Why Bad Sex Is Good—On HBO’s “Girls”

Published by the Women’s Media Center

The new HBO series “Girls” chronicles the experiences of four girlfriends living in New York City. So comparisons to “Sex and the City”—that other HBO series that chronicled four women living in NYC—were inevitable.

The New York Times entitled its initial review, “There’s Sex, There’s the City, but No Manolos.”  In it, columnist Alessandra Stanley wrote “‘Sex and the City’ served up romantic failure wrapped in the trappings of success. ‘Girls’ offers romantic failure wrapped in the trappings of failure.”

Entertainment Weekly’s Hillary Busis concluded that “Girls” is “both more audacious and less assured than ‘Sex and the City.’” None of the “woefully ignorant” characters in “Girls,” she wrote, “has much experience with sex, let alone its consequences.” (One scene shows the main character, Hannah, googling “stuff that gets up around the sides of condoms.”)

But this is precisely the quality that endears the show to its young viewers. The characters of “Girls” are ten years younger than their “Sex and the City” counterparts, allowing for a fresh perspective on sex and sexuality. Perhaps more significantly, “Girls” is created, written, directed, and produced by 25-year-old Lena Dunham, who also stars in the show. SATC, although inspired by Candace Bushnell’s column, was created and written primarily by men.

The four young women of “Girls” are quite removed—ideologically, geographically (most of them live in Brooklyn), and economically—from the glamorous, sexually experienced women of SATC. And despite what Katie Roiphe wrote in her Slate commentary, sexual identity does not emerge, fully developed, in a day. “Is sex always as unfun or awkward as it is on the show?” asked Roiphe. The answer is no, but sometimes it is. And it’s refreshing to see that side of young women’s sexual experiences discussed and shown in visual media.

The show refuses to “romanticize youth,” wrote Meghan Daum in the Chicago Tribune: “[T]he fleshy, awkward and seriously cash-strapped Hannah is so real you sometimes can only peer at her through your fingers.” But it’s not just Hannah’s awkwardness that make her so hard to watch. It’s also how the “unapologetic casual sex” she engages in can be humiliating, uncomfortable, and just plain ridiculous.

In New York magazine, Emily Nussbaum wrote that the show “presented sex as a rough draft, a failed negotiation, at once hilarious and real.” One twitterer put it quite succinctly during #SheParty, WMC’s weekly Twitter happy hour: “That [sex] scene was messed up in how wrong it was, but so very right in how accurate it is.”

I don’t see the sex in “Girls”  as a statement on some universal, essentialized sexual phenomenon (even within the white, young, privileged world it exists in). If it is a statement at all, it comments  on the complexities of sexuality, a theme usually overshadowed in favor of smooth bodies and flattering lighting. We rarely get to see this other side of sexuality: the less-than-perfect sex. The bad sex. The humiliating sex.

But “Girls” also makes a statement on pleasure, satisfaction, and desire. The start of the second episode shows two vastly different sex scenes, one of Hannah in bed with her selfish and crass nonboyfriend Adam, and the other of Hannah’s roommate, Marnie, with her sweet and respectful long-term boyfriend, Charlie. The two scenarios share a common theme: both women are dissatisfied. These vastly different scenes both depict womennot getting what they want. And here is my point: sex isn’t as simple and clean as the steady stream of screaming orgasms that is SATC.

As a friend put it in an email:

“Girls” shows us the way sex can be humiliating and uncomfortable, awkward and occasionally brutal, but also completely human, which is a rare balance. I wouldn’t say I enjoy watching the sex scenes, but they make me nod in recognition, and feel understood.

The sex in “Girls” is not realistic merely because it is “bad.” It says something far more interesting: that sex is an exchange. More than a performance, it involves individuals giving and taking. One wishes it weren’t novel to see sex depicted as something complicated, involving two people navigating their own desires and expectations while simultaneously interpreting those of another person.

