A Girls’ Guide to Slut-Shaming At The Movies

A very brief history of some of my favorite films. Originally published on Thought Catalog and then unpublished at the writer’s request on account of Thought Catalog being a host for racist, sexist and downright horrible writing.

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If you grew up in America chances are you’ve either been called a slut or called someone a slut. If you’re a girl, it’s probably both. If you grew up watching movies, as I did, you have been inscribed with images that encourage a slut shaming mentality. Slut shaming is rooted in conventional (biblical) wisdom that values a woman for her purity and deference to male sexual desires as opposed to supporting a woman’s choice to be sexual active in any way and with anyone she pleases. It’s the difference between treating someone as a sexual being versus a sexual object. We all know the difference between a being and an object, right?

In Hollywood films, slut shaming most commonly appears in the form of punishment of the character, like in every horror movie ever made where as soon as a girl has sex she dies, or an overall positioning of the character as bad, dirty or inconsequential. Basically, if you’re a girl and you have sex in a movie you’re either evil, unimportant or are going to die. The slut character has become a norm in films that focus on adolescence just as the term has become common vernacular in high schools across the globe. It seems you can’t have a story about girls lives without also encountering a slut and Hollywood has done it’s best to remind us why it’s not worth it to be “that kind of girl.”

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Y’all, remember Shag (1989)? It’s the story of four girls about to graduate high school and spend one last weekend together at the beach. The character of Melaina is a rule breaker from the beginning, a preacher’s daughter who has to sneak out to spend the weekend with her friends. While all the girls are having sexual experiences and awakenings on the trip, Melaina is the only one assertive and confident in her sexual interests. In turn, she is nearly date-raped and “saved” only by the two “girlfriends” of the guy who in a jealous rage Melaina out of his car, force feed her booze and after covering her with shaving cream and toilet paper, abandon her in the woods. Melaina is judged and punished and what about ol’ boy? Oh, he just drove off.

John Tucker Must Die (2006) is the perfect example of how slut shaming is reserved only for women. It is the Hollywood version of the Stud vs. Slut mindfuck. The plot revolves around three women fighting for the attention of one guy who has been secretly dating them all simultaneously. Each girl is a recognizable trope: the smart one, the cheerleader, and, of course, the slut, and John Tucker is the stereotypical embodiment of a “man” – athletic, charming and sexually insatiable. In the scene after all three girls have just broken up with John, the “slut” character, Beth, laments that she “couldn’t even enjoy the break-up sex.” When the other girls turn to her with accusing eyes, or perhaps jealously, Beth proclaims, “Oh my god, I am a slut.” Whether she truly believes it or not is unclear but the message that she should be ashamed of her behavior is not. In an earlier scene, Beth also confesses to compromising her vegetarianism stating, “I can’t believe I ate meat for him.” Not only another tongue in cheek dig at her “sluttiness” it also further affirms how her character is lacking any moral values. You know, because she’s a slut. Beth’s self-identifying as a slut speaks the double bind that girls face when exploring sexuality. Especially from other girls.

One of my favorite scenes in Dazed and Confused (1993), because it’s just so real, is when Simone begs Shavonne to tell her what the other girls have said about her and Darla and promises she won’t get mad. Shavonne relays the gossip: “She called you a bitch and you a slut.” Darla laughs in response to being labeled the bitch while Simone has an immediate defensiveness to being called a slut, which she quickly covers up with a hair flick and breezy “I’m not mad.” This is the nuanced aspect of slut shaming that poisons girl’s relationships to themselves and to each other. (begins at :38)

Simone is hurt that girls who likely engage in the same behavior perceive her as a slut. It also suggests that she is aware of the detrimental affects of the term. Slut isn’t the same as bitch. Anyone can be a bitch, but when someone is calling you a slut they are making a very specific claim about the kind of person you are. And it ain’t good. Nor is the validity of any consequence because sometimes it only takes the allusion of promiscuity, or a certain cup size, to earn the slut badge.

