It’s Called X-Men For A Reason

Can’t wait for X-Men Apocalypse? I can. And the reason’s in the name. Sure, X-People or X-Humans might not have the same ring to it but we’d get used to it after a while. So, in anticipation of the next Latif and Bechdel test failing reboot of this endless franchise I thought I’d re-cap why the previous two films were such let downs.

X-Men: First Class pretty much starts as it means to go on with Rose Byrne’s character, CIA agent Moira MacTaggert, stripping off to some black lingerie to join a throng of female strippers as they ululate for various men in suits. Was this film made by teenage boy stereotypes? January Jones plays Emma Frost who can turn into diamond, a fairly typical result of minor DNA mutation and also a great excuse to have her in underwear and virtually naked most of the time. And if that wasn’t enough female semi-nudity Jennifer Lawrence plays Mystique, who spends most of her time being naked and blue. So, yup, this is one of those superhero movies for the “lads” – the sort of lads who choke if they eat their popcorn too quickly and fantasise about being Magneto. Talking of whom, Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy seem to enjoy getting all the best lines but also playing two right twerps – seriously, young Xavier is such a sleezeball who seems to fail to understand when ‘no means no’ even though he can read minds (a skill he uses to hit on women with, which is just wrong).

The younger mutants don’t fare too well either. There’s a whole bunch of them but they’re mainly white and hetero. The one black mutant, Darwin, played by Edi Gathegi, has a life span of around five minutes before Kevin Bacon’s villian fills him with strange, red energy causing him to implode and shatter into many pieces as his mate Havoc watches through white crocodile tears. Of course, this happens after the only other mutant of colour, Angel, decides to defect and join the baddies’ team (she survives this film but dies off-screen before the next one). So what’s the moral here? That the goodies are white and heteronormative and if you deviate from this trope you’ll end up dead one way or the other.

It’s a similar story for Days of Future Past – McAvoy and Fassender hog all the screen time as they fight over Mystique whose DNA, it turns out, was used to build giant, mutant-killing robots called Sentinels. Yup, a woman is to blame for why all the mutants face extinction. Ellen Page appears but spends most of her time holding onto Wolverine’s head as he gets to do all the fighting. Although you do see his bum for a few seconds in a half-hearted attempt to get some objectification of the male body in the film. It doesn’t last long because all those “lads” are probably too busy snorting on their fizzy drinks and trying desperately to affirm their heterosexuality. The only good thing this film does is to eradicate X-Men: The Last Stand – yup, history literally gets rewritten and one of the worst X-Men movies vanishes. And this means the brilliant Jean Grey is back and no doubt she’ll leave Xavier’s ridiculous school for mutant brats to join a team of awesome queer, female and diversely coloured mutants. So maybe things are looking up for Apocalypse especially with Mystique asking us to “forget everything you think you know.” Does this include the white, cisgendered, heteronormative patriarchy?

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Demi Lovato 1: Patriarchy 0

“Are you ready?” asks Demi Lovato at the start of her new song, Confident. And I am, I’m ready for an ass-kicking video in which two brilliant women take on the structural oppression of the patriarchy in style. “I used to hold my freak back, Now I’m letting go, I make my own choice, Yeah I run this show.” And boy, is it one heck of a showdown…

The video starts with Lovato locked up in a high security prison. A dubious looking man in a suit arrives in a small armada of black cars – I reckon he’s FBI or government or something. He offers Lovato freedom if she takes out Michelle Rodriguez (of Resident Evil and Fast & Furious Fame). She signs the dotted line and then gets branded (as the patriarchy quite literally burns its power-to-oppress into her skin), booted and armed with big guns. A bunch of suited men escort her to Rodriguez who suddenly reveals she’s also working for dubious-suit-man. Poor Lovato, her day just went from bad to worse – first a tattoo made of fire, now she’s been double crossed, followed by an ass-whooping from Rodriguez who sure knows how to land a punch.