The sex in “Girls” shows how difficult that navigation can be. We cringe because we see up close what happens when communication fails and expectation meets reality. Those elements that make sex scenes so sexy—intuition, eroticism, chemistry—are conspicuously absent from “Girls.” We’re left with four girlfriends each attempting to understand her own inhibitions, desires, and emotions. And that’s refreshing.

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State-Sanctioned Shaming and the Battle for Reproductive Rights

My piece from last month, published by the Women’s Media Center and Moms Rising

For almost all American women, reproductive rights are not mere fodder for political debate. Rather, they encompass highly personal decisions. Do I want to get pregnant? Do I want to remain pregnant? They are unavoidable choices made by heterosexually active women—including Catholic women, who use contraception at the same very high rates as other U.S. women.

Every woman who has ever engaged in heterosexual activity (voluntary or involuntary) can speak to this issue. As a 23-year-old woman from an upper-middle-class family in New Jersey, the stories I hear from peers and friends revolve around what type of contraception they use, not whether they use it. And yet, from purchasing condoms to buying pregnancy tests to asking doctors for prescriptions, the shaming of women who admit to having sex is still very much a part of our culture.

I will never forget my mother telling me about her experience getting an abortion. She had it in the 80s, and the male doctor who performed the abortion did not try to hide his disgust. He had created a narrative for my mother in which she was alternatively careless, promiscuous, manipulative, and/or attempting to trick her husband into having children so that he would remain with her. If my mother had any uncertainties about this doctor’s attitude, his incredibly forceful slap before giving her a shot of anesthetic clarified things. When he left the room, the nurse looked at my mother in shock.

When I first heard this story, it evoked many emotions in me that I couldn’t name. While it might not convey the full depth of my revulsion, I’ve come to think of it as feeling queasy.

In January I made the decision to get an Intra-Uterine Device (IUD). Having recently moved to New York, I was still a patient of my mother’s gynecologist, a male doctor she had gone to for years but not the same doctor from her story. He complied in ordering me an IUD. After discussing it with my mother, I called the doctor’s office to ask whether he could prescribe a painkiller that I could take prior to the procedure. “Just take three Motrin,” his assistant told me. My mother was unsatisfied. “They are going to penetrate your cervix,” she said, “that’s what makes childbirth so painful.” But her attempts to obtain a prescription for me—for even a single pain pill—also failed.

I am very satisfied with my IUD as a form of contraception. I no longer have to take a pill every day or rely on over-the-counter contraception that is just 90 percent effective. And I am no longer putting hormones into my body. But there is no hiding the fact that the procedure was extremely painful. As I sat in a paper gown, the gynecologist asked me whether I was nervous. I replied that I was nervous about the pain. “Why didn’t you call? I would have prescribed you a painkiller or two,” he said. I was incredulous. I told him his office had refused. I said my mother had also called and been scolded for trying to defy “office policy.” He changed the subject. Then I experienced a lot of pain.

For the rest of the day, I felt physically nauseous. But beyond that, I felt queasy.

Other women I’ve spoken to who have had an IUD have also experienced intense pain and have similarly been told to “take Tylenol” or “take Motrin.” One is often given nitrous oxide and a shot of novocaine for a minor dental procedure where little pain is involved at all. But in order for such care to be standard when a gynecologist inserts an IUD, women’s reproductive health would have to be considered a national priority and the pain women experience in association with reproductive health would have to matter in public discourse.

That queasy feeling is by no means exclusively my own, although lately I have been feeling it more and more. This past Saturday, more than 30 people were arrested on the steps of the Virginia state capitol by police, some in riot gear, for protesting a bill that requires women to have an ultrasound before getting an abortion. This bill is liberal in comparison with its original, which required women to undergo a trans-vaginal ultrasound prior to an abortion, a procedure many dubbed “state-sanctioned rape.”

