the body holds particular importance for it was through the body that anxieties about the world and one’s place in it were addressed:  early Christianity seized upon the desire for order and used the body to physically manifest notions of morality. The body, following a tradition established throughout medieval practice and ushered into the early modern era via Calvinism, became a barometer for the condition of the soul and fitter bodies indicated fitter souls. For many, efforts to secure salvation were enacted through the disciplining of one’s body as asceticism expanded to guard against excesses of food, sex, and the body.  One consequence of this is the rise in Christian fitness culture, a theme that is explored in R. Marie Griffith’s Born Again Bodies. For Griffith (2004), there is a key distinction to be made regarding the way in which the body is configured in American evangelism in that the American disciplining of the body is removed from earlier practices of penitence or identification with Christ’s suffering. The body has become a site of ambivalence as the entity that is responsible for the promulgation of sin while simultaneously acting as the conduit through which one demonstrates devotion to God. For American evangelicals, controlling the body is an end in and of itself.

The Bodies of the Future

            Evangelical youth in particular have renewed this effort to avoid excess, with movements ranging from modesty clubs to straight edge culture and participating in programs like The Silver Ring Thing. And, for evangelicalism, popular culture has, in a broad sense, been seized as a medium to transmit the messages and values of the movement and nowhere is this more apparent than among youth. This is not to imply, of course, that evangelicals believe that all instances of pop culture are performing the work of God but rather to suggest that popular culture—as the culture of the people—has been appropriated by evangelical movements and successfully integrated into a lifestyle for its followers.[7] There is a powerful community forming in this next generation of evangelical youth, united by their love for God and increasingly supported through an ever-widening network of rock concerts, skate parks, megachurches, prosperity gospels, and youth ministries that understand the importance of tapping into ethos that is driven by a profound need to belong. It is here that we see how the current movement of Evangelical youth has adopted lessons from the countercultural movements of the 1960s; employing the language of difference feminism for very different ends, young women understand sisterhood as a bond forged through the celebration of traditional social roles as devotion to God.

            If radical feminism coined the phrase “the personal is political” in order to argue that the everyday experiences of women were inextricably tied to political processes, the evangelical youth movement, in denying that it is about politics, performs a rather ingenious countermove:  it has cast the political as the everyday and thus makes itself more accessible to the next generation of activists. Although they may be hesitant to articulate it as such, politics, in the view of evangelical youth, has become a powerful combination of what you do, what you believe, and who you are. The political, in other words, has become personal.

            Even the very process of coalition building, championed by prominent feminist scholars like Bernice Johnson Reagon, has been assimilated into the toolkit of evangelism but unlike the feminist movement, this generation of evangelical activists has not been challenged to critically consider the implications of difference, instead focusing on messages of acceptance and cohesion through God’s love. The formation of cultural identity has become dependent on definition through disidentification with the Other and the incorporation of substantial difference is ignored. In a way movements like Mars Hill Church in Seattle represent the inversion of coalition politics for they champion the very sense of nationalism that Reagon warns is insufficient to survive in a modern world full of diversity (1983).

            Looking back to look forward, it is precisely this sense of retreatism that makes evangelical youth a population worth of study for we can study our nation’s history to understand what happens when deep cleavages are allowed to persist. The goal here is not to castigate evangelical youth movements but rather to issue a call to the corresponding members of the next generation of progressive activists:  if you are truly interested in forwarding the cause of feminism, remember the words of Bernice Johnson Reagon and push yourselves to see the linkages between seemingly disparate issues.  By turning politics into a lifestyle, evangelical youth movements have developed a structure that makes it almost impossible for a believer to be a single-issue voter and although there are assuredly differences between individuals, the sense of collective action that arises from this group remains one of their biggest successes.

