Another day, another “interviewer” trotting out fanfiction in public conversation with a star.
Today’s culprit, as you can see here, if you like, is the LA Times, who asked an actress from Downtown Abbey to, tee hee!, read erotic fanfiction about her character out loud.
This comes on the heels of the Sherlock debacle a week or so ago, wherein Caitlin Moran used the series’ season three premiere event as a venue for–you guessed it–pulling Johnlock out of a hat and, ha hah, shoving it in the actors’ faces.
In the forest of WTF? that this raises, the most pressing one for me is this:
Why the hell would you do this? From a rhetorical perspective, ok, what would you as an interviewer hope to gain?
Here’s my answer:
Look, I’m sure these cats go in thinking they’re Zaphod Beeblebrox hip because they know what fan fiction is. Hey, bloody good for you. You can read the internet! Well done.
The beauty of my research project–of what will grow up big and strong one day to become my dissertation–is the rage that it forces me to convert into something productive.
Ok, “force” is too strong a word. I’ve designed the thing to put me in that position.
The locus of my research are contemporary evangelical rhetorics of female sexuality and desire. That’s a wank-tastic way of saying that I’m looking at how the evangelical church in the US talks to women about their sexuality and how women in the church talk amongst themselves about their own experiences with sex, gender roles, and desire.
Here’s the trick, though: as a casual glance at this blog (hell, at the previous freaking post!) might suggest, my notions of sexuality and desire don’t fall in neat alignment with those of the Christian church, despite (or perhaps because of?) 18 years in the Southern Baptist faith—an experience my brother neatly dissects here. So the easy move, from a personal and a scholarship perspective, is to spend 150 pages dismissing these rhetorics outright in favor of:
Because, dude. Come on.
Take this example from a book called The Love Dare, featured in the recent Kirk Cameron direct-to-video flick, Fireproof: The Movie. The purpose of The Love Dare is to present couples with 40 “dares”–activities or conversation starters–to stage over 40 days as they seek a stronger connection. An entirely reasonable purpose (allusions to that pesky Ark aside).
By that I mean, not by anyone else’s standards, I think.
This has always been a source of anxiety for my mom, at least as long as I can remember. When I was in high school, we had a fight–or she did; I was just a bystander–because I didn’t put on earrings before leaving the house. She was furious with me for reasons that she couldn’t articulate and that I could not understand. What difference did it make, I wondered? Who would even notice? But that, of course, wasn’t the point. The point was, my mom would know, would been painfully aware of the absence in my earlobes and thus be unable to function.
I don’t remember who won that one.
When I was in middle school, the boy band New Kids On The Block was the overwhelming teenage thing. We were middle school kids with one eye already on high school, on that great thundercloud that promised a kind of future that everyone was always telling us we should prepare for. Like adulthood was something that required waders and a hat. A flashlight with some extra batteries and we’d be all set. It was a worry in the future, one we were aware of but not consumed by.
We were just girls prone to sleepovers and lazy afternoons with bad movies. And, for a time, New Kids, too. But I didn’t care about them. I was no gender warrior, to be sure; I wasn’t consciously rejecting their kind of cool as some sort of feminist protest, I just–wasn’t interested.
Granted, this self-imposed limitation kept me out of some conversations among my friends, sure, and I couldn’t sing along to “Hangin’ Tough,” either. But my friends didn’t seem to care.
I don’t know that I ever fit in easily with them, anyway. At least that’s how I felt at the time. If I thought about this New Kids question at all, it fell into the well-established column of “how I am different,” so I paid the issue of Jordan and Jonathan and Joey and Donnie no extra mind.
But my mom, she was worried. She couldn’t understand why, if all my friends were into something, extolled its virtues in chorus kind, I did not. In her mind, I think, it was willful; I was stubborn, I was ostracizing myself. She thought this way, still does, I think, because that’s the way she operates, the only way she knows how to be.
So she mounted a sustained campaign, one designed to convert me into the teenage girl she knew I could be, if only I tried a little harder. If only I took some of the energy I devoted to reading or writing or whatever the hell it was I did that she chose not to understand and put it towards something worthwhile, then I could be fixed. Of this, she was sure.
