Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Problem with Hotscaping

There's a picture going around the internet comparing the way Harriet Tubman looks in the existing photographs that were taken of her to the image of her presented in Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  Here are the pictures, side by side, of Tubman and the actress who was chosen to play her.

For those of you who slept through high school History, Harriet Tubman was a slave in the mid 1800's who, after escaping to Philadelphia, returned to the south many times to free others, becoming the most famous conductors on the Underground Railroad.  When it became illegal for northern states to shelter former slaves, she helped shepherd former slaves to Canada, where slavery was prohibited.  During the Civil War, she was a union spy and a scout, and led an armed expedition that freed 70 slaves deep in Confederate territory.  After the war, she was an active proponent of women's suffrage.

Harriet Tubman was also a dark skinned black woman whose face and form does not jibe with our current standards of beauty.  That didn't make a bit of difference to her ability to save hundreds of people from slavery, to spy for her country, or to become renowned for her courage and selflessness.  It also didn't prevent her from marrying twice.  However, Hollywood has made it clear that those qualities, admirable as they are by anyone's standards, are not enough.  In order to be portrayed in a Hollywood movie - one not specifically about serious issues of race - she also has to be hot.

The photographs we have of Tubman are of a short, very dark skinned, plain-faced woman sporting the serious mien typical of mid-nineteenth century portraits.  Instead of honoring that fact by casting a woman who resembled her, the creators of Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter made her into a tall, slender, relatively light skinned woman who meets or exceeds all of our culture's normative standards for beauty.  Let me be clear in saying that this is also an issue of racism, and a serious one.  However, I've seen several good articles on the subject, including this one at Your Black World, and so I'm addressing myself to the ways in which it's more generally misogynistic, and part of a cultural trend towards Hotscaping.

This is where people tell me I'm taking things too seriously.  After all,  Abe Lincoln wasn't really fighting vampires during the Civil War (at least as far as we know).  The underground railroad wasn't as fast as an actual train, and any number of other things portrayed in the movie simply didn't happen.

To me, that argument misses the point.  Of course a serious movie would pay more attention to getting the details right.  However, they notably didn't make Abe Lincoln look like a cross between Brad Pitt and a sparkly vampire.  Instead, they focused on making him look like Abe Lincoln.  That's because the point of Abe Lincoln - even an Abe Lincoln being played in a silly movie about vampires - isn't that he's attractive.  It's that he was a great man who accomplished amazing things.

The same is true of Tubman, so why change her appearance?  Why make her look like some male fantasy version of the History Channel?  Why not offer the part to a dark skinned, middle aged character actress instead of a light skinned ingenue?  The answer to that question is also the problem: almost every portrayal of women in media is fundamentally linked to sex.

No matter how strong, smart, or brave a woman in a story is, no matter how irrelevant beauty is to her story, Hollywood will always do its best to make her hot.  Even those few women who are portrayed as unattractive are being defined in terms of their beauty or lack thereof.  When was the last time a woman who isn't "Hollywood Beautiful" played a role without her lack of that beauty being an important factor in the story?  The point to having a less than perfectly attractive woman in a movie is typically either to denigrate her (because she's fat, because she's attached to a man who's not interested, etc.) or to show how she struggled and prospered despite her lack of beauty.

Hollywood isn't the only place where this is happening.  Portrayal of women as one-dimensional sex objects has always been something of a problem in comics and video games.  In many cases, that's slowly (think ice ages slow) improving.  Women in comics, video games, and geek media are usually still attractive to the point of absurdity, but at least now we sometimes get to - say - wear non-revealing clothing, shoot to kill, or fly the spaceship.  That doesn't negate the fact that women in geek media are expected to always be beautiful, that they are defined by their beauty, but baby steps.  

However, DC's recent reboot sexualized almost all of its female characters to a greater or lesser degree.  Notably, it took Amanda Waller, a tough, heavyset black woman, and made her slender and conventionally beautiful.  Grace at Gracetopia discussed this in depth when the reboot was first released, and her article is well worth a read.  They also took those characters who were already attractive and made them sexually promiscuous.  Starfire is the obvious example, and while they did explain her behavior eventually in story terms, they also chose to write that particular story.  "Generally free wheeling but ethical woman becomes sexually indiscriminate" is a very specific kind of story choice.  It allows the writers and artists to do a lot of scenes involving Starfire and sex, scenes which are more about titillation than character development.  The same could be said of the portrayal of the female characters in Arkham City.   

Obviously, this is happening in the broader sphere as well.  A young girl just used a petition to push Seventeen magazine into ending their practice of airbrushing the teenagers on their covers and in their pages to make them thinner and "prettier".  Jennifer Love Hewitt's breasts were sized down without her knowledge in a promotion for "The Client List".  Everywhere, women are being reshaped into what the media thinks we should look like.

This is a problem, and a big one.  It is a problem because it sends the message that beauty is not only the most important characteristic a woman can have (or lack), but the only important one.  Men can be admired because they're brave or brilliant, generous or successful, but a woman can only be admired for her beauty or derided for her lack of it.  All her other characteristics are secondary to whether or not she's "hot".  Both men and women are hearing this message loud and clear.

You can tell men are hearing it because of the forum threads on whether or not they'd sleep with this or that female game developer or journalist or actress.  You can tell because one of the principal ways in which men respond to discussions of misogyny is by calling the women having the discussion fat, slutty, or ugly.  You can tell because many men believe that the unwanted sexualization of real women who are not just characters in stories is "just a joke" or "not a big deal" or even "normal", and are willing to flame, harass, and threaten anyone who says otherwise.

And you can tell women are hearing it.  You can tell when Emily Yoffe of "Dear Prudence" tells a woman whose doctor says she's healthy that she should lose weight because her husband is finding her unattractive after childbirth.  You can tell because every diet fad gets grasped at, every possible beauty product tried to achieve or maintain the unreasonable standards our society has taught men to expect of us and us to expect of ourselves.  You can tell because of the tragic number of women killing themselves to be thin, or staying in abusive relationships because they believe that they don't deserve any better.

In short, Hotscaping is a part of the greater problem of misogyny, and it needs to end.

Why "Strident"

The dictionary defines strident as:


Loud and harsh; grating.
Presenting a point of view, esp. a controversial one, in an excessively and unpleasantly forceful way.

However, they fail to note that it's very strongly gendered. Generally, in usage it comes closer to meaning this:

strident: An adjective used to describe
A woman with a strong opinion.
A woman who is stating her opinion firmly and unapologetically in a manner more typical of a man, rather than being polite and self-deprecating.
A woman the men (and sometimes other women) in the room want to silence.

I am a woman of strong opinions. I am not polite and self-deprecating. I refuse to be silenced.
 In this blog, I will talk about things that make people uncomfortable; about misogyny in geek culture and beyond it, about the way we treat people who don't look the way we want them to.  I'll discuss why the ways in which we portray women in fiction matter, and how it influences what is expected out of us in the real world. I'll certainly talk about the harassment and abuse most women deal with every day, and the more acute and demeaning abuse some women experience at the hands of loved ones.  These are important issues, and I feel like I have something to say about them.  I know I'm far from the only voice saying it, but that doesn't make the message any less important.

Some of you may applaud me for doing so. Know that I'll appreciate it.

Some of you will inevitably try to shout me down. You'll tell me that I should be raped, that I am worthless, that I should shut up. You will say I'm not being polite enough, or that I'm taking things too seriously. To you I say: hit me with your best shot; I'm not afraid, and I'm not going anywhere.