VMA Recap, AKA Slut Shaming, Robin Thicke, and Cultural Appropriation

With the VMAs this past weekend, it is nearly impossible to find a news site that doesn’t have an article detailing some juicy detail or outrageous story about the performances. This year, the top story is Miley Cyrus. Specifically her flesh-toned undergarments and twerking. Most media outlets ran something along the lines of “Miley’s performance shocks audiences” with words such as “troubled,” “inappropriate,” and “sexualized” cropping up frequently. There are three problems with the media’s response. Firstly, Miley has complete and utter agency of her body. Just because she shakes and shimmies in a way you find distasteful does not mean she does not have right to do so. Secondly, the media outlets (and most of the fans of Blurred Lines) are completely ignoring the fact that Robin Thicke sang about how much he hates the blurred lines of sexual consent and instead focusing on how a young adult danced to this song. Finally, though Miley has the right to control her own body, the cultural appropriation in her music video is downright offensive.

Let us first begin with slut shaming. For those unfamiliar with this term, slut shaming is the act of denouncing someone for the way they use their body, generally concerning revealing clothing or “sexual promiscuity.” This summary judgment of the worth of an individual based on their sexual actions is deplorable. When the media slams a starlet for breaking free of her childhood and sexing up her shows, I cringe for the children that are soaking up the message the media sends out: sex is only okay as long as you do it the way we want you to. Because that is what this boils down to: we want to shame people for using their bodies in a way we don’t agree with. And that is not okay. Laci Green , peer educator and blogger, has several wonderful videos on slut shaming and how harmful it is, not only on an individual level but a societal level.

When I hear Blurred Lines being touted as the “song of the summer,” I wonder if anyone has actually heard the lyrics: “And that’s why I’m gon’ take a good girl. I know you want it…You’re a good girl. Can’t let it get past me. I hate these blurred lines. I know you want it.”

Let me first say that I find this song terrifying because the way it promotes rape culture isn’t as overt as other blatantly misogynistic songs that have wormed their way onto radio. This song plays on the idea that a “no” can really be a “yes” from someone that is shy, or hesitant. This song contributes to victim blaming: “I know you want it.” This song glorifies blurred lines of consent. Consent means an enthusiastic yes from both parties. “Not no” is NOT a “yes.” Only a yes is a yes.

Robin Thicke, on the Today Show, claimed that the lyric “that man is not your maker” made this song “a feminist movement in itself.” I want no part in this “feminist movement” that Robin Thicke thinks this song represents. This song is not about sexual liberation. This song is about rape culture and failure to obtain consent.

Now it’s time to take another look at Miley. It was said earlier that she has a right to use and display her body as she pleases, and that is true. However, the blatant appropriation of black culture cannot be ignored. From birth, Miley has been at least two things: privileged and white. She grew up wealthy due to her father’s career and later starting pulling in cash herself with the Hannah Montana show. After playing the “southern belle” on Disney Channel, she looked for a way to make herself an edgier image, something sexy. Nothing wrong with that. However, the way she went about it is problematic. She was actually quoted as saying “I want urban, I just want something that feels Black.” She has never lived as a discriminated minority. She can get on stage and wear a grill and twerk and pretend to be “rachet,” but at the end of the day, she is white and wealthy and has no concept of the daily trials and tribulations of being a member of a minority.

Another troubling aspect of her performance was using women of color as props:

In the video, Miley is seen with her “friends”: Mostly skinny white boys and girls who appear to be models. But in a few scenes, she’s seen twerking with three black women. Are they also her friends? Or is she just hoping for street cred? Note that she is wearing white, in the spotlight, the star of the video — and they are treated as props, a background for her to shine in front of. We’ve tackled the use of people of color in the background before; it’s a theme that persists, but remains wrong. In a white-centric world, putting white women quite literally in the center of the frame while women of color are off to the side is a powerful, disrespectful visual message, and it really must be said: Human beings are not accessories.
Jezebel

The same happens on stage at the VMAs:

“What Miley did last night was easily one of the most racist displays I’ve ever seen. From her insistence on twerking, to her use of all black women as literal props (they were teddy bears) to her smacking of her dancer’s ass and the simulation of rimming, it is very clear to me, that Miley thinks that black women’s bodies are to be enjoyed, devalued and put on display for entertainment purposes.”
Solidarity Is For Miley Cyrus: The Racial Implications of Her VMA Performance

and

What Miley is doing is cultural appropriation. She, a wealthy white woman, is taking elements from black culture in order to achieve a specific image. Her status as a member of a traditionally oppressive race and class means that she is able to pick and choose what parts of black culture she wants to embrace without having to deal with the racism and racialization that black women live with every day. In short, she can imagine that she is being “ghetto” without having any concept of what living in a ghetto would really mean.
Even worse, in her performance last night Miley used black women as props — like, literal props — and barely anyone said anything. I saw very few people displaying any outrage over the fact that Miley was, at one point, slapping a faceless black woman on the ass as if she was nothing more than a thing for Miley to dominate and humiliate. I saw barely anyone discussing the fact that Miley’s sexual empowerment, or whatever you want to call it, should not come at the cost of degrading black women.

Anne Theriault in “What Miley Cyrus Did Was Disgusting — But Not For the Reasons You Think”

In short, though you’ll find videos and opinions on her “wildly inappropriate” dance routine everywhere, the focus of these discussions should be shifted to speaking out against slut shaming, acknowledging and denouncing Robin Thicke’s “rapey” blurred lines, and understanding that Miley’s use of women of color as props is not acceptable.

*Extra: This song wonderfully ties together Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus*

Third Wave Feminism- Who’s driving this thing anyways?

In the midst of this”third wave” of Feminism, it seems as though the movement is becoming more fractured than ever. Womanism, Chicana Feminsim, Radical Feminism… There hardly seems to be anything coherent left. Compared to the movements that came before us- the shoulders upon which we stand- we seem to have less in common with one another and fewer tangible goals that we can all agree upon. Are prostitutes sex workers or victims? Can a woman choose the wear Hijab? What role should the West play in supporting middle eastern feminist efforts? Should we even be involved at all? Do women across cultures and socioeconomic levels and races have enough in common to all work together for a common goal? What would that goal look like?

A Quick History-

The First Wave

There have always been rifts in the feminist movement. History has the effect of dampening the sound of conflict, leaving out the complicating details so much that past eras seems always to be simple times when victory for the good guys was obvious and inevitable. The first wave was characterized, in the story we tell, by the fight for the vote. Originating in the U.K., this is the classic wave that you might have touched upon in history class. At this point, a hundred years later, these women are finally considered uncontroversial heroes of civil rights. This was the time of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Victoria Woodhull, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Susan B. Anthony, Margaret Sanger, and others. These (mostly white) ladies fought for and won the right to own property, vote, enter university, manage money and own businesses, and run for office. The big controversy, and the reason suffrage took so long to achieve, was a question of priorities: Do we fight for the right of women to vote first or African- Americans? Ultimately, the women took the backburner. But it was a huge controversy at the time, dividing women:

“Elizabeth Cady Stanton herself complained about the prospect of black voting rights in 1865. “Now,” she wrote, “it becomes a serious question whether we had better stand aside and see ‘Sambo’ walk in the kingdom first.” (Tom Head)

Ultimately, it came to pass than African-Americans gained voting rights (on paper) first, possibly because rich white politicians knew they  had a bag full of tricks like poll taxes and literacy tests  that would effectively silence the Black vote for decades. (As an aside, the literacy tests given are seriously impossible. Take one here. The Supreme Court made a ruling in June to remove federal oversight on these tests, meaning that the south may decide to rise again and get all ugly and racist again. Something to keep a lookout for). 

The Second Wave

The Second Wavers focused less on the legal aspect of equality and more on gaining equity in the workplace, in the family, and in sexuality. Margaret Sanger’s dream of reliable oral contraception was realized on the dime of Katherine McCormick, who funded research that was too ‘out there’ for drug companies who somehow missed the fact that women would very much like to have sex and not get pregnant. Released in 1960, it changed the face of human sexuality. Betty Friedan dared mention that all women might not be entirely fulfilled by children and marriage in her 1963 book. Much of the second wave was characterized by discovery- the discovery of how deeply entrenched in patriarchy we are, of who we could become as we freed ourselves from it.

Like the First Wave before it, though, it was not without internal controversy. The Feminist Sex Wars, considered the end of the second wave, have been dividing feminists since the 1980s and are only now beginning to be reconciled. The central controversies all related to sex- Can prostitution be considered work? Is pornography inherently degrading to women? Are some sexual practices “unfeminist”?