While my friends’ mothers were rolling their eyes at the stupid New Kids phase, then, and resisting their daughters’ entreaties for more merchandise, more material proof of their undying devotion, my mom did the opposite: in the face of my not asking, not caring, she bought me New Kids tapes and a New Kids t-shirt and waited anxiously for my new self, my girl self, to be reborn.
An effort, I fear, all in vain.
I wonder what she wanted me to be, really.
A girl who liked pink, I think.
A girl who dated.
A girl who was at ease with her femininity in a way I don’t think my mom’s ever been.
For her, being a girl isn’t a social construct, a pattern of public behaviors that mark a particular gender, an easily recognizable version of “woman.” It’s who I was supposed to be, someone who got it, got girlhood, and thus (went my mom’s thinking) would reap the benefits that the world heaps on somebody who’s good at being a girl.
My father’s the feminist in the family, the one who always told me that I could be and do whatever I wanted to, that the only limitations were my will and my willingness to convert what’s in my head into action.
She feels cowed by the world, by people she’s decided are smarter than she is, better in some undefinable way, and she deals with this anxiety by inexorably pushing everyone else away.
My dad’s the only one who’s refused to go. Loyal to a fault, he is.
I’ve done a lot to disappoint my mother, but I think this is the most fundamental of them all: I’ve never been good at being a girl.
And more to the point: I’ve never wanted to learn how.
I don’t know that she’ll ever forgive me for that.
There are many among us, that is–especially outside of Northern Virginia, which Sarah Palin famously claimed wasn’t the “real” Virginia.
Here’s the best way I can explain the difference, as someone who grew up just on the cusp of NOVA and now lives way the hell down south and west of there:
The Civil War is considered settled in Northern Virginia. It’s not a liberal playground, to be sure–they’ve got lots of conservatives types, especially the rich folks out in Fairfax and Loudon counties. But it’s firmly grounded in technology, in government, in the future. For NOVA, the only way ahead is up; NOVA has no past, per say, as almost no one who lives in Alexandria or Arlington or even Prince William grew up there, is from there. No. You move to NOVA for opportunity: a new job, a college education. NOVA is the kind of place you leave your hometown for.
In the rest of the state–forgive the generalization, but I’m from here and I can paint with that broad brush–the Civil War’s unsettled business. The past is very present in places like Fredericksburg and Richmond and Hampton Roads and even out here in the western part of the state: the Civil War happened here and hell, for a lot of folks, it’s still raging. You don’t come to these parts of Virginia in search of the future; you come here searching for The Past, for the graves of Stonewall Jackson and the battlefields at Wilderness and the old home of the Confederacy in Richmond, so that you may fly the one true flag of that nation with pride, as do these gentlemen here:
That’s not to say we don’t have colleges and industry and technology way out here; we do, and a lot of them are damn good. But there’s also The Past here, present in a way that all the historical markers in NOVA don’t come close to. History, out this way, it’s in the soil. And there ain’t as much built on top of that soil to keep The Past from worming its way back out.
A brilliant colleague of mine studies this phenomenon: it’s called the Lost Cause, a deep sense of nostalgia for the War of Northern Aggression, for the way Virginia used to be, then. The way many feel is should be, now. And how this desire for what’s been lost–what was taken by the Yankees–reacts when it comes to contact with oh, you know, the narratives that much of the rest of the country holds about what the Old South was like, and why the War was fought, and all that.
This is a long way of saying, I guess, that Virginians, we have a history of hanging on to what’s already been lost.
Point of fact: our fair Governor, Bob McDonnell; or, as Rachel Maddow so aptly dubbed him, Governor Ultrasound. I’ll call him “GU,” in lieu of “dickweed.”
So good ol’ GU is just damn well determined to deny the existence of the past 40 years in America, of the nation’s passage well into the twenty-first century. Along with his fellow Republicans who dominate most of the statewide offices here, GU really, really wants to deny we women of Virginia access to abortion. You know, that pesky little medical procedure ruled constitutional by the US Supreme Court in 1972. That one.