Easy A (2012) is a modern adaptation a classic slut-shaming tale, The Scarlet Letter. And in the end, Olive is a prude in slut’s clothing; she hasn’t actually done the deed with anyone. However, the belief that she has participated in sexual behavior forces a responsibility upon her that culminates in the scene between her and a male friend. Throughout the film, Olive has created this reputation of being sexually active as a farce and then she is faced with a guy who expects her to behave a certain way because he thinks she has behaved that way with others. This is a dangerous area because it is directly related to sexual assault and rape. It’s entitlement. Plain and simple. Here’s the thing, dude. It doesn’t matter if I have had sex with one or a hundred guys before you. I can still not want to sleep with you. Deal with it.

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While it is kind of weird to think of slut shaming someone who has not had sex it goes back to the root of the issue: making a negative judgment and devaluing a woman based on her sexual behavior. When Cher questions whether Tai and Josh would be good together in Clueless (1996), Tai is offended. She retorts by attacking Cher for the one thing that now alienates her from her peers: “You’re a virgin who can’t drive.” Simply insulting Cher’s driving ability does not yield the same power as calling into question her attractiveness to the opposite sex. Cher is being shamed either for her choice to not have sex or the fact that no one wants to have sex with her. What’s a girl to do?

Do what, and who, you want – safely and respectfully. Hollywood will catch on.

Why ‘Maleficent’ is important for #YesAllWomen

Originally published by The Daily Dot.

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Angelina Jolie is talking about rape.

Last week the Academy Award-winning actress all but took over the Internet when she joined Foreign Secretary William Hague in leading the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. The summit came just days after the opening of Jolie’s current film, Maleficent, which opened at no. 1 at the box office and has since grossed over $150 million worldwide. The Disney production is a retelling of the 1959 animated classic Sleeping Beauty from the villain’s point of view, one that has received mixed reviews among critics but garnered significant attention in feminist circles for its provocative storyline.

As Jezebel’s Dodai Stewart describes:

The moment that transforms Maleficentfrom a fun-loving, quirky woodland fairy into cruel, pissed-off sorceress is an act of violence. The man she thought was her friend drugs her, and while she is unconscious, he saws off her wings. She wakes up bleeding, in pain, a part of her destroyed. Sobbing. It feels like a sexual assault.

Yes, it does, and according to Jolie (who also serves as the film’s executive producer), it was meant to. During aninterview on the BBC Woman’s Hour, Jolie was explicit that the integral scene was intentionally written as a metaphor for rape.

This is no small feat in a feature film by one of America’s most prominent and beloved studios, known for its portrayal of women as lovesick, house-arrested, eye-candy. Jolie’s participation in lobbying for legislative change on a global front is inspiring, though it may be Maleficent that is challenging the most insidious of oppressors—the Hollywood feature film. As the L.A. Times’ Betsy Sharkey points out, “It’s one thing to speak in front of global dignitaries about the need to combat rape; it’s quite another to slip that message into a global blockbuster.”

It is no secret that there is tremendous gender disparity in Hollywood—where the stories of men are told in the words of men, through the lenses of men, and about the desires of men. In 2013, the MPAA reported that 52 percent of movie going audiences were women, yet of the year’s top 500 grossing films, women comprised only 30 percent of speaking roles, only half of which were protagonists.  When women are present (as characters who are predominantly written by men), they are often regulated to the usual roles of ingénue, mother, or wicked witch/queen/stepmother.

This is a pattern so consistent that The Atlantic‘s Raina Lipstiz argued Thelma & Louise was the last great movie about women. That was 23 years ago.

Combating this is one of the ways Maleficent creates real change, as making a truly progressive film for women means more than just passing the Bechdel TestMaleficenthas two female protagonists, and the majority of the film focuses on the relationship they develop with each other. It was written by a woman, Disney veteran Linda Woolverton,who credits the film with one of the most emotional moments of her career, the kiss scene between Maleficent and Aurora/Sleeping Beauty.