Lovato is scapegoated as a traitor and sent straight back to prison on a bus. A daring escape with a shotgun puts her face to face with Rodriguez again. Another showdown ensues, all the while being watched by dubious-suit-man and a bunch of grinning, male croons. But then it happens – the moment before Rodriguez whacks another punch into Lovato’s face she spots Lovato’s branding, one she has too. And they finally figure it out: women shouldn’t be pitted against one another at the whim of male oppressors, instead women can team up to tackle institutionalised discrimination and smash that glass ceiling to smithereens. Cue Rodriguez’s jeep smashing through the wall of dubious-suit-man’s hideout and the big climax. Lovato and Rodriguez win, obviously. “What’s wrong with being confident?” asks Lovato in the song and it’s clearly a rhetorical question because when Lovato gets her confident on she’s fricking awesome.

Suffragettes, Lipstick & High Speed Internet

Seat found, popcorn in hand, fizzy drink in the other. I was ready to enjoy Suffragette, the new movie about the women’s rights movement in the early 20th century, when Emmeline Pankhurst was rallying thousands to the cause, when Emily Davison threw herself in front of the King’s horse, and when bricks were being thrown through windows and wires were being cut because women did not have the vote. I couldn’t wait. I love feminism, I think it’s awesome, and a whole movie about it is a right treat. But before the film, the adverts…

First there was the make-up one. John Legend takes a seat at a piano and starts singing La Vie En Rose. Then in comes Julianne Moore followed closely by Naomi Watts, Blake Lively, Leila Bekhti, Eva Longoria and a whole host of famous women. They gather around the piano in their pink dresses and friendly smiles. The camera lingers briefly on their lips, hair, chins and breasts. Legend carries on singing and sometimes the women offer a word or two, you get the impression they don’t really know the lyrics. And it’s all for Color Riche Collection Exclusive, a new line of pink lipsticks from L’Oreal. The advert ends with Moore telling us “we’re worth it” and the impression I was left with is that everyone involved with the advert (hopefully) got paid a lot of money. Ok, famous women using their celebrity status to help promote a product and a brand, it’s hardly new. I mean, it’s not quite on a par with what the Suffragettes did but it’s great that these brilliant women have made it…made it onto the set of a L’Oreal advert. It’s fine, I won’t think too much about it, can’t wait for the movie.

Then it’s Heineken and Daniel Craig. James Bond nicks a speed boat to escape some bad guys except a female water skier is attached to it. Dragged along by the boat she deftly navigates waves, rocks, a wedding, a bar (she even has time to grab a tray of beers) and one of the enemy speedboats. Jumping aboard the boat she throws a top hat at the baddy currently attacking Bond. It doesn’t do much. Bond then prompts her to tie the bad guy up to a parachute who then gets dragged away. Bond then asks her if she’d like to join him for a boozy lunch. Ok, quite funny, yes the woman is unnamed and wearing a swimming costume the whole time whereas we all know Bond’s name and the men are all wearing suits but it’s a beer advert, what can you except? Maybe a little more, maybe? Anyway, nearly time for the film!

And just before it begins a truly inspiring advert, finally! A mum and her young daughter are watching clips of great women doing great things, people like Emmeline Pankhurst, Paloma Faith, Billie Holiday, Steph Houghton, and they’re all winking at the young girl inspiring her to join the movement and become awesome. And what an inspiring way to advertise…Vivid, the new high-speed internet connection service from Virgin. Right, because that’s how we celebrate feminism throughout the years by truncating the narrative and shoehorning it into an ad for broadband. And lipstick. And beer (although I doubt Heineken has even thought about co-opting feminism into their beer-selling cause).

