Resistance to Hypermasculinity in Rap Music Over the Past Decade.

Rap music has always been a culture renowned for its hypermasculinity, mostly consisting of gang violence, drugs, and objectifying women. Historically, famous rappers are stereotyped as acting in a “violent” and “aggressive” manner, which is typically emphasized with tattoos, grills, and carrying weapons. For greater understanding, a stereotype is an oversimplified, yet amplified, symbol for a group of individuals, which transforms into a means for dominant groups to hold authority or power over the subservient counter group. 

Lil Wayne – Vanity Fair 

However, within the past decade, the “rapper” stereotype has evolved to form a new generation, where social awareness and acceptance of more diverse identities, are encouraged. This new generation has increasingly shown a resistance to the hypermasculine gender normality, which previously served as the standard. 

Young Thug – Complex 

Given the history of conforming to acts of misogyny and objectifying women, or at least rapping as if he had, Young Thug, is now known to advocate for gender equality. Within the world of hip-hop, his album cover for Jeffrey sparked controversy because it challenged the industry’s enforced stereotypes and contradicted his past vulgar language and inappropriate behavior. The release of Jeffrey, or more specifically the album cover photo where he is pictured wearing a dress, was monumental because it was unconventional for both the culture and his own brand. 

Young Thug – Jeffrey Complex

Before this most recent decade, there had been a consistent disproportionate representation of hypermasculine rappers. The term disproportionate representation indicates an over or under-representation of identity, in contrast to the entire population of that specific identity. However, Young Thug assisted in the recent adjustment of this dynamic by spreading awareness for gender fluidity, particularly when discussing his choice of wardrobe and expressiveness. There are numerous public statements made by him, which justify his belief in gender consists of no boundaries. 

Lil Uzi Vert – The Fader 

This concept of unbounded gender has since also been adopted by various reputable rappers like Tyler The Creator, Lil Uzi Vert, and Kid Cudi. They have appropriated the use of “physical appearance and attire to further challenge the established heteronormative” (Blanchon, 2020) into the hip-hop culture. After decades of the industry controlling how rappers should dress, this refrain is widening the potential representation of rappers to come. Further, it is evident that the clothing worn by modern-day rappers reinforces the common expression of androgynous gender. 

Pharrell Williams – GQ 

Artist and producer Pharrell Williams is also esteemed for his enactment of transcending gender norms in the hip-hop community. Similar to Young Thug, both Williams’ appearance and clothing reject the notion of only pertaining to the male gender. Additionally, he has been persistently vocal about his opinion on masculinity and its perception in the media. More specifically, he depicts the term as evolving to surpass its traditional characteristics, which often coincide with heterosexual cis-gender men. It is through this surpassing that various representations are allowed for. 

Tyler, The Creator – Rolling Stones 

There are currently more rappers who endure success because they strayed away from gender normality and embraced their own uniqueness. Nonetheless, Pharrell Williams’ insight exerts a similar perspective to that of “power can come from unabashedly expressing the identity that makes [rappers] feel most comfortable” (Lobdell, 2022). This reiterates the greater importance of a rapper’s originality in comparison to their virility, or lack thereof. Not only does the reinforcement of hypermasculinity constrain rapper’s from their full potential, but it lacks excitement, as audiences have seen it done repeatedly since the beginning of rap music. 

Kid Cudi – The Guardian 

As aforementioned, rappers are historically known to be ruthless or rather ridiculed for showing any emotion besides anger. Their vulnerability has been deprecated in order to maintain a robust persona, and uphold mythical norms of the male gender. Mythical norms of the male gender can most often be characterized as “strong,” “brave,” and “heroic,” whereas behaviors like crying act in contradiction and supposedly assert weakness. 

Pharrell Williams – GQ 

On the contrary, there has been a recent increase in rappers expressing their emotions by utilizing rap music “as a tool to resist the social issues and to highlight the perspectives of those who are oppressed, consequently opposing dominant ideologies” (Lobdell, 2022). In lyrics, stage presence, and social media personas, a greater amount of rappers are choosing to expose their own vulnerability than have in the past. Through the incorporation of personal hardships, discriminations, and tragedies into their music, we see fewer men playing into a facade and more men exuding authenticity. 

Frank Ocean – VICE 

There are numerous hip-hop artists from the past decade who have succeeded with the inclusion of personalization and sensitivity in their lyrics. Namely, rappers like Juice Wrld, Xxxtentacion, and Trippie Redd have all played a major role in the establishment of genuine rapping. Additionally, an artist who is particularly renowned for the emotional investment he puts in his music goes by the stage name Frank Ocean. By listening to any one of his songs, one can notice the apparent vulnerability he exerts in his music. His career has led him to face difficult ideologies, like “having to live up to an ideal of masculinity that, besides being a patriarchal socio-construction, conflicts with the everyday-life emotions of men” (Dhaenens & De Ridder, 2014). This indicates an opposition between such an ideal of masculinity and men dealing with their own emotions. It depicts manliness as unemotional and when given the option, a man must choose his masculinity over his feelings. 

Frank Ocean – Genius 

Rap music is not defined by the clothes rappers wear, the words they say, or the emotions they feel. More specifically, a rapper’s identity does not depict how good they are at rapping or any skill set for that matter. Holding individuals in the hip-hop culture to a standard of masculinity, as done in the past, only denies audiences the potential range that rap music can reach. Rap music can’t create, let alone maintain, an identity on its own, but rather the diverse identities produce and uphold successful rapping. 

References

Blanchon, J. (2020). “Representations of Black Queer Masculinity in Contemporary Popular Music: A Close Analysis of Tyler The Creator and Frank Ocean.” Honors Theses. https://scarab.bates.edu/honorstheses/326  

Dhaenens, F. & De Ridder, S. (2014). “Resistant Masculinities in Alternative R&B? Understanding Frank Ocean and The Weekend’s Representations of Gender.” European Journal of Cultural Studies, 18(3), 283-299. https://doi.org/10.1177/1367549414526730  
Lobdell, E. (2022, March 21) “I Got Two Versions: Frank Ocean, Lil Nas X, and the Rhetoric of Progressive Masculinity in Rap Music”. Theses and Dissertations.https://doi.org/10.30707/etd2022.20220705065052168975.999985

The Overemphasis of Romantic Relationships for Female Leads in Stranger Things Season 4

The latest season of Stranger Things has just come out on Netflix this past month, and now, the Television series has become Netflix’s most watched series that is in English. The season is packed with a lot of superpower battling, mind hopping, interdimensional travel, and world-ending doom, but it is also full of a certain stereotype.

Throughout this new season, many of the female leads fall into the stereotype of being defined by their relationships. “Most stereotypes define women in terms of their relationships to men,” writes Ellen Seiter, essentially saying that, in this context, a female character is characterized by having a relationship to a man. This can be seen very often within the female leads of Stranger Things fourth season. With this series being such a big hit with the public, the representation of females coming from the series becomes a glaring issue when there are multiple characters falling into the same problem. Defining the female leads with their relationships is a problem that Stranger Things Season 4 has found itself under.

Max and Eleven – Stranger Things Season 3 Teen Vogue

Before going more in depth of the stereotyping within the female leads in the series, there is some needed context about Stranger Things from their previous seasons. Stranger Things did not just create stereotypical girls for the show, but rather made complex and interesting characters that are vital to moving the story forward, with then main protagonist of the series being Eleven, and young girl with superpowers and bad social skills. The show helped show women and girls as more than just bodies and plot devices that many other series have done before (D’amore, 2016).  Having Eleven build a platonic relationship with Max, and Robin creating one with Steve shows that they don’t just need to be love interest for the boys. Nancy Wheeler even becomes a reporter in the third season and develops more as a character as well (Hayssen, 2019). That is why when these female characters go through a slight Flanderization by having their romantic relationships define them, it seems to be a step back in the progression the series has made.

Mike, Will, and Eleven – Stranger Things Season 4 Netflix Life

In the fourth season, we see Eleven’s story arch start with Mike visiting her during their spring break in California, as she moved away at the end of season 3. Having their relationship be a main focal point in the beginning of the story is not too damaging for Eleven’s character, as it sets up a plot and moves the story forward, even if it’s at a snail’s pace. Eventually, eleven gets taken by a friend of theirs that works in the government to tell her that there is yet another evil killing people in her hometown, and that she will need to unlock her powers again to defeat it. This part of the story is good for building up Eleven’s character, as she interacts with Dr. Benner, her so called “papa”, and comes to terms with her trauma from past events while regaining old memories. The issue with her character doesn’t fully come to view until the finale.

Mike talking to Eleven as she fights Vecna in Max’s Mind – Stranger Things Season 4 YouTube

The finale of the season has Eleven fighting Vecna, the main antagonist, within the mind of another character, Max. In this scene, Vecna gets the best of Eleven and pins her to a wall for her to watch him kill Max, who is her friend. At this point Mike starts to talk to Eleven, as he is with her body in the real world, and he finally tells her that he loves her. This confession becomes the motivation she needs to get the upper hand on Vecna. This is the main issue from Eleven’s character. When she is almost defeated, she gets motivation from Mike’s love, not something like the death of Dr. Benner, the fear of losing her friend Max, or the fact that if she doesn’t do this the world will end. Having Mike’s love be the source of power in this scene seems to much in the field of characterizing Eleven with her romantic relationship with Mike. This instance, however, is the least in line with the stereotyping of a character.

Max and Lucas – Stranger Things Season 4 People

The second instance of this over reliance on romantic relationships is seen in Max’s character. Max in this season is haunted by Vecna, as he need to kill her to finish his plan. He does so by going into the minds of his victims and killing them from there. Max knows that she is next on his kill list and spends a couple of episodes coming to terms with dying, on to later find out that she can drown out his attempts to get into her mind with her favorite song. Multiple times throughout the season, Max is grieving or coming to terms with the fact that Vecna is going to attempt to murder her, and at these moments is when her relationship with Lucas starts to be shown. Rather than coping with the whole friend group, the show tends to isolate her with Lucas to show that they are each other’s romantic interest. In the finale, when Max decided to lure Vecna into her mind so they can try to kill him, there is a scene of just her and Lucas talking and giggling, which takes away from the moment of her possibly dying. This relationship is shown at almost every climactic moment that includes Max, and instead of focusing on her emotions and how she feels about her situation, her feelings for Lucas are shown instead. This is where it seems like Max went from a tomboy friend of the group with a complex relationship with her family to just being another half of a relationship again. This sort of reverts her character back to when she first started dating Lucas in season 3, and all the development she had as a character feels lost.

Nancy and Steve – Stranger Things Season 4 Pop Buzz

Nancy Wheeler, Mike’s older sister, also seemed to have this sort of regression in character. Nancy was initially just a romantic interest to Steve, a main character is the show, but was integral to the story with one of her friends being the first death of the whole series but was never in the middle of the main climax or important scenes. Eventually, like what was stated earlier, Nancy did develop into being a reporter for her school and deviated from just being Steve’s girlfriend. She does eventually break up with Steve and start to date another character in the show, Jonathan. She had begun to be more important to the overall narrative of the series and becoming much more complex than what she had started as. In the fourth season, however, Nancy sort of just revolves around a love triangle between Steve, herself, and Jonathan.

