Archives for posts with tag: Feminism

Thematically, the Hulk is an overwhelmingly masculine character. He’s the personification of the masculine urge to break your hand punching a hole in the wall because you don’t know how to otherwise process an insecurity. When a domestic abuser says that they “lost control” leading up to their violent outburst, they are channeling the Hulk. Any strong emotion pushes Bruce Banner into a destructive rage, a literal manifestation of the toxic pressures on men to limit their “weaker” emotions and only project strength. These are all quite blatant masculine tropes. Now, obviously the Hulk is “one of the good ones”, so his horrifying superpower is always ultimately directed at the villain. He becomes Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s sheepdog, utilizing the viciousness of the wolves against them, all in the name of protecting the sheep. We all know mindless brutality is bad, but when it’s channeled in opposition to evil, then it becomes good! Don’t you feel safer knowing that the dude punching holes in the wall is the same dude with a gun protecting all of us from faceless terrorists?

I’m so sorry baby, but you know what happens when you make me angry!

Despite its palpable presence in the character, an exploration of gender within Hulk media has not yet developed. Maybe it has in the comics, and I would appreciate anyone sharing that with me if it has, but at least in the media I’ve consumed, I haven’t come across it. Despite the reticence to explore gender with the Hulk, however, Marvel and Disney+ decided to take it for a spin by adding a pronoun with She-Hulk: Attorney at Law.

With the Hulk being so obviously masculine, it was always going to be a struggle using Hulk-ism to analyze gender through a female lens. The writers at She-Hulk seemed like they were trying to take radical feminism into the corporate mainstream, but ended up espousing the backwards ideology of Caitlyn Jenner: the hardest part of being a woman is figuring out what to wear. The show makes multiple references to some of the struggles of women, but these only exist for the main characters to role their eyes, and are never really confronted. Toxicity presents itself passively as an immutable constant from which to derive superpowers, not as a social ill to be addressed. The show tells us (literally verbatim) that it exists on the fringes of the reluctant superhero trope, that She-Hulk isn’t there to mindlessly smash a villain in an epic CGI battle (perhaps because rage is associated with a different pronoun). Unfortunately, that leaves us with not-so-scintillating conflicts like: needing a new outfit, dating in your 30s, and being a reluctant bridesmaid – tropes reminiscent of those romantic comedies about women trying to have it all, but then realizing they still need a man to feel complete.

This blog is really just an excuse to play around in photoshop

In addition to failing at feminism, it also fails at portraying masculinity. Each new episode seems to have a new skeezy dude, and even “some of the good ones” turn out to be manipulative by the end. These aren’t traditional villains that want to take over the world, but guys who mansplain, that are lecherous to the point of absurdity, men who are unable to commit, predatory strangers, etc. She-Hulk is not the first piece of media to have poorly developed, one-dimensional characters, but it’s the equivalent of having a menstruating woman president firing off nuclear missiles because of her PMS. It doesn’t matter how many positive representations exist alongside of it, it’s still a pointed insult. Just because there is some reality depicted by the skeezy male behaviour doesn’t mean an extreme caricature is the appropriate method of representation. And thanks to the show’s shallow feminism, these caricatures are not seen in any systemic context, so the conflict becomes with the men themselves, with men and male behaviours, rather than with the patriarchy that spawned them.

The weird thing is, the show writers knew it was going to be bad. The main “villain” of the show is a gaggle of internet trolls talking shit about She-Hulk and her gender, a meta attempt to preempt its own criticism. Rather than trying to write a better show, they absolve themselves by pointing to bad faith actors and saying that if you think we’re failing at feminism, you’re just like them. She-Hulk takes an adversarial tone not just within its feminism against its male characters, but against its viewers as well. They wrote the show as a lecture to berate the people watching it without making it good enough that this meta-antagonism would be tolerable.

But it’s okay when Jen herself points out that She-Hulk is derivative from the Hulk – pick your commentary, writers!