Reproductive rights have once again become a major platform for political and ideological power struggle. The increasingly hostile interaction between church and state is playing out on our bodies. Our sexuality and right to control our reproduction are in danger. For women, this is not a theoretical question. It is an everyday imperative.

The reactionary anti-choice, anti-contraceptive measures the GOP is currently advancing exist ultimately to punish women. Cloaked in the language of protection (women may decide not to get an abortion once they fully understand the meaning of pregnancy vis-à-vis an ultrasound), legislation that aims to undermine women’s control of reproduction is nothing other than state-sanctioned shaming. This becomes inescapably clear when the Rush Limbaugh’s of the world inevitably slip up and call pro-choice women “sluts” and “prostitutes” and publicly suggest they post pornographic videos of themselves on the Internet.

The queasy feeling induced by our nation’s hostility toward women’s reproductive rights is spreading. That 20 separate companies have pulled advertising from Rush Limbaugh’s radio show in light of his sexist and slanderous attacks is encouraging. But what we need is a shift in the nation’s attitude toward women’s bodies. When control of one’s own body is not just standard care but encouraged through governmental and medical aid, when adequate reproductive care is available to every single woman, when the pain women endure mattersto the rest of the population, then perhaps we will all stop feeling queasy.

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Stone Butch Blues, Leslie Feinberg

Stone Butch Blues is a novel by activist and author Leslie Feinberg and tells the story of Jess Goldberg, a Jewish girl growing up in 1960s Buffalo, NY. From a young age, Jess is confronted with the question, “boy or girl?” from peers, teachers, and (rude) strangers because she does not present her gender in a traditionally feminine way. The novel follows Jess’s quest to understand and accept herself, to find others that accept and love her (her parents send her to a sanatorium), and ultimately to find a community where she feels safe.

Jess’s journey is primarily about self-exploration, identity, and growth, but her narrative occurs in the political context of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. The Vietnam anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, and the feminist and gay liberation movements occur both peripherally and centrally to Jess’s own. The dynamic of Jess’s relationship with femmes—or the women who present their gender as traditionally feminine—comes under question when her girlfriend Theresa begins to absorb the message of the feminist movement:

“Honey? You know how sometimes you say ‘I’ll never understand women’? Well, think about it, sweetheart—you are a woman. So what are you really saying? It’s sort of like a gun with a barrel that’s open on both ends. When you shoot it, you end up wounding yourself at the same time.” (139)

Stone Butch Blues is an absolutely gripping novel, alternately devastating and uplifting. Feinberg writes of intimate moments between lovers and friends with beautiful insight, never veiling her characters’ vulnerability and need. In her explanation of Jess’s life as a butch, she describes how acts that appear so simple on the surface—using a public restroom, for example—become excruciating or even impossible. In detailing Jess’s time taking male hormones and passing as a man, the hypocrisy and absurdity of our society’s assumptions and pressures regarding gender presentation become painfully apparent. Merely existing as butch woman puts Jess’s life in danger constantly, but as soon as the male hormones make her voice drop (and she undergoes surgery to have her breasts removed) everyone accepts her as a man. “At first,” Feinberg writes of Jess’s experience passing as a man, “everything was fun.

The world stopped feeling like a gauntlet I had to run through. But very quickly I discovered that passing didn’t just mean slipping below the surface, it meant being buried alive. I was still me on the inside, trapped in there with all my wounds and fears. But I was no longer me on the outside. (173)

One of the most climactic and moving scenes happens at the end of the novel, when Jess goes back to Buffalo to see old friends and settle old scores (apologize to some, say goodbye to others). She finds herself at a bar with old friends, the atmosphere awkward and tense. One of her old friends, prone to offensive remarks, tells her she is glad she herself never went on male hormones. When Jess asks why, her friend Grant replies, “Well you’re sort of stuck now, aren’t you? I mean you’re not a butch or a guy. You look like a guy.” Everyone around them stiffens, unsure of what to do or say. “Be careful, Grant,” Jess says, “You’re looking at your own reflection.” Grant retorts that she’s different, because she never used male hormones.