Works Cited

Akin, T. (2012, August 19). The Jaco Report. (C. Jaco, Interviewer)

Benen, S. (2012, February 6). Ron Paul and “Honest Rape”. Retrieved from The Maddow Blog:

Bush, G. W. (2005, March 17). President’s Statement on Terri Schiavo. Retrieved from The White House:

Chan, S. (2007, October 15). ‘Gray Rape’: A New Form of Date Rape? Retrieved from The New York Times:

Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2011, September). Forcible Rape. Retrieved from Crime in the United States:

Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2012, January 6). Attorney General Eric Holder Announces Revisions to the Uniform Crime Report’s Definition of Rape. Retrieved from National Press Releases:

Goffard, C., & Marble, S. (2012, December 13). Judge Who Said Rape Victim “Didn’t Put Up a Fight” Later Apologizes. Retrieved from The Los Angeles Times:

Griffith, R. M. (2004). Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Iraq Body Count. (2012, December 10). Iraq Body Count Database. Retrieved from Iraq Body Count:

John Paul II. (1995, March 25). Evangelium Vitae. Retrieved from The Vatican:

Kaminsky, J. (2012, November 1). Republican Candidate Calls Aborting Rapist’s Child “More Violence on Woman’s Body”. Retrieved from Reuters:

Kennedy, M. (2009, September 29). Polanski Was Not Builty of ‘Rape-Rape’, Says Whoopi Goldberg. Retrieved from The Guardian:

Merkel, J. (2012, April). War on Women is a Myth: Nikki Haley and the Top 5 Republican Women. Retrieved from PolicyMic:

Moore, L. (2012, August 20). Rep. Todd Akin: The Statement and the Reaction. Retrieved from The New York Times:

Moxley, R. S. (2008, October 30). The DA’s Office Reacts to a Naughty Episode of Prosecutorial Misconduct. Retrieved from Orange County Weekly:

Reagon, B. J. (1983). Coalition Politics: Turning the Century. In B. Smith (Ed.), Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (pp. 356-368). Boston: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press.

Roiphe, K. (1994). The Morning After: Fear, Sex, and Feminism. New York: Back Bay Books.

Stepp, L. S. (2007, September). A New Kind of Date Rape. Retrieved from Cosmopolitan:

The Ad Council. (2003). Domestic Violence Prevention (1994-Present). Retrieved from The Ad Council:

The New York Times. (1992, August 26). Robertson Letter Attacks Feminists. Retrieved from The New York Tmes:

Van Susteren, G. (2012, November 14). The Real “War on Women” – The One We Do Not Hear About! And Has Facebook Joined the War on Women? On the Wrong Side? Retrieved from GretaWire:

Vigdor, N. (2012, October 17). McMahon Reverses Stance on Hospital Birth Control Mandate. Retrieved from Connecticut Post:

[1] Here Koster was attempting to elucidate his position on abortion, indicating that he would support an allowance if a mother’s life was in danger but not in cases of incest or rape. According to Koster, incest occurred with such minor frequency that it was not worth including in legislation. Rape, however was referenced repeatedly as “the rape thing,” which at best could be translated as “on the point discussion that is rape” but at worst could be taken as a phrase that indicates a dismissive and casual attitude toward rape.

[2] Stepp notes that this is a pseudonym, which is understandable given the nature of the incident being reported. There is, however, an interesting discussion to be had regarding the way in which the use of a pseudonym can be used to consider the differences between empowerment as an abstract concept and embodied action.

[3] As example, it was only in 2008 that the state of Maryland overturned an existing law that prevented an individual from revoking consent once he or she had given it (see Maouloud Baby v. State of Maryland, 2008), meaning that, until that time, individuals could not be convicted for post-penetration rape in Maryland.  Here we see rape’s definition tied solely to the initial act of penetration, meaning that once consent was given to enter the body, rape could not happen even if the penetrated party changed his or her mind at a later point in time.

[4] As a side note, the Third Great Awakening happens to occur before and during World War I but this Awakening does not maintain the same connection to war as its predecessors. Looking at the Revolutionary War (First Great Awakening) and the Civil War (Second Great Awakening), we can see that conflict was the result of an ongoing negotiation over national identity that was not present as a motivation for World War I.

