Amidst all the twerking outrage and blurry lines, this has been a very self-congratulatory year for feminism in creative media. Particularly, commentators have pointed to Jennifer Lawrence (Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Silver Linings Playbook) and Lorde (Pure Heroine) as examples of progress for gender equality and all things excellent.
Lawrence, as well as starring in complex, non-traditional lead roles, has famously spoken out about her weight, body shape and dildo-ownership. Each utterance provoked isolated media-storms as fashion magazines questioned how much ‘curves’ were natural, reasonable, acceptable or hot, and prompting comparisons to Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks and singer Adele. In the UK, Olympian swimmer Rebecca Adlington has added to the conversation with her self-image apprehension during I’m a Celebrity.
Lorde, in contrast to other chart-topping female artists, has two videos in which she shows virtually zero flesh: in Tennis Court she just stares into the camera, no gyrating required.* Lily Allen has also popped up, outright mocking sexism in the music industry, although probably failing on intersectionality scores. Satire’s always a hard line to tread. Luckily the world has made progress here too, as Kerry Washington’s lead in Scandal is the first for an African-American actor in forever, and Orange is the New Black seriously examines US class and race relations.
The problem with our focus, our borderline idolisation, of these women, is that they are so exceptional. They are prominent and lauded because they are not normal. That reflects very well on them, but throws into starker relief just how far the entertainment industry has to go. It should not be surprising or remarkable that Beyoncé has released a feminist album; it should not be surprising that even Princess Kate had morning sickness. Yet it is. We can see this in virtually any advertisement besides funerals. We can see it from the trans-Atlantic debate sparked by Steubenville apologists. We can see it from the way the UK ‘grown up’ media still sees fit to comment on Theresa May’s sartorial choices rather than her politics. Seriously, writers should appreciate her politics are expletive-inducing enough not to resort to snide remarks about her shoes.
In fact, the level of self-congratulation the West has reached in terms of gender progress has lulled writers into deep complacency. Look to the success of ‘retro’ TV series – Mad Men, the excellent Masters of Sex, and a host of period dramas. In each, the script serves gigantic knowing winks to the audience, winks that say, ‘Look how ridiculously patriarchal we were in the 1960s! How terribly backward. We’re fine now’.**
What these shows and their heroines (Peggy Olsen and Virginia Johnson) are doing is highlighting feminist progress made 40-50 years ago, because so little has been made since. Fiction writers seem to be doing a lot of scoffing and resting-on-laurels, but very few future-oriented (or outright-SciFi) novels/films show imagination: there’s no tangible progress in future gender relations. Certainly, no-one is imagining how silly we’ll look in 2050.
Quick off-top-of-head list: Cloud Atlas, Gattaca, Star Wars, Avatar, 2001, Inception, Never Let Me Go, Thor (in Asgard), District Nine, Elysium, Terminator 4, Minority Report, Black Mirror, I Robot, The Matrix(es), Pacific Rim, Harry Potter and Hunger Games itself. They all show radically different worlds, with amazing abilities, technology or magic: but for all this advancement, social relations are the same. They’re locked in stone. It’s as if current writers look at the late 20th century, smile, and mutter to themselves: “Well, we’ve got the vote, the Pill and Hilary, so everything’s tickedy-boo”.
Everything is not tickedy-boo.
*Not to get into the whole sex-positivity debate, it’s surely a good thing that a female artist can achieve success without rhythmic thrusting.
**MoS also whitewashes Dr Masters’ attitudes to homosexuality and conversion therapy. I could probably write this whole post again about LGBT issues, you get the picture.
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