Because GU, he just loves his God, and he’s convinced that his God–the ancient white guy with a beard and a serious hard-on for immorality–hates abortion; hell, hates the idea of women having any sort of control over their own reproductive systems, because surely that is the purview and the property of said God and his on-earth representative, man.
So, as Maddow so neatly demonstrated last night, in early 2012, GU and his cronies picked up a Texas bill that mandates that women seeking an abortion in the state have what’s call a transvaginal ultrasound performed upon them before they might gain access to an abortion.
Not a regular ultrasound, which would be bad enough; indeed, mandatory ultrasounds of the non-probe-y type have been routinely used by the Religious Right and their political counterparts in this country as a shaming tactic designed to “humanize” the fetus and browbeat women into submission for decades. But an ultrasound that requires that a probe be INSERTED INTO A WOMAN’S VAGINA against her will: all the better to scare you with, my dear.
Suffice it to say: GU and his cronies, unlike their counterparts in Texas, became the subjects of national ridicule over this legislation. Thanks to programs like The Daily Show, Maddow, and others, the story got out, GU earned his nickname, and the bill didn’t make it out of the statehouse.
But GU and company were undeterred! and, after a loud and angry fight this past fall, Richmond passed a law–once again couched in matters of “health”–that requires clinics that offer abortion services–or, as the Code now calls them, “abortion facilities”–to meet facility and personnel standards of hospitals.
Passed as “emergency” legislation in the fall of 2012, these regulations were approved by GU in the dead of the fucking night on Friday, Dec. 28, 2012.
There was no public announcement.
Only the posting below on the Virginia Town Hall website. Oh, but look carefully: you’ll have to weed through the repacking of crabmeat and summer camp regulations to see the “Regulation for Licensure of Abortion Facilities”:
I’m sure GU’s office would consider this public enough. Hell, it’s online, right? [For the record, I had a hell of a time tracking down the regulations themselves on said site, but I finally did so and you can download them here, if you like.]
These regulations have now only to be approved by the State Registrar before Virginia begins enforcing these laws, which would, in effect, put most if not all of the abortion providers in the state out of Code and out of business.
Never mind that the Supreme Court almost 40 years ago that women in this country have the right to access to a safe and legal abortion. No. That hasn’t been a deterrent in the past for folks like GU, so why start now?
Never mind that the GOP’s “war against women” in 2012–kicked off in part by GU’s attempt to pass transvaginal ultrasound legislation in Virginia–cost them big big time in November’s election. No. GU and his ilk, they know what’s better for we women that we know ourselves; and if we refuse to see it, they’ll be forced to do it themselves–for our own good, you understand.
GU and his friends, they’ve wrapped themselves up tight in another kind of Lost Cause. The 1960s and 70s happened, gentlemen, as much as you may resent them, and the resulting 40+ years have spawned thousands of women in the state–like me–for whom the right to an abortion is a settled question. It’s healthcare, a medical procedure like anything else, and yes it involves our ladyparts and we know you think your God owns those but, no. He does not.
I know it’s dangerous to say the culture wars are done–because gods know those wars have achieved undead status–but look around you, GU. Marriage equality? It’s coming for all the states in the Union. Medical marijuana? That, too. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is no more.
The world has changed, sir, and it’s fine that you’ve chosen not to change with it. But you don’t get to make that choice for anyone other than yourself.
Spoilers for Skyfall. If you haven’t seen it–and you want to–don’t read this.
I’m a great fan of James Bond pictures, from Goldfinger to Goldeneye. I grew up watching them cut and compressed on TBS: Bond marathons at Christmas, then endless videotape reruns of From Russia With Love to get me through the rest of the year.
I was in high school when the franchise rebooted in 1995, bringing Bond face-to-face with the end of the Cold War and me nose-to-nose with Pierce Brosnan.
My brother could tell you totally spurious stories of my reaction to the swimming scene in Goldeneye when we saw it in the theatre. Spurious, yes. But also true.
We need somebody to give us permission to ogle, to turn the unabashed gaze on male beauty and just go with it.
