Bully Gets “Girl”

Originally Posted on April, 6, 2012 on
The Huffington Post
Over the past two years, a national conversation has developed around bullying.  A critical aspect of this conversation is the growing perception of bullying as a real and dangerous threat, as opposed to a normal phase of youth development.  At the White House Conference on Bullying Prevention last March, President Obama expressly rejected the idea of bullying as “just a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up.”  While the president should be saluted for his general leadership and this specific observation, another aspect of the conference gave me pause, namely the president’s attempt to universalize bully-victimhood, as if each young person is equally vulnerable in this regard.  Using his famed charisma, Obama reassured the audience that even he had been teased as a child for his big ears.  This moment encapsulates a danger that the conference and the broader conversation on bullying both face: losing sight of the rash of teen suicides, mostly by males who identified as or were perceived to be gay, that originally catapulted the issue of bullying into the national spotlight.

A similar universalization took place last October, at a CNN-sponsored special at Rutgers University entitled “Bullying: It Stops Here.” In his opening remarks, Anderson Cooper acknowledged the recent suicide of gay 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer, almost a year to the day after the death of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, who was also gay. Following these remarks, gay teen suicide was never addressed as a distinct or revealing symptom of the problem of bullying, and the program instead focused on bullying as a broad concept, including a Dr. Phil segment on how bullies are victims, too. One illuminating exchange between Cooper and a black high school student offered a chance to reinscribe the particular within the universal: the student explained that his teachers would be more likely to protect him if someone called him “the n-word” than if the same person called him “faggot” or any other anti-gay term. This was not expanded upon.
People can easily agree that bullying for any reason (e.g., race or ethnicity, physical or mental disability, real or perceived sexual orientation) is harmful and wrong. But in the well-intentioned effort to address bullying as a broad concept, specific insights may be lost that can help us understand commonalities behind many forms of bullying and the connection between bullying behavior and our broader culture. The double-digit string of gay teen suicides that launched this national conversation indicate that certain youths are more vulnerable than others to bullying — or, in other words, there is a real hierarchy to bullying that remains a large, tense, pink elephant in the room. Refocusing for a moment upon these suicides helps to reveal the deeply ingrained ways in which our cultural expectations of what boys and girls are — and how they should act — informs every aspect of the bullying problem.
Our culture is ruled by the gender binary, a system to which we all contribute in order to delineate between female and male. While open to contestation, this system frequently preserves a sense of masculinity/power for men, and prescribes one of femininity/submission for women, ultimately securing male dominance. The effects of such a system can be felt beyond the literal image of what a man or woman is; more generally, in a misogynistic culture, every identifiable difference between people is filtered through a misogynistic lens. Indeed, every characteristic for which youth tend to be bullied has been studied in terms of its being “feminized.” A quick Google search reveals studies on the “Feminizing of African Americans,” the “Feminizing of Asians,” of Southeast Asians, of Native Americans, the mentally ill, the mentally retarded, the overweight, and so on. Given these realities, it also holds that a particular group — or perceived member of a group — will be more vulnerable to bullying and abuse to the degree that such a group is not supposed to be feminine. This may help to explain why effeminate or gender-nonconforming male youth (i.e., those who are perceived to be gay) are in such regular and tremendous jeopardy, symbolizing as they do a loss of male power and privilege. We may also expect that other targets of bullying singled out for entirely different characteristics may be referred to by terms reserved for effeminate or perceived gay males, because such males are at the very bottom of the cultural barrel.