Nancy and Jonathan – Stranger Things Season 4 Netflix Life

Jonathan is her boyfriend when the season starts, and still is her boyfriend by the end of the season, but as the fourth season went on, there were multiple instances of Nancy sort of fawning over Steve, and this struggle between Steve or Jonathan in her mind becomes the main conflict for her. Although she does serve for important plot points in the story, such as learning that music can help Max hide from Vecna, or her finding Vecna’s true identity, it seems that her feelings for Steve still take precedent in her narrative. There is a scene were Vecna gives Nancy visions of what he will do to the world, and as this goes on, Steve is trying to wake her up and get her out of it. Eventually, this story plot leads back to Steve and her possibly having romantic feelings for each other. This is where the stereotyping of Nancy is really seen, as most of her character in this season revolves around Steve or Jonathan, and the audience doesn’t get much else from her in the season for character development.

Robin and Vickie – Stranger Things Season 4 Autostraddle

Robin is another main lead that was introduced to the series is Stranger Things season 3, where her main focal point was to be a platonic friend for Steve, as he can’t date her because she is a lesbian. Although in the new season she was still just a friend of Steve, she does interact more with Nancy and other members of the cast. Again, however, instead of developing her character with new experiences and hardships, she is more just delegated as comic relief. She also gains a love interest in this new season, and that is where a lot of her conflict comes from in this season. This is another example of Flanderization, still at a minimal effect, where Robin just revolves around her crush on Vickie in this season and doesn’t really stand alone as a character without this relationship.

Joyce Byers and Jim Hopper – Stranger Things Season 4 Pop Buzz

Joyce Byers is the best example of this stereotype on a character. Joyce is the mother of Will and Jonathan, two of the main characters in the series. In the first season, her only goal is to get her son back, she then becomes a subtle love interest to Jim Hopper, a cop of the main town and a main character. In the fourth season, Joyce’s only goal is to get Jim back to the United States, as he is captured by the KGB. She leaves her home and flies to Russia to save him. In this season, all Joyce talks about is Hopper, and everything she does in the season is for Hopper. Alone, she is not much of a character this season because her main characteristic is being Jim’s main love interest. This character is the pinnacle of this stereotype.

Dustin, Eddie, and Mike- Stranger Things Season 4 Entertainment Weekly

To contrast this stereotyping within the female leads, there are multiple male leads whose characters don’t revolve around any romantic relationships. “Stereotypes usually describe all women in terms of their personal relationships to men and in terms of their sexuality, while white men are rarely described in this way,” writes Ellen Seiter, and we can see this trend being followed in this new season too. Dustin and Eddie, two main characters for season 4, both don’t revolve around any romantic relationships to develop their characters. Dustin has a girlfriend but does not characterize him. In this season, Dustin’s main goal is to stop Vecna from killing his friend and helping Eddie prove that he is innocent. Eddie in a new character for the season who was blamed for the murder of a girl in the town and is now on the run and trying to survive while Dustin helps him clear his name. These two don’t rely on relationships to push their character forward in the narrative, and having storylines like the ones they had for the female leads should be the ideal.

Mike, Suzie, Will, and Jonathan – Stranger Things Season 4 Showbiz Cheatsheet

An example of this being done on a female character is Dustin’s girlfriend Suzie. She plays a small role in the season and helps Mike and the Byers brothers find where Eleven was taken. There is no mention of Dustin in the whole sequence expect for introductions, where they tell her that they are his friends. Suzie and Dustin have a relationship, but that relationship is not the main characteristic for either of them.

This is how the female characters should be handled, not just in Stranger things, but in all types of media where the stereotyping of women being characterized by their relationships exist. The problem is not that these characters are in romantic relationships, but that these relationships take precedent over other plot points and don’t give them any complexity other than being a love interest. Stranger Things is not the worst offender of this stereotype by a long shot, with Eleven, Max, and Nancy still having defining moments and attributes that don’t just revolve around boys, but with what the series has already broken in terms of women stereotypes, it would be great if the producers go into the next season with a vision that will correct this flaw.

References

Andreeva, N. (2022, June 14). ‘stranger things 4’ officially becomes Netflix’s most watched English language series. Deadline. Retrieved July 6, 2022, from https://deadline.com/2022/06/stranger-things-4-viewership-ratings-netflix-most-watched-english-language-series-squid-game-1235045238/  

D’Amore, L. M. (2016). Smart chicks on screen: Representing women’s intellect in film and television. Rowman & Littlefield.

Gardner, K. (2019, July 8). Stranger things 3 tries to do better by women, mixed results. The Mary Sue. Retrieved July 6, 2022, from https://www.themarysue.com/stranger-things-season-three-female-characters/

Seiter, E. (1986). Feminism and Ideology: The Terms of Women’s Stereotypes. Feminist Review, 22(1), 58–81. https://doi.org/10.1057/fr.1986.4

Seiter, E. (1986). Stereotypes and the media: A re-evaluation. Journal of Communication, 36(2), 14–26. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1460-2466.1986.tb01420.x

Women in TV. (1979). The Wilson Quarterly (1976-), 3(4), 29–30. http://www.jstor.org/stable/45265223

Representation of Women in Politics in Conservative Medias Such as Fox News

Politics is defined as the governance of an area, and the debate or conflict among individuals hoping to achieve power. Because of this, politics is the highest arena of influence and shapes how we view all aspects of a culture. Women in politics therefore face much scrutiny in political arenas, particularly when it comes to how they are represented in the media. While men in politics are told to lead, women are faced with the obstacle of having to “look the part” by being beautiful, yet not scandalous. Additionally, the media also criticizes women in politics for boldness and what they say. This is especially true in conservative news outlets such as Fox News, women face extreme scrutiny that makes politics a difficult world to exist in. Each of the photos in this essay show examples of women in politics being represented as “less than” men, because women are represented by conservative media, especially Fox News, as being unworthy of political power.

Source: Politico

Men practically have a “free pass” in politics, as shown in this image, because they are able to take the escalator while women are not even granted stairs. It shows the inequality in politics on how women must conquer certain barriers and obstacles to get to the same political power as men who don’t face these same challenges. One thing that is particularly striking about this photo is the two women in the bottom right corner. They are helping each other succeed, and move up the ranks of politics. This certainly shows the idea that the inequality faced by women on conservative news shows like Fox News must first stop at women disrespecting women. Women already face enough sexism by their male counterparts, there’s no need for women to embrace this treatment also. When images like this are considered in the context of the degrading treatment women face by Fox News, one can see a narrative is created about women being unworthy of political spaces.

Source: NPR

Women are often represented by the media as having to be “tamed” in politics. The second photo shows Mr. Bloomberg and Senator Warner during the Democratic Presidential Primary that was aired on Fox News. Here, we can see the active male/passive female enforcement of society. When Bloomberg and Warren get into a heated argument, Bloomberg is holding up his hand to motion to Senator Warren to stop talking even though it was her turn to respond. This photo shows how the active male’s opinion is more valuable and respected than the passive woman’s views. Their body language of active/passive also shows how society sees men as above women, especially when it comes to leadership roles. Society ultimately sees this overtaking of women as “saving them from themselves”, a narrative that is consistently reinforced throughout media (Kelly). Fox News specifically panned in on this moment while they were broadcasting to show Senator Warren being “told off” and “shrinking” in the presence of a powerful man, furthering the narrative conservative media, especially Fox News, tells about women in politics.

Source: Daily Mail

This picture, taken on a campaign trail, demonstrates how negatively women in politics are perceived. Behind the politician, a sign can be seen reading “ditch the witch.” The word “witch” is a derogatory term used against women when they are tough, stern, or even just in positions of power. Signs like these help inform the gender norm: an idea that women should be hyper feminine and men should be hyper masculine with nothing in between. This causes women to face challenges men do not when they run for office. Politicians need certain characteristics in order to be elected and successful at their job. However, here is where lies the paradox, these traits that fit politicians best are seen as hyper masculine, so when women express them they are seen as going against social norms, something society and voters do not like.

Source: The Guardian

The photo above shows the British Prime Minister and another woman in power sitting down in a meeting. The title on the front of the newspaper says, “Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it.” The fact that there are two powerful women in politics discussing important things and the newspaper chooses to focus on what they are wearing and how they look shows conservative media’s priorities when it comes to male politicians vs female politicians. Women are looked at as if they are only to be looked at, and that the words coming out of their mouth are not important. This, unfortunately, is the case in many forms of media (Mulvey). If there were two men on the front of the paper, their clothing and looks would be the last thing on people’s minds, let alone a newspaper cover title. However, because there are two women on the front, they face the societal stigma of dressing, sitting, and acting a certain way.

Source: Brussels Times

The cartoon shows two women discussing white male superiority as a political strategy, and them both finding it outrageous that it’s a real thing people consider when voting for their representatives. The second woman mentions, “Is it that time of the century again?” This shows how in the twenty-first century, gender should not be something voters look for in a politician. Voters should vote for someone who they believe has their best interests at heart and will pass policies that are beneficial for them. I believe it is especially important to point out that it is two women who are having this discussion. This is because gender stereotypes like these hurt women the most.

Source: New Republic

The next image shows an image Fox News captured when they aired the 2016 presidential debates. It shows Hillary Clinton, the democratic nominee, being stared down by the Republican nominee, future president Donald J. Trump. This perfectly captures “the gaze.” “The gaze” is when cameras capture a woman’s body and proceed to move it across her. Although Hillary Clinton isn’t been seen as an object of attraction, she is being looked upon as an object in general. The camera never does this to Trump even though Clinton is the more respected candidate as a former senator, First Lady, and a former Secretary of State. This shows how controlled society is by male consumption, and how men view media, influencing the women on the media (Jones).

Source: CNN

The image of a CNN headline shows comments made about the female governor of Michigan Gretchen Whitmer. CNN is specifically blasting Fox News as the “news channel” that made a whole story about the governor wearing a specific dress to a public event. This shows the sexism conservative media, specifically Fox News, puts out about women politicians. They never discuss what male politicians are wearing, and especially not to comment about their “curvy figures” or “large busts.” This sort of behavior by the media puts the message out to the public that they have a right to comment on a woman’s body, when they certainly do not.

Source: DNA India

The last image shows the United States Vice President posing for the cover of Vogue. While Vogue is different from conservative media such as Fox News, this example is important to include because it shows a woman of color dealing with her intersection of identities in the news media, and news outlets such as Fox annihilate women of color to the point the authors of this essay could not find a sufficient example. On the cover of Vogue, Vice President Kamala Harris has artificially lightened skin. While the cover portrays Kamala positively, as a Vice President for the people, the message of the magazine outlet lightening her skin says that she must fit into conventional beauty standards of white women.

In conclusion, the media, especially conservative media like Fox News, reduces women in politics to appearances and critiques them in ways men get a free pass for. This is detrimental to how women are viewed by society in politics, and hurts how much people listen to them and take them seriously.

Citations

Jones, N. M. (2019, February 20). Inside the fight to dismantle the (white) gods of Hollywood. Bitch Media. Retrieved June 29, 2022, from https://www.bitchmedia.org/article/the-wrong-kind-of-women-male-gaze-excerpt

Kelly, C. R. (2012). Feminine purity and masculine revenge-seeking in taken (2008). Feminist Media Studies14(3), 403–418. https://doi.org/10.1080/14680777.2012.740062

Mulvey, L. (1999). Chapter 4. In Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (pp. 57–68). essay.