The Third Wave

Beginning on such turbulent ground, we of the third wave have taken a step back and made efforts to include as many people under our banner as possible, recognizing differences. Earlier movements had failed to enfranchise poor women and women of color, as well as men. The struggle for the acceptance of women working outside the home seems laughable to the millions of  poor women who have always had jobs in addition to housework as members of the working poor. Yet these women need feminism too.

So feminism has splintered into a channels in attempts to deal with all the very different needs of many groups of women. In addition to demographic groups, there remain the ideological groups left over from the Sex Wars- anti-sex feminists like Andrea Dworkin who believe that heterosexual intercourse is inherently oppressive to women, pro-positive sex feminists like Gloria Steinem who believe that sex is not oppressive to women when it is mutually respectful, pro-sex feminists like Carol Queen and Nina Hartly who think that sex is only oppressive when one party feels it is… it seems there are as many Feminisms as there are feminists. As we try to break down gender entirely, the nice binaries and titles that made Feminism an entity are broken down too. It seems sometimes as though Feminism is ripping up the deck while we’re still standing on it trying to put together outdoor furniture- in the name of consciousness raising and checking privilege.

Even as we use queer theory to question, in the classroom, the very existence of gender, third wave feminists haven’t entirely abandoned the pursuit of change: like our 1st wave grandmothers we fight for legal change- protecting Roe v. Wade, getting sexual harassment laws on the books, and increasing women’s presence in politics. Like our 2nd wave mothers we fight for social change- for child care and universal preschool, for equitable wages for women who choose work outside the home and respect and social security benefits for women who choose work unpaid in the home. We, too, emphasize choice.

So where do we go from here? That’s a hell of a question. Feminists continue to support the LGBQI community and their efforts for legal change and social acceptance. We’re fighting to end rape culture and to secure our reproductive rights. We’re trying to include men. We are invading the academic sphere. Sometimes the most important thing is to say “We’re still here!” in a culture that would like to think that it is “post-racial” and “post-feminist”.  The third wave is happening now, around you. You can be a part of it and be a feminist for your own personal Feminism. It is what we make it, ladies and gentlemen.

Rape Culture and Victim Blaming

Rape culture is a big topic, and a sensitive one at that. For anyone unfamiliar with the terminology or topic as a whole, I’ll start with the basics.

What is rape? Rape is having sex with someone who does not give consent. Rape can be committed by an absolute stranger or a dear friend. It can be done with threat of bodily harm or while the victim is passed out. It can be gradually forced upon someone who doesn’t know how to say no or someone who did say no but just needs “convincing”. That leads to the next topic. What is consent?

Consent is saying yes, not a lack of a no. Let me rephrase that: not saying no does not mean yes. Laci Green, blogger and peer educator on sex, gender, and body issues, explains rape and consent:

“Rape refers to any sort of penetration that doesn’t come with an explicit “yes please, I like that.” A common type of rape is that the rapist pushes and pushes and disrespects boundaries and the victim feels like they can’t say no or like a no would not stop them from doing it…Consent to sex does not mean there was no no. Consent to sex means there was a yes.”

Even if you think she/he is “into it,” ask for consent. Consent is sexy. In one of her videos, Green lists ways of asking for consent that don’t “spoil the mood”: “Are you into this? Do you like this? Do you want me to keep going?” There is no excuse not to receive consent. If there is no consent, it is rape.
What is rape culture?

“In a rape culture, people are surrounded with images, language, laws, and other everyday phenomena that validate and perpetuate rape.”

(http://upsettingrapeculture.com/rapeculture.html)

“Rape Culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.”

(http://www.marshall.edu/wpmu/wcenter/sexual-assault/rape-culture/)

Rape culture is created and perpetuated by our movies, our music, and our books. It conditions us to believe that rape will happen and we cannot do anything to stop it. It leads us to believe that a man’s natural setting is rapist. It makes us think that women are to blame for taunting these men with their bodies. It causes us blame the victims and turn a blind eye on the offenders. It has infiltrated every level of our culture, from jokes to our media. But it doesn’t have to stay that way.

One of the most horrifying and harmful effects of rape culture is our tendency to blame the victim for the crime:
“She shouldn’t have been that drunk.”
“Did you see what she was wearing?”
“She should have known not to walk alone.”

On a side note, these statements are an affront to men:

“Men should be offended when someone claims that women should prevent rape by not wearing certain things or not going certain places or not acting in a certain way. That line of thinking presumes that you are incapable of control. That you are so base and uncivilized that it takes extraordinary effort for you to walk down the street without raping someone. That you require a certain dress code be maintained, that certain behaviors be employed so that maybe today, just maybe, you won’t rape someone. It presumes that your natural state is rapist.”

(As far as I could trace the quote, it came from Michael Hanscom).

But most importantly, these statements teach a woman to feel guilty for being assaulted. It makes her think that if only she hadn’t worn that skirt, maybe that man wouldn’t have raped her. It is not the victim’s fault. The blame only lies, and always will, with the rapist. He chose to force his will upon her. He chose to disregard her protests or continue without consent. He is the only one responsible for his actions.

These statements also ignore the fact that most rapes are committed by someone that the victim knew- meaning, not a random man that saw her legs at a bar. Movies and television will have you think that most rapes are violent and random, carried out by sick men that prey upon “sluts” at a bar. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. “Approximately 2/3 of assaults are committed by someone known to the victim. 38% of rapists are a friend or acquaintance.” http://www.rainn.org/statistics

These statistics don’t really fit in with the notion that wearing a more modest dress would have prevented a rape. Women are raped wearing short skirts or wearing t-shirts, drinking or sober, by a stranger or a friend. If not her clothing or her inebriation are to blame, then what is? Rape culture.

You may be thinking “but what is rape culture? You keep blaming it, but I don’t see it anywhere.”
I found a lovely list, just for you, of examples of rape culture:

Blaming the victim (“She asked for it!”)
Trivializing sexual assault (“Boys will be boys!”)
Sexually explicit jokes
Tolerance of sexual harassment
Inflating false rape report statistics
Publicly scrutinizing a victim’s dress, mental state, motives, and history
Gratuitous gendered violence in movies and television
Defining “manhood” as dominant and sexually aggressive
Defining “womanhood” as submissive and sexually passive
Pressure on men to “score”
Pressure on women to not appear “cold”
Assuming only promiscuous women get raped
Assuming that men don’t get raped or that only “weak” men get raped
Refusing to take rape accusations seriously
Teaching women to avoid getting raped instead of teaching men not to rape

Some of these may have caught you off guard. How is being careful about rape accusations rape culture? We don’t want to ruin lives over some girl who claims to have been raped. Well try this on for size- over half of the rape cases in the US go unreported to law enforcement. This means that most rape cases are never seen by the police. Only 3% of rapists are sentenced jail time. This means 97% of rapists have faced no punishment for their crimes. Small wonder most women don’t report rape in the first place. If only 3% are successful in bringing their rapist to justice, what happens to the other 97%? Public humiliation and degradation.
“You shouldn’t have been drinking.”
“You shouldn’t have worn that skirt.”
“Everyone knows she’s a slut.”

When a woman brings rape to light, she risks facing comments from friends, family, and strangers about how she could have prevented it, or how she was somehow to blame. She could hear from friends of the rapist, saying that she shouldn’t ruin his life because she made “some drunken mistake.” She could face an authority that belittles her and dismisses her claims, asking her how much she drank and what she was wearing and what she was thinking walking into that fraternity house. Victim blaming is horrific and unacceptable, but it is what most rape victims face if they bring their experience to light.

Let’s look back at Steubenville again. The boys did not have consent (the girl in question was passed out and could in no way have provided consent.) They made jokes, they took pictures, they posted about it on social media. Those around them either didn’t understand that what they saw was rape or where too scared to do anything about it. The football coach tried to cover up the involvement of the boys because they were on the football team. There were countless Tweets and facebook posts about how the girl was a slut and wildly drunk. When the verdict was read, the media sympathized with the rapists, lamenting the lives the poor boys had lost by being sentenced to a year in juvenile detention and registering as sex offenders. The media sympathized with the rapists. What about the poor girl that was violated more than once that night, was mocked by her peers, and was blamed for the actions of those boys that night?
This is rape culture, and it has to stop.

Feminism: What it is, and what it isn’t

It’s almost funny how much I didn’t know about myself when I stepped foot on my college campus for the first time. For one, I didn’t know I was a feminist. I only knew feminism based on clichés, some of which, though untrue, have permeated our culture to the point where it becomes a part of the movement to those that knew very little of feminism (like myself). When I heard people talk about feminists, it was with disdain: “those man-haters are complaining again.” Those misconceptions were immediately banished, however, when I started attending and talking about events on campus with my fellow students. There were events and talks like Slut Walk, I Love Female Orgasm, Vagina Monologues, Take Back the Night, and many more. I began to realize that I had been seeing a distorted view of feminism, one that was not only untrue, but harmful to the purpose of true feminism.