Lee Hirsch’s just-released documentary Bully is an evocative depiction of how the gender binary impacts acts of aggression. The subjects — several kids facing repeated bullying in school, as well as the families of two boys who committed suicide — are all seen through a misogynistic lens. The boys are constantly called “bitch” and “pussy,” while school administrators try to explain away the harassment, noting that “boys will be boys” and encouraging the youths (at least the boys) to resolve their “differences” with a “manly” handshake. Similarly, though none of the subjects are out, self-identified gay males, the word “faggot” is uttered throughout the film more than any other derogatory term, and in one scene a 12-year-old boy named Alex is threatened on the bus by a peer who says, “I’ll shove a broomstick up your ass.” According toThe Los Angeles Times, this explicitly homophobic scene was the lynchpin in the ratings controversy surrounding the film and was almost cut in order to change the MPAA rating from R to PG-13 — still another example of the “gay” aspect of this epidemic at risk of being minimized or erased. The two female subjects are featured less in the documentary, and though we do not learn much about them, it is made clear that one of them has deviated from gender and sexual norms, having come out at her school as a lesbian.
The insidiousness of the misogynistic lens even affects how the parents of the children in the film view them. When Alex tells his father how his peers have been treating him, his father’s knee-jerk reaction is to suggest that Alex has failed to protect himself and thereby failed to protect his sister, who will be attending middle school the following year. The reaction is clearly borne of love, fear, confusion, and desperation, but it shows just how deeply embedded the gender binary is in our minds, and how we perpetuate it (and its damaging effects) even with the best of intentions. Alex’s father unwittingly establishes role expectations for Alex and his sister — male vs. female, hero vs. victim — thereby failing to empathize with or validate Alex’s experience of victimhood, and instead exacerbating his feeling that he is less than normal.
We may be blind to the misogynistic gender binary in our own country by proximity. Perhaps it is easier to recognize it, and the brutality it inspires, by looking across the globe to the gruesome murders of “emo” youth in Iraq. “Emo,” short for “emotional,” is an identity adopted from the West, in which tight clothes, piercings, and spiked hair are flaunted as chosen emblems of vulnerability. Since last year over a hundred emo youth, mostly females and gay males, have been stoned to death in Iraq, and the killing hasn’t stopped. Scott Long of The Guardian reports, “It’s all about boys showing vulnerability in unmanly ways, girls flashing an unfeminine and edgy attitude,” and it’s causing a “moral panic” in Iraq. The idea of teenagers being massacred for presenting vulnerability and conveying gender-nonconforming expression sounds horrific, but how truly different is it from the bullying currently taking place in our own American communities?
The gender binary and its relationship to bullying may be an elusive and challenging concept for many, because it requires us to self-reflect, examine our own expectations, and perhaps even change some of them. No one wants to feel he or she is part of the problem. But we are, all of us. An awareness of the systems through which we live and perceive the world, and which we maintain everyday, is essential for healing and change to take place.  