Most of the time, we need permission from ourselves. As the authors of A Billion Wicked Thoughtspoint out, our brain chemistry demands that we give ourselves a mental go-ahead before the brain lust meets the body and those Wonder Twin powers activate into something wonderful.
But there’s also a lot of cultural and social crap that gets into our heads and gums up the works even more.
I wish this weren’t the case. I wish I didn’t feel a twinge of guilt when I look “too long” at the pretty. It’s a twinge born of feminism (you should not want what the heterosexist patriarchy tells you to, goddamn it.) and a childhood spent in church (thou shalt not want, well, anything. Ever. That’s not God.).
The church thing you’d think would be gone by now; hell, even as a kid, I resisted. The feminism? Well, again, I push back when my well-meaning colleagues attempt to regulate, to school me in the power of not-want, but those little twin voices, those towering thou shalt nots, are still there, still perched on my shoulder and tsking when I stare too hard at Padelecki or cross my eyes over the angel, yes.
But now I know they’re there, those voices, now I know enough to acknowledge and then ignore. Because I’m trying to give myself permission to take pleasure in the gaze.
That’s why, to me, the movie Magic Mike is so freaking genius. It’s a permission slip of a film, sculpted as an invitation, a way of saying: yes, you women so inclined (and gay men), come and pay your money for two hours of dominant discourse-sponsored gazing. No guilt, no shame, just two hours of looking that’s been sanctioned by the powers that be.
Because those boys on the screen?
They know you’re coming only for them, that their agressive lack of clothing is what’s gonna drive you to the theater. And that’s OK, hell, it’s more than ok: it’s awesome. Cough up the cash, ladies (and gents), and bask in sex with little fear of being mocked or even noted. Because you’ll be among friends.
So this is what I love, what I wish weren’t quite so culturally necessary: an excuse for communal lust, for a public performance of female desire in which we as the audience can feel safe in participating. It’s like a natural evolutionary step from the Fifty Shades phenomenon, the motion picture equivalent of reading a novel with a very sexy cover in public.
And yeah, it’s the commodification of female desire, and ok, it’s a little heteronormative in its approach (though the outreach to the gay press has been great), and in some ways it’s just as prescriptive in terms of what I (the female audience) should want as my feminist colleagues and the church, but.
If they’re marketing to us–the “us” that’s not white, heterosexual, and male–honey, let’s jump on it and give them reason to do it to us, for us all over again.
A question that keeps coming up [heh] in my research is one that annoys me: what’s the difference between erotica and pornography?
[My addendum: who the bloody hell says that there IS one?]
Although I may reject the premise of the question, that does pretty much no good, for it’s one that’s been around at least as long as first-wave feminism and continues to pop up pretty prominately in contemporary culture. Seediscussions of Fifty Shades of Gray or the presence/absence of the “PWP” [Porn Without Plot] tag in slash communities, for example. As a culture, we keep acting like there’s a distinction here, so I’m spending some time trying to figure out why.
For the record: In my own work, I don’t see a meaningful distinction between erotica and porn. It’s all about sex and emotion and getting the fuck off. All of the gendered bullshit that’s bundled into these debates just pisses me off and I’m veering wildly off track. Let me table the Rage Cat for a later discussion.
Last week, I read a terrific (apparently foundational) article in romance studies called “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different” by Ann Barr Snitow, published in 1979. Snitow’s work [which deserves its own post. Or four.] pointed me in the direction of the November 1978 issue of Ms. magazine, then at the height of its cultural powers (the cover’s posted above).
There are three articles devoted to the erotica vs. pornography question in that issue, but I’m going to focus for now on Gloria Steinem’s “Erotica and Pornography: A Clear and Present Difference.”