[5] In a somewhat complicated extended metaphor St. Augustine would go on to suggest that, mirroring the relationship between men and women, all of mankind constituted a type of body to the “head” of God.

[6] Progressive evangelical feminists have argued for a rereading of Ephesians in light of 5:21 (“Submit yourselves one to another in the fear of God”), suggesting that the passage actually speaks to the humbling of all humans in the face of God and calls for a renewed understanding of submission. Despite the popularity of biblical feminism in the 1970s and 1980s, groups like the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus and the Evangelical Women’s Caucus have declined in stature within the evangelical community, suggesting that progressive evangelical feminist discourse is not currently widely circulated.

[7] An analog for the Left might be President Obama’s understanding and deployment of social media during his election campaigns as indicative of the way in which politics comingles with the everyday practices of individuals.

Seen but Not Heard: Feminist Narratives of Girlhood

Seen but Not Heard:

Feminist Narratives of Girlhood

Caitlin Moran, How to Be a Woman, New York: Harper Perennial, 2011, 320 pp., $15.99 (paperback).

Peggy Orenstein, Cinderella Ate My Daughter:  Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, New York: Harper, 2011, 256 pp., $25.99 (hardcover).

Reviewed by

Chris Tokuhama

University of Southern California

           The first thing one needs to know about Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman (Harper Perennial, 2011) is that it is not an academic book, nor does it claim to be. Moran, a columnist for the London paper The Times, rightly asserts that the movement of feminism is too important to be discussed solely by academics and endeavors to use vignettes from her life to illustrate particular ways in which the question of feminism infiltrates meaningfully into the everyday lives of ordinary individuals. In and of itself, this effort represents a perfectly admirable attempt to reintroduce notions of feminism into mainstream culture but good intentions can only carry one so far.

            Ultimately, when boiled down to its purest essence, Moran’s assertion that she has “stuff to say” (12) is really what this book is all about. Moran has assembled a collection of shorter pieces loosely linked by the fact that they all derive their thrust from a moment in which an experience has given her some insight into the condition of being a woman—and a pointedly white and heterosexual one at that—in the United Kingdom. Given Moran’s background as a columnist, one is not surprised that her book should take this form and, indeed, one might be inclined to deem the project successful if the book were conceived simply as a memoir of sorts. Instead, however, Moran positions her book in the tradition of the feminist practice of consciousness raising and readers must question what sorts of insights are gained from perusing this particular text.

            “But wait!” Moran might argue, “I’m not a feminist academic!” (12) And she would be correct in that assertion. What the caveat does not excuse, however, is a demonstrated lack of rigor in thought or practice. As one example, Moran cites an “Amnesty International survey that found that 25 percent of people believe a woman is still to blame for being raped if she dresses ‘provocatively’” (203) which might very well be true but Moran does not provide any means to verify such a statement. It is precisely because feminism is such an important issue that Moran should do her due diligence and not allow her position to be undermined by an easy attack; Moran should force her detractors to confront her ideas and not her evidence, which is frustrating since Moran has some really good ideas.

            For example, one of the themes that runs throughout Moran’s book is the way in which being a woman (i.e., female identity) is manifested through, and displayed on, the body and that women’s internalized sense of how to appropriately discipline their bodies plays a key part in becoming a woman in the United Kingdom and the United States. Pubic hair, in particular, occupies a bit of Moran’s attention as its initial appearance and subsequent removal remain closely linked to conceptualizations of womanhood and femininity. A notable section of Moran’s second chapter discusses how technical considerations of shooting pornography marketed to heterosexual men—again we must be wary that this constitutes conjecture for Moran provides no sources—have been imbued with a layer of cultural meaning that consequentially influences women’s grooming habits. Women, in short, are affected by a cultural product that likely does not have their best interests in mind and it is precisely this type of revelation that illustrates the continued relevance of feminism. And yet it is also interesting to note when and where Moran draws arbitrary lines:  pubic hair, for example, should be trimmed but not waxed. But why, you might ask? Here Moran misses an opportunity to discuss the larger implications of the way in which women (and men) have been socialized to relate to women’s bodies and although Moran correctly notes that pubic hair is different from other forms of ancillary hair in that it is sexualized, she fails to touch on the broader issue of how hair management (of which trimming would surely be included) is related to perceptions and enactment of femininity.

