Monthly Archives: April 2011

My first online publication!

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I was selected to be part of a series entitled This AND That: Global Identities and Intersectionality in the feminist blog Gender Across Borders. The blog’s mission is as follows:

Gender Across Borders (GAB) is an international feminist community where issues of gender, race, sexuality, and class are discussed and critically examined. We embrace people of all backgrounds to come together to voice and progress positive gender relations worldwide.

The series provides readers with an opportunity to hear stories from women whose identities have crossed paths along the lines of gender, culture, ethnicity and nationality. Here is the series line-up:

Day One: Thursday, April 28, 2011

7am Central Standard Time (CST): Introduction to series
10am CST: Deidré Matthee, Identity for Beginners
1pm CST: Juliana Britto Schwartz, Nepantla: Passing
4pm CST: Elizabeth Nelson, If a Place Will Never “Know” You
7pm CST: Hanneke van Velzen, Back and Forth

Day Two: Friday, April 29, 2011

7am CST: Idil Holif, Somalia, and its Discontents
10am CST: Zahra Thioune, Worlds
1pm CST: Tahira Khalid, Everything I am
4pm CST: Syahidah Ismail, I am from…

I submitted a reworked version of the original I am from poem I published on my blog earlier this year.

Look out for my poetry tomorrow, Friday April 29th 4pm CST!

Taking time off

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I haven’t written a substantial blog post in a while. I am working on a blog post re: rape stats in Singapore but in general, am busy gearing up for the F-Word conference this Saturday (I am part of the planning committee and a presenter ).

My life right now is quite chaotic where I have to schedule time to hang out with friends and take care of logistics of living potentially living in Vancouver after grad.

I can’t wait to take SERIOUS TIME OFF after next weekend when the Mother’s Day rally I am a part of is over. Then I can break it down like I used to.

Wasn’t I cute? Oh the good ol’ days of being a kid.

Done and…that’s it.

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I’m officially done all my papers, final exams and everything related to school.

Oh except I still have to present at a conference and finish updating a resource guide for single moms and generally, figure out logistics of staying in Vancouver and flying back to Singapore.

It was rather anti-climactic for my last undergrad exam. I wrote my arm off for 2.5 hours and then I walked out the door.

Guess I was expecting gold to fall from the sky :P

A promise to myself

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Tomorrow is my last undergrad exam ever. I have not gotten around to reviewing for it yet (I will I promise) but the exam just seems so menial in the grand scheme of things.

I still have to figure out what to do with my LIFE after that exam is over. Not that I’m stressing out about what to do – which is part of what stresses me out. Shouldn’t I have something to work towards? Something concrete? A job position? Several job positions? A job interview?

The thing is even with school over, I am STILL busy with things to do. They may not be big things (most involve logistics of one event that will come and go) but keeping my mind and my life busy is important to me. I may complain about never having enough free time  but having too much free time is worse than having not enough. I definitely do not want to repeat last summer of depression, moping around, loneliness and feeling useless.

This summer, I plan to fill it up with as much time spent with friends as possible, reading, blogging, exercising, playing music and generally, doing things I love. I may fall into panic once in a while and ask myself what the HELL I am going to do with life in general but that’s to be expected from my type A, “always have a path laid out for me” syndrome.

I need to remind myself that I have a wonderful boy in my life, caring and supportive friends (here in Vancouver and back home in Singapore) as well as a loving (albeit slightly nosy and pushy) family. I need to remind myself that I deserve rest after 4 years of continuous projects, work and aiming for high grades. I must not let myself feel bad or panic because of what other people think I have to do. I have options and privileges many people do not have. When the time comes and I am ready, I will research into grad schools or job openings. I do not know when that time will come – it may be tomorrow, the next day, next week or next month or 2 -3 months from now and that scares me. But I will not let fear or bullying take me away from enjoying my well-deserved rest this summer.