My anger was greater than the situation called for. I could taste it, bitter on my tongue. I leaned forward. Everyone held their breath. My voice was low and menacing. “How far are you willing to go, Grant? How much of yourself are you willing to give up in order to distance yourself from me?” (283)

This scene struck me as incredibly powerful: how Jess has come to understand the power of otherness, but also the incredibly eloquent way she expresses this knowledge. She realizes, from experience, that when a person is constantly made to feel less-than, they may come to see this as the only form of protection: othering those who threaten them, just as they have been outcast by the mainstream.

I would highly recommend this novel. Theory is important, but individual stories of gender presentation, exploration, and transformation convey a wealth of knowledge and emotion otherwise lost.

Feinberg is the author of two other books, Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman and Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue. Her website is transgenderwarrior.org.

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Sister Citizen, Melissa V. Harris-Perry

The full title of Harris-Perry’s book is “Sister Citizen; Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America” and the cover specifies that the book is “For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Politics When Being Strong Isn’t Enough.” Harris-Perry’s book is unique in its subject matter and approach. She takes four dominant stereotypes of black women in the United States and provides a historical trajectory for them from slavery to the Civil Rights Movement to the present day. In the process, Harris-Perry uses literary criticism, political science theory, theological theory, statistical data, psychological studies, and data from her own focus groups held across the country. Sister Citizen aims to study black women as citizens of the United States and to question how their politics are formed and deformed by the state’s (mis)recognition of them.

Much of Harris-Perry’s book relies on the idea of recognition. Without accurate recognition, she argues, individuals cannot successfully fulfill their role as citizens.

Individuals denied access to the public realm or whose group membership limits their social possibilities cannot be accurately recognized. An individual who is seen primarily as a part of a despised group loses the opportunity to experience the public recognition for which the human self strives. (38)

Ignoring race, however, does not translate to adequate or accurate recognition. “Color-blindness” (Steve Colbert comes to mind), Harris-Perry explains, does not equal satisfactory recognition: “Many African Americans…want to be understood as black and thus tied to a history and culture associated with blackness. At the same time, they do not want to be reduced to their racial identity alone. Just recognition means being neither blind to nor blinded by identity differences.” (39)

Harking back to the marginalization–and often exclusion–of women of color within the Second-Wave Feminist Movement, Harris-Perry presents an intriguing perspective on why black women tend to feel more solidarity with black men than with white women: “Racial loyalty inures against the harsh community critique of performing the Mammy. To show that they are not mammies, African American women are often required to demonstrate racial loyalty over and above gender solidarity.” (80)

Taking the theme of recognition further, Harris-Perry references post-World War II cognitive psychology research on field dependence–how individuals locate the upright in a space. She points to one study in particular in which participants were placed in a crooked chair in a crooked room and asked to align themselves vertically. Of this study, “some people could be tilted by as much as 35 degrees and report that they were perfectly straight, simply because they were aligned with images equally tilted” (29).

Harris-Perry invokes this experiment repeatedly throughout her book, using the study as a metaphor for the “crooked room” black women live in: “When they confront race and gender stereotypes, black women are standing in a crooked room, and they have to figure out which way is up…some black women tilt and bend themselves to fit the distortion…It can be hard to stand up straight in a crooked room” (29). Harris-Perry very strategically uses this analogy when explaining the consequences of shame. “When we feel ashamed, we assume the room is straight and that the self is off-kilter. Shame urges us to internalize the crooked room” (105). Her connection here is anything but arbitrary, and the ways in which she manipulates this research to illustrate her point is impressive.

Harris-Perry utilizes another psychological concept in order to emphasize her thesis: belief in a just world.