The Queerbaiting Discourse Surrounding Harry Styles

By Casey Harrell and Emma D’Antoni

The fans of Harry Styles are as outspoken as they are numerous, and many see the star’s transition from his boyishly cute beginnings to his present gender-fluid flair as a sort of transcendence. Styles challenges the preconceived notions of hegemonic masculinity in today’s society by adorning his traditional masculine features with elements of femininity, from pearl earrings to floor length couture gowns. Considered by many as a pioneer in rejecting societal gender norms in fashion and being unapologetically authentic, he has garnered a reputation as a queer advocate and icon, but some critics feel Harry is undeserving of this praise because he is “queerbaiting.” Queerbaiting refers to the hinting or implying of queerness to attract a LGBTQ+ fanbase, but in reality the subject in question is cisgender and heterosexual. Online discourse about whether or not Harry Styles is queerbaiting has called into question several questions about the ethics and expectations revolving around sexual ambiguity in perceived “Gay Icons.” The problematic gatekeeping of queerness of some critics of Styles sends the message that people must be non-heterosexual and out to be able to live authentically and gain respect for it, but this is incredibly damaging for people who want privacy in their sexual lives and refuse to define their fluid gender identities for other people.

Image: Saturday Night Live promotional photoshoot featuring Harry Styles, NBC.

Used as a form of queer activism in light of exploitative industry tactics in film and television, “queerbaiting” was initially used to call out “those officially associated with a media text [who] court viewers interested in LGBT narratives… without the text ever definitely confirming the nonheterosexuality of the relevant characters” (Brennan, 2019, p. 2). Angry and offended viewers of notable television shows often felt betrayed by media writers for denying homosexual visibility and relations between beloved fictional characters, but the connotation of “queerbaiting” has extended into the real world in recent years. According to queer commentary writer, Otamere Guobadia (2021), the term “queerbaiting” has extended to real celebrities today. Fans and critics alike have engaged in online discourse about whether or not a real person can be perpetrators of queerbaiting, and celebrities like Billie Eilish, Madonna, and Harry Styles have faced heated backlash for their on-stage personas. Many people see Harry Styles as just a straight, white, wealthy, cis-gendered man who hints at bisexuality and a non-binary gender identity to gain fame with LGBT and ally fans. Styles has faced immense backlash for seemingly appropriating queer culture by overlapping feminine stereotypes with his masculine physique. The debate over his ballerina photoshoot campaign for the television show Saturday Night Live was heated online as some saw the wardrobe choices as fun and free, while others saw a cheap costume screaming for attention. Styles frequently has danced the line between male and female clothing, often exploring the fluidity of gendered fashion, but critics have questioned if this persona is truly representative of his identity or is this merely a façade to gain fame.

Image: The 2012 preppy fashion style of Harry Styles and One Direction in 2012, Vogue UK.

In the early 2010’s, Harry Styles was one of the five members of the popular British boy band “One Direction.” With millions of fans worldwide, One Direction reached its notoriety by strategically combining catchy pop music with the teenage heartthrob “boy-next-door” aesthetic that many young girls gravitated towards. As a central member of the band, Harry Styles initially sported preppy blazers and chinos, but eventually evolved into adding “edgy” elements to his aesthetic as he grew older like elaborate tattoos and funky print shirts. It wasn’t until after One Direction disbanded in 2015 that Styles started experimenting with gender fluid fashion. Although each one of the five band members embarked on a solo career after the break up, Harry Styles managed to reach a level of stardom and success that the other men simply haven’t been able to achieve in the years since One Direction. Most would cite his defiance to hegemonic masculinity as the key to his immense success, as many fans appreciate the fact that he is unapologetically himself both on stage and in real life.

Image: Harry Styles attending the 2019 Met Gala, Vogue.

In recent years, Harry Styles has been praised for his experimentation with gender-fluid fashion, as the photo above from the 2019 Met Gala showcases a pivotal moment in his fashion evolution. Blurring the lines between menswear and femininity, Styles sported a three-piece ensemble that had the silhouette of a classic menswear suit, but was made out of sheer lace material commonly seen in women’s lingerie. He adorned the outfit with a single pearl earring, nail polish, and heeled men’s boots. In a Rolling Stones profile on Styles, Rob Sheffield described him as “a curious kid who can’t decide whether to be the world’s most ardently adored pop star, or a freaky artiste. So, he decides to be both” (Banks, 2020). Many of Styles’ fanbase is of a younger generation that is open and prioritizes diversity, so many don’t see the star as a “freaky artiste,” but rather an individual who unapologetically expresses himself through gender fluid fashion. Many see his rejection of hegemonic male norms as incredibly unique and fresh, but as author Apoorvaa Mandar Bichu (2021) points out, “his path in creating his own unique identity is reminiscent of music legends such as Prince and Freddie Mercury” (p. 64). Both Prince and Freddie Mercury were considered “gay icons” in their times because of their inspiration to the LGBT+ community and defiance to gender norms, but both also faced severe backlash and questioning regarding their sexualities and gender identities. Likewise, Styles’ expression of self has also been heavily scrutinized by fans and critics alike because of aversion to clarifying his sexuality and gender to the world.

Image: Harry Styles waving gay and bisexual pride flags at a concert in 2018, Billboard.

Despite the apparent ambiguity surrounding his own sexuality, Harry Styles is considered to be a champion of queer activism by many LGBT+ fans. Many go so far as to deem him a “Gay Icon” of our generation, placing him among other legends like Freddie Mercury and Lady Gaga. The adoration from his numerous queer fanbase was not unearned, as Styles has routinely used his platform to spread messages of love, acceptance, and authenticity to the world. Some fans place so much trust in his advocacy that they request that he “help” them come out on stage, in front of the world (Rowley, 2022). Just this past month, Harry Styles permitted a fan to come on stage and publicly out himself as a gay man, thus marking a sweet moment between the star and his queer fans. Styles has become so deeply ingrained in queer pride that his own sexuality and identity do not matter to many of his fans, as the inspiration and support he offers is enough to deem him an outstanding advocate and voice of queer youth.

Image: Harry Styles with his girlfriend Olivia Wilde in 2022, Fox News.

Although many see him as today’s voice of queer youth, some critics still reaffirm that Harry Styles is queerbaiting and cite his new relationship with model and actress Olivia Wilde as irrefutable proof. Since his time with One Direction, fans have often speculated about Styles’ sexuality, even going as far as to make slash fanfiction involving him and his fellow band member Louis Tomilson. Today, because of his outspoken support for the queer community, tendency to cross gender barriers and ignore norms, and blantant statements made in concerts like “we’re all a little bit gay here,” many fans are convinced that Styles is not simply a heterosexual and cis-gendered man. Critics claim Styles is queerbaiting because of his aversion to labeling himself, and in a recent interview about his sexuality, Styles stated that the speculation over his sexuality is “outdated” (Dupes, 2022). He went on to explain that his sexual preferences are a personal matter, and he refuses to label himself just because of public demand for him to do so. Styles believes that acceptance and understanding should come without question no matter what “boxes you’re checking” (Dupes, 2022). Claiming that Harry Styles is queerbaiting is incredibly problematic and raises questions about the ethics of forcing someone out of the closet because you are uncomfortable with who they date or how they perform their gender. Although he has publicly dated only women in the past, it is to no ones’ knowledge but Styles’ and his inner circle what his sexuality and gender identity truly are. To claim someone is faking queerness for fame is incredibly damaging and attempts to diminish the activism he has indeed done, especially because he has not confirmed his hetero- or non-heterosexuality.

Image: Harry Styles’ December 2020 Vogue Cover, Vogue.

Image: Billy Porter on the red carpet in 2019, Refinery29.

Styles made headlines in 2020 by becoming the first man spotlighted alone on the cover of American Vogue–and wearing a full-length Gucci dress while doing it. Though he garnered wide-spread acclaim for this at the time, Styles found himself targeted almost a year later by actor Billy Porter, a celebrity also known for his gender-fluid style. Porter expressed frustration about how easily Styles’ subversion of hegemonic masculinity had been accepted by the industry, saying “I created the conversation (about non-binary fashion) and yet Vogue still put Harry Styles, a straight white man, in a dress on their cover for the first time” (Dolan 2021). Porter claims he “changed the game” about men wearing dresses and now Styles is being awarded praise left and right for doing something Porter had been doing for years. Moreover, Porter’s life and livelihood have been affected by his decisions to unapologetically express a gender-nonconforming personal image and his identity is deeply tied to his style, whereas, in his eyes, Styles does not care and is simply teasing a feminine style for publicity points. “I had to fight my entire life to get to the place where I could wear a dress to the Oscars,” said Porter. “All (Styles) has to do is be white and straight” (Dolan 2021).

Image: Harry Styles beauty brand photoshoot, People.

The response to Porter’s comments has been mixed, with many arguing that—despite the frustration over race-based double-standards in the entertainment industry—no one person can claim ownership over a specific genre of fashion, including Porter. As NPR writer Jireh Deng reminds us, nonbinary styles have “rich history led by countless other transgender and gay people of color … It’s important to respect and recognize where culture comes from, but it’s also changing and evolving to the needs of our times.” Moreover, neither Porter nor any member of the public know whether or not Styles is actually queer, so condemning him for being a straight man appropriating gay culture is insensitive and potentially unfounded. This raises an interesting question in an age in which privacy is increasingly fragile, though—what are the ethics of a celebrity wanting to keep their sexuality private? Queerbaiting within fictional narratives is worthy of scrutiny since the story choices are made intentionally by writers with the aim of increasing audience popularity. But is it possible for a real person to queerbait, given that people have a right to privacy that fictional characters do not? At what point (if any) does maintaining ambiguity as a celebrity become unethical? To answer these questions, let us compare Styles to celebrities who have been more conclusively accused of queerbaiting their fans.

Image: Katy Perry “I Kissed A Girl” video cover, IMDB.

A quintessential example of exploitative queerbaiting is Katy Perry’s famous song “I Kissed a Girl,” released in 2008, which includes lyrics like “I kissed a girl just to try it / I hope my boyfriend don’t mind it” and “You’re my experimental game / Just human nature / It’s not what good girls do.” Ironically, the song was released in the same album as a track entitled “Ur So Gay” which promotes countless gay stereotypes and offhand homophobia. Perry has since apologized for this (Mendez 2021), but songs of this type are all too commonplace, as are industry stunts such as Madonna’s and Britney Spears’ onstage kiss which are performed through a heterosexual lens and designed to be sensational and desirable to straight (and, in these cases, mostly male) audiences. This appropriation of queer culture and identity for profit is incredibly disrespectful to queer fans, not to mention harmful, since it trivializes queerness and promotes the idea that being gayness is attention-seeking, inherently sexual, and an intentional choice. Queerbaiting crosses the line from ambiguous into deliberately problematic when it is performed at the expense of the queer community (i.e. misleading queer fans and promoting negative stereotypes) for the personal profit of the celebrity without providing any substantive support or acknowledgement to the individuals whose culture and history the celebrity is capitalizing on.

