Gender, Race and Ableism in ‘Joker’

Arthur is in full Joker make-up. His face is painted white with crass red lips overdrawn over half his face. He has large red eyebrows painted high on his forehead. His eyes are framed by two blue triangles. He smiles and raises his eyebrown as he exhales

Let’s talk about representations of gender, race and ableism in Joker and how to situate a critical reading in the local Australian context. I saw the film last night in Newtown, Sydney, where the mostly White audience erupted in rapturous clapping. We’ll explore this reaction.

Spoilers ahead.

Arthur is shirtless, with his back to the audience. He is watching Thomas Wayne, a White man in a suit, speaking on television‘Joker’ presents a racialised and gendered view of class. Thomas Wayne (Gotham’s White male, super rich aspiring Mayor, played by Brett Cullen) is the antagonist. Wayne refers to protesters with contempt (jokers) and he punches Arthur (before his reincarnation as The Joker, played by Joaquin Phoenix) while he’s emotionally vulnerable. Whiteness prevails in this exchange, because the conflict between the two men is not really about class, as the film attempts to position. Their tension is about masculine power.

Masculinity

Arthur has his face painted white with blue triangles above and below his eyes. He uses his fingers to force his mouth into a grotesque smile

The Joker’s rise as anti-hero is celebrated as revolutionary in the film. It isn’t. Lower class White men view equity movements as encroaching on their social status. Joker simply re-legitimises White male anger as a political tool, which it always has been.

Arthur kills White affluent dudebros, an obnoxious White male talk show host (Murray Franklin, played by Robert De Niro), and a mean White male colleague. This inspires a revolution in Gotham, where men in clown masks riot. The film pitches this as social commentary, when in fact, it’s just White male ‘aggrieved entitlement.’

A White man with curly hair pulls Arthur's wig off his head. Arthur has his face painted like a clown. He looks upset and his arms are close to his side

How does this translate to Australia? In Newtown, a gentrified suburb on Gadigal land, young White men around us physically jumped in glee, some acting out the punches on screen. Visceral responses to films are fine! But why might Joker feel like liberation to these young men? For one reason only: hegemonic masculinity.

Hegemonic masculinity reflects how some representations of masculinity win out over other expressions of manhood. The film industry (and other cultural institutions, like sport) assert narrow ideas of what it means to be ‘a man.’ The state uses overt forms of violence to establish and maintain power, but social institutions also use ideas to gain the public’s consent about the status quo. Hegemonic masculinity works by reproducing images, narratives and other symbols of masculinity to keep authority with dominant groups, especially White men. Joker dresses up Arthur’s escalating violence as emancipation. White men are invited to feel elation because the ‘under dog’ (Arthur) claims his rightful place at the top.

Joker - Arthur has his face painted white, with blue diamonds over his eyes and red big lips. His hair is dyed green and hangs down his face. He is dressed with a red suit, yellow vest, green shirt. He smiles as he brings his hand to his mouth. Police run in the opposite direction behind himEnvironmentalism is one example of counter-hegemonic masculinity. The movement preaches (though does not easily achieve) gender equality. Two weeks after the historic climate change march (held on 20 September), where a record 300,000 Australians joined students in protest, there is still an audience keen to cheer Arthur’s destruction and misogyny.

Can you be an environmentalist and still enjoy Joker? Yes! But as bell hooks tells us, we can savour films but remain critical. Let’s continue our exploration. Continue reading Gender, Race and Ableism in ‘Joker’

Spanish Film Festival 2019, Part 2: The Good Girls, Ana by Day, Carmen y Lola, The Chambermaid, The Longest Night

Jump in for part 2 of my film reviews for this year’s Spanish Film Festival! All of these films are centred on women and issues of class, as directed by non-Indigenous, non-Black women. But there are other themes of intersectionality that I will draw out.

We start with The Good Girls, a much-celebrated tale about greed and White femininity during the 1982 financial crisis in Mexico. Ana by Day starts from an interesting premise – a White woman comes home to find someone else already in her home: her doppelganger. What to do? We move through risque escapism, as envisioned from a place of class privilege. Two of the strongest films of the festivals follow. For the most thoughtful exploration of patriarchy, sexuality and race I’ve ever seen on film, Carmen y Lola is unsurpassed. It was an engrossing story of a young, lesbian Gitana minority woman in Spain, falling in love in a context where ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ and its complex ties to culture and family are unpacked. Another highlight is a methodical and complex look at the lives of Brown Mexican women who service hotels. If you think that sounds mundane, The Chambermaid will floor you with its poignant study of a woman who has always made herself small to survive. She finds subtle ways to subvert servitude. Finally, with its weighty ideals and harrowing topic of human trafficking, The Longest Night is superb filmmaking but utterly horrific for anyone committed to women’s rights. Let’s find out why.