Simply put, there are a lot of things that feminism isn’t, but let’s start with what feminism is. Firstly, a feminist is “a person who advocates equal rights for women.” Let the record show that nowhere in this definition were the phrases “bra burner” or “man hater.” At the most basic level, a feminist believes that women should have the same rights as men. They do not believe that all men are evil nor do they hate every man they lay eyes on. There are, obviously, radicals among any cause. Unfortunately sometimes radicals end up becoming the face of a cause. The Westboro Baptist Church does not represent Christianity across the globe, but sometimes they are the loudest. Therefore, though you may have met radical feminists that turned you off of the idea, they do not represent the whole.

Perhaps people are confused about feminism because they do not understand this “patriarchy” that we feminists so vehemently fight against. Patriarchy “is a term for societies in which male is the favoured gender, and in which men hold power, dominion and privileges.” When we look at patriarchy, we do not see evil, soulless men trying to dominate women, we see a harmful, outdated societal structure that hurts everyone. Let me repeat that: patriarchy hurts everyone. Tony Porter discusses the “man box,” a set of ideals that men must accept and live out to avoid ridicule and ostracism. I invite (read: implore) you to watch this quick video. It is illuminating.

Toward the end of his talk, he applies his stories to how this culture of the “man box” leads to violence against women. While he makes a fantastic point, I don’t have enough room in this post to delve into that topic. Therefore, I will focus on another implication of his story: the “man box” (a result of patriarchy) hurts men, too.
Challey Kacelnik states:

“The thing is, it’s patriarchy that says men are stupid and monolithic and unchanging and incapable. It’s patriarchy that says men have animalistic instincts and just can’t stop themselves from harassing and assaulting. It’s patriarchy that says men can only be attracted by certain qualities, can only have particular kinds of responses, can only experience the world in narrow ways. Feminism holds that men are capable of more – are more than that.”

Kacelnik helps disentangle the feminists from the “man hating” cliché that is so inappropriately applied. Feminists are fighting for equal rights by lifting women up, not pulling men down. In recognizing how patriarchy hurts women, we must first understand how it hurts everyone.

I’ve definitely heard from friends and strangers alike “I don’t see any inequality.” “What are feminists fighting?” “Those problems don’t exist anymore, feminists are just complaining.” Though comments like these make me angry, they also worry and sadden me. It shows that the people that made these comments have either a) miraculously not experienced or witnessed any sort of problem in our society stemming from the objectification and abuse of women or b) they don’t understand that what they have seen qualifies as abuse of women and power. It shows that these issues are born from our society itself, so ingrained in the way we see and process the world around us that they seem like the framework of our social interactions- just a part of us. (Steubenville is a horrifying example of this concept, in which teenagers didn’t understand that what they were witnessing was rape). A writer on wordpress hit the nail on the head when she said:

“They’re not self-indulgent like people seem to think, or only concerned about whining and asking for more; they have made the difficult choice to accept and live with awful truths and dedicate themselves to fighting an almost impenetrable force…Look at the words modern feminists use all the time: patriarchy, male entitlement, rape culture, social scripts, expectations. What the hell are those? Compare these concepts with words like suffrage, abortion, and employment, and they might as well be dust blowing in the wind, or sand washing into the ocean, or rain falling from the sky. What do they mean? How do we fix it? What is there to be done?…Feminists today (i.e. Third Wave feminists) have to first defend the existence of the problems they fight.”

As the writer mentions in her article, being a feminist is hard: it means letting yourself see the problems in our society instead of pleasantly ignoring them, it means taking a stand and saying “rape jokes aren’t funny,” or “slut shaming is harmful to our society and its members.” It means understanding and truly seeing the culture we live in, acknowledging both the good and the bad. It means knowing that you have a responsibility to make a difference, and accepting that responsibility.

I mentioned a few topics in this post such as rape jokes, slut shaming, and victim blaming. These are all topics that deserve full discussions and will be discussed in subsequent posts.

(This post does appear (under the same title) on another blog to which I contribute- knoblaugger.wordpress.com)

Other brilliant posts-
7 Things Feminists Always Have to Explain to Everybody Else
Hating on Feminism? I Get That.