Thursday, April 22, 2010

How Avatar Reinforces Negative Gender Stereotypes

Plot Summary:
The basic story behind James Cameron's Avatar is that white colonial invaders have arrived on the planet Pandora to mine some kind of mineral. However there happens to be a race of native peoples, the Navi, living right on the area they want to mine. The whites, portrayed as violent and militaristic, begin efforts to relocate the Navi. Not surprisingly the Navi don't want to move, so enters the hero Jake Sully, a former marine who has lost the use of his legs. Jake is chosen for a reconnaissance mission where he will attempt to blend in with the Navi, gain their trust, and convince them to relocate. In order to do this he is 'transferred' into the body of what appears to be a Navi native, thus the movie's name Avatar is understood. Jake spends long days in the body of his avatar with the Navi people who accept him into their tribe and teach him their spiritual and athletic practices.

Jake eventually falls in love with the native woman Neytiri and ends up betraying his orders in an attempt to save the Navi from annihilation. In the end he decides to permanently become a Navi and never leave the body of his avatar again.

Gender Analysis
First of all, it has been (rightly) pointed out by many critics that Avatar is offensive because of its racist colonialist/native dynamic. Is it really appropriate to tell a story in which the native people are portrayed as totally reliant on ONE white man to save them from the other white invaders? The Navi are initially portrayed as extremely athletic and skilled fighters, however, when it comes time to battle with the military invasion it takes Jake to point out that they should "band together" with the other native tribes. Uh...really? Thank you white man.

Dragon Riding:
When Jake is hanging around with Neytiri learning how to be a Navi, she teaches him how to ride dragons. This involves climbing a sheer cliff-face into the nest of a local population of dragons and then leaping on to the back of the one who wants to kill you the most.
Well apparently there is an even meaner and bigger population of dragons, but nobody ever gets to ride them except for some of the most honored tribal elders who are very skilled warriors...Oh yeah, and Jake.
Why couldn't it have been Neytiri who became the dragon rider in the tradition of the great warriors of her people? After all, she was the one who taught Jake everything he knows. Instead she ends up hitching a ride behind Jake on his sleek new dragon and flying off into the sunset.

Sigourney Weaver:
Also disappointing was the treatment of Sigourney Weaver's character Dr. Grace Augustine. She plays the part of the doctor assigned to help with the complicated process of transferring people into their avatars. She also loves the Navi people and encourages Jake to take their side against the military. It is hinted that she has spent some time with the Navi and even formed some relationships within the tribe, but we never get to see any more about this and then she dies. Another potentially really cool female character wasted.

and Michelle Rodriguez:
Who is known for being killed in every movie she made in 2009, also dies in Avatar about the same time that Weaver dies. Really the only survivors are Jake and Neytiri. Neytiri has submitted to Jakes manly prowess and her tribe has accepted him as their savior. The End.

I just couldn't get the bad taste out of my mouth after walking out of Avatar. Clearly I was not in the 'target demographic' for this one. But I have a good guess at who is the target demographic...

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Gendered Institutions and Processes

Gendered institutions are pretty much everywhere and it seems impossible to find an institution that does not reinforce gender inequality. The media industry in general is run by and targeted towards men as well as reflecting a larger patriarchal world view. I'm going to look specifically at Science Fiction and Fantasy genres in the following analysis.
The history of these genres (as in all of recorded art history) emphasizes men and men's creations. Male-centric history would have us believe that men are the creators of culture and women exist only on the sidelines as caretakers, or at best function as the muses who inspire great men to artistic creation but who are not directly involved in the creative process. There are of course women who have made significant contributions to SciFi and Fantasy (Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and the contemporary feminist writer Ursula Le Guin, are a few well known names.) However, women like these seem to still be seen as the exception to 'the rule' that says men create culture and art.
I'll try not to write an essay here on the skewed nature of art history, however it is an important context to have when approaching contemporary Science Fiction and Fantasy media.

As a female bodied human being, I am always amazed at how men react with surprise to my interest in 'geeky' things like Science Fiction. They then cite examples of media that are well known like "did you see the new Iron Man, Hulk, X-men, insert big-box testosterone flick here?"
While I'm happy to discuss the merits of industry giants Marvel and DC (my parents own stock in Marvel and it continues to prosper) it's disappointing that the average consumer has no idea that there is so much more to the genre than films like these.

This is especially hard to ignore as a consumer of contemporary Japanese and South Korean media. As 'manga' and 'anime' became more popular in the West there has been an increase in comics and films by and for women. Some of my very favorite artists lie within this genre. One of the better known creators in this genre is the groundbreaking artists collective CLAMP-- started by four women who were friends in high school and has grown in to a much larger project.