            And of course it would seem rather impossible to discuss female bodies and femininity without broaching the subject of the vagina. Moran muses on a conversation with her younger sister, “So now, in 1989, we have no word for ‘vagina’ at all—and with all the stuff that’s going on down there, we feel we need one.” (56) Although Moran goes on to talk about the various euphemisms that women have for their vagina, she does not touch upon the way in which this practice points to the way in which language plays a crucial role in configuring, maintaining, and enacting the relative subjugation of women. Moran notes, for example, that terms describing the vagina have the ability to cause discomfort but ultimately portrays this phenomenon as empowering—she notes that the most offensive male counterpart is “dick”—but not discuss the ways in which this difference is actually indicative of a problem. What does it mean, for example, that we are much more familiar with, and accepting of, dicks? Nothing particularly good for women, most likely. Compounding the problem, Moran makes a critique about how “pussy” evidences a disconnect between women and their vaginas but does not comment on the way in which a refusal to embrace “vagina” ultimately leads to the same conclusion. Here, instead of making a compelling argument about the way in which language can be used to excavate relationships, Moran merely produces a polemic about the vagina’s various names that ultimately boils down to a description of her personal taste without investigating how her taste—and here one might certainly nod toward Bourdieu—was cultivated in the first place.

And the vagina performs a key function for Moran as she provides a catchy, if unhelpful, survey on page 75 to determine if one is in fact a feminist:  Do you have a vagina? Do you want to be in charge of it? (Feminists, by the way, should answer “yes” to both.) Like Naomi Wolf’s Vagina, we see a way in which the vagina is made to stand in for the entirety of womanhood, essentially reducing the meaningful elements of a woman to her vagina. Surely, this is a provocative question but not incredibly feminist in the long run. Moreover, what about those who do not have a vagina (e.g., men)? How are they supposed to figure out if they are feminists or not? Compounding the problem, we must investigate what it means to be in charge of one’s vagina:  in the abstract, one might state that being in charge means that one should be able to do whatever one likes with one’s vagina but we are left to question how such a practice manifests in the real world. Here, Moran’s ambiguity allows her to assume a position that is difficult to counter for who would argue that women should not have control over their own bodies in theory? Moran provides a good sound bite that is ultimately meaningless, however, for there are many ways in which the actions of men (and women) do not evidence a belief that total control of the vagina belongs to the women who bear them.

And yet perhaps the most problematic way in which Moran’s ambiguity affects her writing rests in the rather causal way she employs the term “the patriarchy.” On one hand the term is easy enough to define but where Moran fails is in her refusal to explain exactly what “the patriarchy” encompasses; patriarchy manifests in a variety of forms and through myriad agents as it operates on individual, interpersonal, and institutional levels. Here one senses another distinct limitation in her work:  How to Be a Woman is written by Moran to other women like Moran. For Moran, “the patriarchy” does not need to be defined because its meaning is assumed. Ultimately Moran’s overly simplistic attempts to define feminism and patriarchy also do a larger disservice as Moran fails to address the notion that individuals may benefit from feminism without ever being feminist themselves. Moran’s assumptions about feminism occlude the nuanced ways in which individuals can work to support both feminism and patriarchal hegemony in a manner that does not produce internal conflict.

In contrast to Moran’s efforts, one feels compelled to laud a work like Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter:  Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture (HarperCollins, 2011) for its ability to use personal narrative as an entrée to discuss the way in which female gender roles are configured and interpreted on a variety of levels. Using her experiences with her daughter as a narrative backbone, Orenstein carefully develops a series of thoughts about the effect that princess culture has on contemporary children.