You have to rewrite these things 100 times, and every single time I wrote it I could barely get through it. I did Homeward Bound, you know that dog movie? Every single time I wrote the moment over the hill when everyone comes back at the end, I would cry into my hand over the keyboard. The kiss scene was like that for me.

Woolverton’s emotional attachment and her assertion that 20 years ago she couldn’t have written “as complex a lead character” is a reflection of the rampant sexism in Hollywood, echoing the growing frustration of female moviegoers who yearn to see characters in their likeness and stories that mirror their own experiences.

Of course, the film has it’s flaws and allows ample opportunity for feminist critique. It is, in fact, a fairy tale created in the same old storybook of kingdoms and hierarchies and colonization, one so lackluster in creativity that blogger Lindy West asks, “You could have built any world you wanted to—why choose one ruled by the same regressive, white-washed mid-century morality as every other ‘modern’ fairy tale? Aren’t thou bored?”

West goes on to note the glaring acceptance of gender normativity by the female characters who exist as “moldy feminine tropes—the sullied innocent, the abandoned lover lost without her man, the evil ex-girlfriend, the overreacting harpy, the broken woman redeemed by motherhood.”

It’s true. West’s analyses evoke Audre Lorde’s assertion that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. But focusing on the ways Maleficent reinforces stereotypical images of women distracts from the vital moments when it does not, most notably the conscious choice by the writer and executive producer to create a national dialogue about rape and sexual assault, in a country where it largely goes unspoken. Fairy tale or not, Maleficent is reflective of the experiences of #YesAllWomen.

“The Longest War” is what writer Rebecca Solnit calls America’s cultural relationship between sexual violence and gender:

At the heart of the struggle of feminism to give rape, date rape, marital rape, domestic violence, and workplace sexual harassment legal standing as crimes has been the necessity of making women credible and audible.

The feminist lessons in Maleficent may not have the same magnitude as those taught in college classrooms or published in scholarly journals, but they are reflective of a common experience among American women and girls. These women, though they may not live in a categorical warzone, live in a country where one in four experience teen dating violence, one in four are abused by a partner in their lifetime, and one of six are survivors of rape or attempted rape.

These are the women who cheered when Aurora saves Maleficent by rescuing her wings, the same way that a generation of women before erupted in bursts of support when Louise shoots Thelma’s rapist. It more than just a climactic plot twist, more than just character redemption, and way more than revenge. This is a chance for real women to access and feel their right to a self-determined life. Through these characters, a silenced majority is given a voice that is resonating beyond the silver screen.

After all, the Global Summit to End Violence During Conflict didn’t take place in Fairy Tale Land.

 

Dear Girls: You are unique and powerful so please go away. Love, Disney

Thanks to many positive early reviews, I got it in my head that Frozen was a film to be excited about – a Disney film that for the first time usurped the traditional princess fairy tale of being rescued by a knight in shining armor for a more feminist telling celebrating the bonds of sisterhood.

Not so fast, Disney. I’m calling bulls**t.images-4

Though Frozen boasts two female lead characters, passes the Bechdel Test (barely) and defines “true love” as an act of sisterhood, the most straightforward message in this purportedly feminist film – a film whose target audience is young girls – is that which is unique, special, and powerful about you is also dangerous, shameful and must be hidden. A subtler message: girls are emotional time-bombs who can’t be trusted to control their bodies or their minds.

Princess #1, Elsa, has a unique and powerful ability – she can “freeze things.” Princess #2, Anna, is an innocent (i.e.: normal) girl. Together, in the privacy of their castle, the sisters play in a winter wonderland of Elsa’s creation until a misdirected freeze ray accidentally hits Anna in the head. So, the King and Queen, decide to close the castle gates and keep Elsa quarantined from EVERYONE, including Anna. Not only does this alienate Elsa from the entire world but also it robs Anna of her playmate and sister with no explanation whatsoever. Did you know that the first step in the cycle of abuse and colonization is isolation? I’m just saying.