When the sun comes out…

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….so do Vancouverites. C and I walked in Ambleside Park in West Vancouver yesterday. The park is really beautiful and overlooks Stanley Park and the Lions Gate bridge which is pictured in the photo.

Photo credit: C

Macho, macho men: Masculinities in TV Shows and Movies

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Macho

a word of Spanish and Portuguese origin

- Wikipedia definition of “Macho”

Traditionally, the word `macho` carried many positive associations. To be `macho` was to be well-respected, embodying traits such as courage, valor, honor, sincerity, pride, humility and responsibility.

- The Macho Paradox, Jackson Katz

1. having or characterized by qualities considered manly, especially when manifested in an assertive, self-conscious, or dominating way.

2. having a strong or exaggerated sense of power or the right to dominate.

3. an assertively virile, dominating, or domineering male.

- Dictionary.com definition of “Macho”

My last blog post was about the Smurfette principle and the lack of female characters and of adequate representations of women and of femininities in general. In a similar vein, this blog post explores the abundance of male characters, representations of men and of masculinities in TV shows and movies that I watch. These are of course limited to my interests in action, fantasy and science fiction but I consider these genres to be particularly interesting because they have either been associated with progressiveness (science-fiction and fantasy) or been consciously masculine in nature (action).

Let’s start by looking at the trailer for Captain America, the first Avenger:

It took about 3 seconds for the trailer to show us that Captain America was in fact, not good enough to be counted as a man because he was short and skinny. This scrawny man has to be taught how to become a real man so let’s stick him in a machine and WA LA! He emerges as the beloved (and benevolent) Captain America – white, young, able-bodied, muscular and handsome.

Many stories in TV shows and movies revolve around men and are frequently told from male perspectives.

Some stereotypical representations of masculinities often present in TV shows include:

1) Need for control

Walter in Fringe – often talks about the need to control both universes from falling apart

Peter in Fringe – often talks about the need to understand and control “The Machine” which supposedly heralds the end of the world.

Admiral William Adama in BSG – general need to control what is happening on the BSG starship

Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation (ST:TNG) - general need to control what is happening on the starship Enterprise

Eric Northman in True Blood – he wants to control Sookie and fully regulate the activities of the district of which he is in charge.

2) Need to “protect” women

Bill in True Blood – often talks about “protecting” Sooki from harm

Michael Westen in Burn Notice – often talks about “protecting” Fiona or Madeline, his mother

Logan Echols in Veronica Mars – often talks about wanting to protect Veronica. In Season 3, beats up the maker of Veronica’s sex tape twice
in the name of ‘protecting her honor’ despite her disapproval. Riggghtt.

3) Physical prowess characterized by abundant muscles and/or  formidable height (if not formidable, then taller than the rest of the men in the show)

Steve McGarrett in Hawaii Five-O - often displays his physical prowess by refusing to catch criminal suspects in a car, preferring to run on foot and subsequently tackling them to the ground

Steven Bloom in Undercovers – tall, muscular, dark and handsome. What more needs to be said?

JavierEsposito in Castle – muscular and handsome Latino man. Again, nuff’ said.

Kyle Hobbes in V – Framed as the exemplary “soldier” of the war against the Vs. Often displays his muscles by wearing tight black T-shirts.

Cpt. Lee Adama or Apollo in BSG - Often found working out in the gym. In Season 3 when New Caprica is established,  Apollo is shown to be a fat captain of BSG who has been disillusioned by his role. When he finally realizes that he can pitch in to help the escape of New Caprica, he magically loses all his weight and becomes muscular Apollo once again who saves the day.

Lt. Warf in ST:TNG - Tall, muscular Klingon. Tactical officer and head of weaponry aboard the Starship Enterprise D. Considered to be one of the two strongest people on the main bridge. The other is Lt. Commander Data, an android.

Wallace Fennel in Veronica Mars – a superstar basketball player

4) Lack of feeling or general hesitancy and aversion towards any emotion other than anger, vengeance and occasionally, love.