In the article, after a long and confusing introduction about humans’ capacities as a species (??), Steinem lays out what’s essentially a entomological distinction between erotica and porn. She argues that erotica “is rooted in eros or passionate love, and thus in the idea of positive choice, free will, the yearning for a particular person” (75). By contrast, she posits, pornography:
“begins with a root meaning ‘prostitution’ or ‘female captives,’ thus letting us [who is “us”?] know that the subject is not mutual love, or love at all, but domination and violence against women…It ends with a root meaning ‘writing about’ or ‘description of’ which puts still more distance between subject and object, and replaces spontaneous yearning for closeness with objectification and a voyeur.” (54)
She then sketches this difference in several other ways, including:
“Perhaps one could simply say that erotica is about sexuality, but pornography is about power and sex-as-weapon” (54)
Erotica is “a mutually pleasurable, sexual expression between people who have enough power to be there by positive choice”; while pornography, on the other hand, carries a “message…[of] violence, dominance, and conquest” (54).
Ultimately, the vision of sex she presents here reads as a naive, almost romantically-idealized, view of sex. It feels as though 1978 Steinem is invoking the spirits of two (or more) imaginary partners who are wholly decontextualized from the wider world.
Love isn’t always fucking in a bed of roses–and anyway, those bitches have thorns.
Despite her desire for lovers to be fully embodied–to be in bed by choice made in both body and mind–the kind of sex that Steinem describes, to which she aspires, is one outside of time. Status is elemental to our interactions with other humans; whether we are conscious of them or not, we’re engaged in constant negotiations of status with all of the people whom we meet in a given day. Even our virtual interactions are marked by the back-and-forth of status games. While gender can and does affect those interactions, our sense and performance of our own always-shifting statuses, it’s not the sole determining factor, nor is it the only exigence for status exchanges.
Frankly, I don’t buy Steinem’s morpheme-based argument. To me, it feels that she reads the “textbook” definitions of erotica and pornography, of their entomological roots, far beyond what the text itself actually says, and actively avoids engaging with how those linguistics elements compare/contrast with the practical use and understanding of those concepts in modern (as of 1978) life.
To be blunt: her implicit assertion seems to be that erotica is good because it’s more “feminine” in nature–deals with feelings and love and all that shit–while pornography is bad because it’s used by men, created by men, espoused by men, in order to maintain the patriarchy. I’m essentializing here, and I realize. However, her assertions that erotica has a “sensuality and touch and warmth” and concerns itself with “shared pleasure,” while pornography uses sex to “reinforce some inequality, or to create one,” sounds pretty fucking gendered in its construction to me (53).
I’m also struck by her resistance to pleasure in this piece, to discussing erotica–if one accepts her argument that erotica is good–as a means through which a woman might gain some getting off, if you know what I mean.
Here’s the closest Steinem comes to acknowledging why a woman might want to use erotica:
“It [erotica] may or may not strike a sense-memory in the viewer, or be creative enough to make the unknown seem real; but it doesn’t require us to identify with a conquerer or victim [as she does porn, she argues]. It is truly sensuous, and may give us a contagion of pleasure.” (54)
It’s that last phrase that struck me: what’s a “contagion” of pleasure, exactly? Why not straight-up pleasure? What’s the virus that’s being transmitted? Why does Steinem seem to associate [physical] pleasure gained from a “photo or a film of people making love; really making love” as an infection, as something external that invades the viewer’s body from the outside?
The cynic in me wonders if this passage suggests a deeper resistance to heavily sexualized texts, if there’s not an implicit assumption here that getting off from the outside in isn’t as “good” or “right” as getting off with an imaginary, egalitarian lover.
There’s a whiff here of policing here, I think, of telling feminists of 1978 what they should want, what they should desire. And you know how I feel about that. Sad to say, such conversations, such attempts at community policing, are still ongoing, not just in explicitly feminist communities, I’d argue, but in many places where women gather around a shared ideology.
I found this Trojan ad in an issue of Ms. from 1978.
And I’m confused.
How is having control over your own reproductive system akin to disobeying God and casting humanity out of Eden, exactly?
Does this mean that Trojan itself is akin to Lucifer? That the promise of sex without reproduction is itself a temptation that, by all Judeo-Christian rights, should be avoided? That the “big decision” in Eve’s life = your choice of lubricated or ribbed?
Does this mean the apple is her vagina? If so, why is she so smug about being able to hold the damn thing in her hand?
How in the hell is this ad meant to appeal to women?!