Image: Harry Styles in his 2020 music video “Falling,” Popsugar.

However, Styles’ actions are different from toxic queerbaiting in key ways. He is categorically private about his sexuality, never claiming to be gay or straight, rather than specifically misleading his fans. Furthermore, his allusions to queerness do not trivialize or fetishize the LGBTQ+ community and have invariably been handled with respect and serious thought. His subversion of hegemonic masculinity is consistent and ostensibly aligns with his identity and concept of self rather than being wielded as a one-off publicity stunt or artificial gimmick. Assuming the queer-coded behavior in question isn’t exploitative or harmful—which the previous distinctions suggest it is not—queer gatekeeping of genderfluid fashion and self expression is problematic, since it risks forcing public figures out of the closet before they are ready and promotes the narrative that one must have an explicit label to be considered queer. Additionally, even if Harry Styles does identity as a cis-het man, that should not take away his right to express his gender how he chooses and be celebrated as an icon of queer culture, provided his actions are supportive of that community. Given the amount of activism he uses his platform for and his importance as a role model for anyone who feels restricted by hegemonic gender standards, it seems hypocritical to claim he cannot occupy the same cultural space as other (potentially) straight allies such as Lady Gaga. Given Harry Styles’ commitment to the LGBTQ+ community, we argue that he has earned his right to ambiguity.

References:

Banks, H. J. (2020). Adored Pop Star or Freaky Artiste: The evolution of Harry Styles. Social Alternatives, 39(4), 12-18. http://ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/adored-pop-star-freaky-artiste-evolution-harry/docview/2524413586/se-2?accountid=7118

Brennan, J. (Ed.). (2019). Queerbaiting and Fandom: Teasing Fans through Homoerotic Possibilities. University of Iowa Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvrs8xtj

Deng, J. (2021, October 20). Harry Styles isn’t the leader of a fashion revolution, but neither is Billy Porter. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2021/10/20/1047692882/harry-styles-billy-porter-gender-fluid-fashion

Dolan, L. C. (2021, October 19). Billy Porter criticizes Harry Styles’ historic Vogue cover: “All he has to do is be white and straight.” CNN. https://edition.cnn.com/style/article/billy-porter-harry-styles/index.html 

Dupes, A. (2022, April). Harry Styles Opens Up About Why He Has Never Publicly Labeled His Sexuality. Seventeen Magazine. https://www.seventeen.com/celebrity/a39838172/harry-styles-sexuality-label-interview/

Guobadia, O. (2021). Here’s why you need to stop accusing Harry Styles of queerbaiting. i-D. https://i-d.vice.com/en_uk/article/wx57ex/harry-styles-queerbaiting

Mandar Bichu, A. (2021). Harry Styles Unique Persona: Defying Hegemonic Masculinity. Creighton University, 63-71. http://hdl.handle.net/10504/134565

Mendez, M. (2021, July 23). Why Queerbaiting Matters More Than Ever. Rolling Stone. https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/queerbaiting-lgbtq-community-1201273/
Rowley, G. (2022, June). Harry Styles Helps Fan Come Out at London Concert: ‘You’re Officially Gay, My Boy!’ Billboard. https://www.billboard.com/culture/pride/harry-styles-helps-fan-come-out-video-1235089926/.

The Monstrous-Feminine and “Good for Her” trope in Midsommar

[CW: Sexual Assault, Nudity]

The monstrous feminine and the use of womanhood as an element of horror has roots dating through film history and into the very beginnings of folklore.  Historically, the monstrous feminine has been utilized in response to a patriarchal fear of female empowerment, and alternative expressions of femininity outside of that deemed normal by the patriarchy. Ari Aster expands and updates the concept of the monstrous feminine in Midsommar through his depiction of a murderous matriarchal cult that accepts our protagonist as their leader. Aster completes this portrayal with an artistic flourish including folk inspiration, the final girl trope, reproductive horror, and superficial male foil characters. We posit that Aster’s anthropological portrait of monstrous womanhood represents a more nuanced representation of feminine-coded monsters through narrative and moral ambiguity.

The Hårga is a community located in rural Hälsingland of central Sweden within which almost the entirety of Midsommar is set. The commune led by Siv, the cult’s matriarch, seems to express both visually and otherwise a sense of emphasized femininity at first glance. Visually, all members are white (many are blonde) and are clothed in white, flowy garments. They live amongst nature and use flowers and plants as decoration, medicine, poison, etc. Along with this physical portrayal of hegemonic ideals of purity, the people of Hårga nurture their children as a community and perform empathy for their fellow members through vocalizations. However, this portrayal of emphasized femininity is not for the service of its male members, rather, Aster makes it clear that The Hårga’s expression is based in its matriarchal organization

(Aster, 2019)

This image is of a scene in which our outsider protagonist, Dani, is experiencing an overwhelming feeling of betrayal. Leading up to this breakdown, Dani has either cried in silence, alone, with her hands clapped over her mouth, or cried to an unempathetic, self-concerned male partner. Here, she is embraced by the women of The Hårga who scream and cry with her, experiencing her pain communally. It is this shared expression of grief which has historically been portrayed as a uniquely female abnormality or shortcoming. In Midsommar, this feminine empathy is part of the cult’s magnetic power: drawing our vulnerable protagonist into the only space offering her community and family. Unusually, Aster utilizes a feminine trait which is generally regarded as a point of weakness in order to characterize the particular monstrosity of the cult. This deviates from the typical illustration of the monstrous-feminine with traits that might psychologically threaten the patriarchy. Oddly enough, however, it makes the storytelling even more haunting: a feminine trait that is typically associated with nurture is weaponized to make the audience fear it.

(Aster, 2019)

Aster’s portrayal of male characters in Midsommar is largely negative compared to their female counterparts (who are depicted as spiritual, authoritative, and nurturing). As stated previously, Christian is shown to be apathetic to Dani’s feelings in the film. Christian is very much the mythical norm: straight, cis, white, and able-bodied. Because of this, his equally unsympathetic friends, Mark and Josh, encourage him to break up with Dani so that he can not only focus on his studies but have fun on their “bro” trip. Arguably, one could say that Midsommar’s storytelling shifts from the traditional misogynistic way in the sense that it does not aim to make the audience root for Christian. Traditionally, movies have given the male characters “humanizing” traits in order to look past their flaws and root for them, as shitty as they may be. This has been seen in many films, such as, The Graduate (1960), Cruel Intentions (1999), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), and Passengers (2016). Despite the male protagonists’ poor behavior, the audience finds a way to forgive them and even look past their faults because of the moments of humanity that they display. However, this does not appear to be the case with Christian. Aster writes Christian to be completely unlikeable and does not aim to have his faults justified/forgiven. He is inconsiderate, unthoughtful, and self-absorbed. This is illustrated as he complains about having to be there for Dani after her family died, when he forgets her birthday and anniversary, and when he lets her wander off on a mushroom trip. There are no redeeming qualities to Christian therefore the audience does not root for him.

Midsommar also includes ideas that align more closely with the typical monstrous-feminine of horror. Maja is a character whose actions and motives highlight an element of reproductive horror and menstrual disgust throughout the film. According to The Hårga’s tradition, once a young woman reaches adulthood by their standards, she is responsible for choosing a partner to perform the mating ritual with (“with” is not an entirely appropriate term as this ritual is performed under ambiguous circumstances of consent which will be discussed in depth later). The audience is made to understand that Maja has chosen Christian, Dani’s partner, as her mate in stark contrast from traditional mating behavior in today’s society with the responsibility typically placed on the man to choose a “worthy” partner.

(Aster, 2019)

With the knowledge of Maja’s intentions and the cult’s ritualistic reproductive traditions, this shot immediately produces groans of disgust and physical cringing from a general audience. Amongst the perfect line of pale yellow beverages prepared for the members and outsiders, Christian’s stands out as bright orange. Combined with the following shot of Christian pulling a red pubic hair from his bite of meat pie and their stolen glances (Christian is looking directly at Maja in this shot), it is clear that he has been served Maya’s menstrual blood. The image of menstrual blood as a point of horror and disgust can be seen in classic films such as The Exorsist (1973) and Carrie (1976). Barbara Creed details this trend in her book, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, positing that “Virtually all horror texts represent the monstrous-feminine in relation to Kristeva’s notion of maternal authority and the mapping of the self’s clean and proper body. Images of blood, vomit, pus, shit, etc., are central to our culturally/socially constructed notions of the horrific. They signify a split between two orders: the maternal authority and the law of the father.” The notion of maternal authority and the law of the father describes the dichotomy of maternal connection to nature (and thus excreta, particularly menstrual blood which is unique to women) which flourishes in infancy when a mother and child are closest, and the lack of shame around this connection versus the paternal “law of the father” which mandates embarrassment, guilt, shame, and even taboo desire of that which is natural (Creed, 1993). This social dichotomy produces disgust as the audience is exposed to the very nature we have learned to be ashamed of. Aster, like many writers and directors before him, has utilized the social prohibition of menstrual blood to at once disgust, and privately intrigue an audience. It is in the monstrous-feminine’s nature to be desired by the very audience of men who simultaneously despise her. This employment of ambivalent dialectics towards threats of the patriarchy is prevalent in portraying intersectional identities and racial minorities.

The horror that Maja’s character inspires does not stop with meals of menstrual blood and pubic hair. Aster employs a unique reversal of female sexual exploitation and objectification, effectively reflecting the voyeuristic male gaze back unto itself in the Hårga’s mating ritual. Christian is given a drug that will “break down the defenses” and “open [him] to influence” and is then led to the ritual.

(Aster, 2019)

This scene marks a truly disturbing illustration of the monstrous-feminine by flipping the common narrative of sexual assault by male-coded monsters to female victims (Recall the scene from The Evil Dead (1981) in which a female character, Cheryl, is raped by a literal tree). Christian is ritualistically drugged and raped by the community, even forcefully pushed into Maja at times by one of the female onlookers. Once Maja utters the chilling line “I feel it! I can feel the baby!” the ritual is complete. The first layer to the portrayal of the monstrous-feminine in this scene is the reversal of sexual exploitation tropes in horror. Second is Aster’s ambiguous depiction of what is by definition rape, and society’s hesitancy to recognize rape (of any gender) under non-violent circumstances. By the end of the movie, many viewers might express feeling as if Christian’s murder was revenge for cheating on Dani. Perhaps, Aster intended to highlight the power of this matriarchal cult to manipulate an audience into believing it truly was his choice. Aster accomplished all of this with an entrancing aestheticism shown through a detached birds-eye perspective of the image and with the bed of flowers and half-circle of onlookers as visual framing.

(Wayans, 2000)

 Similarly, Aster uses Christian’s character to turn the tables of the traditional male gaze in the horror genre. The male gaze services men by “seek[ing]… power over its object by marking ‘her’ as ‘the bearer of guilt’… [and] marks the female as object of desire at the level of spectacle” (Weeks, 2005). Traditionally in horror movies, women are shown to be running from the killer/monster/villain either naked or in a provocative setting, which is a trope that was poked at in Keenen Ivory Wayan’s slasher parody film Scary Movie (2000). For example, in the film, he has a female character running away in a provocative manner from the killer by stripping in the sprinklers. Further, Aster subverts the frequent objectification of women in film in extremely vulnerable and degrading contexts by having Christian sprint desperately away from this scene into broad daylight and into his demise. He was groomed, used, and disposed of by the monstrous-feminine but in a way that the audience might hate him further.

