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Tekanji has a thought-provoking post on a fetish website that's been getting some attention on the blogosphere lately, called Superheroine's Demise. I highly recommend giving it a read, but, in a nutshell: the website is about portraying poweful superheroines being beaten and defeated for the sake of (male) sexual gratification, and that's Not Okay for various reasons.

Tekanji makes the point that, far from being an extreme fetish we can/should ignore, it fits in quite easily with mainstream culture:

"If you accept my premise that the fantasy of dominating powerful women is a pervasive one for men in Western culture, then it would obviously follow that (male) comic fans would have this fantasy, too. Not to mention those who write and draw these heroines. In essence, the fetish of humiliating strong women is perpetuated by the comics themselves, in turn influencing comic book readers to see it as erotic, which feeds the idea that this is what comic fans want... lather, rinse, repeat until you have these themes becoming codified into mainstream thought."

This got me thinking on a topic that's been rolling around in my head for quite a while. Superheroine's Demise is not an anomaly, but rather part of a pattern (of androcentric desire that sexualizes the domination of women's power). It is not, by far, the only expression of this form of misogyny. So is it fair to make it the target of our blame or outrage? I don't think so. That's not what I'm doing, and I don't believe that's what Tekanji's doing.

Superheroine's Demise is an example. Without the pattern of misogyny, it wouldn't be worth much attention. I'm wondering if, without that pattern, it would even be acceptable.

Here's the train of thought brings me to that point: My major issue with the ways in which we construct sexuality mainstream culture is that it's predicated on a hierarchy of power. Domination is sexy, and therefore sex is about domination. Add in our system of misogyny in which men do/should hold the power, and this means that sex is about male domination and female submission. As a result, things that reproduce this hierarchy - like Superheroine's Demise or other pornography based on dominating women - are problematic because they contribute to the maintenance of the hierarchy.

But there are a lot of things that reproduce hierarchies of power which similarly hold up the status quo. Traditional heterosexuality, for one thing. Men have long been accustomed to women being accessible, objectifiable, and controllable. Heterosexuality as it is currently practiced (dating and marriage, etc.) doesn't challenge that history.

And yet I don't want to vilify heterosexuality or keep people from practicing it. (Obviously, that would make things somewhat difficult for me as a heterosexual person.) But I can't pretend that, in many ways, being heterosexual does less to disrupt the sexist status quo than being queer does.

Example #2: I'm a Chinese woman dating a white man. I'm not going to pretend that this doesn't reinforce stereotypes about Asian sexuality - that Asian men are undesirable; that Asian women are sexually available to white men. Hell, the fact that I'm introverted and appear unassertive in public means that, for people who don't know us, stereotypes about Asian women being submissive and pliant partners for white men go unchallenged.

The fact that I'm introverted also contributes to the dominant view of Asians in general. I'm also a good student, and was even a math whiz in high school. The way I act can be used to feed many stereotypes about Asians.

The list goes on: women who choose to be housewives, or follow conventional fashion, or are sexually submissive, etc., all fit in to stereotypes that are more or less tied to the status quo of sexism.

I don't advocate chucking these behaviors out the window, though. For one thing, that isn't feasible if we're trying to make feminism a popular movement. For another thing ... no. I refuse to deny an individual's choice simply because it fits a pattern that developed over a history that was out of that individual's control. Choices, and the desires behind them, can't just be replaced. I can't just pretend that my personality is different, that I'm actually outgoing and aggressive. I can't somehow make myself gay. I can't negate the desires and tendencies I have, just so I can say that I'm rebelling against sexism.

On the other hand, I can (and should) acknowledge that these choices do fit into the mainstream, and that they were undoubtedly influenced by the mainstream. No man is an island: none of us, no matter how independent, sprung forth fully formed and developed impervious to social and cultural forces. Even if we rebel against everything in sight - well, something needed to be there for us to rebel against. We didn't decide on our likes and dislikes, what we find appealing or sexy or enjoyable, in the vaccuum of space. I'm not saying that society created us on its own - I'm saying that whatever was naturally in us was shaped by the world we developed in.

