Skip navigation

Category Archives: gender

Last night, on a “family show,” families everywhere learned that when a woman says repeatedly over the course of several months that she is not interested in a man, she doesn’t really mean it. They learned that when said man, after the first indication of disinterest, continues to make comments about how he would like to be with said woman, that’s not only acceptable, but going to be rewarded in the end.  The audience was told that even if a woman has acted like she couldn’t stand a man for months and months, if he makes some grand gesture for her she will (should?) acquire romantic feelings for him.

I thought Once Upon a Time and I were on the same page. Strong Female Lead™ Emma Swan told Captain Hook that she had only kissed him as a “one time thing” to thank him for saving her father’s life (which was problematic from the get-go, but I’ll leave it there). She looked at him with disdain when he attempted to put his hand on her back as they left a room together. She explicitly said he was not someone she would “actually kiss” when the villain cursed his lips to try to hurt her. Everything about that said to me that she was in fact not interested in this guy.

Looking at the candidate for love interest himself, just in the last episode alone, Hook directly described what he has been doing as “chasing this woman.” When Emma complained about wearing a corset, he said “Your discomfort is a cross I’m willing to bear,” and then leered at her.  Also, a past version of him noted, “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were trying to get me drunk, which is usually my tactic.” Previously, Hook implied that Emma wanted to leave town not because she had another life she liked but because she was afraid to love him, despite all the evidence in the previous paragraph. I thought this was supposed to be creepy. I mean, it was creepy, but I thought it was on purpose and that they knew it was creepy.

(There are many other examples for both, but these are the ones I have offhand and I can’t stomach going looking for more.)

But alas, when we get to the season finale, all of Emma’s “no”-s over the course of an entire season turn into a “yes.” She spends the whole episode flirting with him, at complete odds to her previous behavior, and then they make out.

There are a couple of ways to interpret this. One is that, while her words were saying “no” over and over again, what she meant the whole time was “yes”—and indeed, there were a few moments where they made the acting choice to have her eyes flicking to his lips when they were speaking and other similar instances as a subtext under the maintext of “no.” Under this model, “no” really does mean “yes,” and Hook was not obligated to take that explicit verbal disinterest as “no” and in fact ultimately justified in doing so. (Version A)

Alternately, it could be because, while Emma did really mean “no” at the time, she changed her mind. This could be because he wore her down (Version B).  It could be because she was moved by his sacrifice of his beloved ship (the Jolly Roger) and thought that, much like when he saved her father, it deserved a reward (Version C). It could be because she thought that if he gave something up for her she should give something up to him (Version D).

Versions A and B are Rape Culture. Versions C and D are The Traffic in Women. Let’s talk about each.

Rape Culture, as a conceptual apparatus, describes the ways in which contemporary sexual and gender politics are organized around a belief in men’s inherent right to access to women’s bodies. (This isn’t to say only men can rape or only women get raped [nor indeed that there are only two categories], but as a system of power it’s gendered in that way.) This is the stuff of street harassment (I have a right to look at you and comment on you and a right to a response from you). It’s the logic by which women who dress revealingly or flirt or make out with someone are “teases” if they don’t then “follow through” on what the man is “owed” by their implicit contract.

Rape culture is a very old problem, but where many forms of gender inequality have diminished over time, this one has gotten reinvigorated by some recent popular media.  We see it in Twilight, where Edward behaving in stalker-y ways toward Bella is framed as romantic. (Probably the best line from the famous Buffy vs. Edward mash-up:  “You know, being stalked isn’t really a big turn-on for girls.”) We also see it in Blurred Lines, the lyrics of which have brilliantly been paralleled to the statements of rapists.  The song’s narrator just “knows” the “good girl” “wants it.”  Well golly, that should be good enough for anyone . . .

So while Emma said “no,” she really meant “yes,” or she changed her mind because he was persistent. Hook’s assertion of a right to her body was ultimately legitimated. That’s rape culture.