Part of the solution lies in changing our expectations for how males and females “should” behave, particularly males.  We can take a page from the fathers in Bully, all of whom have been forced to walk in the shoes of their victimized, “feminized” children, all of whom now allow themselves to be emotional, to cry, and to take action against this problem.  We cannot wait for more young people (and their families) to be destroyed before we too make the necessary adjustments in our expectations of what is “male” and what is “female”.

Game Change: Life Imitates TV Drama for Republican Women

Originally Posted on March 16, 2012 on
LOGO: Truthdig: Drilling Beneath the Headlines. A Progressive Journal of News and Opinion. Editor, Robert Scheer. Publisher, Zuade Kaufman.
The HBO film “Game Change”, which bowed on March 10 with Julianne Moore starring as Sarah Palin, effectively tells two stories: The first is about the rise and fall of Palin’s vice presidential campaign, and the second has to do with how the GOP views women.  The real Sarah Palin insists that the film is pure fiction, but given the recent news on contraception, the film does seem to accurately capture how Republicans use women as political pawns–something to which female voters are getting wise.

Take, for example, an early scene during which John McCain’s national campaign manager, Rick Davis (Peter MacNicol), uses YouTube in search of the best possible running mate to help McCain win. He clicks through videos of qualified women, all of who lack swimsuit-competition cred, and all of who are pro-choice. They are all passed over for Palin, who with her experience (of the swimsuit-competition variety), guns, religious extremism and political pliability (or is it naiveté?) is a conservative Republican’s wet dream. Davis couldn’t have materialized the campaign’s fantasy more precisely had he hired Industrial Light & Magic to digitally create her.
The remainder of the film looks at Palin’s experience in the now-legendary 2008 presidential pageant through an empathic lens—aided by sharp, sensitive direction by Jay Roach and a deeply absorbing performance by Moore that transcends caricature. While the campaign team, led by strategist Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson), strains to fashion Palin to its fancy, we see her—a talented but tragically uninformed human being whose fragile ego has only ever found strength by being incorporated into male power structures—desperately fumbling for autonomy.
On the surface, the movie is a backstage drama about the McCain campaign’s failure to pull a Pygmalion on the nation. However, the underlying drama is a disturbing depiction of gender relations, as the men who selected Palin experience an array of emotions including shock (when she won’t follow orders), frustration (when her obvious ignorance proves to be less than charming), shame (having been blindsided by this “siren”) and finally full-throttle fury (when she insists on doing things her own way).
When Schmidt unleashes on Palin, soon after McCain’s official loss, Harrelson’s performance not only conveys his understandable rage, resentment and self-blame, but also a virile aggression, almost suggesting that to hit her would be just deserts. It’s an evocative moment, offering us the choice to identify with Harrelson’s aggressive, “male” power or Moore’s vulnerable, “female” humiliation—which may help explain why women like Palin allow themselves to be adopted by conservative male ideologies in the first place.
Adding insult to her injury, Ed Harris’ McCain then warns Palin not to allow the conservative male pundits to “co-opt” her. This, of course, is backhanded advice after he and his managers have done precisely that, only to disassociate from her when she failed to let them fully possess her.
Many Republican and centrist women voters can apparently identify with the plight of this “fictional” Sarah Palin. Articles in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, among others, state that many women with tendencies to vote Republican are making an about-face in reaction to the current contraception issue.
It appears that recent events, which include the House Republicans’ selection of a panel of all-male “authorities” on women’s health and a certain conservative radio host calling a young woman advocate a “slut,” have amounted to a wake-up call for right-leaning women. Perhaps a number of them are feeling what Moore’s Palin emotes at the end of “Game Change”: the abasement of having been co-opted by a male-run organization, used as a political tool, stripped of dignity and then kicked to the curb.
As these women spring to life, unlike the “nonfiction” Sarah Palin, the light may be rising for them in the form of self-advocacy, as well as identification with kindred minority groups. For example, looking at some of the specific complaints some women have stated in the aforementioned articles—that the GOP tries to control them, instructs them how to act in the bedroom and commands them to “live as I live”—the overlap with the LGBT community is palpable.
This is far from coincidence, as Republicans’ resistance to both removing policies like DOMA and passing ones like ENDA, is more about what professor Judith Butler calls “the policing of gender,” about maintaining a gender binary in order to preserve male dominance, than it is about a fear of same-sex sex. In other words, much of homophobia is really just veiled misogyny, and women voters might be catching on.
This awakening could mean a sudden surge in support for rights such as same-sex marriage—which, as Slate writer Linda Hirshman clearly argues, may actually be a coup for straight women. It could also simply mean an increased demand for women leaders who actually stand for women.

Men in Drag: Armisen Charms, Sandler’s a Miss

Originally Posted on March 6, 2012, on
LOGO: Truthdig: Drilling Beneath the Headlines. A Progressive Journal of News and Opinion. Editor, Robert Scheer. Publisher, Zuade Kaufman.
During its theatrical run last fall, the response to Adam Sandler’s cross-dressing comedy “Jack and Jill,” which made its DVD debut on Tuesday, was an overwhelming thumbs down: The film’s approval ratings on the website Rotten Tomatoeswere 43 percent from audiences and an abysmal 3 percent from critics.  The focus has mainly been on Sandler’s portrayal of a woman–in fact, his record-breaking sweep of Razzienominations includes the distinction of Worst Actress–and upon the film’s recent U.K. release, The Guardian’s Steve Rose went so far as to writethat his performance may represent “the death of the cross-dressing movie”.