(Aster, 2019)

Laura Mulvey discusses the cultural context for alternative cinema seeking to subvert the natural order of the patriarchy in her book Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, stating, “Alternative cinema must start specifically by reacting against these obsessions and assumptions… A politically and aesthetically avant-garde cinema is now possible, but it can still only exist as a counterpoint”. This conclusion suggests that Aster’s uniquely monstrous-feminine must first be analyzed as a reaction or counterpoint to hegemonic masculinity in popular film. Mulvey suggests an artistic limit of contemporary alternative film which must respond to the “basic assumptions of mainstream film” and the “psychical obsessions of the society which produced it” (Mulvey, 1975).

(Aster, 2019)

At the conclusion of Midsommar, as Dani chooses Christian to be the final sacrifice for the ancient ritual, the audience is not expected to feel sorry for him. Instead, one cannot help but think, “good for her…” a prime example of the aptly coined “Good for Her” trope that has become popularized by films such as Gone Girl (2014), The Witch (2015), Carrie (1976), Jennifer’s Body (2009), etc. Although this trope is not new to cinema, it has become increasingly prevalent in today’s media. The “Good for Her” trope allows for an honest portrayal of women as justified in their emotions. Instead of portraying them to be all-forgiving sweethearts or schizophrenic/psychopathic villains with no in between, the audience gets to revel in “female rage” as a response to abuse and oppression. Rather than utilizing emphasized femininity by portraying women as kind, unconditionally empathic, etc., or disregarding the reasonings for their lashings out, their actions are justified and validated through the context of the story. The presence of this trope blurs our protagonist’s moral standings and audience’s moral judgement as they root for Dani despite her actions (with Christian’s toxic masculinity and poor behavior as justification). Christian’s actions and the actions of the Hårga allow the audience to view Dani as a victim rather than a villain.

(Aster, 2019)

The final shot of Midsommar is a visually striking image of Dani, Hårga’s newly crowned May Queen, sobbing hysterically as she watches Christian burned alive as Hårga’s ninth sacrifice. Slowly, the audience watches her frown transform into a haunting smile. The final line of the script describes this image, “She has surrendered to a joy known only by the insane. She has lost herself completely and she is finally free. It is horrible and it is beautiful.” (Aster, 2017). Here, Dani appears to fulfill the common slasher trope of ‘The Final Girl’ (rooted in the 1970’s social fear of the women’s sexual liberation movement) However she has not defeated the monster of the film, rather, she appears to have become it. Upon reading the descriptive note of the script, this shot requires reconsideration. Has Dani survived the monstrous-feminine by assimilating into it via the “Good for Her” trope, or has she been broken to the point of insanity? Aster’s frequent ambiguity leaves this question up to the audience, but the general consensus is that of the former: Dani has achieved her revenge upon a dismissive, self-centered, and unfaithful male counterpart. Through this interpretation, she embodies the patriarchal fear of an empowered and traumatized woman. A fear perhaps stemming from a female fantasy response to systemic oppression at the hands of the patriarchy. The alternative interpretation which follows the script more closely grants Dani’s character humanity. She, along with the fumbling men she arrived with are victims of Aster’s monstrous-feminine. Manipulated at every turn of the film, both explicitly and not, Dani has been broken into a kind of dissociative catharsis one might mistake for triumph. 

By understanding Dani as an equal victim of the monstrous-feminine of the Hårga, rather than an extension of their violence, Aster presents the monstrous-feminine not simply as an obvious extension of that which threatens hegemonic masculinity but also as an isolated force of evil evading obvious definition. Perhaps, this moral ambiguity is a response by Ari Aster to the ‘basic assumptions of mainstream film’: that which threatens the patriarchy is evil, and that which serves it is good. Neither categorization of our perpetrators or victims into these respective roles is entirely true to the film and Aster’s portrayal of the monstrous-feminine evades easy classification as harmful or supportive of gender equality in film. At Midsommar’s conclusion, we are left with an undefined moral lesson, unique in its refusal to condemn the monstrous-feminine but also its refusal to do anything else with it, that is at once ‘horrible’ and ‘beautiful.’

References

Aster, A. (2017, April). Midsommar [Screenplay].

Aster, A. (Director). (2019). Midsommar [Film]. A24.

Creed, B. (1993). The Monstrous-feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203820513 

Mulvey, L. (1975). Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. https://www.amherst.edu/system/files/media/1021/Laura%2520Mulvey,%2520Visual%2520Pleasure.pdf

Wayans, K. I. (Director). (2000). Scary Movie [Film]. Wayans Bros. Entertainment.

Weeks, L. (2005). Male Gaze. In G. Ritzer (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Social Theory. Sage Publications. http://philosociology.com/UPLOADS/_PHILOSOCIOLOGY.ir_Encyclopedia%20of%20Social%20Theory.%20Vols.%201%20v%202_COMPLETE_Ritzer%20G.(ed)_2005_1030%20pgs.pdf 

Tokenism in tv shows featuring a white majority cast, like Glee and New Girl, lead to stereotypes and ambivalent dialects

Black and Indigenous people of color who consume Hollywood media have very few options of film or TV shows to identify with and feel represented by. This is because Hollywood media has historically been responsible for the disproportionate representation of identities – either through the over or under-depiction of certain groups compared to their actual population.

According to the USC Annenberg report, while 49% of the movie audience goers in the U.S. are people of color, popular films only represent them about 29.2% of the time. On the other hand, white people are overrepresented at 70.8% while only occupying 49.6 percent of the U.S. population (according to Brookings’ study). These statistics mean that white people have been consistently catered for in mass media, which financially provides them more access to careers in the film industry as well as giving the white viewers valuable validation and inclusion in the media that they consume. According to Dr. Stacy L. Smith, the author of the USC study of inclusion, “privilege still speaks, as white, straight, able-bodied men remain the norm on screen in film”.

The standardization of white stories relayed on film forces black and indigenous people of color to consume white-centered media due to the lack of options available. Even with the few shows and films that do include black and indigenous people of color, there still runs the risk of the white creators tokenizing their few non-white characters. Tokenism is “the practice (or policy) of admitting an extremely small number of members of racial, ethnic, or gender groups to give the impression of being inclusive, when in actuality these groups are not welcomed” (Ricucci, 2008, p.132). Tokenism stemmed from black minstrelsy which was propagated by films like the Birth of a Nation where blackface was used to depict a negative portrayal of black men in Southern U.S.A. Timothy Lensmire, author of Race and Identity in Rural America defines black minstrelsy as, “where the white man could benefit from the stereotypes they created, so they could go on benefitting from a massively unjust and unequal world” (Lensmire, 2017).

Tokenism is a tactic that remains present in contemporary media. White-created shows, like Glee and New Girl (from the Fox network), typically feature one or two token people of color who rarely have in-depth storylines and are frequently at the brunt of white characters’ jokes. It is at the advantage of the white writer to include their token character of color to instill a post-racial perspective that racism doesn’t exist so long as the character remains on screen and is given screen time. However, this forced inclusion leads to giving these tokens a shallow, one-dimensional, stereotypical plotline that only serves to help the white characters. Stereotypes are defined as the oversimplification but exaggerated symbolic representation of a group of people, which is strategic for socially dominant groups to exercise power over marginalized groups. The stereotypical depictions are often in pairs described as ambivalent dialectics, which are stereotypes that often appear to be opposite but in fact work together in problematic ways (Kent Ono and Vincent Pham, p.66, 2009). These paired stereotypes give the illusion of providing diverse representations to minoritized groups but only serve to further categorize and promote misrepresentation.

In the following paragraphs, stills from New Girl and Glee will be textually analyzed for ambivalent dialects and stereotypes of the few characters of color featured on the show.

Coach

Image: Netflix; Coach screams at girl in cycling class

Coach is one of the two black characters on the cast of New Girl and his portrayal is an opposing stereotype to the other black character, Winston. Coach’s portrayal as an aggressive, dominant, masculine, black athlete supports the “Brute” caricature, which portrays black men as, “animalistic, destructive, and innately savage” (The brute caricature). His aggression is the first trait the audience notices as he’s the only roommate who doesn’t know how to handle Jess after her breakup, and his yelling makes her cry repeatedly. As portrayed by the image above, Coach quickly resorts to anger as a reflex when talking to, mainly white, women. Coach fulfills the trope of the “buff black athlete” who doesn’t know how to talk to women, takes women to basketball games for dates, and ends up becoming a middle school basketball coach in the later seasons. Coach’s portrayal as a rigid sports fanatic aligns parallel with the theme of black men typically presenting themes of “referees, ambition, and determination” in media (Nielson, 2021). The two white roommates find Coach’s competitiveness emasculating and aim to one-up him consistently within episode plots. Coach also pursues Cece, the girl Schmidt is infatuated with, which portrays his character as a ladies’ man who his own friends should watch out for.

Winston

Image: Netflix; Winston confuses cat situation

In contrast to Coach, Winston is the other token black athlete, whose persona is meant to deviate from the stereotypical black athlete portrayed by Coach. Although Winston is also a competitive basketball player, what differentiates him from Coach is his clever wit, sensitive persona, and obliviousness to women’s attraction. Winston’s character is more closely portrayed to the ‘Uncle Tom’ trope – a stereotype of the non-sexual, non-threatening black man who people pleases his white peers while remaining the butt of their jokes. Although it was refreshing to see Winston’s portrayal of black masculinity in a more nuanced light, it was difficult to ignore the glaring Uncle Tom stereotypes that boxed Winston in. Winston, unlike Coach, never develops romantic feelings for the girls in the apartment while all three of the other male roommates have. Winston’s character also does not develop into his own storyline and is always used as a subplot for the main plot – usually having him conduct a wild goose chase which entertains the audience but doesn’t deepen our knowledge of him. The image above is an example of what Fox network typically did with Winston’s storyline which was to remain the comedic relief to the main storyline that followed his roommates’ relationships. As portrayed by the image above, Winston is so hyper-focused on his cat to procreate that he overlooked a woman’s sexual advances. As seen by her confusion, the woman assumed Winston was talking about each other rather than their pets. Winston’s non-domineering and clueless demeanor makes him out to be a friendly, palatable black character to entertain the majority white audience.

Image: Netflix; Shivrang’s mother reprimands Cece

The image above depicts Cece’s future mother-in-law who was forced to attend her scandalous bachelorette party. Shivrang is Cece’s Indian fiancée who was introduced through her family’s marriage arrangement and is portrayed as conservative and virginal (two things Cece is not). Shivrang’s mom, shown in the image above, represents the conservative, rigid, and misogynistic stereotype of older Indian women who force their beliefs on the younger generation. Shivrang’s mom’s traditional dress, heavy accent, and stern demeanor align closely with the stereotype of strict Asian parents. Her line: “Is this the kind of wife you want to be?” emphasizes her traditional, and rigid nature. This trope, called the Tiger Mom, enforces the trope that Asian parents are generally strict, limiting, militant, and highly traditional. The fact that the audience isn’t given Shivrang’s mother’s name enforces the writer’s intention for her character to only serve as a comedic stereotype for the white audience. Shivrang’s mom, an advocate for waiting until marriage to have sex, objectively opposes the cast’s other Indian character, Cece.