With calling Versions C and D The Traffic in Women,  I’m thinking of the Gayle Rubin version, not the Emma Goldman version, which I have not read. The key part of the traffic in women for our purposes is that it is a cultural and economic system whereby women are commodities to be sold by men.  It used to be that your parents sold you to a husband (or paid a husband to take you), and as a result you became his property (Fairly literally. Married women didn’t exist as separate legal people).  And as his property you had to do what he wanted (I won’t start on Once’s record on forcible marriage, though I think I will be back next week to write Once Upon a Misogyny (with a Side of Racism) for how they treat the character Regina).

This is, again, an old problem, but, also again, one that persists. The notion that if a man spends a lot of money on a woman she’s obligated to have sex with him is one instantiation of it.  So is the comment at the center of a recent controversy that “compares a man’s obligation to go to work, regardless of his ‘mood,’ to a woman’s obligation to have sex with her husband” (The comment is old, and not as linked to Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell as it was described to be, but it’s still pretty appalling and a clear version of this logic).

So when Hook gave up his ship for Emma, he bought her fair and square. She owed him something, either consciously as in Version C or more as the result of cultural conditioning as in Version D. Actual quote: “You traded your ship for me?”

And this episode was described by the show’s Executive Producers as “epic wish fulfillment.” It begs the question: Whose wishes? It certainly doesn’t fulfill the wishes of people who were drawn into this show by its strong female leads (Emma and bandit Snow White and the Season 1 villain Regina), because the glorification of rape culture and women as purchasable is incompatible with strong female leads. Does it fulfill the wishes of the Twilight generation (and their moms), who found Edward’s stalking and the Edward-Jacob ownership battle oh-so-romantic? Perhaps.  Does it fulfill the wishes of men who have been trained to see women as something to which they have an inalienable right? Absolutely.

This is profoundly disappointing, particularly from a show that was premised on rethinking fairytales. This isn’t rethinking. It’s more of the same old patriarchy, and its 2014.

My presentation in the Self Awareness and Identity Politics in Media Pedagogy workshop #g16 at the 2014 Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference.

So I discovered ABC series Once Upon a Time recently. As it’s midway through its third season, I’m relatively late to the party, but in my defense I don’t have a TV even if I am kind of a TV scholar and I rarely like major-network TV anyway. But I love this show. I don’t even want to admit how fast I blew through all 55 episodes in existence.

And, I’ve been doing that thing I theorized in my dissertation as promotional labor and tele-fan-gelizing the show all over, ‘cause fans, unlike gays, do recruit. But also, as an academic, amidst all my adoration is analysis. I have too many projects on my plate already but I want to propose an edited collection because I want there to be an analysis of so many things about this show but cannot scrape up the time to do it myself.

Hence, I love my job as a media scholar because it makes everything so totally interesting, but I don’t have time to be interested in everything and hate that I am anyway.

Some of the things about which I wish I had some analysis:

-The show fails the Bechdel Test weirdly often: Once has seriously strong female leads in Emma and Regina, but they almost only talk to each other about their son Henry, particularly early on, and he continues to be their one-note motivation throughout.

-The racial politics are super problematic: The one African American character is a sniveling toady with an out-of-his-league crush; the one Asian American is also the one canonically, if half-heartedly, queer character (Twofer! Bonus, character is from Chinese folklore and actor is Korean American); and, as my friend put it, “The one vaguely Latina lady is the villain” (which is commentary on the character’s ambiguous category-belonging, not on Lana Parrilla who plays her one way or the other).

-What are they saying about intergenerational class mobility? Cora is completely ruthless in her schemes to marry the prince and subsequently to make her daughter queen; Emma goes from a birthright of princess to being culturally working class and putting up her kid for adoption into the middle class.

-The politics around adoption are also super problematic: There’s a refrain of bio-parents as “real” parents; adopted children are sometimes treated as tools to an end rather than loved (though see above; bio-children are used as leverage too).

-The show has some fascinatingly queer family trees: There’s a proliferation of mothers on one side (Henry has two mommies; Snow had two mommies after a fashion; Henry has two grandmothers in the maternal line) and three generations of nothing but fathers on the other (Peter Pan, Rumplestiltskin, Baelfire/Neal); Regina is not only Henry’s adoptive mother but his step-great-grandmother.