Primarily focused on the influence of markets, Orenstein shows how economic concerns have played a large part in shaping the world that girls experience today. From the concept of Disney Princesses as an effort to revitalize a flagging corporate consumer products division to the way in which American Girl dolls promote intergenerational female bonding through consumption to the mapping of a family’s aspirations for social mobility onto child beauty pageant contestants, Orenstein illustrates how disparate aspects of girlhood are connected to each other and to a larger system of meaning. It is precisely because of the influence of marketing, Orenstein argues, that the transgressive core of “girl power” has been eschewed for the faux empowerment of “girlz.” The insidious bargain that girls strike is to gain claims toward empowerment by using consumption to reaffirm traditional gender roles. Even as fewer opportunities become salient for young girls—here reference is made to a classroom exercise in which young girls chose to imagine themselves as a princess, a fairy, a butterfly, or a ballerina in contrast to boys who assumed a variety of roles—Orenstein explores how performance of gender has become increasingly divorced from notions of female pleasure. Particularly notable are the ways in which Orenstein uses new communications technologies like social media and picture messaging to showcase how young girls’ identities have become, in part, more externally focused with the cultivation of the self as a kind of real-time performance piece that lies parallel to one’s physical existence. Sexting, for example, is not a post-feminist celebration of the body but rather constitutes a functional practice where girls demonstrate their ability to use their bodies as means toward particular ends (e.g., keeping a boyfriend). Orenstein also suggests that young girls develop a form of internalized self-surveillance as they learn to see themselves and their bodies as others do. Connecting this to chapters on body image and princess gowns, Orenstein builds a case for how body, femininity, and self are intimately related for girls; for many girls, how one feels is related to how one perceives one’s body to look. Ultimately, Orenstein challenges readers to question exactly what kind of practical power is provided by an empowerment that continues to be grounded in perceptions of the female body.

In contrast to the ambiguity that Moran displays about being a woman at the end of her book, Orenstein develops a clear plan of action that asks individuals to consider how they participate in the maintenance of a culture that might be detrimental for girls. Although both authors ground their analysis in the trappings of everyday life, the key to Orenstein’s success is the way in which she calls for a type of engagement that extends beyond Moran’s askance that readers get up on a chair and proclaim “I am a feminist!” In the end, it is a shame, really, for frank discussion of feminism’s importance is sorely needed in today’s society and Caitlin Moran owes the awkward thirteen-year-olds of the world—including the one who forms the core of her story, herself—better.

The Agony and the Ecstasy

To this day, I still remember the first time that I rejected Gender Studies as a valid area of concern:  in college, a friend had joined the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance and I had declined an invitation to attend. I was, at the time, sympathetic toward women but still too caught up in notions of second wave feminism to identify with a cause in any formal way (well, that and the challenge to the already fragile male ego made joining such an organization an impossibility for me at the time). I am not proud of this moment, but not particularly ashamed either—it was what it was.

How ironic, then, that issues of gender have become one of my primary focuses in media:  the representation, construction, configuration, positioning, and subversion of gender is what often excites me about the texts that I study. Primarily rooted in Horror and Science Fiction, I look at archetypes ranging from the Final Girl and New Male (Clover, 1992), to the sympathetic/noble male and predatory lesbian vampires of the 1970s, to the extreme sexualities of the future.

In particular, I enjoy the genres of Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction because they allow us to grapple with deeply-seeded thoughts, feelings, and attitudes in ways that we could never confront directly. And, unlike traditional religion, which often attempts to tackle “the big questions” head on, media can provide a space to explore and experiment as we struggle to find the answers that we so desperately seek. The challenge for our students is that so much of American culture is steeped in traditions that reflect underlying aspects of patriarchy; from economics, to religion, to politics and culture, America’s values, thought, and language have been influenced by patriarchal hegemony (King, 1993). All of a sudden, we begin to question what we have been taught and wonder how history has been inscribed by men, afforded privilege to males, restricted the power of the female, and subjugated the female body (Creed, 1993).