Image: Netflix; Cece shows cleavage to seduce Schmidt

In this image, Cece is trying to seduce Schmidt to have sex because they’re finally free from her best friend, Jess, who Cece aims to hide their relationship from. Cece’s portrayal as an overtly sexual, feminine, and dominant fashion model places her as the hyper-sexualized stereotype of Indian women. Cece’s background as an Indian woman is frequently referenced in fetishized statements (such as complimenting the color of her skin or emphasizing her ‘exoticness’) which she does not oppose to. Because of her willingness to be the brunt of the joke while also being hyper-fetishized, Cece serves as a “good” example for the south Asian viewers to follow as she makes it easy for white people to spend time with while not “offending” her. Cece’s character depiction aims to provide opposition to the common media trope of nerdy, asexual, weird south Asian women. In doing so, Fox gave Cece one-dimensional plot stories that always involved pursuing men, being a great friend to Jess, and rejecting her traditional familial culture.

Mercedes

Image: Hulu; Mercedes complains about being in the background

Glee has long been criticized for its representation and how it handles social issues. While the cast may be considered diverse, the show is rife with stereotypes in all of its leading characters. Mercedes Jones is the only black character in the main cast, and while her other glee club members are shown to challenge their stereotypes, the writers never give Mercedes the same character development. The personality traits she’s given are that she’s black, fat, and sassy, and all of her storylines are centered around one of those. The image above shows her first line in the series: a phrase often stereotypically attributed to black women. She goes on to say, “I’m not down with this background singing nonsense! I’m Beyoncé, I ain’t no Kelly Rowland!” This is a common feature in the show, as Mercedes often addresses her lack of recognition and the glee club makes no effort to change things.

Image: Hulu; Mercedes calls the glee club out for using her

The image above is another example of Mercedes calling her teacher out for using her voice as the token high note and nothing more. Regardless of how often she begs them to address it and give her a chance in the spotlight, she doesn’t get any solo performances in the first few seasons. By not giving her what she wants, the writers give themselves an opening to have ‘wanting to be in the spotlight’ Mercedes’ main character trait. We don’t get any clear motivations, passions, or long-term dreams. Mercedes gets pushed into the angry black woman stereotype, even though we can clearly see that she has a right to be angry.

Image: Hulu; Kurt applauds Blaine for ‘breaking the stereotype’

In the entirety of Season 2, the only subplot where Mercedes was the focus was when she tried to get tater tots back in the school cafeteria. While this is a storyline where Mercedes is the main character, it’s a superficial plot and just reinforces the angry black woman stereotype. Her focus on getting the spotlight in glee club is shifted for one episode to getting tater tots. In the image above, Kurt is actually high-fiving Blaine, a gay male character, for “breaking the stereotype,” while in the same scene, all Mercedes can talk about is tater tots. The one time her character gets a plot of her own, it’s a shallow storyline with no character development. Her peers, on the other hand, are shown to be constantly learning and changing through their storylines.

Image: Hulu; Mercedes calls out her mistreatment

In the episode “Asian F,” shown in the image above, Mercedes seems to finally get a chance to fight for the spotlight. However, the episode focuses on how she’s constantly late to practice and either can’t dance or doesn’t want to learn. The writers seem to ignore that Mercedes, unlike other members of the club, has never quit before a major competition because she wasn’t getting enough solos, nor has she ever shown to be late or miss a rehearsal. All of a sudden, they choose to portray Mercedes as though she’s always been lazy and a bad dancer. This blatant mischaracterization also reinforces the angry black woman stereotype, making Mercedes seem like the bad guy for wanting recognition.

As seen in Glee and New Girl, characters of color, especially black characters, are tokenized and reduced to stereotypical portrayals. In a white majority cast, characters of color are given stereotypical plotlines and shallow character arcs, while the white characters get the main storylines and character development. These characters are tokenized to give an illusion of diversity and representation. While Glee may be considered an older show, New Girl is very recent, proving that writers have a long way to go when it comes to proper representation and diversity.

References

Riccucci, Norma M. 2008. Tokenism. In Encyclopedia of Race and Racism. Edited by John Hartwell Moore. Detroit: Macmillan Reference, pp. 132–34.

The brute caricature. Ferris State University. (n.d.). Retrieved July 3, 2022, from https://www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/brute/homepage.htm

Explore the representation of diversity and inclusion on TV. Nielsen. (2021, September 12). Retrieved July 3, 2022, from https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/resource/2021/explore-the-representation-of-diversity-and-inclusion-on-tv/

Differences in Gendered Coming-of-Age Films: Superbad vs Booksmart

Coming-of-age films often target a teenage audience and portray the feeling of growing up and moving onto the next part of one’s life. The audience thinks about their own experiences in relation to the characters and may learn valuable lessons through the film. When comparing Superbad, a film written and directed by men, to Booksmart, a film written and directed by women, there are notable differences. The differences are found in the language, portrayal of women, and the characters’ main objectives for their actions.

Superbad Movie Poster via Wiki

Superbad is a film that focuses solely on a group of high school boys coming of age. It was written by two men, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. The pair began writing the film while they were still teenagers; they “loosely based [it] on their own experiences of trying to buy booze and pick up girls” (CBC News/Radio Canada, 2007). The director, Gregg Mottola, is also a man and employs the male gaze repeatedly with down-blouse shots and close ups on women’s butts. Superbad caters to the male gaze and offers a look at what it means to come of age in a heteronormative environment that equates sexual experience with worth.

Booksmart Movie Poster via Wiki

Booksmart is a 2019 coming-of-age film that was directed by Olivia Wilde and solely written by women, some of which include Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins. The two female protagonists, Amy and Molly, have spent their whole high school careers being overachievers. On the last night of high school, they choose to experience all the fun that they skipped out on. Throughout the film, they learn lessons and grow their friendship. Booksmart does an amazing job at portraying women. The female characters are complex versus the typical female in Superbad. This can be attributed to the director and writers. As stated by Callahan et al. (2010), having female directors and writers allows female representation to be more diverse and does not follow masculine expectations. The females behind the big screen stray away from objectification and the male gaze. They instead give teenage girls who watch the film insight into self-discovery and the importance of having fun for yourself. 

The Gaze

Evan’s Mom in Superbad via YouTube

As Seth picks up Evan on his way to school, viewers are put into Seth’s perspective as the camera purposefully lingers on Evan’s mom’s exposed skin. When they drive away, Seth then teases Evan about his mom’s low-cut shirt. As this movie was written by men, directed by a man, and coming from two male character’s perspectives, the audience is subjected to the male gaze and the camera unsurprisingly lingers on women’s bodies. Laura Mulvey (1975) argues that women are seen as “passive raw material for the active gaze of man” in order to “induce voyeuristic or fetishistic mechanisms to circumvent her threat” of taking away a man’s power (p. 67). Superbad demonstrates Mulvey’s theory as the women in the film are often gawked at by the male characters and the camera. 

Ryan in Booksmart via Pinterest

This image is from a scene in Booksmart. The shot is from the point of view of Amy. The girl in the image is her crush, Ryan. While looking at Ryan, Amy is trying to find the courage to go speak to her. The gaze in this scene is similar to what we have seen in class in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, but is more of a modern take. The girls in Booksmart offer a perspective that is based on emotion and love, as seen in the characters in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Through the female gaze, Ryan is not objectified, but rather looked at in a more innocent way. This is different from the gaze in Superbad, which shows women as objects of desire through fixation on their bodies and small clothing. The female gaze is also open to homosexual relationships, something that is not seen with the male gaze. The male gaze paints lesbian relationships as overly sexual and gay relationships as “not masculine.”  The relationship that Amy has with Ryan is not one that is hypersexualized. 

Characters’ Objectives

Seth via Buzzfeed

In this crucial scene that sets up the entire rest of the story, Seth rushes over to Evan to tell him that Jules invited him to her party by asking him to get them all alcohol. Seth takes this invite as a hint that what Jules is really saying is that she wants to have sex with him. His logic is that she will be drunk, and he is providing the alcohol,  and so he will be by her side during the party and hopefully be one of her drunken mistakes. Seth’s entire objective is to have sex before he leaves for college. But when we look at the characters from Booksmart, we see that their objective is to finally let loose and attend social events since they spent their whole high school careers strictly studying. Mark Cohan (2009) discusses an early 2000’s research study about young men and whether their confidence is linked to the status of them being a virgin or not. The study concludes that “many boys report being part or being aware of male peer groups in which a core membership credential is losing one’s virginity. Being a virgin does not mean a boy is excluded from membership, but it does place him in kind of a junior status” (p. 162). Seth’s main focus the entire plot of the movie is to lose his virginity before he goes off to college so he can be seen as the cool, mature, experienced guy. 

Amy via Tenor

In this scene of Booksmart, the female protagonist Amy is trying to convince her best friend and other female lead of the movie, Molly, that they do not need to go out to a party to prove they are fun. The scene offers a backstory to the kind of characters Molly and Amy are. They did not go out to parties in high school because they chose to focus on school and get into exceptional colleges. However, Molly finds out that the others who went out to party also got into good colleges. This is why Molly wishes to attend the last big party of the school year. She feels that they should have let loose and have fun when they had the chance. Amy tries to explain that they are cool by saying “we have fake IDs” to which Molly responds “yeah fake college IDs so we can get into their 24-hour library.” This shows that their focus has always been on academics, something that is not seen in the film Superbad. The main objective of Amy and Molly is to have fun for themselves and involves moments of self-discovery, whereas in Superbad, their objective is to have sex, party, and do drugs. Along the way, Amy and Molly learn the importance of getting out of your comfort zone and how you should get to know someone before judging them. The film offers lessons for the audience, whereas Superbad is a film that is solely for comedic purposes.

LGBTQ Representation

Evan via makeagif

Superbad frequently uses language that is discriminatory towards the LGBTQ community. Throughout the film, the word “gay” is used as a negative descriptor and the F-slur is used both explicitly and as a pun on McLovin’s real name “Fogell”. Superbad as a film has no LGBTQ representation. The characters fixate on their goal of achieving their ideal of manhood and being in line with hegemonic masculinity. The characters are in a homophobic environment, having a highly heteronormative view of what achieving manhood and presenting masculinely is; therefore, they view homosexuality as the antithesis to their goals and use it as an ultimate insult.

Amy talking about her crush via Tumblr

This scene from Booksmart provides the audience with LGBTQIA+ representation as the audience is exposed to Amy’s crush on Ryan. In this scene, Amy expresses her concerns that Ryan might not be into girls, but her best friend Molly wittingly interjects by stating that Ryan ”wore a polo shirt to prom.” Amy defends her initial concern by attempting to explain the difference between gender performance and sexual orientation. Overall, this scene does an excellent job at subverting emphasized femininity as Amy’s character is lesbian and Ryan is portrayed as not being traditionally feminine. The movie incorporates this representation in a very normal and natural way which helps universalize non-traditional gender performativity and different sexual orientations and treat their existence in a similar manner to the heterosexuality and cisgender people.  