CLAMP's story lines are often less focused on action and more on the complex desires, secrets and relationships between their characters. Their visual style is bright, soft, and pleasing to look at.

There are more women artists successfully creating comics in Japan then there are women artists involved in the American comics scene. This can be clearly observed when looking at the 'guests' list for a SciFi, fantasy, or comic convention (they are mostly male.) Anime conventions do have a higher number of female guests and attendees than the average American media convention (although there are exceptions in certain sub-genre conventions such as Dr. Who.)

This post has been an overview of how I see gender at work in the SciFi and Fantasy genres today. My final post on this subject will focus more on the negative reinforcement of gender inequality by analyzing the recent blockbuster hit Avatar.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Kingdom Hearts is a successful video game franchise combining Disney cosmology and Final Fantasy characters in an ongoing saga.

The most recent game 358/2 Days introduced a new main character named Xion.

Xion appears as a cute young girl about the same age as the other main character Roxas. Roxas immediately takes an interest in the new mysterious Xion and they develop a close friendship.

As the game progresses we learn that Xion actually appears to look different to everyone who looks at her. Although we never get to see her as the other characters do (we only see her from Roxas point of view,) we are told that she appears as a puppet as well as a little boy. We can also tell that the other characters seem to act strange around her.

The idea that Xion manifests differently to everyone who sees her is interesting and relevant to the prompt 'Gender and Difference.'

It got me thinking about how we construct images of others in our minds that aren't necessarily a complete or even true representation of that person. Although we can certainly try to be more thoughtful about this process, it is impossible to intimately know every aspect of another human being. We pick and choose what parts of others are relevant to us. That is, in a relationship we focus on the areas our interests and passions coincide with one another (or don't and cause problems between us.)

At one point in the game Xion's face actually starts to morph into someone else and Roxas becomes shocked and frighted upon seeing his friends face change. At this point in the game he has to battle with her to progress in the game.

It's like when we discover something new about someone that contradicts the image we have built of them in our minds. Then we have to integrate this new aspect of them into our world view, and if it does not integrate easily it may cause a 'battle' inside us (or cognitive dissonance.)

Of course, meeting someone very different from ourselves does not always have to cause disharmony. In fact, interaction with different people is generally a good thing, leading to personal growth and development. It can be seen as a necessary part of the path to a broader and more inclusive understanding of the world.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Gender Difference

In my everyday life, how much interaction do I have with others whose positionalities are substantially different from my own? How much of my interaction is socially homogenous?

Personally I don't have much interaction with people very different from myself. Most of my friends and acquaintances have similar interests to mine as well as coming from similar social, educational, cultural, financial, etc, backgrounds.

In the university setting this is especially true. Most of the people I interact with at school are white women in their early to mid 20's, having similar living arrangements, goals, and interests.

When I was out of school for a period of a few years I entered the working world, and during that time I interacted with a much more diverse cross section of society. However, I didn't become close personal friends with many of these people, although I did feel that I reached a broader understanding of human experience during this time.

When reading about the Myers-Briggs personality types 'extroverted' and 'introverted' I learned that extroverted people can more easily have a diverse group of friends. They can more easily tailor their own personality to fit the group of people they happen to be interacting with at any given time. They are more likely to have groups of friends that don't necessarily interact with eachother, often having not much in common except for the extroverted friend.

Introverted people tend to have a smaller more tight-nit group of friends that all know each other, and when they are introduced to one another are more at ease to converse about their similar interests.Of course most people are a mix of both extroverted and introverted, (extremes are indicative of a personality disorder).

In genneral most people do have a certain group of people who they identify with most strongly and consider to be their closest friends. These people are less likely to be very different from each other. However, the natural tendency to gravitate to those that we can relate to most easily, can be limiting to ones education, understanding of the world, and to ones ability to function in it.

It will take thoughtful effort and genuine curiosity to put myself in situations where I get to interact with people outside of my 'comfort zone.'

Monday, March 22, 2010

How food is used to enhance meaning in Naruto

Well this seemed like a good excuse to talk about one of my recently favorite anime series Naruto and how food is used to reveal things about the characters personalities.

Uzumaki Naruto (the main character) is actually named after food. His full name, Uzumaki Naruto, translates literally to "spiral fish paste."

This 'spiral fish paste' is common in Japan and usually served on top of a piping hot bowl of ramen noodle soup.

Naruto (the character) adores ramen; if he's not eating it he's thinking about it. Ramen can be compared to 'soul food' or 'down home cookin.' It is hearty, basic, and traditional. Naruto's association with ramen emphasizes his heartiness and strength also showing that he's a bit of a redneck.