And, the female body, as a site of contestation, provides a solid point of entry for a discussion of gender issues; gender is inextricably linked with sex—Clover, for example, argues that sex follows gender performance in Horror films (1992)—and also inseparable from discussion of the bodies that manifest and enact issues of gender. Consider how women’s bodies have traditionally been tied to notions of home, family, and reproduction. The basic biological processes inherent to women serve to define them in a way that is inescapable; as opposed to the hardness of men, women are soft, permeable, and oozing. On another level, we are treated to an examination of the female body through depictions of birth gone awry:  from Alien, to possession (and its inevitable consequence of female-to-male transformation), to devil spawn, we have been conditioned to understand women as the bearers of the world’s evil.

Issues of birth also raise important notions at the intersection of science, gender, and the occult. Possession movies, in particular, have an odd history of female “victims” that undergo a series of medical tests (evidencing a binary that our class has come to label as Science vs. Magic/Faith) and feature male doctors who typically try to figure out what’s wrong with the female patient—they are literally trying to determine her secret (Burfoot & Lord, 2006). Looking at this theme in a larger context, we reference the Enlightenment (which was previously discussed in our course) and La Specola’s wax models as examples of scientific movements in the 17th century (and again in the 19th century) that sought to wrest secrets from the bodies of women, evidencing a fascination with the miracle of birth and understanding the human (particularly female) body. (La Specola as a public museum had an interesting role in introducing images of the female body into visual culture and into the minds of the public.) Underscoring the presence of wax models is a desire to delve deeper, peeling away the successive layers of the female form in order to “know” her (echoes of this same process can assuredly be found in modern horror films). It seems, then, that the rise of Science has coincided with an increased desire to deconstruct the female body (and, by extension, the female identity).

In similar ways, we saw echoes of this mentality embodied by Daniel Graystone as he struggled to understand Automaton Zoe’s secret earlier in the season. Speaking to a larger ideology of Science/Reason/Logic as the ultimate path to truth (as opposed to emotion/intuition), we again see an example of the female body being probed. And although Automaton Zoe is not a cyborg in the strictest sense of the term, we can understand her as a synthesis of human/machine components–this then allows us to incorporate previous readings on the presence of the female cyborg in Science Fiction.

Given our class’ focus on faith in television, however, we can also consider how female transgression has roots in Christian tradition as demonstrated by the story of Eve (which is also a story about the consequences of female curiosity in line with Pandora and Bluebeard)—how many ways can we keep women in check?

Restricting depictions of female sexuality and pleasure represents one such method according to Kimberly Pierce, director of Boys Don’t Cry (Dick, 2006). Tied to a morality influenced (in America, at least) by Christianity, we have come to consider sexuality (in general, and female sexuality in particular) as something sinful and worthy of shame. We see sex as something grounded in the material, or indicative of lust; sex, necessary on a biological level, can cause tension as we fail to reconcile its presence in our lives.

Addressing this notion, Gary Laderman argues that we might benefit from a reconsideration of our moral position on sex and religion, likening an orgasm to a religious epiphany or ritual. In essence, Laderman suggests that, as we climax we are released from the concerns of this world (even if for just a moment!) and exist in a timeless space where our individual sense of self melts as we commune with an entity/feeling that is larger than ourselves (2009). Put simply, we transcend. Further, as we continue with issues of the sacred and sex, we begin to see that the relationship between religion and sexuality becomes more complex as we look to Saint Teresa (as popularized by Bernini’s sculpture) and Saint Sebastian with an eye toward BDSM. Here, we have religious ecstasy depicted in visual terms that mirror the orgasmic andcontend with issues of penetration with respect to male and female bodies.

