My knowledge of popular culture is notoriously bad, but hanging around with fanficcers, as I have been doing recently, does mean that I get to read/hear a lot of discussions about films and TV that I will probably never have the time or inclination to see, such as the new Avengers Assemble movie. It’s also increasingly making me feel that discussing whether or not particular works are sexist (as I have myself been known to do) is surprisingly unhelpful. I was aware in the responses I got to my discussion that I’d made friends of mine feel uncomfortable with their positive response to the film, which I didn’t intend to do.
I think there are two big problems here. One is that it’s surprisingly difficult, beyond the most basic facts (e.g. number of female characters and if a work passes the Bechdel Test) to agree on what exactly constitutes sexism. One reason is that everybody brings their own experiences to a piece of fiction and – particularly for films and TV, where we are rarely privy to the characters’ own thoughts – we tend to project onto and identify with particular characters. A recent review of Avengers Assemble talks about the writer identifying with superheroes, even as she admits their problematic nature. Similarly, I’ve seen complaints about a lack of strong female characters in the Harry Potter books, although I immediately identified with Hermione (as a fellow swot/good girl). JK Rowling clearly also intends Mrs Weasley to be a heroine. One of the highlights of the final battle in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows for some readers is Mrs Weasley killing Bellatrix Lestrange; a woman who’s been mocked for her love of family finally conquers. But other readers have seen this as merely the sexist cliché of a woman whose highest role is motherhood defeating a “bad woman” who fails to adhere to properly feminine roles.
As these examples show, it’s very difficult to write any characters – male, female or other – who don’t fall into some stereotypes/tropes, and most of them have been used in sexist ways at some point. So it’s easy to see the same figure as either being part of a long positive tradition of brave mothers or a long negative tradition of “only mothers are good women”. A related and difficult point is that there is no longer any agreement within our own society as to what constitute desirable goals/a happy ending for a woman. Should a woman want to end up married to a man she loves and/or having children? Should she want to end up rich and/or successful, but on her own? To some women among the audience independence from any emotional ties is a victory; to others it’s cutting ourselves off the key things that make us human. (This is one of the reasons why having several prominent female characters in a work is useful: it potentially allows the creator to show a range of options for them. I still remember the ending of Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes in which the heroines variously become a film star, a ballet dancer and an engineer).
People of good will, therefore, can’t necessarily always agree on whether a particular character or situation is sexist or not. But that is compounded by a second major problem. The amount of sexism and the quality of a work are not necessarily inversely correlated. In other words, there are sexist works of fiction that are more enjoyable and/or more inventive in other ways than works that show greater gender equality. For example, the recent ITV detective drama Scott and Bailey was notable for having both the two leads and their immediate boss as female. However, in terms of interesting and plausible characters and memorable writing, it struck me as less successful than a male-dominated show like Sherlock.
Yet sexism often tends to be taken as an absolute marker of value. To say a book or film is sexist is sometimes taken as a claim that one should therefore not enjoy it, and that one is a morally inferior person for doing so. I’ve seen too many discussions between feminists degenerate into defensiveness and rancour because someone likes a piece of work that another person dismisses as sexist, resulting in attempts to “prove” that a work is or is not sexist.
It would surely be far more constructive if it was legitimate to take sexism (or other isms) as one criterion among many for judging the quality of a work, and people were allowed to balance such criteria. We ought to be able to say explicitly “I liked this work for other reasons even though it was sexist” (with the understanding that it’d be a still better work of art if it was less sexist). We also ought to be able to say: “this work pushes a particular button of mine about sexism that means I really, really don’t want to read it/watch it” without it being taken as meaning “you are an insensitive pig if you don’t agree with me and like the work”.
I’m not trying to argue that sexism is purely a subjective matter, but I think we need to acknowledge the subjective side of it, and that our own responses to works of fiction in particular are inevitably personal. In that way, we might make feminist discussions of such works more constructive and less prone to making people feel guilty or irritated.