brain vacations

28 Feb


This post originally appeared on the effie

Ellie Hutchinson

As a professional feminist, I spent the majority of my waking life thinking about violence against women. This is a good thing. However, something I learnt the hard way was that to be the best feminist I can be, I need to stop (and have the luxury to stop) thinking about misogyny for at least three hours a day. In my mission to fill those three hours with unicorns and kittens, I try every so often to watch a rubbish film, read a trashy book or listen to awful music. Essentially what I’m looking for is a brain vacation.

 I enjoy lots of trashy things- Jackie Collins books, terrible 80’s films and I regularly dance around my kitchen to Take That. I have recently rediscovered 5ive which has just been tremendous. I can pretty much recite Muriel’s wedding line for line and I know the Jackie formula so well, I have started writing a Collins-esque series in homage. It’s called Mantra.

 I enjoy all these things shamelessly. But, unfortunately I can only re-read or re-watch the same things a limited number of times. I’ve tried independent cinema and loved, loved ,loved the This is England series recently, but they’re just as bad. Shane Meadows, you are ace, but it’s not quite Beaches is it?

So, I’ve been looking about for something, anything, that won’t make me want to tear my own skin off. Finding a nice brain vacation in the misogynist fest that is popular culture is obviously a tall order, but I try. Oh how I try.

 About a year ago, people kept telling me that I should read “Twilight”; that it doesn’t romanticise abuse in any way and that RPatz is hot hot hot. Hmmm… the trouble with pop culture is that every feminist blog I read will have unpicked and critiqued it before I’ve had a chance. Apparently, Twilight is pretty bad for well, romanticising abuse. I decided to give it a miss. Then came “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”. This, I was assured, would be “right up my street, because you know, it’s about rape and stuff”.

Not wanting to read anything else about rape, and feeling a tad concerned that everyone from my Nan to friends of friends thought of me like that, I thought I’d avoid it. Until recently. It is about rape, but, in my mind, it’s not actually a particularly good book which made me wonder why it’s so popular. Thinking this over, and having recently watched the Book of Eli (if you haven’t seen it, don’t bother, it’s mainly shit) made me think about how cultural texts often use retribution for rape and sexual violence as a tool for character development.

So goodbye switching off, hello feminist analysis. Thanks brain.

When the main (male) character sees a woman getting raped it is used to prompt his action, his retribution, his response. I know he’ll probably violently kill them, and this will be used to show his hidden, but still there, humanity. He’s a bit of a rogue you see, he’s had it tough. But rescuing this waif, this stray, will restore his faith in life, the universe and everything. Yawn.  In utilising all the clichés in the gender book these sorts of stories manage to be both incredibly boring and pretty offensive. But they do hold some interest from a social point of view. Why is it that we as a western culture we need rape as a plot point?

As savvy cultural consumers, we know that we are supposed to experience this story through the “good” man (hello male gaze), and we are supposed to support his journey to slay the “bad” man. Men who hate women are often portrayed as super aggressive, super strong, super stupid; they are the most masculine man on paper or on screen. They represent a threat to the hero as much as to the woman. It is the hero’s job to control and diminish absolute masculine power. By doing this mainstream media not only segregates women into the Madonna/whore dichotomy, it also segregates men into rapists/good men. We want the bad guy to be punished.

What’s interesting is that whilst these stories do consistently frame the perpetrator as “the bad guy”, in real life, we as a culture just aren’t comfortable with perpetrator blaming. The Mel Gibson, Charlie Sheen, Roman Polanski apology fest was and is disgusting (Hang your head Ewan McGregor). But it makes sense. None of them fit the ‘bad’ guy template. One of them makes people laugh! The other was Braveheart! The other made a really good film once!  In the film world, the men who do the raping and assaulting are portrayed as creepy and aggressive. They are obvious bastards. They certainly don’t win Oscars.

What we have then is a rape culture that apologises and justifies sexual violence, yet also sees rapists as inherently bad people. What at first seems like a paradox, actually works to maintain the same social rules. You can spot a rapist a mile off (and more fool you if you can’t) and straight men’s masculinity is something that always needs to be controlled-either by women’s actions or by the hero. Rape myths become social facts through repetition and the rent a rapist, the drink too many, the rescuing hero all work to solidify these myths. But if women might be asking for it-why are we culturally fascinated with retribution?

 Because we know it’s wrong.

So whilst rape myths and salacious torture porn litter popular culture I try to hold onto the fact that people know that sexual violence is wrong. They believe in justice for women. It is far from the utopian feminist justice I would like to see, but it’s a good a place to start as any.

So, not quite a brain vacation then, more of a bus (wo)man’s holiday. I love to rage against the machine, and recognise that anger is a powerful and useful emotion. It really does make me a better feminist. But so does happiness. I try to see the silver linings, no matter how small, and they really are very small. But if that doesn’t work I am more than happy to remind myself that it’s just as important to get on up, when you’re down, and take a good look around, I know it’s not much but it’s ok, and to keep  moving on anyway.


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