So there was I, excited for the movie, but a little perplexed. As I watched these adverts I couldn’t help but feel like I was at the receiving end of an agenda – an agenda that appropriates amazing moments in our history/present to inspire us, not to try and replicate these events or even celebrate them, but to buy stuff. Consumer capitalism is really rather brilliant at reducing everything to an act of consumption. It also objectifies the female body and uses it as a vehicle for selling make-up and alcohol. None of this is new but it is exceedingly boring especially when it’s juxtaposed with the ensuing film, namely one about women who risked their lives and died so women could have greater equality. And the advertising agenda wasn’t even subtle. I mean lip stick and a feminist themed broadband. It’s clear these brands did some lazy ‘market research’ before crassly targeting their presumed captive audience with the ‘appropriate’ products. But the minutes before a film like Suffragette make for prime time virtual estate. So as I finished my popcorn long before the film started I couldn’t help but feel that despite all the amazing gains that have been made there is still a very long way to go. Time to smash some beer bottles, stamp on some lipsticks and cut some fibre optics.

The Song Of Angry Men

There’s quite a lot of anger on the internet these days. It’s often perpetuated by men and anonymous trolls. I’m guilty too as some of my blog posts veer from ‘witty social commentary’ into ‘angry rant’. Thinking of anger and men reminds me of the song Do you hear the people sing? from the hit West End show Les Miserables. It’s sung by a bunch of young, male students in 1830s revolutionary France who want to overthrow the corrupt political regime and make a better world. “Do you hear the people sing, singing the song of angry men?” they ask and, yeah, they’re all pretty angry. Unfortunately, things don’t go to plan and all the revolutionaries are killed whilst the regime stays in power. But the question remains: what’s the deal with all these angry men?

A contemporary (non-musical) example would be the many responses to Anita Sarkeesian’s vlogs on sexism in the gaming industry and online. So many guys are furious that Sarkeesian would call out the sexism so rampant in the industry. They’re so angry they even issue death threats. Now, I could write an angry blog post about these guys’ angry blog posts but I’m more interested in exploring the anger itself.

Anger is a strong emotion that tends to be used as a defence mechanism to very aggressively maintain one’s security and comfort zone. If you’re a male gamer who likes the gaming world and its portrayal of women it’s understandable that you’d feel threatened when someone criticises it. Furthermore, given that guys are often not well educated in emotional intelligence and expression then it’s not surprising that their upset manifests as anger. Contextualising this further we can note other issues men face in the 21st century. For starters the gold standard of masculinity is still the James Bond style, breadwinning, tough guy. Most guys won’t achieve this and will be belittled by the ones that think they do. And of that latter group they’ll spend most of their time competing with one another to be alpha male and will hardly get a chance to just chill out and be nice. Of course, this gold standard is really just an outdated, redundant stereotype that only ever makes sense in shoddy Hollywood films and abysmal advertising campaigns – it’s a fiction but many guys labour under the belief that it’s an ascertainable and desirable goal. Add to this the problems of economic recession and dwindling job markets that many countries face and it’s even harder for men to find meaning ‘being men’.

Unfortunately, these larger economic and political issues tend to get ignored as guys look elsewhere to vent their anger – usually at women and feminism who they perceive to be threats. Case in point with Anita Sarkeesian – rather than guys acknowledging that greater equality for the sexes is a good thing and greater diversity in video games is also good (think about it, there will be more games to choose from) they think it’s the feminists who are the problem rather than the cynical gaming companies who want to make money peddling damaging, uninspired stereotypes.

But what should angry men do with all this anger? Should they just ignore it, bottle it up and hope it goes away…until the next blog rant. Well, this is a big question and one for another blog post. In the meantime here’s some Les Miserables awesomeness…

The Slightly Sexist Song Of The Sea

The Song of the Sea is a new animated film for children and adults. It tells the tale of Ben and his younger sister Saoirse. It’s beautifully animated and based on folkloric Irish tales of Selkies – mythological creatures that are seals in water and shed their skins to become humans on land. Unbeknownst to Ben his mother was a Selkie and so is his little sister. It is a stunning story about grief, growing up and family. However, the more I watched it the more I realised that I had seen this story many, many times before and it’s one that has been told over and over again – it’s the one all about men.