(Read Spanish Film Festival 2019, Part 1)  Trigger warning: discussion of depicted sexual violence, family violence. Continue reading Spanish Film Festival 2019, Part 2: The Good Girls, Ana by Day, Carmen y Lola, The Chambermaid, The Longest Night

Heterosexism in a Scientific Study of Lesbian Attraction

a White woman, shot only from the upper torso, holds candles arranged in the colours of the LGBTQIA or pride flag

An evolutionary psychology study that gained much media attention in May 2017 claims to show women’s sexual attraction to other women is the outcome of evolution, specifically for the pleasure of heterosexual men. The study was reported widely as ‘homosexual women evolved for men’s pleasure.’ Journalists have not read the study nor linked to it. The study is published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. The study is led by Associate Professor Menelaos Apostolou. The team is based at the University of Nicosia, with apparently only one woman co-author.

Here, I show why the study is flawed and why the conclusions are premised on dangerous heterosexism. Heterosexism is the prejudiced belief that heterosexuality is ‘natural’ and ‘normal,’ and that heterosexuality uniformly structures all aspects of social life.  Heterosexism also presumes that gender is a binary (there are only two groups, men or women), and excludes the lived experiences of transgender people. Heterosexism brings to light the social construction of sexuality, and in this case, the values and social dynamics that impact on what is taken-for-granted about heterosexuality.

I focus my discussion on cisgender heterosexual and homosexual people as the authors of the study have presumed men and women can either be homosexual or heterosexual, to the exclusion of other gender and sexual identities. They have done this without explicitly saying so (it is a facet of heterosexism to reinforce binaries, because variations of sexuality disrupt the idea that heterosexuality is natural and normal). Experiences for transgender lesbians would vary, however, the authors presume a gender binary in thinking about lesbian desire.

With these cautions in mind, let’s dive into the study.

Continue reading Heterosexism in a Scientific Study of Lesbian Attraction

The Social Construction of Migrant Youth Deviance in Public Spaces

Silhouette of figures wearing baseball caps with the sunset in the background

This cartoon below by Charles Barsotti is a good illustration of the social construction of group deviance in public spaces. This cartoon points out how some social groupings can be given negative labels, such as a “cult.” The beliefs or the practices of particular socio-economic groups can are treated with suspicion by a dominant group where they do not conform to society’s norms, values, behaviour or appearance. Non-conformity can lead to the creation of stereotypes; that is, labels that simplify specific qualities of some people as typical of the group they belong to (hence the cartoon, where one wolf says to another, “We’re a pack, not a cult.”).

In most circumstances crowds that “blend in” and meet society’s standards of “acceptability” escape the stigma of social deviance. Cases where “ordinary” groups might be negatively labelled by authorities might occur during times of civil unrest, such as during political protests, or due to other political cycles, such as the lead up to an election.

Racial minority youth are often labelled as deviant simply for being in public. In the case of Aboriginal youth, even something as routine as being in a shopping centre is mired by harassment by security (Perry 2018: Powell 2018). In another example, Muslim girls have been forced to leave a school excursion at a public exhibition centre because other visitors felt “uncomfortable” (Foster 2017).

Let’s take a look at this problem of stereotyping racial minority youth in public spaces, focusing specifically today on migrant minorities. We’ll examine how labelling these youth as “deviant” keeps society from paying attention to pressing social problems, such as structural inequality and interpersonal gender violence.

Continue reading The Social Construction of Migrant Youth Deviance in Public Spaces

NT Royal Commission: Girls in Youth Detention Abused

TW sexual assault: The Northern Territory Commission into youth prison Don Dale finds girls were sexually assaulted by male guards, as well as being sexually harassed (including after being released) and were given less access to basic amenities, recreation areas and education in commodation to male detainees.

There is a general injustice in the abuse of human rights of these young women, as well as institutionalised racism at play here. Don Dale faced national condemnation after footage was released of guards torturing a young Aboriginal man. Aboriginal people are overrepresented in Australian prisons, largely due to over policing with regards to petty fines and low level, non-violent offences.

“At times, male youth justice officers showed inappropriately sexualised behaviour towards girls and young women and otherwise behaved towards them in a way that did not meet society’s expectations.” 

Resist Narratives of “the Good Rapist”

[TW rape] Resist narratives of “the Good Rapist” who is absolved of guilt and who is rewarded for being forgiven. Reject discourse of “the Good Survivor” who is serene and does all the emotional labour to educate their attacker. This is not the model for transformative justice. Liv Wynter writes:

“I have my fears about the trickle down affect of this man’s success story, I can already see misogynists sharing this story with descriptions of what they believe a ‘Good Survivor’ looks like. I fear for Tom’s pedastooling by Men’s Rights Activists who believe a woman’s body is theirs to own and use as they see fit. I fear the people who will send this video to their friends who have been raped. Mostly, I fear the rapists who will be encouraged to contact their victims off the back of this video.”