Then the parents die and the two girls are truly alone – Anna left to wonder why her sister won’t speak, play or even talk to her and Elsa confined to her bedroom by fear of her uncontrollable “gift.” When the sisters finally emerge from the castle, years later for “Coronation Day”/Elsa’s 18th birthday, Anna’s desire for connection leads her to immediately become engaged to a visiting prince and Elsa’s inability to control her power leads her to banish herself to the top of a mountain.

And that’s only the first 30 minutes of the film!

WHAT THE WHAT, DISNEY?!?

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Overall, the majority of the critiques of Frozen can be attributed to poor storytelling but to use that as an excuse would be to ignore that the holes in the story are a direct consequence of Disney’s commitment to reinforcing traditional gender roles that scare girls into submission.

Here’s how in three easy steps.

1. Being a girl is bad: Elsa has been raised to believe her power, her gift, that which makes her unique (SUBTEXT: HER GIRL-NESS) is what is wrong with her. She is the villain and for no reason at all except she was born different from everyone else. She doesn’t even get a fairy godmother or some dancing snowflake to share comical words of wisdom. I mean, DANG. Even Cinderella had birds helping her dress. Elsa has to be scared of her abilities because what would it mean to acknowledge a girl’s power and teach her how to use it? Seriously, Disney? Hollywood? America? Why aren’t we telling that story?

2. Feelings are bad: “Don’t feel. Conceal” becomes Elsa’s mantra in order for her to cope with her uniqueness. Disney is point blank telling girls that their thoughts – their emotions – are things to be ashamed of. The fact that this catchy little rhyme is actually repeated multiple times throughout the film guarantees that it will imprint on it’s audience – it’s audience full of young, impressionable girls. In an era where one of TV’s most revered female characters successes relies on listening to her “gut,” Disney is brainwashing little girls to ignore, distrust and devalue that voice. Instead they are telling them to “Let it Go.” Yep, the solo power ballad meant to celebrate Elsa’s claiming of her gift is sung to an audience of none and comes complete with a “costume change” of the typical Disney transformation including loose hair and new dress with a sexy slit straight up her just turned 18-year-old thigh.

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3. Power is bad: Elsa is never given any agency when it comes to her ability. It is an innate piece of her make-up that alienates her to a life of solitude and serves no purpose for the greater good or even Elsa herself. The origin of her power is unclear (we assume she was born with it) but what is made icily clear is how her ability is triggered (by her emotions) or controlled (it isn’t). Sure, Clark Kent and Peter Parker were awkward social loners caught within the tension of their “normal” lives and their super powers. BUT, like most male characters with super-human powers, they actively participated in society because they were given the capability to control their powers. They had jobs, they had friends – even romantic relationships, and when they were called upon to use their unique power it was in protection of their communities. Don’t get it twisted, my pretty. Frozen isn’t a super hero story; it’s a princess story.

Final proof that this film is about as feminist as Robin Thicke, the majority of the plot and subsequent screen time is dedicated to Anna’s journey to find Elsa which she does with the help of…you guessed it, A MAN! Thanks to a descriptive opening song and ample dialogue we know more about the character Kristoff than both girls combined.

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UGH and SIGH.

Frozen is just another Hollywood vehicle reminding girls and women that if you are talented, especially innately (God-given), beyond explanation (witchcraft) or in a way that threatens the status quo (if Elsa can just make ice appear out of thin air what will the big, strong men do for work?) then you are doomed to a life of solitude and loneliness. You might still get to be Queen but your talent will be used only for entertainment or self-preservation rather than to solve problems or help you better lead your kingdom.

Just ask Hilary.

My Mother, My Hero

In Hightstown, New Jersey my Mom, brother and I lived on the corner of Center Street and Second Avenue. Our next-door neighbor’s were the Pepp’s. Shawn Pepp was a year older then me and I hated him. He was like a demented Pee-Wee Herman without any of the goofy charm. He was dark and mean not to mention a pathological liar. He used to swear that when we thought he was away at summer camp he was really on tour with Bon Jovi. One night, when we were home with a babysitter, Shawn Pepp spent hours creeping around our house tapping on windows and making weird noises. When he finally rang the doorbell, I answered it, prepared to tell him off, and he was standing there in a Jason mask flicking a lighter. It was fucking scary.

