Tag Archives: invisible to the untrained eye

What we talk about when we talk about the bad -isms

This is a follow-up to something short I posted on tumblr. (It should be noted that the wordpress and the tumblr really do work as companions to one another – here, I post things that are quite long and/or mostly my writing; there, I tend to reblog short things from others with commentary.) Sorry about the seemingly enormous paragraphs lower down – for some reason, the line breaks I’ve inserted refuse to appear. Shall be fixed asap.)

In that post, I quoted Harriet J of Fugitivus, who wrote, from an American perspective, about realising that the dominant media representations of people, and narratives about people, are about white people, and how an awareness of that may affect the way you see the world. The part I quoted was:

If you are white and you think you are pretty aware of race and racism, ask yourself this: do you feel comfortable in all-white spaces? Do you feel comfortable reading books without more than one non-white character? Or watching movies where there are never more than two black people (and if there are, in a modified Bechdel test, do they speak to each other?) Do you feel comfortable in stores or restaurants with all-white staff, all-white employees, all-white posters, all-white products? Do you feel comfortable when every banner ad on Amazon shows you a white person, unless you search for products with the words “african-american” in them?

The whole entry can be read here.

A friend messaged me, wanting to discuss this particular post; the friend is on board with most of the things I tend to post there, but had some issues with this one. Our conversation is reproduced here with his permission, because I think it exemplifies the reason people get so confused about the purpose of the Bechdel test (which is explained with depth and aplomb in the link within the quote, so you should read it there rather than here):

P: I’m a little confused as to the point of this one – is a work automatically discriminatory if it doesn’t feature black people? I mean, even in America, given the statistical racial demographics, a work would have to feature a core cast of about twenty characters just in order for it to pass that modified Bechdel test. I guess my position comes down to, “being comfortable around white people does not entail being uncomfortable around everyone else. And it certainly doesn’t make you unaware of racism”.

Me: The point wasn’t meant to be that every work should be able to pass the modified test – and it could easily be passed with a cast of two if you’re just saying “any character who isn’t white”, which is the standard I’m looking at – but that an enormously small number of works do. It’s the cumulative effect of hundreds and hundreds of movies that don’t pass, and the overall atmosphere that it creates. It would be unfair to say that each individual movie is deliberately racist, because I doubt most casting directors or writers even think about these things, but the cumulative effect is a media environment that says, “White people are the main characters, almost always.”

Re uncomfortableness – you know how once you notice an optical illusion in an image, it’s hard to ignore it again? Being aware of this kind of thing, I think, is like that. It’s not that you automatically become uncomfortable around white people and white-dominated media – it’s more that you can’t unsee it once you’re aware of it, and if racism’s a thing that’s important to you, it can start to grate a little. Hopefully, that awareness leads to change if the “you” in this situation is a creator of media, or even a consumer.

P: Unless of course it’s an issue movie!

Hm, I see what you mean though. I’m just still not sure I agree – there DO exist plenty of works in the world in which members of such minority groups are given main roles without the story being about the fact that they’re a minority. Maybe not enough to bridge the gap between what you’d expect from a real world sampling and what you get in a Hollywood sampling, but we’re making progress, and the gap gets smaller everyday.
Me: Absolutely, we are making progress, and especially in the fringes of media which may eventually spread to the mainstream. And I know it’s troubling to look at it the way I’m framing it, because it seems so pessimistic, and somewhat dismissive of the non-mainstream works that are more diverse. But if you look at the media that the majority of the population who aren’t into theatre or Literature or indie movies are consuming… 

Ok, game:
Think of ten mainstream (something you can see in any Village cinema, not a festival movie) movies with a single main protagonist (not a duo or a strong ensemble, specifically has to be a “this movie is primarily about one person – think Jerry Maguire or I Am Legend) who is a straight white man, not a biopic.

Same thing with a straight white female.

Then same with any straight nonwhite male.

Then with a straight nonwhite female (biopic rule still in place, non-festival rule still in place).

I played this with a friend the other day, and it was what inspired the post. It’s actually doable, though it takes a fair while when you get to nonwhite woman. (It becomes completely impossible when you try to do it with a non-straight character.)