Television shows have the ability to discuss gender, even toxic masculinity, without provoking massive online hate. Consider Ted Lasso and the fall of Nate the Great in season two. Season one has Nate learn that strength comes paired with dominance as he is bullied and belittled by the male players, and is rescued by the strength and dominance of another man. In season two, as he becomes more and more recognized, he seeks that dominance in a confused attempt to impress both Ted and his father. His attempts at dominance are not rejected by his well-meaning friends, but are accepted in a way that infuriates him further. He wants to be the big tough guy who succeeds in crushing his enemies because that’s how he learned to be a man from season one – acceptance is not a part of the masculinity he learned. Nate betrays his friends by joining another team, and we at home are heartbroken because we can’t help but see the problems in his behaviour – they have been spelled out so beautifully within the show itself. Toxic masculinity is explored in an illustrative systemic context, is shown why it is toxic, and why it might be appealing to someone engulfed within it. All without backlash from internet trolls.

I mean, nobody liked it because we felt betrayed alongside the rest of the team, but that’s good writing for you.

How could She-Hulk have been better at exploring gender? There are a few ways. It could have picked a toxic masculine trope and committed to it, perhaps with a single villain who gets a chance at character development like with Ted Lasso. But with Hulk-ism so associated with anger, I think the show should have dedicated itself to what anger looks like for women.

When She-Hulk finally loses it, she punches a television and holds a guy up by his shirt. This is enough to cause everyone in the world to freak out and put her in monster jail. In a show that relies so heavily on shallow themes, I was surprised when they didn’t compare this incredibly mild outburst to what literally every male superhero has ever done without any social consequences. In theory, the show could have led with that, and then taken the time to explore why female anger is tamped out in a society that expects them to be meek and demure. This would have been a better show, though I still would likely have had some criticism that a feminism that aims to show that women can be uncontrollable rage monsters too isn’t really the greatest message either.

I don’t remember this part in The Second Sex

I think its best bet would have been to explore anger in a way that didn’t relate itself to rage. As the show highlights, women have much to be angry about, but rampant destruction isn’t the solution to address it. Oddly enough, the show itself is a perfect metaphor for this as it attempts to bludgeon its viewers into its ideology and receives zero converts. She-Hulk was never a rage monster, and there can be value in that. A woman’s anger can manifest itself in something as simple as refusing to change seats on a bus. Jen Walters tells her cousin that women are much better at regulating their emotions because they endure more social trauma, which is false because this ultimately leads to higher rates of depression in women (the opposite of well-regulated emotion) than in men. In reality, anger is a much healthier reaction to injustice than the passive acquiescence depicted in the show. Anger is actually the solution to the problem; it is not to be repressed nor dismissed. She-Hulk could have embraced this constructive use of anger if it really wanted to depict a feminism worthy of its pronoun.

But it didn’t, and I expect Disney to produce a refined piece of critical feminism around the same time they make a show about intimate partner violence and the relationship between Bruce Banner and Betty Ross.

The foundation of linguistic determinism, dictonary.com, defines feminism as, “the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men.” I’ve described before how equality is an insufficient measure of defining feminism, and its failure becomes much more stark as time goes by. For instance, women are now as equally incapable as men of getting abortions as in certain US states. Feminism can’t be about equality because the issues facing women are distinct from the issues facing men. It’s a buzzword abused by the left just as tragically as “freedom” is by the right. I don’t mean to completely disparage the term (nor “freedom”, to be perfectly honest) since it does have its uses, but setting up equality as the goal of feminism is to ignore what feminists have been demanding for centuries.

We too can serve under capitalism to support the military industrial complex!

Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792 demanding a place for women in formal education. She argued that preventing women from becoming educated and then calling them dumb is a cruel, self-fulfilling prophecy. Modern examples would be certain vocations being hostile to women, preventing their participation, and then pointing to their menses as the reason they can’t participate, ignorant again of this gatekeeping hostility. To be clear, equal access to education is a significant portion of this argument, but the goal isn’t the equality in and of itself; it’s the education.

Similarly, Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique in 1963 with a less specific, but much more illuminating assertion. She posits that keeping women at home creates an unnamed ennui within them that can only be solved by their participation in the work force. This again requires an equality of opportunity, but Friedan is still not making an argument for equality, but an argument in repudiation of this mystique – that women ought to content themselves with the purpose intrinsic to cooking and cleaning. It’s a “mystique” because of its unnamed quality: up until this point, women were considered biologically-inclined to domesticity, so this role must be the only thing that could possibly matter to them. The language didn’t exist at the time to argue against this narrative.