Steven Bloom in Undercovers – Stoic with no feeling most of the time.

Leo Nash in Undercovers -Engages in activities like alcohol, women and drugs to ‘distract’ him from what he really wants and refuses to acknowledge – a settled life with a woman he loves. This is a classic “Playboy” trope in male characters. Usually, it is paired with someone on the show who is the “opposite” i.e. ‘the family” man. In this case, the “family man” is Steven Bloom.

John Casey in Chuck- Hates discussing his feelings and views them as “weak”.

Jayne Cobb in Firefly – Again, hates discussing feelings and sees them as “weak”.

Colonel Saul Tigh in BSG- Often appears stoic in the face of adversity. Or just very very angry.

Picard in ST:TNG- Appears calm and stoic in the face of adversity. Or very angry.

Steve McGareett in Hawaii-Five O – Vengeful, angry man.

5) Favours physical, emotional, psychological or financial violence

Steve McGarrett in Hawaii Five-O – often uses physical violence as a way to capture criminal suspects. Also threatens violence on other people in the name of avenging his father’s death.

Castle in Castle – He has frequently manipulated his way into Kate’s life and recently, manipulated a fellow writer so he would not have to share Kate as a muse (see my blog post : Kate Beckett: A Muse? )

Logan Echols in Veronica Mars – Uses emotional and psychological violence on Veronica several times in the show. Uses physical violence when he wrecks Veronica’s car in Season 1 and beats up suspected sex-tape maker in Season 3.

Tyler Evans in V – constantly emotionally manipulates his mother, Diana.

Eric Northman in True Blood – Allows Sookie to “accidentally” drink his blood and subsequently, stalks her emotionally without her knowledge.

Boyd Langton in Dollhouse- asks Topher to dismember the body of a killed client to hide the evidence.

Chuck Bartowski in Chuck - often tries to use emotional manipulation to get his way with Sarah.

6) Clearly (hetero)sexually viable and attractive as mates  -  e.g. we see them in bed with a woman or as a LT partner to a female character

Chuck  Bartowski in Chuck

Morgan Grimes in Chuck

Tyler Evans in V

Kyle Hobbes in V

Bill in True Blood

Steven Bloom in Undercovers

Castle in Castle

Malcolm in Firefly

Steve McGarrett in Hawaii
Five-O

Leo Nash in Undercovers

Javier Esposito in Castle

Bill in True Blood

Michael Westen in Burn Notice

Cpt. Adama (Apollo) in BSG

Admiral Adama in BSG

Will Riker in ST: TNG

Wallace Fennel in Veronica Mars

7) Get the job done without necessarily having the brains to  figure out how

Steve McGarrett in Hawaii Five-O – often depends on Kono, the Smurfette or Chin Ho for intel and suggestions

John Casey in Chuck - likes to blindly follows Beckman’s orders

Will Riker in Star Trek: TNGWe never see Will contribute intelligent suggestions to the Captain that help solve the situation they are facing in the episodes. Yet he is Number 2 and often sent out on away missions.

Men who deviate from any or all of these representations are often positioned as “lesser men” typically, in comparison to the “real man” on the show.

Tyler Evans in V – Tyler shows too much emotion, explained away by the fact that he is still young and thus, isn’t a “real man” yet. He also has no substantial role in V except as a clueless pawn and eventually, dies at the hand of a fake Lisa after having sex with her unknowingly.

Father Jack Landry vs. Kyle Hobbes  in V- Not sexually viable as a Christian priest, shows too much emotion (he cries and has a conscience towards killing innocent people). He does not have a need for control preferring instead to believe in fate as a result of his religious affliation. He is the shortest of all the men in the primary cast and does not favour violence.

Hoban “Wash” Washburne  vs. Cpt Malcolm Reynolds in Firefly – Married to Zoe Washburne who is shown to “wear the pants in the relationship”. Not very muscular and is quite intelligent in ship’s processing and engineering bits.