When my mom got home we told her all about it.

“Mom, it was so scary and he is sooo weird!” I lamented with my brother, blues eyes wide, nodded solemnly in agreement.

“Listen to me, Alicia. I know he’s not exactly easy to deal with but you just have to give Shawn Pepp break. He is always welcome in this house.”

My mom was friend’s with Barbara Pepp, Shawn’s mother. Barbara Pepp used to call the house all the time and my 9-year-old self thought she was so annoying. Just like Shawn. I’d grumble when our family TV time was interrupted by a phone call from her, which happened almost every night. She’d come over and my mom would make tea and they’d sit and talk, sometimes for hours. Barbara Pepp used to make my mother mix tapes. I remember the Maxell cassette cover filled out in her meticulous script with the names of the song and then the artist. Artists like Carly Simon, Carole King and, my mom’s personal favorite at the time, Anita Baker.

The last time I visited my Mom, I asked her about Barbara Pepp. I told her I remembered how they would sit in the kitchen and talk.

“Yes,” my mom said nodding and remembering, as I did, the tiny kitchen with window by the table. The window where a bat once got stuck in between the glass and the screen we had to call our neighbor who worked for animal control to come rescue it. The table with the stained glass overhead lamp where my mom my spent so much of her time on the phone to her mother and sisters, feeding my brother and I and talking to Barbara Pepp.

“I helped her with her homework,” my mother was saying.  “She was illiterate when we met.”

I was astounded. “So, you taught her how to read?” I asked. I was shocked by how much I didn’t know about my mom’s relationship with this woman.

My mom just laughed. “I certainly helped,” she said.

But then she continued to talk about Barbara Pepp:

“Barb, she didn’t have it easy. She grew up in East Orange and was bullied by the streets. Nobody cared about her and she slipped though the cracks. She wanted to go to college but she had no self-confidence. She was intimidated by her son’s intelligence and her husband didn’t want to pay.”

Her husband.  All of a sudden I was struck by a vivid memory of that man.

We were playing out in the street, a bunch of us: my brother, me, Dale and Penny from down the street  – maybe a few others. Shawn Pepp was torturing us throwing rocks and spraying the hose and just being so annoying! We were all yelling at him to “Stop” and “Leave us alone.” I’m sure my voice was the loudest – it always is. Suddenly, Shawn’s father, burst through the screen door and grabbed his son by the arm. He threw him over his knee, yanked down his pants and began to wail on Shawn’s bare behind. It was horrifying. Watching something that cruel and worse yet feeling as though you were somehow responsible.

My mom was still talking about Barbara Pepp:

“She told me ‘I can’t go to school.’ Sure you can! I told her. And she did. She went to night school and was assessed at a 5th grade reading level but she got her GED and that day she came over with that piece of paper and, I’ll tell you what Alicia, just the fact that she was eligible to go to college. She was so proud. “

This is the thing about my mom. She has a way of talking about people and to people. She’s an educator but more than that she is relational. She empathizes. And, she makes people feel like they matter. In my book, my mother is an activist. When I tell her this she laughs.

“I’ve never thought of myself as an activist” she says sheepishly, drawing out each syllable of the word as if saying it will make it true and she may not be ready for that realization.

“You’re on the front lines, Mom.”

She is and always has been – then at our kitchen table with Barbara Pepp and now as a leader of wellness retreats for women surviving breast cancer.

But my mom wasn’t just there for Barbara Pepp. During this time, my mother was healing from a pretty nasty divorce. She was raising two young children and making ends meet at a government job.

“Barbara Pepp  – she was a good friend. She helped me cut wood; she would bring over premade dinners when she knew I had to work late.  She took care of me. And me, really, I just listened to her.”

A few months ago I got a friend request on Facebook from Shawn Pepp. When I saw his name on the screen I heard my mother’s voice and I wished that kitchen table was still there because I would sit with Shawn, make us a cup of tea and I would listen to him.