References

Callahan, V., Shore, A., Everett, A., Kuhn, A., Saito, A., Sellier, G., Muscio, G., Staiger, J., Hershfield, J., Mulvey, L., Schreiber, M., White, P., Flitterman-Lewis, S., Stamp, S., Kim, S., Higashi, S., Leonard, S., Francis, T. S., Duckett, V., & Tasker, Y. (2010). Reclaiming the Archive: Feminism and Film History (Contemporary Approaches to Film and Media Series). Wayne State University Press.

CBC News/Radio Canada. (2007, August 17). Seth Rogan’s High School Misadventures Hit the Big Screen. CBC News. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/seth-rogen-s-vancouver-high-school-misadventures-hit-the-big-screen-1.668110

Cohan, M. (2009). Adolescent Heterosexual Males Talk About the Role of Male Peer Groups in Their Sexual Decision-Making. Sexuality & Culture, 13(3), 152–177.

Mulvey, L. (1975). Visual pleasure and narrative cinema.

Black Representation & Surrealism in FX’s Atlanta

Marie Rangel Amrhein & Michelle Hardman

Season 3 Promo (2022) FX Networks

Atlanta explores the journey of a man, Earnest “Earn” Marks, trying to find his way in the world. He is navigating being a father, parenting with his ex-girlfriend, Van, gaining money to support himself and his family, and trying to manage his cousin’s music career. Earnest’s cousin, Alfred, is an up-and-coming rapper who goes by Paper Boi. Alfred is wrestling with living everyday life and becoming a public figure. Atlanta allows us to see the lives of various characters in a lower-class area that isn’t typically shown on screen. It creates a great story surrounding black individuals while maintaining its fresh perspective of balancing surrealism and the black experience. 
One of the highlights of Atlanta is the fact that none of the characters are inherently more or less special than any other person in society. These characters are everyday people dealing with everyday struggles. This show isn’t centered around black pain or trauma but instead simply talks about the lives of black people. It does contain social commentary but it expresses that commentary in a way that doesn’t make the show feel like it’d be empty without it.

Screenshot from Season 1, Episode 1

This is shown in episodes like the pilot where we see Earnest talking to a white man named Dave in hopes of getting Alfred’s track played. Dave tells Earnest a story and says the n-word while sharing the story. Later on in the episode, Earnest asks Dave to tell the story in front of Alfred and his eccentric friend, Darius, and Dave retells the story without the use of the n-word. The use of the n-word was not the focal point of the episode but the audience recognizes and can infer the message behind that change.

Earn, Alfred, Van, and Darius in London, Season 3 Vox

Atlanta allows black audiences to feel recognized and represented in a variety of different ways from the struggles presented in the show to the look of the cast. There are a variety of skin tones shown throughout the show which is a welcome sight since society favors lighter-skinned people and treats darker skin tones as though they are undesirable. Dark skin people are represented in this show and not just as side characters but as some of the leads. None of the characters are treated as caricatures or stereotypes, they are all treated like actual people with a variety of different personalities and stories.

Earn discussing business with Alfred and Darius, Season 1 Catapult

Alfred’s story is certainly an intriguing one in this series. Alfred is a middle-aged, dark skin man trying to make it in the music industry and the audience gets to follow along as he goes through that journey. Alfred’s journey is symbolic of many black individuals who are trying to be successful but do not have the resources to do so to the best of their ability. Many individuals in the black community see the music industry as a way to get out of poverty and improve their situation. One of the specific aspects of this struggle for Alfred is that hip-hop artists and the community “pride themselves on their authenticity, but they rarely address anything authentic outside of the construction of Black hypermasculinity connected with violence and relationships” which is explored in his introduction to the show (Askew, 2018). Alfred’s storyline allows the audience to see a lot of different situations that come with those aspirations. We get a glimpse of what it is like to be successful but also have to be wary of who to trust. In the pilot episode, Alfred gains popularity as Paper Boi and Earnest reappears in his life to try to be his manager. Earnest had not been a consistent part of Alfred’s life for a while so it was clear to him what his intentions were by telling him off the bat, “…you want in on Paper Boi” (Glover, 2016). Although Alfred doesn’t trust Earn, by the end of the episode, we see Earn get Alfred’s song on the radio, opening the door for their professional partnership.

Young Earnest in “FUBU” – Season 2, Episode 10 IMDb

Season 2, Episode 10 is a standalone episode called “FUBU” which takes place in the past during the middle school years of Earn and Alfred. At the start of the episode, we see Earn looking through a thrift store when he sees a classic yellow FUBU shirt that his mom is willing to buy for him. He’s ecstatic until he goes to school the next day and realizes that another classmate, Devin, has the same shirt (his being an authentic one). Earn is concerned about the backlash he’ll get for wearing a fake shirt so he turns to Alfred for help. Alfred lies to cover up for Earn so the guys at the school turn on Devin and bully him about his “fake” shirt. Earn comes back to school the next day only to find out that Devin committed suicide the night before. When Earn gets home, his mom tells him that she’s going to pick him out a suit to wear for his piano lessons. He complains about the weather being too hot to wear a suit and his mother tells him: “You are a black man in America. Your clothes are important.” Being a black boy and becoming a black man comes with a lot of pressure and pain due to the preconceived notions society has about them. With status and appearance being so important, the way that Alfred and Earn carry themselves from their youth until adulthood affects not only their relationships but their opportunities in Atlanta and in the outside world.

Young Earnest and classmate Devin in class – Season 2 IndieWire

Atlanta plays tribute to the brand FUBU (“For Us, By Us”), a contemporary sportswear line created in 1992 by Daymond John, which became big among the Black community in the 90s-2000s. The authenticity of the shirt was the cause of conflict within the episode and it emphasizes the weight that status has on our lives. This episode brings your appearance and presentation of yourself to the forefront of the story. This type of conditioning that Black people, especially Black men, face “their emotional and mental conflicts [arising] partly from their constant striving for status within the [Black] world, as well as in the estimation of Whites” (Frazier, 1957). It highlights the fact that what you wear is not considered significant only when you’re a child but it’s also held into consideration when you’re an adult. Black people already have a number of stereotypes working against them and they are well aware that they need to present themselves in a certain way in order to be taken seriously in society. Although this episode is centered around a situation in middle school, the concept is not something that goes away once a person grows up. The way you present yourself will always matter to someone, especially as a black person in America. 

Aaron and his girlfriend at the school assembly – Season 3, Episode 9 Daily Beast 

In Atlanta’s latest season, there are a collection of anthology episodes that speak on topics such as whiteness and race. In season 3 episode 9, “Rich Wigga, Poor Wigga”, the audience gets to experience a “passing” narrative. “Passing is a deception that enables a person to adopt certain roles or identities from which he would be barred by prevailing social standards in the absence of his misleading conduct” (Kennedy, 2001). The episode is centered around Aaron, a biracial high school senior in Atlanta who attempts to be seen as Black when a Black benefactor named Robert S. Lee announces that he will pay the college tuition of all the Black student body. One of the significant aspects that fits the surrealistic style of the show is the use of black-&-white cinematography in the episode. This specific technique emphasizes the physical ambiguity of Aaron but also the separation he has from his black peers and superiors such as Robert S. Lee, his council, and his black father.

Robert S. Lee (middle) and the Council – Season 3, Episode 9 Seat42F

The surrealism in “Rich Wigga, Poor Wigga” is used to challenge Aaron in his identity and privilege. Although Robert S. Lee announces that he will pay the tuition for all the black students, he sets up auditions for the tuition money, ultimately determining and authenticating the student’s Blackness. In this particular scene, the test that Aaron goes through consists of a collection of questions based on knowledge, opinions, and reactions in the Black community such as “What soda is good for you?” all the way through the very serious “What happened to that boy at Lenox Mall…” (based on a radio announcement earlier in the episode where a young black boy got shot by a police officer while in the car with his father). This episode questions what it means to be black in society. Everyone has different definitions of what it means to them. Aaron was not upfront about being black until the opportunity to get free tuition was presented to him. Although Aaron was mixed, he was white-passing and this episode symbolizes how sometimes white and white-passing individuals utilize blackness in order to help themselves. Aaron did not claim his blackness until there was a possibility that he could get something he wanted out of it. There are plenty of public figures who are not black but have gotten attention for things that are present in the black community. Blackfishing is an example of this. Blackfishing is something that some people in society indulge in to make themselves seem more exotic and different. They take features such as big lips and tan skin which the black community is demonized for and try to claim it as their own. 

Season 1 Promo Catapult 

As the end of its latest season and the renewal for a fourth season coming soon, Atlanta continues to be fearless in telling its storytelling of the absurdity of life through the Black perspective. As it continues to toe the line with surrealism and comedy, it makes a statement about black representation and its social commentary in media without having to force or remind the viewer about black pain and struggles. From things such as Southern culture and community to relationships with family and friends to the hustle and bustle of finding your place in the world, FX’s Atlanta simply brings a human experience that is not at the forefront of most media but deserves to be.


References

Askew, T.N. (2018, May 10). The Real Atlanta: Representations Of Black Southern Culture, Masculinity, And Womanhood As Seen In Season One of The FX Series Atlanta. DigitalCommons@ Kennesaw State University. 62-63. https://digitalcommons.kennesaw.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1023&context=mast_etd 

Frazier, E.F. (1957). Black Bourgeoisie. The Free Press. 25-26. https://doi-org.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/10.1111/j.1751-9020.2008.00116.x 

Kennedy, R. (2021, March 8). Racial Passing. HeinOnline. Retrieved July 3, 2022, from https://heinonline.org/HOL/LandingPage?handle=hein.journals%2Fohslj62&div=39&id=&page=

The Feminist Icon of Polly Gray in Peaky Blinders

Max Carrino and Jonathan Dryden-Jaffe

A show set in a working class family in the 1920s could easily avoid the entire topic of first-wave feminism, and that would be called revisionist history. Luckily, Peaky Blinders writer and creator Steven Knight has no interest in revisionist history. Others would call it out of place to place feminism front and center in a show about gangsters and thieves. But Knight manages to create one of the definitive feminist characters, while balancing the shows various priorities. 

Polly Gray. Via The Guardian

Polly Gray, neé Shelby, is the matriarch of the Shelby family. Although not leading the gang herself, she is the confidant and frequent challenger of the leader, Thomas Shelby. Portrayed by the late British actor Helen McCrory, Polly is a force to be reckoned with, frequently being the only one to hold her own in a scene with the enigmatic Thomas. She is also a character who is independent from those around her, she has her own set of goals and desires that both work with and against the characters she interacts with. 

Polly having a conversation with Thomas. Via Daily Star

Looking at Emphasized Femininity

Let’s quickly review exactly what Emphasized Femininity is. Emphasized Femininity is a set of expectations of perceptions of how women are depicted in media. These perceptions range across a character’s identity, personality and presentation. It is most commonly perceived that women in media are straight, white, cisgender, and able-bodied. While Polly might follow the expectations of identity, she does challenge the conventions around a woman’s personality in film. Emphasized Femininity sees women mostly as passive, small, overly emotional, and in constant need of a man’s protection. Polly goes against these expectations in every way. She holds a position of leadership in the Shelby organization, and thus is very active in not only her own goals, but also the needs of the family and syndicate. From her very introduction, she is poised as a strong force.