Song of the Sea

I’ll start with a brief plot synopsis (spoilers): Ben lives in a lighthouse with his pregnant mum and dad. The mum gives Ben a magic shell and then goes missing into the sea leaving behind Saoirse, his little sister. Six years later and the dad’s still pretty unhappy and Saoirse still hasn’t said a word. Meanwhile, Saoirse discovers a magic coat left behind by her mum which lets her transform into a seal. She goes swimming for a bit and that’s when we learn she’s a Selkie. Unfortunately, nasty granny arrives to take Ben and Saoirse back to the city. Ben doesn’t really like Saoirse and is annoyed when she follows him as he escapes from his granny’s house. Some magical fairies inform the siblings that Saoirse’s a Selkie and must sing the Song of the Sea to free all the trapped spirits – it’s a shame she doesn’t speak. Unfortunately she gets kidnapped by a witch, Macha, who bottles up people’s feelings (literally) thereby turning them to stone. Her reason is that she couldn’t handle her son (a giant) being so sad when his wife died so she bottled up his grief and turned him into a giant cliff (the dad is basically the giant and the gran is Macha). Ben rescues his sister who starts playing the magic shell which causes all the bottles to break. Macha, part stone, is overwhelmed by her feelings but relents and helps transport Ben and Saoirse back home. There, Saoirse finally speaks and she sings a magic Selkie song that frees all the ancient spirits so they can finally return to their magical land far away. The mum reappears to take Saoirse away with her but instead Saoirse relinquishes her Selkie abilities so she can stay with her dad and brother. Everyone lives happily ever after, even the nasty gran who shacks up with the old ferry driver.

It’s a nice story full of metaphors, folklore and fantasy but there are some all too familiar and all too sexist tropes. To start with there aren’t many female characters – there’s the mum who vanishes within minutes; the gran who is the typical crone character – old, haggard and someone no one would ever want to grow up to become and Macha – the evil villain who is basically an even worse version of the gran. The main female character is Saoirse.

Firstly, she is voiceless, she literally has no voice for most of the film, which means Ben gets to do all the talking. Whilst she is often portrayed as more intelligent than her wilful, older brother, who drags her around on a dog’s lead for quite a bit of the film, she is still forced to follow him, even when she knows he’s going in the wrong direction. He becomes less ambivalent towards her once he’s learnt she’s a Selkie. As the film progresses she becomes weaker and weaker and ends up getting kidnapped. This inspires Ben to take even more action and battle the film’s antagonist. It seems a little bit as if Saoirse only has worth as a character once her brother has realised she’s useful – i.e. has magic singing abilities.  He’s the one that puts the magic shell to her lips so she can play it and break all of Macha’s magic bottles. It’s almost as if little girls are being told to tolerate the whims and bullying behaviours of their elder brothers until their brothers realise they have voice and worth, and only then can they become somewhat empowered.

After her rescue Saoirse is even weaker meaning it is Ben  that must overcome his fear of swimming and dive deep to uncover Saoirse’s thrown away Selkie suit. So despite the fact that the sea is Saorise’s element and true home it still ends up being all about Ben and his newfound abilities. Meanwhile, Saoirse’s singing and shell playing skills appear somewhat arbitrary given that she just inherited them and they’re basically magical.  Saoirse’s voicelessness also means that apart from one brief chat with her mum right at the end the film categorically fails the Bechdel test. FInally, when Saoirse does eventually speak her first word isn’t hello or help or patriarchy, no, it’s Ben.

There are some nice messages in the film – namely that stories are very important, be they ones that run in the family or older more mythical stories that came long before the stories of the Bible. The film reminds us that our culture suffers when we lose our stories but it’s just a shame that the film’s own story tells us that men are the active ones whilst women sit around either trying to muck everything up (the gran and Macha) or are basically just there to sing at men’s command. The film also has something to say about men’s inability to emote, namely because the father remains confused and grief-stricken long after the disappearance of his wife but even this is implicitly traced back to his overprotective mother (the nasty gran) who constantly tells him she knows what’s best and lives a repressed, devout Christian life. This story is reflected in the mythical one with Macha literally turning her giant son to stone so he would no longer have to suffer the grief of the loss of his wife – if only women would stop meddling seems to be the point here. Other male characters include the comic ferry driver, the faeries (we see a few female faeries in the background at the end but none are given a voice) and the Great Seanachai – a mythical storyteller who remembers all the old stories and is thus a font of cultural knowledge and wisdom, oh, and he’s a man.