Psychologists have found that people’s belief in a just world helps explain how they react to innocent victims of negative life circumstances. People become cognitively frustrated when presented with stories of victims who suffer through little fault of their own. They can deal with this frustration in two ways: they can conclude that the world is an unjust place, or they can decide that the victim is somehow to blame. Most people reconcile their psychological distress by blaming the victim. (188)

Just as with the metaphor of the crooked room, Harris-Perry capitalizes on a psychological study to deeply engage readers with her perspective. The idea of a just world is incredibly understandable (optimism). Unfortunately, so is the logical progression toward victim-blaming. “When the idea of justice and fairness is threatened by the suffering of innocents, people will work hard to maintain a sense of balance even if it means rationalizing that innocent people deserved to suffer” (189). Harris-Perry shows how the seemingly innocent desire to believe in a just world translates politically to conservatism, where each individual is responsible for their own success or failure.

One of the most fascinating and relevant perspectives Harris-Perry offers is her explanation of republican conservatism among black women. Even though black women as a group arguably suffer most from structural inequalities rooted in racism and sexism, Harris Perry writes, they often lean toward political conservatism (207). Harris-Perry explains that even though the Democratic party is more interested in social programs aimed to give aide to those suffering from systemic inequity, the stereotype of “the strong black woman” compels black women to focus on individual triumph and accountability over government programs:

It is possible that attachment to self-reliance pushes black women in a politically conservative direction by encouraging a politics of self-help rather than one of structural change. The intuition is simple: to the extent that black women believe they are naturally endowed with a superhuman capacity to overcome life’s obstacles, they may be less likely to support political agendas and public policies that seek to dismantle the structural barriers facing black women and more likely to support those aimed at individual empowerment. (207)

Harris-Perry’s writing is elegant and clear and her subject fascinating and well-researched. At times I felt bogged down by her focus on statistical data, but her literary analysis coupled with a political-scientific approach resulted in a truly interesting and worthwhile read. I recommend Sister Citizen to anyone who enjoys reading cultural, social, historical, and literary commentary.

Melissa Harris Perry has a new weekend show on MSNBC that will air February 18th at 10am.

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Female Chauvinist Pigs, Ariel Levy

Female Chauvinist PigsAriel Levy’s book, whose full title is Female Chauvinist Pigs; Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, is nothing less than a page-turner. It is written in a witty and conversational style, with interviews interspersed here and there. Levy’s aim is to convince you that American culture has taken a turn for the sinister when it comes to female sexuality and to demonstrate how “female chauvinist pigs” are influenced by and active perpetrators of an anti-feminist cultural agenda. But perhaps you are wondering, what is a female chauvinist pig?

We decided long ago that the Male Chauvinist Pig was an unenlightened rube, but the Female Chauvinist Pig (FCP) has risen to a kind of exalted status. She is post-feminist. She is funny. She gets it. She doesn’t mind cartoonish stereotypes of female sexuality and she doesn’t mind a cartoonishly macho response to them. The FCP asks: Why throw your boyfriend’s Playboy in a freedom trash can when you could be partying at the Mansion? Why worry about disgusting or degrading when you could be giving—or getting—a lap dance yourself? Why try to beat them when you can join them? (93)

A female chauvinist pig is a woman who has made the decision to dissociate herself from femaleness by reproducing male chauvinism in a female body, even at the expense of other women. Rather than counter stereotypes through her own comportment or argue for a change in ideology, she accepts stereotypes of femininity and female sexuality as truth. The FCP insults women along with her male counterparts, but protects her own ego by painting herself as “one of the guys.” The problem with this type of anti-feminism, Levy explains, is:

Instead of trying to reform other people’s—or her own—perception of femininity, the Female Chauvinist Pig likes to position herself as something outside the normal bounds of womanhood. If defending her own little patch of turf requires denigrating other women…so be it. (110)

In this way, FCPs distance themselves ideologically from women as a collective group. Once appropriately separated from the stigmatized group, they are free to indulge in stereotype and denigration with members of the dominant group—men. Framed by Levy’s book, it seems almost inconceivable that smart, educated women would participate in this cultural phenomenon. After all, “Even if you are a woman who achieves the ultimate and becomes like a man, you will still always be a woman. And as long as womanhood is thought of as something to escape from, something less than manhood, you will be thought less of, too” (112, emphasis mine).