[I need to check whether the friend with the game would like to be credited; I’ll edit him in if he would. Update: he would indeed. He’s Peter C. Hayward, and he has quite the internet presence.]
I know that I’m extremely lucky to have friends who want to have a chat about this kind of thing just because the opportunity is available, and especially friends willing to let their conversations with me become blog fodder, so thank you muchly, P.
Sometimes someone, often an activist, will say that they find some aspect of the media to be racist or sexist/misogynist/misandrist or homophobic/anti-gay or transphobic/anti-trans. And someone else will hear this and find it absurd; they’ll say, “But that’s not deliberate; it’s not fair of you to accuse them of __ism just for something small like that! They don’t actually hate women/gay people/trans people etc, so how dare you apply that label!” There is absolutely a perception that in order to be problematic you need to be deliberately __ist – that the only real homophobes are the people who shout slurs, the only real misogynists are the people who tell their wives to get back in the kitchen with no trace of irony. Most people bristle when you suggest that their work contains an element of a negative __ism, because they don’t see themselves as one of those awful deliberate __ists, and they think that’s what you’re accusing them of.
In fact, though, we’re often talking about accidental, incidental, background noise sort of __isms, the kind one barely notices because they’re so subtle and insidious as part of a general background of culture – which is the very reason that they need to be explicitly discussed, because otherwise they would go unnoticed. When, say, you can watch a sampling of twenty movies released to a broad audience in the last year, and find that most of them don’t pass the original Bechdel test, and many of those that do only feature women talking to each other about men or dating, it’s reasonable to suggest that there is a kind of unconscious sexism going on. That doesn’t mean that every writer has twirled their evil moustache and thought to themselves, “Hm, how can I best ensure that my female characters aren’t represented as fully as my male characters?” When people point out that Pixar, one of my favourite film companies of all time, has yet to produce a movie with a female primary lead (something that’s about to change when their upcoming film Brave is released) we’re not saying, “Pixar are vicious sexists”. We’re saying, “That’s possibly because of sexism that exists on a background sort of level, that influences one’s writing and directing without even being aware of it.” It wouldn’t really make a difference to the quality of the overall narrative if Marlin or Nemo had been female, or if Sully or Mike had been female, or if Remy or Linguini had been female; it’s just that they happen not to be, over and over again.
At this point, I want to ask you, if you grew up as a boy, whether any of your favourite books from childhood or adolescence put a female protagonist in the starring role – the character that you, the viewer, are meant to identify with and care about most, the Harry Potter of the tale. Any of your favourite movies? How many would you say had a male protagonist in comparison? Did your parents often choose to buy you books with female leads, or take you to see movies with female leads? Did you often choose those books or movies yourself?
I ask because there are a pile of books on my childhood bookshelf with male protagonists that I adore, and a roughly equal selection with female protagonists – but that’s because people felt quite comfortable buying me, a girl, “boy books” and “girl books”. “Girl books” included sci fi and fantasy action adventures, like Tamora Pierce’s Lioness and Protector of the Small series or Diana Wynne Jones’ Hexwood and Black Maria. They included complex coming-of-age narratives relatable to members of any gender, like John Marsden’s Letters from the Inside. They included older, more quaint narratives about strong-willed children who embarrassed and confused their adults, like Anne of Green Gables, and tales of broken families and confused children trying to create their own private safety, like… well, everything Jacqueline Wilson has ever written. These are not books that boys would find dull by any stretch, but they feature female protagonists in a very definite lead, so parents and friends will often see them in a bookshop and dismiss them as an option for a boy to read, thinking that a boy can’t relate to them – that a boy could enjoy reading about a spaceship or a pirate vessel or a wizard school, but if the lead is a girl, it somehow ceases to be relatable, becomes a girl book just for girls. (Girls, of course, may not be given books about rough and tumble action unless they request it, but female bookworms almost certainly have a few tomes on their childhood shelves with male protagonists. I do wonder whether Harry Potter would have blown up with boys in the same way if it had been Harriet Potter and nearly nothing else about the character had changed.)
In adulthood, it’s not always quite as visible, until… well, how many men are even willing to give Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters a go, even though they’ll happily slave through a Dickens of additional girth and sometimes less adventure, or a Shakespeare with similar subject matter? Pfft, those are girl books about marriage and stuff. Because no man has ever found a love story compelling, obviously.
Now apply the same thing to non-white-centred books, movies, toys. As an Australian, if you are white (hell, even if you’re not) how many books have you read centred around an Aboriginal lead, or an immigrant lead, or really anyone who isn’t white, compared to anyone who is? How many did you read as a kid? The odds are good that mostly the stories you were given just happened to focus on white people, just sort of accidentally, unless you read a lot of sci fi in which case race sometimes left the building and the solar system. Or, if you were straight, how many books featured a gay character as the lead, and without making the whole book about their sexuality, just a lead who happened to be gay, just ‘cos, in the same way a lead might happen to be tall or red-haired or sarcastic or shy? Probably in school, you were assigned one or two ‘issue Books’. Apart from those, what are the comparative percentages? How much media starring a non-white or non-straight person do you reckon your white, straight peers consumed if they weren’t bookworms who would just read anything they could get their hands on?
When I say this is an issue of __isms, I’m not saying, “Each of these authors is a dirty filthy __ist who is doing this deliberately! How dare they choose the protagonists they want to write about? Your parents and the people who bought you gifts, they were deliberate __ists too! How dare they shy away from books that weren’t marketed at your demographic, or take recommendations from friends?” I’m saying that this is one of those times when an __ism is too big to see, so that it ends up influencing the way you see the world without even noticing, the way poblishers market books and production companies create movies and ultimately the way people think, because the media you consume is such a huge chunk of how you process the world (which is how things like this end up happening). You are the fish in contaminated water and you don’t notice because, as Melissa McEwan so aptly puts it, all your life you’ve been swimming in it.