Lafayette  in True Blood – Is queer and does not have an aversion to showing feeling for Tara, his cousin, when she is in bad shape.

Topher Brink vs. Boyd Langton in Dollhouse – Uses intellect to get things done. Not muscular and never seen as heterosexually viable. Once, he shows fear and regret after killing another man. Boyd swoops in for the rescue.

Dr. Gauis Baltar vs. Admiral Adama in BSG – Again, uses his brain more than his brawn to get things done.

Bill Hoyt vs. Steven Bloom/Leo Nash in Undercovers  – AGAIN, uses his brain and techno skills to get things done instead of his brawn/ ability to seduce women.

Morgan Grimes vs. John Casey in Chuck – Morgan is the short, bumbling best friend to Chuck. He shows way too much care for his best friend and is thus considered weak.

Chuck Bartowski vs. John Casey in Chuck – Shows too much emotion and likes to talk things through instead of just smashing the wall in the hopes of getting rid of the problem.

Kevin Ryan vs. Esposito  in Castle – Is the shorter, more effeminate of the pair. Also, the more intelligent.

Dano vs Steve in Hawaii Five-O – Again, shorter and the one with more feeling in the pair.

Lt Felix Gata in BSG - Again, uses his brain to solve problems, not his brawn.

Lt. Cmdr. Geordi La Forge in ST:TNGUses his brain and does not favor violence to solve his problems. He is also rarely seen as sexually viable by women and his closest relationship is to another man, the android Data.

Wallace in Veronica Mars – Doesn’t seem to have much intelligence, just brawn.

I’m sure I missed a couple of characters here and there but I think the point is that men who are not stereotypically masculine are shown
as “lesser men” subsequently as lesser human beings and characters. Note that though most of these characters are able to emote and show vulnerabilities in individual situations,  majority of the show and their character depends on their being stereotypically masculine (read: stoic, handsome, muscular, charismatic men who save the situation and the women).

Now some of you may say “If you look for it, you will find it”. Well, it’s not like I’m looking too hard, most of these factors are on the surface of the show. They are obvious, right in our faces.

It is disheartening to see that men are given such limited roles in TV shows. I want to see shows where men respect one another, despite their differences. Where men respect women as full and complete human beings on their own terms, not on men’s terms. Where it is alright for a man to show sadness, fear, love beyond sex and care for someone other than his girlfriend, his wife or his mother. Where it is okay if they don’t want to “fight it out” and instead, sit down and talk. Where’s it’s okay to be content with fulfilling emotional relationships with other men without being accused of being gay. Where you can be gay and still be considered a man. Where it’s okay for them to be short and fat and still considered manly. Where they do not feel a need to “protect” women but to work with women to find the solution to their mutual problems. Where there is no constant need to control everything in their lives.

Again, I’m not saying it’s not wrong to watch these shows – everyone of us, including myself, need a little escape. But to watch them without
critical reception is unwise. Social stereotypes exist EVERYWHERE even when they are packaged in fun boxes labelled `TV shows and movies for pleasure`. The `for pleasure` tag might just be the thing that gets us to buy into sexism, racism and other isms that people have to live with everyday outside of the television box.

For change to be really happen, writers and viewers need to look at the characters of men just as much as they need to look at the characters of women. We can’t work towards adequate representations of one gender because that is not enough. We need to start conceptualizing of both women and men as full and complete human beings who are able to feel the whole range of emotions without being accused of being” too emotional”. We need to start looking at women and men as people in their own right.

The Smurfette Principle: Femininities in TV shows and Movies

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The Smurfette Principle

the tendency for works of fiction to have exactly one female amongst an ensemble of male characters, in spite of the fact that roughly half of the human race is female. Unless a show is purposefully aimed at a female viewing audience, the main characters will tend to be disproportionately male.