Levy’s book successfully argues that contemporary American culture actively encourages women to behave in ways that most please men, rather than in ways most natural and satisfying for the women themselves. For Levy, FCPs further patriarchal ideology through their complicity in anti-feminist behaviors like prioritizing men’s desires over their own and objectifying other women. Levy writes of the popular book and movie, He’s Just Not That Into You, whose ultimate goal is to teach women how to realize when they are not desirable to men, “Women generally find it pretty satisfying to get what they want too, but He’s Just Not That Into You is not about what women want. It’s about becoming better discerners of what men want. (And somehow that is true women’s liberation)” (175). The behaviors Levy attributes to FCPs are painfully familiar; what she describes is no rare phenomenon but a nationwide shift in ideology.

For me, the most interesting part of Levy’s book was the section on adolescent sexuality and performance. Levy references Deborah L. Tolman’s book, Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage Girls Talk About Sexuality, and quotes Tolman’s research: “‘In the many hundreds of studies that have been done to determine what predicts adolescent girls’ sexual behavior, only a handful ha[ve] identified girls’ sexual desire as a potential factor’” (156). Levy makes the point that for many adolescent girls, sexuality is about performance and the desire to appear sexy rather than actual sexual curiosity or fulfillment. I would have loved to read more on this topic and the research related to it; a review of Dilemmas of Desire may be in order.

Also fascinating was Levy’s exposure of the profit-driven advantage of the commercialization of female sexuality:

If we were to acknowledge that sexuality is personal and unique, it would become unwieldy. Making sexiness into something simple, quantifiable makes it easier to explain and to market. If you remove the human factor from sex and make it about stuff—big fake boobs, bleached blonde hair, long nails, poles, thongs—then you can sell it. Suddenly, sex requires shopping. (184)

Just as Jennifer Pozner’s book on the evils of Reality TV ultimately reveals the reliance of “unscripted” programming on commercial sponsors and product placement, Levy compellingly demonstrates the benefit of exploiting women’s self-worth by transforming female sexuality into a complex array of products.

The one issue I had with Female Chauvinist Pigs was that it was more of a survey than an in-depth analysis. Levy has one central thesis: that raunch culture encourages women to degrade other women and reject feminist solidarity. In order to prove this point, Levy discusses a wide array of topics. She writes about Lesbian youth culture in one section, adolescent sexuality in another, Girls Gone Wild in another, and 1960s and 70s Feminist history in yet another. Some of the time, her writing seems to merely skim the surface of the problem she is trying to dissect. It is admittedly difficult to take on such a broad trend and write only 212 pages, but I believe the book would be more powerful if less were covered and more were covered in depth. As it is, FCP often feels less like a whole book than a collection of related essays. Having said this, I enjoyed reading FCP and would recommend it to anyone interested in how contemporary culture intersects with feminism.

I will end with a quotation of Levy’s concerning America’s idolization of porn stars. Although her metaphor is somewhat cringe-worthy and simplistic, her message is powerful and clear: our culture idolizes porn stars as the end-all of all things sexually explicit and arousing. These same human beings have a 65-90% chance of having a history of sexual abuse and incest.

There is something twisted about using a predominantly sexually traumatized group of people as our erotic role models. It’s like using a bunch of shark attack victims as our lifeguards. (180)

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Reality Bites Back, Jennifer L. Pozner

In this in-depth look at “the Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV,” author Jennifer Pozner uses extensive research, cultural analysis, and ten years of television watching to expose the darker side of reality television. I’ll admit that before opening the book, I was already of the opinion that reality TV is damaging to its viewers. However, Pozner’s methodical and persuasive analysis revealed aspects of the business that I had never even considered. If I began with a vague idea that reality TV was bad, I left with the firmest notion that the underlying messages these shows teach us about gender, race, class, and sexuality are dangerous to our democracy.