Make up

Boys Can Wear Make-up by *humon on deviantART found via sexisnottheenemy (a brilliant, but very NSFW, tumblr)

The young lad here reminds me a little, with his dark skin, chubby face, tentatively hopeful look, and the glee with which he takes to lipstick, of Clarence Bell and his alter-ego Clarisse from Boston Legal. For the unfamiliar, Clarence (played by Gary Anthony Williams) is a timid paralegal who feels bravest when he assumes the persona of loud, brash, stereotypically sassy, take-no-shit “Clarisse”.

By the series’ end, he’s working toward integrating himself with the character, harnessing the confidence that he gains when wearing the Clarisse mask so that he can be just as brave when in his own skin.

The two characters, placed side by side, make me wonder about makeup and masks, both restrictive and empowering.

My grandfather is wont to declare that makeup’s purpose is advertised clearly in its name – it’s designed to “make up” for one’s flaws, a thin film of powder and cream to hide behind. He’s not a fan, in principle; he thinks when I wear it, I’m declaring that I need to be improved somehow, that I am not enough.

We’ve hit that point now, where people are so very used to seeing women in media, advertising, and all around them wearing makeup all the time, just a little here and there to brighten the lips and cheeks, enhance the eyes – it’s almost the default state. We probably don’t really think that much about the fact that an actress playing the ingenue girl-next-door in a big-budget romantic comedy is wearing a thick layer of makeup to make her eyes look bright and captivating, her lips look soft and rouged and inviting, her skin look flawless. She looks normal. But you certainly notice when she appears on screen without enhancing makeup, because in the language of cinema that signals a problem – grief or ill health. The only women who can get away with looking like they’re wearing none (apart from the base layer of stage makeup we use just to make all actors look human on camera) are the aged and the populations of indie films.

In many professional circles, a woman isn’t considered neat and ‘put together’ unless she’s wearing ‘natural-looking’ makeup; where, for a man, a scrubbed face is quite sufficient, a scrubbed woman is perceived as being a little washed out, a little unhealthy looking. So, for women whose eyes don’t naturally pop and whose lips don’t naturally look the right shade of blushing nude, makeup is often expected, in office-based professional contexts at the very least, and often in the after hours. But god forbid that you get it wrong – there’s an elaborate subconscious dress and makeup code and it is not to be broken, as certain professionals have discovered. You must be wearing precisely the right mask if you’re going to perform the role of professional competency well.