In many series, men will have various different personalities, but women will always be The Chick.

Often, the problem lies with the source material — the work’s an adaptation of something written or created decades before equal recognition for women started to gain momentum. Other times, writers will try to correct this problem by inserting a few more female characters.

- source: TV tropes

Check out this great video on the Smurfette principle by Feminist Frequency‘s vlogger Anita Sarkeesian:

The classic Smurfette embodies the traits of the only Smurfette in Smurfville:

Blonde, attractive, consciously feminine in dress, thought, speech and actions.

Think this trope is outdated? Well let’s see which TV shows I currently watch have only one woman amidst a primary cast of men:

Undercovers (2010)

Samantha Bloom amidst Steven Bloom, Leo Nash, Bill Hoyt and Carlton Shaw.

Black Smurfette. Attractive, petite and consciously feminine in her dress. Frequently found in high heels and tight pencil skirts during missions and among her fellow male spies.

Hawaii Five-O (2010 – present)

Kono Kalakaua amidst Steve McGarrett, Chin Ho Kelly and Danny “Dano” Williams.

Asian Smurfette.  At the beginning of the series, Kono proves that she deserves to `hang with the boys` by punching a fellow surfer who “stole her wave”. Way to go Kono. You could have just talked to him or given him a dirty look but you chose to resort to violence and show how bad-ass you are to the boys. She rarely gets to do fieldwork like Steve, Dano or Chin Ho. Instead, she is frequently stuck inside the office doing paperwork or chasing leads that often direct her to the ‘emotional’ aspects of the job such as handling children, telling family members their relative is dead or general tasks of emotional support to Chin Ho.

Burn Notice (2007 – present)

Fiona Glenanne amidst Michael Westen, Sam Axe and Jesse Porter.

The classic Smurfette except a bit older. Fiona is very much consciously feminine in her specialized, typically masculine field of armaments
and weaponry. Frequently found in high heels, tight jeans, a tight top with no bra in hot Miami.

Interestingly enough, Madeline Westen, Michael’s mother , is pictured in the promotional poster along with Fiona. However when Madeline and Fiona talk, the topic is usually about Michael. Jesse Porter, the only person of color in the team is not pictured on the poster. But that’s a whole other story involving race.

Chuck (2007 – present)

Sarah Walker, the classic Smurfette, amidst John Casey, Chuck Bartowski and Morgan Grimes.

Ellie Bartowski and General Beckman are both female characters but they are not in the primary cast. Their stories are not the main focus of the show. Both characters primarily exist in relation to other characters in the show.

Ellie exists in relation to Chuck as his sister, wife to Devon ‘Captain Awesome’ Woodcomb, and mother to her new baby. She used to be a doctor but apparently, with her new baby, that’s now out the window. When Ellie and Sarah talk, it`s mostly about Chuck.

Beckman exists apparently to only order the primary cast of mostly men around.  When Beckman and Sarah talk alone, it`s mostly about Sarah being concerned that something is wrong with Chuck or that something in the mission would endanger Chuck.

Fringe (2008- present)

Olivia Dunham, a classic Smurfette (albeit mysterious and slightly moody), amidst Peter, Walter and definitely in the FBI Fringe office.

Agent Astrid Farnsworth and Nina Sharp are also female characters but I do not consider their stories to be the focus of the show. In fact, we do not know much about Astrid other than the fact that she is Walter’s assistant/babysitter. Nina Sharp, though suggested to be brilliant, never really demonstrates her intelligence to help solve any mysteries in the series. In fact, I would argue her primary relation to the show is through her relationship with Dr. William Bell – who gave her control of his company upon his death – and Dr. Walter Bishop whom she provides with
continual emotional support and encouragement. The 3 female characters rarely talk to one another and when they do, it’s typically about Olivia’s relationship to Peter or the way Walter is acting.