Probably just a bout of hysteria

Strangely enough, the language was already there. Towards what end does one use an education or a vocation? Today we might say that the answer is money, but we’ve also forgotten that money is a means to an end rather than an end in itself. The answer is actually to create meaning within our lives. Friedan recognized that forced domesticity is deeply unfulfilling – what are the results of the feminine mystique if not a lifelong existential crisis?

Existential philosophers have been talking about the angst of an unfulfilled life since before the suffragette movement (though, notably, not before Wollstonecraft). Victor Frankl recognized the necessity of meaning to existence. Albert Camus recognized the importance of embracing it even in the face of absurdity. Friedrich Nietzsche asked us to devote our lives to creating it. Existentialism is the pursuit of self-actualization in a universe that is actively trying to suppress it, whether through death or, in this instance, the patriarchy.

As Heidegger would say, women only exist authentically in a Being-Toward-Patriarchy

This is what the patriarchy is. It’s not the fancy name given to an unequal system; it’s the name of the cultural norms that systematically repress the existential potential of women. Consider the aforementioned criminalization of abortion. “Pro-life” is a harmful misnomer because it hides the reality of its repression. Consider Judith Thomson’s defense of abortion:

You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. [If he is unplugged from you now, he will die; but] in nine months he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.

Do you have the right to choose to remove yourself from this situation that you did not consent to, regardless of the consequences on the life of this violinist? Of course you do. Perhaps the death of this violinist is no cause for jubilation, but the choice is still crucially yours. There’s a reason that critics of the pro-life movement call it “forced birth” rather than pro-life, because it more accurately describes what they’re advocating. The life of the unborn child, regardless of whether or not life begins at conception, has always been irrelevant to the woman’s right to choose.

Well that was a wasted nine months…

The distinction is important because we can see now that being forced to give birth is actually massively detrimental to a woman’s ability to live her own subjectively meaningful life. In a lot of cases, it’s not just forced birth, but forced motherhood. If she so chooses, motherhood can indisputably be hugely rewarding, but if not, she is tragically left with a Kierkegaardian mystique as her life is determined by outside forces.

Having your life defined by the powerful majority is not solely the purview of women. Black liberation movements are about reversing the historical suppression of self-actualization through Jim Crow, red-lining, and police brutality. It’s hard to live your best life when you’re being incarcerated by an unjust penal system. The queer focus on recognizing and accepting the different is about the ability of the different to live out their own self-actualization, even if their version of self-actualization isn’t exactly what Maslow might have had in mind. I think it’s a safe generalization to make that all social movements demanding equal rights are in reality simply asking for the opportunity to live their lives in the way they find most meaningful without some jerk forcing them into a box outside of that meaning. Hell, even Oscar Wilde recognized that under capitalism we are limited in our ability to self-actualize because we’re too busy labouring for the profits of others. You’re not going to be living your passion if you have to serve coffee to assholes in order to eke out increasing rent payments.

Noted socialist, Oscar Wilde. Albert Einstein was a socialist too, for your historical socialists lesson of the day!

One of the rare beautiful things about individualism is its recognition that our meaning ought not be determined by the collective. It’s even quite libertarian to insist that there be no suppression on the expression of that meaning (undeniably within reason). This is why modern day libertarians insist that current oppression is either rooted in biological inclination or in self-selected out-group culture – if the conditions were socially imposed, the cognitive dissonance would become too great.

Human beings, all of us, are meaning-seeking creatures. We want to lead fulfilling lives. It’s honestly such a simple, basic thesis that it ought to be glaringly obvious. It’s just that social structures have been implemented over time to prioritize the meaning of certain groups over others. The high school football player who rapes his female classmate is protected because his future, his ability to make meaning, is threatened by the legitimate consequences of his actions. He can go on to play college ball, and now she can’t get an abortion and is stuck with the life that was involuntarily thrusted upon her. His meaning is prioritized; her meaning is superfluous. It’s an unbalanced existentialism.

That’s patriarchy. Smashing it is feminism.

