Welcome to Ms. Opinionated, our weekly advice column dealing with questions of life, love, feminism, and pop culture. This week, a reader writes in with one of feminism's most enduring conundrums: How can men help the feminist movement?
Dear Ms. Opinionated,
I'm a guy, and I've developed quite an interest in feminism over the last few months. While I know that there is a systematic laziness to portray women as individuals, I find it's a difficult subject to talk about with people. When I mention things like the Bechdel Test and how most movies fail it I have a tendancy to tiptoe around the issue, because it feels like bringing it up is somehow rude. It even sounds shameful/embarassing for me to say "I'm a feminist", so I say "I've been learning about feminism" as if to separate myself from it. What advice do you have for men who want to help the feminist movement?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars in his directorial debut, Don Jon, which centers on the life of a "porn addict" Jersey guido named Jon Martello.Though plenty of people will likely flock to a film that centers on two sexy stars and a porn addiction, Don Jon attempts to deconstruct the ways in which rigid notions of masculinity and femininity are damaging.
Some Girl(s) is a movie about a "nice guy" who has trouble seeing beyond himself. Though the film revolves around the desires of the central guy, named Man (played by Adam Brody), the moments of emotional depth come from the strong cast of female characters that Man just can't understand.
Women and horses have a complicated relationship: Women both identify with horses emotionally—connecting with the freedom they represent—and gain power from their ability to control them. One compelling example of this paradoxical relationship in women's involvement in Wild West shows and the American rodeo.
Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West show, founded in 1883, featured pragmatic cowboy skill paired with romanticized and largely inaccurate depictions of life in the American West. Cody was a showman through and through, offering a certain amount of flamboyance and flair to the decidedly unglamorous, and often harsh, history of the cowboy and the frontier. Cody's show included American Indians, however they were exoticized and portrayed as violent and aggressive, reinforcing problematic ideas held by many white Americans.
There was some truth to Cody's Wild West show, though. Skilled performers, including women like sharp-shooter Annie Oakley (at right) and real-life cowboys exhibited their undisputable talents, making way for our modern rodeo competitions.
The classic image of a cowboy is a wandering man. Symbolically, the American Cowboy has come to represent large, abstract values: freedom, honesty, bravery. In these stories, cowboys meander and conquer the open range alone with their trusty steeds.
But how do women fit into these pervasive stories of troubled, wandering heroes? Let's take a look at three western films: Shane (1953), Unforgiven (1992) and True Grit (2010).
The women in many classic Western films are rooted to one place: their home. Often in cowboy films, we see women either victimized or punished for venturing out as the cowboys do, serving as a warning to women.
We see the role of women at home very clearly in Jack Shaefer's 1953 classicShane. The title cowboy stays at the house of a homesteading family whose matriarch Marian Starett is firmly grounded in the domestic sphere. While the men, particularly Shane, are out protecting the ranch from cattle rustlin' men, Starett is the one being fought for, not the one doing the fighting. She is not the one wandering—she is the one left behind at home when Shane inevitably sets out for the road again.
Cowgirl narratives—films, shows, and books featuring women and horses—often show women who are at home in their bodies, connected with nature, and many times, disrupting traditional gender roles. As cowgirls, women are shown in acts of blissful physicality. They follow their dreams. They are independent and strong-willed. But the horse seems to be essential in these experiences, and the contemporary relationship between woman and horse, particularly in our cowgirl narratives, is undeniably gendered. What is it about girls and horses? What do cowgirl narratives tell us about young girls and women?
As both a life-long horse owner and a gender-women's-studies teacher, I think about this a lot. Obsessively, even. I've always personally connected to cowgirl stories, but the tales of daring women and horses have not often been considering within the larger media landscape.
In this two-month long blog series, I'll be examining representations of women and horses in film, TV, and songs. Looking at films like, Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken, Secretariat, National Velvet, and Dreamer(among others), television shows like Heartland, and books like Princess Smartypants (I will argue later why this falls in with our cowgirl narratives) I will be asking the question: What do these representations tell us about our ideas of gender?
Last week's weirdly controversial Girls episode "One Man's Trash", was defined by melancholy. This week's episode, "Boys", articulates that melancholy in a precise way with a metaphor about—what else?—Staten Island. Ray describes Staten Island as a place where people who want to live in Manhattan but can't are relegated to watch the city in a "quiet rage" on its fringes.Ray's not talking about Staten Island—he's talking about himself, Adam, Hannah, Marnie and all the other young characters on the show.
Even with book deals, fancy art parties, a seemingly perfect relationships,Girls' characters want more from their lives. The main characters all present a veneer of being okay with where they are, while actually longing to change their lives.
In this episode, Hannah finally she seems motivated. She's sent out some essays and has met with the editor (played by John Cameron Mitchell fromHedwig and the Angry Inch!) of Pumped magazine. He's read her essays and describes them as "sweet, naïve and infuriating" but asks Hannah to write an e-book for him. The only catch is that he needs it in a month.
"Contrary to the fears of some pundits, the ascent of women does not portend the end of men. It offers a new beginning for both." So argues Stephanie Coontz in the New York Times most emailed article (as of this morning), "The Myth of Male Decline." Though polemics on the tanking of men as a gender abound these says, Coontz has some real talk—and some real data—to suggest there is a lot more to the "end of men" story.
The headline alone is enough to bring on an eye-roll headache: "Are Modern Men Manly Enough?" And the head-desk-inducing subheaders will only make it worse: "Where are the Meat and Potato Men?" "Rediscover the Don Draper Within" and so on. The Times is no stranger to trumped-up trend pieces, and the photo accompanying this article, of a man getting a—gasp!—pedicure, says it all ("it all" being: this is a gender panic piece because WHY ARE MEN GOING TO BEAUTY PARLORS? Real quote from this series: "We don't need to see you [men] in the nail salon; you have the barbershop."). Frankly, with all of the hand-wringing and gender policing, this New York Times opinion piece reads like, well, like it was written about women. After all, women are usually the ones whose very being is called into question by the mainstream media, especially in relation to men (Are you pleasing him in bed? Is your job a turnoff? Are you womanly enough?). But just as there's no one "real woman," the notion of a "real man" is bogus. Not that the Times agrees.