Amica Lane, on The Professional Masquerade

When I started, I was treated by my manager to an introductory lecture about dress code. She presumed this would be sufficient to educate me in ‘professional’ and ‘non-professional’ work attire.

“Look glamorous, with immaculate hair and makeup and plenty of flirty smiles! But don’t come to work dressed as if you’re going to a club. Look sexy, but not slutty. Professional.”


I wore a black dress the next day with flats, as I figured that was pretty unassuming. How wrong I was.

Hauled into her office, I was told I looked like a whore and that my dress had caused complaints from male co-workers who insisted that I was ‘distracting’ them from work and they couldn’t focus with such an outfit in the office.


So the next day, I went into work wearing no makeup, trousers and a suit jacket.

Once again, I was called into my manager’s office.

“You can’t dress like this. You have no makeup on. You’re supposed to be the face of the company.”

“If the face of a multi-billion dollar hedge fund is a 21-year-old blonde from Hounslow, then the company has a bigger problem than the Lehman situation,” I replied, and was served promptly with a written warning.

“Sexy, not slutty,” became the mantra. “Sexy enough for the men to feel happy, but not too sexy as so to intimidate the other women.”

Things get even more complicated if you’re working in law, it seems.

The chorus of female attorneys added some caveats: make sure your suit is not too fitted, wear flats, wear minimal jewelry, wear minimal makeup, do not wear hair in a pony-tail, do not wear hair down in a distracting way, wear pantyhose, do not wear open-toe shoes (especially in front of a jury says Justice Goldgar), do not wear peep-toe shoes, and do not wear dark nail polish (avoid burgundy, cautioned Professor Collins). Wear a shirt under your suit that is not too tight, not low-cut, not bright colored, not patterned, not ruffle-y, and not too feminine. Finally, when going on a job interview, do not carry a recognizable brand-name handbag because you are trying to project the image that you need money. Oh, and do not wear your engagement ring if it is large because it may anger your women interviewers and cause jealousy (and perhaps rage).

There’s not much of a men’s dress code in comparison – shave, probably; wear a clean, neat, well-fitted shirt and pants, maybe a matching suit jacket and a tie with no cartoon characters on it (suited to the fashion of the times as far as breadth and pattern goes, never made of leather); non-scuffed formal shoes, and you’re set. It’s expensive, not strictly necessary for the purposes of doing your job, but it’s fairly comfortable and easy to put together if you have the funds.

Or, at least, you think there’s not much of a men’s dress code, until Clarisse walks into your office in a blonde wig and a plum suit with lip gloss to match, and you  (well, some of you; there are of course those who are all too painfully aware of the cultural taboos here) realise that it hasn’t even occurred to you that a man could ever want to wear makeup or other ‘feminine’ things – much less in the workplace. It just never entered your head. It’s weird, it’s … it’s inappropriate, isn’t it?

Why, though?

Expectation, mainly. Looking corporate is about looking ‘right’, reassuring, sensible and capable, conforming to the mask of competence. Turns out there are different masks of competence for men and women. (Have fun navigating that code if you’re transgendered and on the border of ‘passing’, or genderqueer, by the way. No nuance here, kids, we only deal in stark categorisations.)

There are women, though, who defy the expectation, who come in to work makeup-free in a masculinely cut suit, and still get the promotion, still get the respect.

Oh hey there, Prime Minister

As a woman, you can stretch that dress code much further in both directions than a man can. You can’t ignore it entirely; you can’t necessarily go so far as a cropped, practical men’s haircut, no makeup, a loose suit, men’s cut shirt, men’s shoes and a tie, but you can pull quite far on that leash (and so much further in less corporate white-collar professions, like academia or general cube work).