Naruto's friend and rival, Uchiha Sasuke, does not like much of anything. He especially doesn't like sweets. Sweets in Japan carry a strong association with childishness and girlishness.
Making sweets look cute and attractive is more important than in America.
By emphasizing that Sasuke dislikes sweets we learn that Sasuke is supposed to be more like a grown up, not caring for frivolous or babyish things. He is focused on his goal to avenge his family (not something a child would normally be thinking about.)
By drawing attention to Sauske's distaste for sweets, his insecurities about weakness and being seen as unmanly are inadvertently pointed out as well.

Akimichi Chouji is shown eating constantly. He eats with enthusiasm and joy despite many hurtful condescending comments by others that he should eat less. Somewhere around the 100th episode it is revealed that Chouji's 'family bloodline limit' (his special powers) are connected with his large body size and food consumption. He must eat continuously in order to use his special power. Chouji is friendly, kind, and tender, and thus does conform to some stereotypes about fat and softness of character.

Chouji is always hanging out with his best friend Nara Shikamaru, who is characterized as lazy, apathetic, and possibly stoned. Shikamaru picks up smoking cigarettes later in the series, but does not seem to have strong feelings about food choices or eating. He does however defend Chouji when other people give him a hard time about overeating. The combination of Chouji and Shikamaru make a classic 'buddy couple' and their relationship is enhanced and defined in part by the combination of the substances they consume.

In Naruto there are more instances than the above few when food helps to give meaning and richness to the characters and story. Bringing up food preferences and relationships to food is more common in Japanese media (the only American example that comes to mind is the Ninja Turtles love of pizza.) It adds a bit of depth and texture that helps fans love and relate to the characters even more.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Gender, Bodies and Food

This week I get to talk about my body and gender. There are two ways of approaching this that immediately come to mind:
1. Social- (how I exist as a body in a social world.)
2. Personal- (how I experience my body.)

I talked about this a bit last time mentioning the benefits of being white with a feminine gender expression. Another very important dimension of my social body is my body size and shape.

When I reached puberty I immediately became aware that I fit some kind of standard that seemed to earn the approval of adults.
When we took our body measurements in 7th grade home economics class I was told I had "perfect" measurements. When my mom took me to the gym with her, people would say how "healthy" I looked. A specific example that stands out in my memory is when I accompanied by girlfriend to a doctors visit. After briefly meeting with my girlfriend the doctor turned to me and said "as for you, keep up the good work." I can only assume that he made this judgment by looking at my body size and shape and, as a smoker, I recognize why this is a problem. I recognize that 'health' can easily become a justification for fat-phobic discriminatory behavior and practices.

It is hard to reflect on the privileges and disadvantages of living in this particular body, although I know that it has shaped my life in significant ways and made me who I am today.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Constructing Gendered Selves

After School Nightmare is a favorite manga of mine.

"Mashiro Ichijo, an intersexed high-school student who is made by a teacher to work out his gender identity in a collective dream, and Mashiro's romantic relationships with two classmates, one female and one male" (quote).

Ichijo thinks "as a man I'm too weak" because of his female side. As a woman she thinks something like "I'm too unattractive," because of her male side. Often experimenting with wearing a boys or girls school uniform, s/he feels the need to choose between one or the other gender expression and play it up, not comfortable to be in a gray area.

The truth is, gender is a gray area. As the bell curve demonstrates, there are more similarities than differences. That is, the things that make people different from each other are based on a variety of factors not necessarily related to gender. Yet as a society, we are constantly searching for and focusing obsessively on the differences we do find.

I often use my gender expression to my advantage. As a white middle-class woman with a feminine gender expression, I find I can 'get away with' a lot more than my peers of other races, classes, and genders. Rarely am I ever watched or suspected to be a shoplifter. I get pulled over less than males my age, especially if they have darker skin than mine. If I was caught doing something bad as a child, crying would almost always be followed by absolution/forgiveness with no punishment. This tended to be less effective for the boys my age.

I have mixed feelings about these advantages. Because my feminine gender expression appears to match my sex, coming out in high school was relatively easy for me. Easy because no one knew. When I told people "I'm gay", I was often not taken seriously. I was told I couldn't be a lesbian because I didn't play basketball. Because I didn't express a butch persona in my everyday life people just didn't believe I could be a lesbian. My girlfriend at the time was quite outwardly feminine as well. Our gender expressions were very non-threatening so we hardly ever got harassed.

I continue to be surprised at other less-easy coming out stories. My parents are very liberal-minded and upper-class. My father now seems to take pride in the fact that he has a lesbian daughter, and freely introduces me and my partner to his friends. It is a little more difficult with my girlfriends family, leading to awkward moments when I may or may not get introduced at all. I wonder if I had a more masculine gender expression, would I be taken more seriously as my girlfriends partner?