So, yes, my introversion is my own personality - but it was probably encouraged by the ways in which people viewed me and responded to me as a female and an Asian. My choices about fashion come from my own aesthetic sense, but develop with/against what the rest of the world thinks is attractive. The fact that I have only dated white guys, despite the fact that the racial makeup of the people around me has always been white and yellow, is probably influenced by the ways in which Asian men have been portrayed as undesireable and asexual.

However! I'm not going to reject these things, or try to erase them. I won't change who I, myself, have become. Yes, if the world were different, I might have dated Asian men in the past - but it's not like I somehow wouldn't love my boyfriend now, or he would be replaced by a yellow dude. You can't replace individuals. To some extent, you can't replace individual choices, either.

The best thing I can do is to be aware of the ways in which I am shaped by sexism, racism, etc., and the ways in which I contribute to them. It would be irresponsible to deny these forces, either in myself or in others.

With that knowledge, I might decide that I am not particularly tied to some of my choices, and that they are worth changing. For example, I used to think that humor based in sexism was funny - but decided a long time ago that this wasn't an important or unchangeable part of my identity, and that I gained a greater benefit by getting rid of it so I could reject sexism in that manner. I've become less invested in stereotypical femininity than I used to be. I've acknowledged the attractiveness of women, which homophobia and misogyny told me that a straight woman shouldn't do.

To bring it back to the beginning ... Superheroine's Demise, and the people who hold that fetish, are individuals. I won't tell an individual to change who he is, or the individual choices he makes. I will not even wholly condemn him, because he is not completely, or exclusively, guilty. All of us are at least partially culpable in maintaining sexism. Yes, this case is worse than others, but it isn't the sole villain among innocents.

I will, however, continue to (vocally) expose the sexism beneath practices such as these, so that people will learn about it. And I will continue to believe that people have a responsibility to educate themselves when they are presented with the opportunity. Unquestionable acceptance of misogyny is inexcusable - especially when you're given the chance to enlighten yourself.

If that's your kink, then that's your kink. Just be honest about what that means.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 24th, 2006 09:39 am (UTC)
Thanks for the link. :) I actually highlighted you on my blog (and not just because it was easier than finishing my pop-culture post!). I think you make some really good points. And much better than I do when I try to say the same thing :P
May. 24th, 2006 06:17 pm (UTC)
Awesome, thanks! I've been trying to articulate this train of thought for a while, because I always knew that *something* rubbed me the wrong way about trying to rebel against any and all traditional/mainstream behaviors, even if doing so was a "good" political choice. Anyway, I'm glad it ended up making sense!
(Deleted comment)
May. 24th, 2006 11:52 pm (UTC)
Right, the notorious female genital cutting. I've read a fair amount of articles and essays on the topic (though none from a primarily anthropological perspective, so if you had any to share I'd love to take a look), and the approach that I like best is: Criticize the practice for its health hazards and sexist origins, but acknowledge the agency of the women who choose to have it done on themselves and others - which, relatedly, requires us to examine the activities that Western women "choose" and are similarly harmful. (This is the perspective that drove my entry on labiaplasty.) It's a pretty good balance that avoids both ethnocentrism/cultural imperialism and mindless endorsement.

I definitely do agree that the root notion is the same as what I talked about in this entry - I tried to use the same sort of pattern acknowledging others' choices, as well as the damage caused by them, but also my own choices. I can still say that somethings are worse than others, though - FGC and Superheroine's Demise are certainly more harmful than, say, just being heterosexual. :P

You make a good point about heterosexuality - straight couples who choose to counteract sexism can definitely challenge the status quo, despite being more "traditional" than lesbian couples (who, of course, are not automatically feminist). And yeah, that might bring about more acceptance than relationships that are completely outside the mainstream - though there is also the risk that people won't realize what the straight couple is doing and just see a "normal" man and woman. There's definitely a balance in how "extreme" people should be, how politically idealistic versus pragmatic we should be when making our choices.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )