I recently came across the concept of "Straw Feminism." Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency defines the Straw feminist as “a trope that is a deliberately created, exaggerated caricature of a feminist that is used to undermine and ridicule feminist movements.” Straw feminism is probably the main factor behind why many people associate feminism with crazy, radical, militant women, fighting against sexism and inequality that really doesn’t exist.
I know Straw Feminism works because it worked on me. For a long time this was my exact opinion of Feminism. But the thing is, I grew up idolizing a lot of really awesome female characters from some really awesome shows. I mean, my friends and I were constantly playing some variation of Xena: Warrior –Moon-Princess-who-also-slays-vampires-while-wearing-a-yellow-Ball-gown-because-Bell-is-the-best-Disney-princess (I was not immune to Disney, okay? I can’t help it. I didn’t know what Stockholm syndrome was when I was a kid). So if I had all these great bad-ass women to look up to, where did this anti-feminism ideology come from?
The answer: Everywhere. There has been a strategic attack against feminism that continues to this day and I know this may sound like an extreme thing to say but when you start to think about it, you see it everywhere -- especially in the media.
For example, take the villain Femme Fatal from the Power Puff Girls. As Anita Sarkeesian points out in the aforementioned Feminist Frequency video, the logo on her outfit is the “woman” symbol. Her gun matches. The beginning of the episode starts by showing us the happy and peaceful world they live in, where everyone gets along and there is no such thing as gender inequality. Femme Fatal comes along and manages to convince the Power Puff girls to see sexism where none exists. Then they start terrorizing the men of the town while screaming in the name of feminism. This is a kids show. Aimed at little girls. They are telling little girls that feminism makes you crazy and that sexism isn't real -- if you see it, you're overreacting.
Other examples include Phil and Lil’s mother from Rugrats, the group of Women’s studies majors and self-proclaimed feminists featured in Legally Blond, and, (this one breaks my heart because I love her so), the 3rd season of Veronica Mars.
Since I watched Anita's analysis, I’ve been playing a game I like to call “spot the Straw Feminist.” I was really just trying to be more aware of it, but the game became so easy I was really glad I didn’t make it a drinking game, because my liver really can’t handle that kind of abuse. So of the straw feminist tropes I noticed, I'll talk about just one that at first glance is a pretty trivial moment in a movie trailer, but actually really illustrates just how ingrained straw feminism is within pop culture.
Let’s check out this trailer for the movie Pitch Perfect:
Looks fun right? Battle of the sexes sing-off. Classic, harmless, entertaining. The film is basically Glee for University aged kids too embarrassed to say they watch Glee. It’s so much fun in fact that they live in a world where needing a rape whistle on campus is a ridiculous over exaggeration of university life! HILARIOUS!
Go back and watch just the first 10 seconds of the trailer. Kendrick’s character arrives to her first day of University and is greeted by an enthusiastic student rep, whose first action is to give Kendrick a rape whistle, informing her in a happy chirp “not to use it unless it’s really happening!”
Kendrick responds with a sarcastic eye roll, clearly dismissing the advice. Now, upon first glance this may seem a little trivial. It sets up Kendrick as an above it all character that doesn’t want to deal with the over enthusiastic people that tend to come with the whole university experience.
But it also accomplishes something else. In just a few seconds, this trailer creates a world in which a young woman receiving a rape whistle is viewed as overly enthusiastic, and therefore unnecessary, completely dismissing the fact that rape on University campuses is a real and serious problem. For example, between 2006 and 2008, Harvard University alone had 128 reported cases of rape. And those are just the ones reported. By laughing at the expense of this character trying to provide protection to fellow women on her campus, we dismiss the work of thousands of young women working on University campuses in real life to try to make them safer, by providing things like rape whistles, safe rides home, and on-campus security.
In addition, when the student rep says “don’t use it unless it’s actually happening,” it implies that women cry wolf about sexual assault. This is used a lot to discredit victims of sexual assault, and is really along the lines of “innocent until proven guilty” or I guess “totally fine until they can prove they were sexually assaulted.” The more prevalent this belief is, the more grief women who are victims of sexual assault have to go through if they actually come forward and report it. In the States is estimated that 54% of sexual assaults go unreported, in Canada, only as many as 6 in 100 are reported. This can be due to a lot of reasons, but a prominent one is that women feel too ashamed to come forward, and don’t want to have to publically deal with something so personal. If actual victims of sexual assault are that unwilling to admit it happened to them, what are the chances a woman would lie about it? In Canada, only 2-4% of reports are found to be false. It’s just so rare it’s insulting to imply otherwise.
Thus, this movie clearly separates what could be a feminist premise -- a group of women empowering themselves by bonding over a shared love of music and competing against a group of men -- from feminism itself, and uses straw feminism to do so. Because the only inequality students face at this University is that maybe the boys are better at group dance numbers. That's not really inequality, this movie tells us. And noticing anything else is overreacting! Feminism is totally dead!
I’m not saying to boycott Pitch Perfect. When it comes to sexism in films, this is admittedly pretty minor. I also don’t want everyone to start picking apart every minor detail of a film in a never ending search for sexism. But the fact that this was the very first line in the trailer? The dismissal of feminism is the very first thing they want the audience to know about this film. That is incredibly telling of anti-feminist attitudes so ingrained in mainstream popular culture. It’s amazing how we are just programmed to be dismissive of serious issues affecting women, like sexual assault and the concept of rape whistles.
While these jokes may seem small or insignificant alone, the truth is they're written into almost all media these days and build on each other, leaving an impression on viewers. It’s no wonder it’s hard to convince young women that we don’t have equality and that feminism is something we still need. So, be media aware, think critically and pay attention, because little jabs like this do a whole lot of damage.
Originally posted on Tessa's blog, Release the Feminist Kraken
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