As a man, though, you have nearly no room to pull in the feminine direction. People are only just beginning to decide that it’s acceptable for men to pluck their monobrows or wear a pink shirt. You can’t come into your high powered corporate office as Clarisse and be respected; you’ve forfeited the mask of competence and become ridiculous. And whenever it looks like we might let men look more feminine, even outside that rarefied corporate environment – whenever there’s a move toward more skincare products for men, or an actor pops up on a red carpet wearing long, highlighted hair or eyeliner – people start yowling in the media about how there are no! more! real! men! It’s characterised as a crisis, a loss, instead of a broadening of freedom.

Harbringer of the downfall of masculinity, obviously

“Our men are turning into primping, mincing shadows of their former selves!” they cry. “They’re … pussies!”

And there it is.

At the heart of this tendency toward a short leash for men is the idea that a man should not, under any circumstances, be like a woman, should not want to do woman things. On a woman, makeup and a suit looks normal; on a man, makeup and a suit is unacceptable frippery and silliness.

Partly, I think, this is because power and competence are still subconsciously coded as masculine. When a woman puts on a suit and a starched collar, a uniform more traditionally worn by men, she’s read as saying, “Take me seriously. I know what I’m doing.” A woman who dresses masculinely is practicing upward mobility by clothing, and the less makeup and jewellery a woman wears as a female political candidate, the less likely people are to say she’s too frivolous for the job. That’s because feminine clothing and ornamentation is, in contrast, coded as weak, light, full of artifice. (Which, after all, made sense when upper class women wore impractical garments and elaborate coiffures to advertise their husbands’ wealth and their ability to sit idly all day. A woman who can wear a corset and a bustle clearly doesn’t need to pull her weight; a woman wearing fine fabrics isn’t doing housework in them. The finery was there to show off the ability to abandon hard work and luxuriate in leisure.) The less makeup a woman wears, the more serious and industrious she is, the more like a man she is. The more feminine a man looks, therefore, the more like a woman he is. And looking like a woman means you’re weakening yourself, and who wants to be weaker than they are, right?

Feminism has given women permission to become as powerful as men, should they so desire. But we still read signs of femininity as signs of weakness, even as we often demand that women perform femininity to some extent (Gillard got a new dye job in preparation for the election; Amica Lane was berated as much for her more masculine look as she was for her too-womanly dress). And we still haven’t liberated men to the extent that they can decide they’d like to be more feminine, that they’re allowed to look as ‘weak’ or as ‘superficial’ as women are allowed to look.

Makeup is, to some extent, about making yourself into an ornament, admitting that beauty, art and aesthetics are of interest to you, that you want people to look at your face and be captivated in some way. (That is, when makeup is a choice, rather than an obligation.) There is immense scope for variety when you basically have permission to change your face – or just to cover it up a little when you’re feeling imperfect and afraid (in a world that asks for perfection from you, especially if you’re a woman) and you want the armour of a flawless mask and a persona to match.

Perhaps giving men permission to wear makeup would stick them with many of the disadvantages of it – the obligation to look perfect, the challenge of trying to get it just right and being ridiculed for failing – but it would also give them the opportunity to experiment more with identity, to subvert expectations, to be their own canvas, to change faces as women can. The freedom to admit that one is concerned about one’s appearance, to want to play with femininity and masculinity, to revel in the wonder of being able to change one’s face just a little or transform it entirely, t0 want more everyday opportunities for art and play in your life, is a freedom worth desiring.

You know what I really love about that picture? There is a pure playful delight in it, a complete lack of self consciousness. It’s kids playing dress ups, just because they want to, just because they can. The boy is excited by his transformation, and the girl is cheerfully absorbed in the task of helping to effect it. So often, when a woman’s putting on makeup, it’s because she believes she has to; as my grandfather says, it’s “making up for something” – she believes she’s not enough without it (a problem, initially, shared by Clarence), or she must wear it because some dress code demands it. This picture has nothing to do with compensation or obligation. The person wearing makeup is doing it without all the cultural baggage women are carrying when they paint their faces, and without feeling lesser because he’s not conforming to a masculine ideal.

It’s about play, and exploration, and the wonderment of changing your face, for no real reason, for the beauty of transformation.


Modeling and makeup by Sammi Jones, cosmetic genius

Image source: here.