Why does Sandler’s shtick fail to elicit laughter—or anything but a furrowed brow—and what might be the significance of his profound unfunniness for broader issues of gender and media?

In order for the humor in a film like this to take flight, the “ridiculous character” (aka, the guy who looks awkward in drag) needs to be played truthfully. As fellow thespian John C. Reilly says, it is the actor’s job “to tell the truth as much as you can,” and this honest commitment to exaggerated circumstances is what makes a scene funny.
But in “Jack and Jill,” Sandler seems too uncomfortable to play Jill’s truth and instead defensively scrambles to make derisive jokes about her. He emphasizes her rough and crass masculinity, rather than committing to revealing her (and his) true feminine qualities. One wonders why he would choose this material in the first place, if only to grab some laughs at the expense of unattractive women. The Guardian’s Rose suggests that perhaps underneath on-screen drag performances like Sandler’s “lie the unrequited yearnings of our fading comics to really get in touch with their big, fat feminine sides. It’s a shame none of them seems to have the balls.”
The fear of identifying with a person who is female or feminine is an oft-unspoken reality in Hollywood. The greatest actress of her generation, Meryl Streep, says heterosexual male actors and audiences have always been resistant to “assum[ing] a persona if that persona is a she.” But if this insidious fear—or “Femme Phobia,” as memoirist Julia Serano calls it—is the root cause of “Jack and Jill’s” bombastic failure, then the film industry has a real problem on its hands. Breaking the silence on this issue is crucial to averting flops like this in the future, as well as to uncovering the myriad ways in which Femme Phobia is harmful.
To begin with, what exactly is so terrifying to men about femininity? Numerous social scientific studies conclude that, for most men, there is a fear that presenting as too sensitive, too soft or too feminine may read as “gayness.” In simple terms, all things feminine in male behavior are considered to be “gay,” and all things “gay” are considered to be undesirable and bad and the worst possible thing for a man to be.
Perpetuating these attitudes on screen certainly exacerbates problems for LGBT communities, especially young people too often memorialized in a relentless news stream of bullying and harassment to the point of suicide or murder. But infrequently discussed in such news reports is the fact that such violence usually occurs due to people’s perceived sexuality based on gender presentation (i.e., men who are effeminate) as opposed to their stated sexuality (men openly identifying as gay).
What is talked about even less is the impact these attitudes have on straight men. In a 2010 piece for The Christian Science Monitor titled “Homophobia hurts straight men, too,” Jonathan Zimmerman emphasized how this contagious fear creates harmful limitations for straight men, like keeping them from having intimate, long-standing friendships with one another. This toxic fear seems to keep certain male actors, like Sandler, from maximizing their obvious creative potential. By widening the margins of their own gender expression, male actors would make room for more honest, effective and funnier work.
Not all straight male actors are so constrained, however, as evidenced by “Saturday Night Live” cast member Fred Armisen’s performance in IFC’s “Portlandia.” This sketch comedy series, which mocks hipster culture on the West/Left Coast, features Armisen in various roles, including several as women. Armisen’s performances are the polar opposite of Sandler’s: He fully embodies his female characters, honestly exposing his sensitive and feminine qualities—often to extremes—resulting in hilarity without mean-spiritedness, misogyny, homophobia or self-hatred. Armisen is authentically funny, and critics and audiences have embraced the show.
If more male actors allowed themselves to play a wider spectrum of gendered behaviors as Armisen does, the benefits would be subtle but substantial. This could reduce an epidemic male fear of seeming sensitive, feminine or gay. It might even contribute to a reduction in violence against all women and men, particularly those in the LGBT communities, as so often we behave, enact and are what we watch.