Castle (2009 – present)    

Kate Beckett amidst Richard Castle, Captain Roy Montgomery, Javier Esposito and Kevin Ryan.

Arguably, Martha Rodgers, Alexis Castle and Lanie Parish are all female characters in the show. But again, they do not make up the primary cast or plot which revolves around the NY police precinct. In fact, come to think of it – Castle is essentially a ‘house husband’ but somehow manages to find some way to remain outside of the house as much as possible. If a woman in a TV show is shown to be a housewife, her character’s concerns will probably revolve around her husband, her children and house chores not homicides or how to save NY from terrorists.

And movies:

Star Trek (2009) with Uhura

Star Wars (The Original Trilogy) with Princess Leia

Star Wars (Episodes IV, V, VI) with Padme Amidala

Pirates of the Caribbean (I, II) with Elizabeth Swann

Inception with Ariadne

Transformers (I,II) with Mikaela Banes

X-Men (I, II, III) with Jean Grey

and many more I’m sure. But maybe I’m just looking for movies and TV shows with Smurfettes…maybe this isn’t such a big deal after all. There
are shows like The Wire, 4400, V, BSG, Firefly and Buffy which have more than one female character in their primary casts. And what about Veronica Mars, True Blood, Dollhouse which are all stories told from a female perspective?

Certainly there are shows which do not feature Smurfettes (thank god) but the point is that those shows are far and few in between. Not to mention, some of them have stereotypical representations of queerness (BSG with Admiral Helena Cain, True Blood with Lafayette) , of race (Angel, a Buffy spin-off, with the evil deity Angel and  Zoe Washburne as the militaristic second-in-command of the Firefly both ironically played by Gina Torres, Wallace Fennel in Veronica Mars as the basketball playing, black male sidekick), of femininities (manipulative Anna, helpless Lisa, anti-hero Diana in V, anti-heroes Starbuck and Echo) as well as of masculinities (clueless pawn Tyler in V, overprotective Bill in True Blood, charming sexually viable Malcolm in Firefly, headstrong Admiral William Adama in BSG).

I think the point that Sarkeesian makes in the video about Hollywood trying to capture nostalgia from the 80s and 90s films, TV shows and
such is most interesting. I have noticed that there is set to be a bunch of movies based on the Avengers from the Marvel Universe . Here are is the confirmed cast of The Avengers movie (2012):

Thor

Black Widow

Iron Man

Captain America

Hawkeye

Nick Fury

Bruce Banner

Professor Erik Selvig

Loki

The Incredible Hulk

Guess who the Smurfette is?

When I write blog posts like these, I have mixed feelings. I feel excited to be writing about something I am passionate about but overwhelmingly, I feel frustrated that such tropes still exist today. I worry what my younger sisters and female cousins would think when they watch these shows and movies. It’s not that it’s wrong to watch these shows – it’s just that we have to be careful when we exclaim that these shows are being progressive  just because they feature a superficially ‘strong’ female character.

Maybe we need to ask ourselves why we feel this need for superhero movies? Why we are attracted to men as heroes in TV shows. Why the heroes are almost always male and typically hypermasculinized, white and able bodied.

We need to start looking at everyday superheroes. Heroes who walk by us in the street, who sit next to us on the bus, who live with us, who care for us, who nurture us, who stay up late into the night to offer us their support. We need to start looking at real women and at real men, with feelings, with motivations, with their own lives and concerns.

I’m not saying it’s wrong to watch movies and TV shows that perpetuate these stereotypes (or maybe it is, depending on your viewpoint) but the important thing is to remind ourselves is that they do not exist in a vacuum. These ideas of women, of men, of people come from wider, oppressive ideas that exist in our society. We can start to challenge these ideas by critically thinking about and questioning the multi-million dollar movies and popular TV shows that cross national borders and individual imaginations. With time, we can hope to work for change.

Want to see more common tropes on women in pop culture?

Check out the Women in Refrigerators trope and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope videos.

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