Movies shape our view of the world. We are socialized not just by our parents and peers, but by the stories we consume, and movies are one of the most predominant storytellers of our current era. This makes the content of films of paramount importance. We can learn courage and determination from John McClane. We can learn responsibility from Spider-Man. We can learn about changing the world from Neo. Our virtues are shaped by the heroes we learn to emulate, since the very practice of storytelling puts the protagonist on a pedestal. A generation growing up on anti-heroes is likely to be as cynical and morose as their paragons, learning that these are admiral qualities to embody.

Rick

Rick is genuinely a bad and miserable person. The show is quite clear on that. Fans struggle to emulate against him rather than from him because of the nature of the protagonist pedestal. Similar things can be said of Bojack Horseman. I know these are TV shows. Shut up.

SJWs seem to be aware of this, and so a new spat of movie trends throw women and ethnic minorities into the protagonist role, allowing these demographics to see a hero that they can relate to. This then allows black youths to learn responsibility from Miles Morales rather than Peter Parker. We now have Katniss Everdeen to teach us how to be fearless, and Melissa McCarthy to teach us how to bust ghosts.

This seems to anger some people. Those who think that women can’t bust ghosts or that black youths can’t be responsible decry this new trend as ruining film. There are those who, regardless of quality, think that these kinds of movies just shouldn’t even be made. Soon, films won’t have white men at all, and it’ll be the great replacement all over again! It’s that cancer Feminism running amok once more!

Ghostbusters

What’s next? A remake of Leprechaun with a female leprechaun!? UNACCEPTABLE! Leprechauns can’t be female!

Let’s take a deeper look at our lessons from these common tropes. We might learn to be responsible, but it’s a responsibility to our tribe at the exclusion of the Other. We might learn courage, but it’s a courage to defend the normal rather than a courage of standing up as someone different. We might learn to change the world, but if we’re changing it into an exact copy of what has come before, this type of change is more an enforcement of the status quo rather than its repudiation.

Is this trend truly feminist? Carol Gilligan, a notable feminist, would likely disagree. All of our ethical systems since the ancient Greeks have been philosophized by men. And not just any kind of men, but men who grew up in societies that did not care about women at all. This means that these ethical systems that they devised were not informed by the situations of women whatsoever. Gilligan decided to ask the question, what if we considered women when thinking of ethical systems? Thus arose the ethics of care.

The ethics of care is born in contrast to what is typically called the ethics of justice. The ethics of justice represent systems of ethics that see moral situations in objective terms. There is a right answer, whether that rightness is determined deontologically or consequentially, and that right answer is determined in the abstract. The ethics of care seeks to find rightness is the salvaging of relationships, of meeting needs, and existing in concrete situations that are determined by the individuals and the relationships they share. While Gilligan does not dismiss the intentions of justice, she does seek to imbue care into that system in order to incorporate women’s perspectives into the ethical discourse.

in a different voice

This is coming from a book, one of the least predominant storytellers of our current era.

If this is a feminist ethic, then very few of these movies are actually feminist at all. The latest Terminator movie (Dark Fate) perfectly encapsulates this distinction. The villain is literally an unfeeling machine that will not stop. Regardless of how many Hispanic women you throw into this movie, it is a film defined by a relationship that cannot be repaired. Patriarchal ethics exist in a Manichean dichotomy that pits absolute, rigid and uncompromising evil against absolute (though occasionally nuanced) good. Feminist ethics cannot exist in this universe because the way the villain is written. If these kinds of stories are what shape our virtues, when we look at our universe, it is much easier to see our own antagonists as dogmatically inflexible monsters who cannot be bargained with. What this means is that Doctor Strange is actually more feminist than the 2016 Ghostbusters film because it conceives of a solution wherein the villain (after some degree of coercion, sure) settles their score through a dialogue. The villainy of the ghosts allows no such relationship.

The socialization that these kinds of films are expanding is actually patriarchal in nature. They indoctrinate their viewers into an ethic of domination, of a good guy with a gun ultimately crushing a bad guy with a gun, but now the good guy can be a good black woman with a gun. Those angry with these films correctly assert that they are propaganda, as all stories are propaganda for the ideology that underlie them, Die Hard as much as Into The Spider-Verse, it’s just that the propaganda isn’t feminist.

Post-Script: For those who read the title and expected a listicle, and still made it this far, congratulations on your attention span!