-The Once team is fairly obviously queerbaiting with regard to the interpretation of the Emma-Regina relationship as romance or desire (known as SwanQueen, see the recommended reading I put together to teach shipping as a way of seeing), wherein they give and take away and maintain plausible deniability like they’re Xena and this is 1995.

All of these things are incredibly interesting to me, and I want to go through and do the close analysis of what’s happening with each and every one of them. In that I’ve been plotting this blog post for over a month now, I am not optimistic that I’ll get to it anytime soon, but here’s a brief take on Point 1: Gender.

The hero is a woman! The villain is a woman! (At least, in the first season; it gets more complicated after that. The villainy, not the gender identity.) These two major female characters are both strong and complex and scarred and morally gray and we are allowed to love them anyway and this should be a dream come true for more rounded portrayals of women! (cf. the hundreds of thousands of Google results for “Skyler White hate,” which is an autocomplete option)

And for all of this otherwise amazing gender progressiveness, the damn thing barely passes the Bechdel Test a lot of the time (itself an extraordinarily low bar, to be sure) because Emma and Regina are only allowed to be so complex as mothers. No, strike that, I understand that it’s the one time women are culturally allowed to be tough (call it the Sarah Connor Principle), and this is network TV after all.

What I mean is that their existences are routinely reduced to motherhood, contracted down to that single facet, or that facet opens up and swallows those rich, complex characters I otherwise love. There are little moments of more, but like a villanelle or a particularly hook-y pop song it always cycles safely back to the son who’s the biological child of the hero and adopted by the villain. To break out that hoary actor joke “What’s my motivation in this scene?” the answer is always, always Henry.

(So perhaps it’s not surprising that the one-note motivation has produced “There must be something else really going on! Slash it!”, but that’s Point 6.)

Regina is Richard III, vicious because wounded and determined to make everyone despise her because she can’t believe anyone can love her.  There’s so much in the flashbacks: she endured child abuse from her mother; she saw her fiancé killed in front of her; she was coerced into marriage. Ultimately, she found human attachments unattainable but power there to be grabbed and saw it as the one thing that wouldn’t abandon her.

She is incredibly, delightfully rich as a character despite the show’s frequent efforts to flatten the moral landscape to a black-and-white of good-and-evil. Long story short, people may shrink away from Lana Parrilla on the street (which she said at Comic Con at some point but I can’t find a good video now), but she also spends more time crying than every other actor on the show put together.

And I get that Regina’s love for her son has at times been the only redeeming thing about her, but for the love of whatever let the woman branch out. (Yes, she’s my favorite. I think the argument stands, though.)

Emma is similarly damaged: abandoned on the side of the road as a child, her backstory is rich with examples of neglect she experienced in the foster system. And yes, it’s the love of her son that lets her find her heroism, I get that. But again, maybe she could have something else drive her for a hot minute, ever?

(Granted, I’m far down the rabbit hole of fanon at this point in my personal enjoyment of this show, but I don’t think any of what I’ve just described contradicts the characters in canon.)

So, yeah, I don’t know what it means that this show does complex women both so well and so poorly. It may be a reflection of the limits of network television, the iron grip of the contemporary gender system on our thinking, or just failure of nerve or imagination on the part of the creative folk to push the envelope. Probably more than one of those.  But it is really interesting.


Toy company Goldieblox recently released a video of girl children rejecting the narrow toy options available to them and instead engineering a Rube Goldberg machine out of typically feminine toys to the soundtrack of the Beastie Boys’ classic 1986 song “Girls,” rewritten to have pro-Girls-in-STEM lyrics.

Controversy ensued. It was seemingly contained to the feminist internet or the technology/copyright internet, and happening in parallel in them with little cross-pollination except for feminist copyright scholars, so those not hooked into those circuits of knowledge circulation may have missed it. (I’d embed or link to the video but it no longer exists in that form.)

I’ll admit that my first thought when I saw the video was “That’s so cool of the Beastie Boys to authorize this!”

I then immediately had to revoke my own scholar card, because the whole point of fair use is that copyright holders don’t have to authorize it.