Picking up on the discrepancies between male and female bodies, our class began to note ways in which traditional gender archetypes of male and female were challenged by “Things We Lock Away” (herehereherehere, and here) while others chose to examine the ways in which lived religion was embodied by females. Are these particular manifestations of lived religion typical for women? To what extent does the show support traditional gender norms and it what ways does it challenge them (if at all)? We can argue that Zoe takes charge of her life, but she does so by ascribing to the role of “Woman Warrior,” a role that might be viewed as empowering, but is, in fact, degenerative as aspects of femininity are stripped away–in becoming a warrior, the female transforms her body into that of a male through the use of force. (We can also certainly talk about the imagery conveyed by the sword as Zoe’s weapon of choice.) Women, in short, are powerful when they emulate men. Contrast this with portrayals of the “new” female hero as seen through the eyes of Miyazaki (Spirited Away) or del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) and we begin to understand just how much Zoe ascribes to traditional notions of masculine/feminine.

But all is not lost. “Things We Lock Away” saw the birth of Chip Zoe (in reference to Chip Six from Battlestar Galactica), who, like her namesake, represented a manifestation of the divine born out of a connection with that which makes us human. Recasting power in terms of self-acceptance and love, the truly progressive feminist heroes and heroines are the ones who tap into the strength that we all have, showing us that we all have the potential to become more than we ever thought that we could (think Buffy before and after the end of Season 7 minus the Slayer Potential birthright).

But, as we all know, braving the depths of ourselves and coming back alive is no easy task–we need only look back at “There Is Another Sky” in order to understand just how fraught this path is. And so, throughout the episode, we see examples of people suppressing and repressing their base instincts:  running to V world and indulging in illicit behavior in order to remain “civilized” in Caprica City; the lingering shot of Daniel’s floor, upon which Tom Vergis’ blood will forever be inscribed (notice the one at peace is the one who acknowledged the brutality of the situation at hand); Amanda and Lacy allaying their guilt over their acts of betrayal; Tamara clinging to her human identity as the only sense of self that she’s ever known. When it comes to our humanity, we hide, protect, obsess over, and fetishize the best and worst parts of ourselves; if only we could take a page or two from the new hero and realize that the answer has always been–and will always be–love.

Role Play Is Not Just Foreplay

She scratched her head for a second and slowly placed her hand back on the table.

“I guess the most important thing that I’ve learned is that Feminism isn’t about hating men, but…well…more about equality of the sexes.”

The process of interviewing had been long and tiring but here, at last, was what I had been waiting all day for. Finally, as some might call it, was the breakthrough moment when this student understood that something that she had learned had actually changed the way in which she viewed the world. I left the interview room happy that this student had come to a deeper understanding about a subject but didn’t think much about our conversation for a couple of days.

Then, while catching up on e-mails, I happened upon a news story where a group of men marched against domestic violence. “Great!” I thought, “It’s always nice to see males take on this issue.” But as I looked further into the event I realized that the primary focus of the march was to end domestic violence instigated by men on women.

Okay, sure, if you play the odds, male on female violence probably represents the cases that you hear about most often. However, the question that I had was, “Why did it matter?

While I certainly don’t want to imply that any type of domestic violence is necessarily less deserving of attention than any other, why is it that we are so eager to get fired up about protecting women but not about protecting men from females? Or even from other males for that matter? Can you make a case where a male is physically able to defend himself from a woman and therefore doesn’t need outside help? What about non-physical abuse? If so, what does this say about your assumptions about gender roles? What happens to this argument when the aggressor and the victim are of the same sex? Is this any worse or better than an assumption about Feminists?

For me, sex education is not just about the act itself but also the host of things that surround the deed; gender roles, gender stereotype, and perception of gender all engender inform the various ways that we interact with our sexual partners. How do our expectations for our partners (or others) depend on our preconceived notions of their gender? For that matter, how do our expectations of ourselves hinge upon this?

Sometimes I think that it would be easier if we had been assigned roles in life—we would know our job, our lines, and our costume. The other way to think about it, though, is that we now have the freedom and the opportunity to define ourselves as we see fit. Instead of asking ourselves “Who should I be?” we get to inquire “Who will I be?”