Polly’s introduction in S1 E1, holding a gun to her nephew’s head. Via Daily Star

Polly enters the show threatening her nephew John, a lieutenant in the gang, for leaving a gun out where his 11 year-old brother could find it. Right off the bat she’s shown as someone who other characters not only respect, but obey. Her character’s independence and strength comes from her experience running the enterprise while the men were fighting in World War I. We will discuss this further later in the essay. 

The Desexualization of Older Women

Another aspect of Emphasized Femininity that isn’t as explicit is that when we see a woman in a sexual environment, she is always a young woman. Older women in media are almost always Asexualized, meaning they are never allocated healthy romantic or sexual relationships, and they are never depicted onscreen. A study by Stacy Smith at USC analyzed the top 100 films of 2008, and found that only 8% of women over 40 were even referred to as attractive. Polly is a character who is not only referred to as attractive, but depicted as a sexual being. That’s not to say she is over sexualized, in fact the opposite. She challenges the notion that older women can’t be sexual, or must only be maternal. In regards to the Gaze, her love scenes are shot very tastefully and briefly, with the camera focusing on her face and ensuring the scene is relevant to her character’s growth.

Polly with a gentleman suitor. Via The Guardian

First Wave Feminism

First wave feminism took place during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and the effect first wave feminism had on western society is shown throughout Peaky Blinders, in many ways through Polly Gray. Roughly taking place between 1850 and 1920, first wave feminism concerned itself with women’s suffrage; the right to vote and overall political activity. One may even make the argument that first wave feminism really changed what it meant to be a woman. 

An example of the “New Woman”. Via The Big Issue Magazine

As defined by the Oxford encyclopedia, the new woman can be “identified by contemporaries as a Gibson Girl, a suffragist, a Progressive reformer, a bohemian feminist, a college girl, a bicyclist, a flapper, a working-class militant, or a Hollywood vamp, all of these images came to epitomize the New Woman, an umbrella term for modern understandings of femininity,” (Rabinovitch-Fox, 2017). While many of these representations don’t capture Polly’s outward appearance and expression, the new woman ushered in by first wave feminism “demanded sexual equality while also acknowledging their sexual difference with men, and went beyond struggles for voting and political participation,” (Rabinovitch-Fox, 2017). There are many instances throughout the show where Polly has just as much agency, or even more in some instances, as characters like Thomas Shelby or other male members of her family, very much playing a major role in shaping the reputation and destiny of the Shelby family.

Polly contemplating her relationship with God. Via The Independent

Gender Roles Post-WWI

The end of the first World War resulted in a major recontextualization of how western society viewed gender roles. While this historical event was only the beginning of a paradigm shift in gender roles as a whole, it afforded women a platitude of opportunities denied to them for too long. For starters, both World Wars were fought by men, leaving women behind to take over the jobs previously owned by men. “Millions of men faced devastating injuries from poison gas, machine gun fire, and powerful artillery shells. Dissent from gender norms was perhaps more easily tolerated for women as they took on roles that had previously been the work of men (in munitions factories for example),” (Grayzel, 2014). Within the canon of the show, many of the male recurring characters (i.e. Thomas Shelby, Arthur Shelby, Freddie Thorne) left their homes to fight in World War I. 

Polly reminding Tommy who ran the organization during the war. Via Facebook

As stated by Polly Gray in the pilot episode, women ran the organization of illegal gambling and thieving run by the Shelby family. In a sense, that paraphrased quote from Polly Gray summarizes sudden and dramatic change in gender roles brought on by a global catastrophe.

Polly rocking a business suit in Season 5. Via RTE

Polly remains one of the most engaging characters in the show, and her mark has certainly been left on pop culture. A feminist character with wants and desires beyond those of the men around her, Polly carries her weight and then some. From her origins in business during the war, to her feminist ideals, she ventures beyond the realm of just a “female character” which so many women in TV fall into. She’s more than just an object of desire for men, she has desires of her own, and there is nothing stopping her from achieving what she wants.

Polly staring down her nephew John. Via Looper

References

Grayzel, Susan. “Changing Lives: Gender Expectations and Roles during and after World War One.” British Library, 2014, https://www.bl.uk/world-war-one/articles/changing-lives-gender-expectations. 

Rabinovitch-Fox, Einav. “New Women in Early 20th-Century America.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History, 22 Aug. 2017, https://oxfordre.com/americanhistory/americanhistory/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.001.0001/acrefore-9780199329175-e-427. 

Hellmich, Nanci. “Stacy Smith on Roles of Women in Film.” USC Communication Leadership, 2011, https://communicationleadership.usc.edu/2011/04/22/stacy-smith-on-roles-of-women-in-film/. 

Fara, Patricia. “Women, Science and Suffrage in World War I.” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, The Royal Society, 20 Mar. 2015, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4321122/. Hellmich, Nanci. “Stacy Smith on Roles of Women in Film.” USC Communication Leadership, 2011, https://communicationleadership.usc.edu/2011/04/22/stacy-smith-on-roles-of-women-in-film/.

The Prevalent Pro-Life Perspective of Abortion in Film: As Seen in Unplanned (2019)

Due to the recent popularity of the pro-life movement and the overturning of Roe v. Wade, it is essential to discuss how abortion is depicted in pop culture, specifically in contemporary media. A popular perspective of abortion in media is through a conservative pro-life lens, illustrating abortions as an adverse event with no potential benefits. The film Unplanned (2019), directed by Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman, demonstrates this phenomenon by depicting abortions as dangerous, immoral, and psychologically traumatizing.

Based on an autobiography by Abby Johnson, Unplanned is a recount of Abby’s personal experience with abortions as well as her time working at Planned Parenthood. The film juxtaposes family scenes with clinic scenes to portray abortions as immoral. For example, in the opening scene, Abby’s daughter sneaks into Abby’s room to wake her up in the morning. Abby’s daughter is met with Abby’s loving arms, while the bright natural lighting helps depict parenthood as joyful. In contrast, when Abby goes to the operating room at Planned Parenthood, the room is dimly lit with fluorescent lights. The choice of lighting communicates to the audience that parenthood and children are natural and joyous, while abortion is unnatural and frightening. 

Throughout the film, bloody graphic scenes portray abortions as physically harmful. For example, the scene below introduces a young woman who recently had an abortion and is profusely bleeding on the clinic floor. This disturbing image acts to illustrate abortions as gruesome and terrifying. The Social Work and Mental Health journal state that “negative depictions of abortion services in the media can contribute to and exacerbate personal perceptions of abortion,” often discouraging people from having abortions themselves or creating guilt for people that have (Ely, 2019). However, research has shown that “denying an abortion to those who wish to obtain one has been associated with decreased self-esteem and reduced life satisfaction in the short-term” (Ely, 2019).

Another graphic scene depicted in this film was when Abby had a medical abortion in her home. She starts uncontrollably bleeding and vomiting and ends up crying on her bathroom floor. This horrific scene communicates to the audience that abortions are a painful and traumatic experience that may have temporary or lasting mental health effects. However, research shows that people who have had an abortion “did not experience negative mental health effects, even five years after the procedure” (Ely, 2019). In addition, the American Psychological Association has released a statement indicating that “one first-trimester abortion (which includes medically induced abortions) is not associated with an increased risk of mental health problems” (Ely, 2019).

Below Abby is seen panicking as she watches one of her patients nearly die from a surgical abortion complication. The setting is graphic; the patient is unconscious, and blood is running down the patient’s leg while the doctor fishes out blood clots from the patient’s uterus. Although the patient ends up surviving, it is a crucial moment that leads to Abby questioning her role at Planned Parenthood. The scene depicts surgical abortion as being a medically dangerous procedure. Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon practice in contemporary media. Jennifer Conti and Erica Cahill, a student and medical doctor from Stanford University School of Medicine, state that the media grossly overrepresents abortion complications (Conti, 2017). In her analysis of 80 abortion plotlines on American television from 2005 to 2016, she found that “37.5% of characters who obtained an abortion experienced a complication, intervention, and/or negative health effect,” while the actual figure sits around 2.1% (Conti, 2017). The exaggeration of abortion complications helps to portray a popular pro-life belief that abortions as dangerous and life-threatening when in reality, deadly complications from abortions are sporadic. 

Below shows Abby first witness a late-stage surgical abortion. She runs out of the operating room and breaks down crying. The audience can assume that her distress is from witnessing a fetus being “killed” as it is removed from the patient’s uterus. Abortion stigma, such as depicting abortion as murder and abortion receivers as murderers, is popularly used by the pro-life movement. According to the academic journal Social Work in Mental Health, “abortion stigma refers to the internalized, anticipated, or experienced attitudes, beliefs, perceptions, or actions that discredit abortion or those associated with abortion” (Ely, 2019). By stigmatizing those who choose to get abortions as murders or depicting abortion as murder, it perpetuates the concept that abortion is morally wrong and that those who partake in abortion are morally incorrect (Hair, 2019).

While working at Planned Parenthood, Abby witnesses a young girl crying as she rushes out of the clinic with abortion pills for a home medical abortion. Here the film depicts abortion as a traumatic decision, while the average patient is young, emotional, and reckless. Similarly, research shows that the American media portrays most abortion patients as “white, young, and not parenting” and end up getting an abortion due to “immaturity or interference with future opportunities” (Conti, 2017). However, today many people who get abortions have children and decide to have an abortion due to “financial hardship or pregnancy mistiming” (Conti, 2017). Notably, “the majority of abortion patients experience relief after the procedure and believe abortion was the right decision for them,” instead regretting their decision or viewing their abortion as traumatic.  

While Abby worked at Planned Parenthood, pro-life protesters congregated outside the clinic’s gate and discouraged incoming patients from getting an abortion. At the film’s end, Abby quits her job and joins the pro-life protesters outside Planned Parenthood. The image below shows Abby on the other side of the gate for the first time with the protesters, convincing incoming patients to rethink getting an abortion. The gate symbolizes the separation between right and wrong, where Abby transitioned from being in the wrong to being on the right side of the abortion debate. Abby’s redemption is depicted as righteous, while the clinic and its employees remain immoral. Unfortunately, Abby’s redemption arc continues the pro-life stigma that abortion is unethical and shameful.


The film Unplanned aims to demonize abortions while simultaneously encouraging pro-life rhetoric. Although Unplanned is only one of many films depicting abortion, the film supports popularly held misconceptions that abortion is morally wrong, traumatic, and potentially dangerous to the patient (Hair, 2019). As a result, films like Unplanned can continue to shame people out of abortions, enforce stigma surrounding abortion, or further government policies that restrict access to abortion. 

References

Conti, & Cahill, E. (2017). Abortion in the media. Current Opinion in Obstetrics & Gynecology, 29(6), 427–430. https://doi.org/10.1097/GCO.0000000000000412

Ely, Rouland Polmanteer, R. S., & Kotting, J. (2018). A trauma-informed social work framework for the abortion seeking experience. Social Work in Mental Health, 16(2), 172–200. https://doi.org/10.1080/15332985.2017.1369485

Hair. (2019). “I’d like an abortion please”: rethinking unplanned pregnancy narratives in contemporary American cinema. Feminist Media Studies, 19(3), 380–395. https://doi.org/10.1080/14680777.2018.1465444