So, fifteen years into the 21st century and what do we get – another mythic adventure about boys and men saving the day. It’s nice that Saoirse sings her special song at the end and frees all the spirits but this is basically the same as Pepper Potts donning Iron Man’s suit at the end of Iron Man 3 in order to blast the main baddy to smithereens – it’s great a woman saves the day but it’s all a bit last-minute and tokenistic. Why not a whole film about an interesting and three-dimensional female character doing awesome and exciting things?

But that’s just it, it’s not that this film is a sexist travesty and should be banned, no, it’s just that this film follows in a long, long line of films and stories just like it – ones that portray men as the active and characterful heroes whilst women are painted as passive and regularly in need of rescue. The Song of the Sea slots so easily into this pervasive cultural narrative when it had so much scope to start rewriting it – why couldn’t it be Benjamina running off in search of her fey little Selkie brother? Why couldn’t the father have vanished right at the start? And why are there no characters of colour, or trans and queer characters partaking in the action, surely ancient Irish folklore isn’t just for white, heterosexual cisgendered people? The film has been described as a “timeless delight for all ages”- it’s only timeless because this masculinist and sexist narrative is so seemingly unkillable. It’s great to be inspired by old stories but it’s time we started telling some new ones, fit for the 21st century.

No More Mr Nice Guy

You probably know one of the really Nice Guys – he’ll be male (obviously), white, heterosexual and, y’know, he’ll be really nice. He’s probably passably attractive (by patriarchal standards) and knows how to compliment a woman in a way that doesn’t completely objectify her. He’ll know just enough about feminism to know that it’s about treating women well, to a point. He’s probably quite popular, with lots of straight, white, men friends, who like competitive sports and were most likely privately educated. He’ll be charming, polite and a gentlemen. In essence he’s a really Nice Guy. The trouble is…he’s not…and here’s why.

There are many Nice Guys out there who think they get feminism, they’ll say nice things to women that aren’t too objectionable, they’ll offer a helping hand (if appropriate) and they’ll listen to their female friends emote. But they have ulterior motives – they’re nice because they want to sleep with the women they think they are being nice to. They realise it’s not OK to be the Manly Man stereotype anymore (i.e. overlty sexist and aggressive, James Bond for example) so they resort to more underhand tactics instead. They get annoyed when women don’t choose them and pick someone else (who might be way less ‘nice’) as if women have some sort of obligation to sleep with them simply because they haven’t treated them badly. They use Tinder to get laid but won’t admit that’s what they’re using it for (“yeah, I, like, er, really want a relationship…(for 30 minutes)” – more like 30 seconds). Basically they don’t just don’t have the guts to ask women to engage in adult, consenting, responsible sex – precisely because they stereotype all women as needy, insecure and in need of being lied to about the possibility of a family, and because they themselves are incapable of having adult, consenting, responsible sex (for them it’s some sort of competition or game).

Nice Guys don’t like self-professed female feminists because they’re too shouty and angry, and they don’t shave their legs and aren’t ‘conventionally’ attractive. They’ll casually undermine and mock their girlfriend when she tries to make a feminist point, as if we’ve reached a post-feminist age where we’re all equal and women should stop whining. They might even go so far as to deny the existence of the patriarchy. They’ll also be somewhat homophobic, transphobic and racist. And why are they all these things? Because white, straight men are the most overly represented group in society. A Nice Guy will never have had to question their existence or worth because they are regularly made to feel entitled and worthy based on their arbitrary skin colour, possession of a penis and sexual inclination towards the opposite gender. Basically they’ve never had to learn how to empathise and think they’re the dogs bollocks (the sort of phrase a Nice Guy might use).