This book accomplished two things for me. It 1) revealed how deeply interconnected “unscripted” programming and advertising truly are and 2) discussed the difference between a belief system that acknowledges systemic oppression versus one that focuses exclusively on individual accountability.

I will start with point 1. Pozner successfully and repeatedly demonstrates the connection between marketing/advertising and reality television content. This connection is important because

Advertising is profoundly manipulative at its core. Its imagery strives to deprive us of realistic ideas about love, sex, beauty, health, money, work, and life itself, in an attempt to convince us that only products can bring us true joy” (286).

Pozner explains that advertising is so at the core of reality TV that even when these shows do not have high viewership ratings, they are kept on the air. They are cheap to produce, use non-union actors and writers, and garner millions of dollars from companies like CoverGirl and Amex to incorporate their products into the show’s “plot.” Pozner often refers to reality TV episodes as “hour-long infomercials” to emphasize how corporate-driven every aspect truly is. For me, the sheer extent of advertising’s reign over reality TV content–which Pozner demonstrates effectively–is sufficient to explain the poor quality, absurd product placement, and harmful messages encoded in these shows. When media exists solely to make a profit, millions of viewers are exploited for the benefit of a handful of media magnates.

As for point 2, Pozner shed light on a disparity that I had not previously been able to identify. It is so often difficult to critique reality television because defenders can easily point out that these are “real people” doing “real things” that just happen to be caught on camera. In this vein, if one male cast member hits a female cast member, one can explain it away with “that guy is crazy” or “that girl has issues.” There is no such thing as institutional oppression in the world of reality TV. When poverty is (rarely) tackled in reality TV, it is presented as an individual problem, character flaw, or misfortune. There is no discussion of any larger, systemic injustice. This absence holds true of any overt sexism, racism, homophobia, or transphobia exhibited by a reality TV cast member. Bigotry is depicted as an unfortunate character flaw, rather than a product of  cultural indoctrination. One example Pozner utilizes is violence against women and girls, which reality TV treats as personal failing, or worse, comedic.

It’s tempting to dismiss this as ‘just television,’ just escapist farce; tempting to believe that this sort of storytelling has no impact. But that’s not so easy in a country in which a woman is battered every fifteen seconds, usually by her intimate partner, and an average of three women are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends every day…. As harsh as these sorts of statistics are, they only begin to paint the picture of what the reality of violence against women and girls looks like in the United States, the consequences of which never make it into the sanitized, advertiser-defined version of reality promoted by the shows discussed in this book. (225)

Reality TV denies the existence of systemic oppression and thus its cultural counterpart, the justice and equality movements that fight those systems. The distinction between these two belief systems–one of individual issues, one of systemic problems–lies at the heart of nearly every discussion around feminism, racism, classism, and LGBT rights. Crucial to understanding oppression and social justice movements is an ability to locate social and cultural problems at the institutional level. Pozner illustrates how this disconnect is characteristic of reality TV, which reinforces the misleading notion that all problems are individualistic and that oppression does not exist.

The chapter I found most fascinating was Chapter 6, which focuses on the beauty pageant/modeling competition America’s Next Top Model and its host Tyra Banks. In part because this is one of the few shows the book discusses that I’ve actually watched (a lot), Pozner’s argument was extremely potent. Pozner highlights how ANTM and Banks have cast people usually excluded from network reality TV like women of color and transgender individuals. However, Pozner points out that the show goes on to construct any deviation from the heteronormative, white, thin standard of beauty as transgressive and unattractive. She explores how ANTM reinforces racist and sexist imagery while at the same time claiming to reject it. Pozner’s final conclusion on the inner workings of Banks’s pysche is–I think–brilliant and eerily accurate. Having watched many episodes of the show, Tyra Banks’s strange and contradictory performances were always puzzling and uncomfortable. Pozner asserts:

Comics call her crazy, critics dismiss her as an opportunist, and her young fans fiercely defend her as the benevolent granter of young women’s dreams. I have a different theory: I believe she has grown up mentally colonized by fashion and beauty advertisers, leaving her with something akin to Stockholm syndrome. (210)

Thus, while Banks attempts to be inclusive of all different forms and faces–claims to want to expand and redefine “beauty” away from hurtful stereotypes–she in fact only recycles the same values that, although damaging to her, were reinforced her entire modeling career, starting at the tender age of 15.

I genuinely enjoyed reading Pozner’s exposé of reality TV’s damaging cultural messages, the often depressing conclusions balanced by the author’s witty humor. I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone interested in what the current feminist, media, racial, and LGBT justice movements look like, in addition to anyone curious about the impact of reality TV. I will end with a quotation that summarizes Pozner’s utopian feminist world–a passage that made me melodramatically sigh with the beauty and rationality of her vision:

They [male media leaders] have never understood the world feminists actually envision, in which women and men share equal educational, economic, and professional opportunities, live free of abuse, can be fully sexual without judgment or coercion, and where girls and boys alike can embrace their authentic selves because no one will be told that strength, tenderness, confidence, empathy, or aggression is ‘inappropriate’ for their gender–a society in which power and dignity are not rationed based on gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or physical ability. (268)

Jennifer Pozner is executive director of Women in Media & News (WIMN). For ways to combat media injustice, check out her media training workshops here

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Trash, Dorothy Allison

Dorothy Allison’s book of short stories, which are fictional accounts of her own life, focus either on growing up in poverty in South Carolina or on her sex life as a lesbian.

Allison’s detailed descriptions of lesbian sex are very honest and gritty, just like the rest of her writing. Her stories about being an adult are littered with humble and beautiful insights into her own psyche. At one point, a friend puts her on the spot, asking whether she has fantasies.

I do not have fantasies. Fantasy opens me up; I become fantasy…. I make in my mind the muscle that endures, tame rage and hunger to spirit and blood. I become the rock. I become the knife. I am myself the mystery. The me that will be waits for me. If I cannot dream myself new, how will I find my true self? (134)

Personal revelations like these characterize Allison’s stories of adulthood, which make them read almost like a collection of case studies. In contrast, the stories based on her childhood transform Allison into a true storyteller. Analysis is replaced with the page-turning shock value of a childhood plagued with poverty and abuse. These stories are so powerful precisely because Allison successfully conveys how unexceptional her childhood was. That she was able to write her story is certainly extraordinary, but her prose indicates that her story itself is unremarkable. This in itself is incredible because the events and experiences she recounts are often horrifying, disturbing, and inconceivable. Allison tells her horrific story while simultaneously communicating to the reader just how common such a childhood was. The beginning of the prologue reads:

There was a day in my life when I decided to live. After my childhood, after all that long terrible struggle to simply survive, to escape my stepfather, uncles, speeding Pontiacs, broken glass and rotten floorboards, or that inevitable death by misadventure that claimed so many of my cousins; after watching so many die around me, I had not imagined that I would ever need to make such a choice. I had imagined the hunger for life in me was insatiable, endless, unshakable. (7)

I’m glad I read this book if only to discover Dorothy Allison, who continues to be active in the feminist and lesbian community in addition to being a captivating writer and teacher of writing. She is an outspoken critic on class struggle and lesbianism, founding the Lesbian Sex Mafia in 1981, an information and support group in NYC for lesbian, bisexual, heterosexual, and transsexual women. In a Miami Herald article just last week, she is quoted as saying, “I plan to vote for President Obama again unless Elizabeth Warren runs. Then all bets are off.”

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