But after I copied out Section 107 of the copyright code 50 times in penance, I kept reading the various takes on it that went across my Twitter feed. And this tweet

baymtweetfrom @nancybaym (retweeted to me by @mikemonello) was when I knew I had to write about it:

This is an incredibly powerful example, and Baym is entirely right that such a parody would provoke horror in a lot of people (me included). And while in one sense it is a valid parallel, because it would involve a re-user producing a song dramatically opposite to the message of the original for the purposes of advertising, in another sense the two aren’t comparable at all.

A more powerful social position (pro-gun) co-opting a less powerful social position (pro-peace) just isn’t the same as a less powerful social position (pro-girl) co-opting a more powerful social position (wildly sexist). The Goldieblox controversy, that is, is a textbook example of the argument I’m starting to formulate: The meaning of an act of reuse depends on who’s doing it. (Not legally, of course, but culturally and maybe even morally.)

To know what to make of the Goldieblox “Girls” parody, then, “Who’s doing it?” is the key question.

Are they pro-girl transformative creators who only preemptively sued out of a need to protect themselves from beastly Beasties and their lawyers? (Also, is pre-emptive suing to have works declared non-infringing becoming more common [cf. Robin Thicke/Marvin Gaye], or am I just paying more attention now?) This is how their defenders and those focusing on the message of the video have portrayed it.


Or are the Goldieblox folks cynical opportunists who wanted to trade on the familiarity of “Girls” or the cognitive dissonance of the new lyrics against the misogynist original or who hoped there’d be attention-generating controversy?


My contention is that we get such wildly divergent responses to the piece because it’s not clear who’s doing it. Likely we’ll never be able to definitively answer that question, and in some sense they’re both of those things. Perhaps there’s an aspect of Rorschach testing here: What you see in this case indexes how you see the world generally.

However, Felix Salmon notes in the article linked by @mikemonello above, “Given the speed with which the GoldieBlox complaint appeared, indeed, it’s reasonable to assume that they had it in their back pocket all along, ready to whip out the minute anybody from the Beastie Boys, or their record label, so much as inquired about what was going on.”

This tips it much farther to the opportunist side—knowing about these legal machinations makes the “just pro-girl” reading much harder to sustain. But the feminist interpretation is still there, and it inclined a lot of people to support the video, even with the copyright infringement angle. Indeed, if Goldieblox had been less antagonistic there’s every chance the balance of support would have been in their favor.

But, as Salmon points out, “GoldieBlox neither sought nor received permission to create these videos: it never licensed the music it used from the artists who wrote it. That wouldn’t be the Silicon Valley way. First you make your own rules — and then, if anybody tries to slap you down, you don’t apologize, you fight.”

With further analysis, then, Goldieblox looks increasingly unlike an underdog.

In a Gigaom piece, (via @sivavaid), Jeff John Roberts says, “A quick visit to GoldieBlox’s website reveals terms of service that are about as reasonable as the Spanish Inquisition; the terms includes gems like this one: ‘We grant you a limited, non-exclusive, revocable, non-assignable, personal, and non-transferable license to create hyperlinks to the Website.’”

The idea that a hyperlink needs a license shows them to be a) unfamiliar with how the internet works, b) unfamiliar with standard conventions of writing offline or on, and c) copyright maximalists when it’s their stuff, i.e. hypocritical.

Roberts adds, “At the same time, the Beastie Boys themselves long-ago eschewed the sort of beer-swilling sexism of their debut album, and became advocates for women amidst a general hip-hop climate of misogyny.” So even as Goldieblox looks less good when you look more closely, the Beasties are less bad.

And this sort of nuance is exactly why I contend that we have to tease this stuff out, to parse as precisely as possible who’s doing what to who and how.

Corynne McSherry demonstrates in her analysis for the Electronic Frontier Foundation that the Goldieblox video is probably fair use by the four-factor test. However, if this cultural moment shows anything it’s that it’s the cultural lives of intellectual property (to use Rosemary Coombe’s title) that are far more interesting.

And speaking of my dissertation defense, here’s the Prezi for that for those who were unable to attend, since I wasn’t able to have it streamed or live-tweeted.