The litmus test for a Nice Guy is the fact they think they’re a Nice Guy – it’s like the Cool Kids, anyone who refers to themselves as one of the Cool Kids just isn’t (partly for using the phrase Cool Kids) – and any self-professed Nice Guy just isn’t one because they’re clearly insecure about all the nasty thoughts they have and things they do. They basically think they’re owed something because they’re not abusive, aggressive and overtly sexist. They’re deluded. The protagonist of that awful film 500 Days of Summer is the classic example of a Nice Guy or what should really be referred to as an ANNG – Actually-Nasty-Nice-Guy.

So, Nice Guys, what to do? Read up on feminism, start respecting people as people – not as things you could have sex with at some point soon – and practice the act of empathy (keep practising, you can get better in time). In the meantime know that you are not really a Nice Guy you are actually what Lily Allen calls a Wanker, you can listen to her song below (TW: homophobia – she equates Actually-Nasty-Nice-Guys with being closeted homosexuals. Sexism – towards Nice Guys, obviously). Oh, and here’s a great BuzzFeed article on Nice Guys.

The But Men

They live amongst us. They are people we know. They are our friends. They are the But Men. Like the rest of us they live in a heteronormative, misogynistic patriarchy. They are witness to daily acts of sexism against woman. They listen to these women talk about their experiences of oppression. They read women’s blogs and facebook posts about the violence society perpetrates against woman. And once they’ve finished listening and reading the first thing they say is “But men…”

“But men are objectified too, but men get called out for having too much sex, but men experience domestic violence, but men are stereotyped, but men…”

Whilst all of these things are true it’s pretty obvious that the But Men are missing the point. Simply put, when we are talking about women’s experience of the patriarchy we are talking about women’s experience of the patriarchy – not men’s. In this situation the best thing many men can do is shut up and listen. I did a But Men the other day and swiftly learnt my lesson. A friend had posted about the objectification of women in mainstream media – the way women’s bodies are so frequently sexualised and scrutinised. I ‘liked’ the post and then innocently/ignorantly commented, ‘Yes, and this happens to men too.’ It didn’t take long for someone else to comment on my comment accusing me of missing the point and trivialising the issue. “Missing the point, trivialising the issue,” I said to myself indignantly, that’s certainly not what I intended. Fortunately, rather than commenting on the comment on my comment I stepped away from the laptop.

I say I commented innocently/ignorantly for a reason: with regards the innocence I was genuinely trying to reach out to a virtual community discussing objectification and share my own experience of objectification – I get bored with the status quo of male beauty and body type and my self-esteem is regularly diminished by it and I really wanted to share my views on this. With regards the ignorance I should have known better than to butt into a conversation about the oppression of women with a comment about the oppression of men. I would not have interrupted a friend’s discussion about their experience of racism as a black person with my comments on the experiences of racism that white people encounter, or a discussion on homophobia with instances of heterophobia, or instances of Islamaphobia with cases of discrimination against atheists etc. Yet for some reason I thought it was OK to completely divert a conversation about women to be about men. There’s a word for this and it’s sexism. It turns out my ignorance perpetuates oppression and that makes me guilty.

For too long conversations have been led by men, for men and about men. And now people are talking about other things men are suddenly finding their male privilege threatened. It was never a good privilege in the first place because it depended on oppression and violence but it sure is uncomfortable to discover a taken-for-granted power being dispersed, even though it’s for the best.

So, But Men, what can we do? We can acknowledge that there are ways in which we all suffer in society and that we all need to be able to talk about this suffering. If we want to discuss the ways in which we suffer as men we can find appropriate groups to do it with. However, it’s important we don’t hijack other groups to talk about ourselves – this is disrespectful and oppressive. We must learn to listen and not to speak over people (aka when to shut up). We must also acknowledge that there are spaces to which we are not invited (e.g. a woman’s circle). In essence, we need to use our imagination. We need to try to empathise with groups we are not part of in order to understand what it’s like to experience the world as they do – a world that has a knack for treating men unfairly well. Then we can set about changing this by redistributing power equally in order to ensure that this world isn’t all a-but men!