What Wynter doesn’t say in her excellent article is the only reason this rapist is invited onstage and gets book deals is because he’s White. A man of colour would simply be fulfilling the stereotype of the so-called “bad hombre” if he’s Latin or an “oppressor” if he’s Muslim and there’d be calls for deportation. Otherwise he’d be the “dangerous Black man,” and White supremacists would descend upon these public appearances. Race mediates public forgiveness and rewards heaped upon rapists. See Casey Affleck, who sexually harassed multiple women, and yet just won an Oscar.

International Day of Solidarity for Indigenous Australian Woman Ms Dhu

The tragic and preventable injustices suffered by Indigenous Australian woman Ms Dhu deserves urgent international attention.

Earlier this week, the West Australian Coroner found that the death in custody of 22-year old Indigenous woman Ms Dhu was preventable. She was imprisoned for petty fines that White Australians are not jailed for, let alone ultimately die over. The police abuse, which included denying Ms Dhu medical attention as she lay dying and dragging her body “like a dead kangaroo,” was found to be cruel and unprofessional.

Ms Dhu  died of respiratory complications due to infection. Ms Dhu was a victim of domestic violence, and like many Indigenous Australians, did not have adequate access to services and support for this trauma and her ongoing health issues.

Trigger warning on the footage: graphic violence. Footage contains images of a deceased Indigenous person. Continue reading International Day of Solidarity for Indigenous Australian Woman Ms Dhu

Study confirms intimate partner violence leading health risk factor for women

An Aboriginal woman in a white lab coat, staring out the window of an office

Kim Webster, University of Melbourne and Zuleyka Zevallos, Swinburne University of Technology

Barely a week passes without a media report of the suffering or tragic death of a woman at the hands of a partner. Typically, these accounts focus on the individuals involved. While important, in isolation, such a focus can belie the fact intimate partner violence is a wider social problem, obscuring both the factors contributing to it and opportunities to prevent it.

A study being launched today by Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety confirms the serious impacts of intimate partner violence. The analysis, undertaken by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, provides estimates of the impact of intimate partner violence on women’s health.

Data from the Personal Safety Survey, Australia’s most reliable violence prevalence survey, was used as a key input.

Since the age of 15, one in four women in Australia have experienced at least one incident of violence by a partner. This includes violence perpetrated by a live-in partner as well as boyfriends, girlfriends or dates. This is based on a definition of violence, used by the Personal Safety Survey, which includes physical and sexual assault, as well as face-to-face threats the victim believed were likely and able to be carried out.

When emotional abuse by a live-in partner is included, (defined as controlling behaviours aimed at causing fear or emotional harm), it is estimated one in three women have experienced violence or abuse by an intimate partner. Continue reading Study confirms intimate partner violence leading health risk factor for women

How to Stop the Sexual Harassment of Women in Science: Reboot the System

Zuleyka Zevallos, Swinburne University of Technology

This article was originally published in The Conversation

How to Stop the Sexual Harassment of Women in ScienceThe culture in astronomy, and in science more broadly, needs a major reboot following revelations early this year of another case of harassment against women by a senior male academic.

The journal Science revealed earlier this month that the latest case involved Christian Ott, a professor of theoretical astrophysics at Caltech university, in the United States.

Frustrated that Ott was not fired and only placed on unpaid leave for a year, the two female students who raised the allegations took their story to the popular online news outlet Buzzfeed.

Also this month, US Congresswoman Jackie Speier raised the case of Professor Tim Slater, who had been investigated for various sexual harassment incidents that began after he was hired by the University of Arizona in August 2001. Slater went on to the University of Wyoming.

Slater spoke to the news website Mashable and said he had received sexual harassment training as an outcome of the investigation.

But Congresswoman Speier questioned why the investigation into Slater’s sexual harassment was sealed “while he went on with his career”, even though women who were victims lost years of study and career progress due to his conduct.
Continue reading How to Stop the Sexual Harassment of Women in Science: Reboot the System

Rape Culture and Sexual Coercion

TW: rape

Kimberly Chapman has published a thoughtful post on sexual coercion. She discusses research on how men misunderstand the concept of rape. As I wrote on Kimberley’s original thread, there is a lot of social science research showing that the socialisation of sex is a big part of this problem. Men and women don’t know how to recognise rape because sexual coercion is part of the way rape culture becomes normalised. 

Research on teenagers shows that girls experience sexual coercion regularly within their early relationships. They do not see this as rape and they do not understand these experiences as abnormal because they have nothing else to compare to. Heterosexual girls and boys are socialised to accept the idea that girls are the “gatekeepers” of male sexuality. Girls are put in a “no win situation” where if they don’t have sex, they risk losing their boyfriends, who pressure them into sex. At the same time, if they don’t carefully manage their sexual relationships, they will be seen as “sluts” or “too easy.” Girls and boys see that it’s a woman’s role to keep boys’ sexual desires in check; it’s their job to say no; and they buy into the myth that once sex is initiated it’s too difficult to say no (see for example this study). Continue reading Rape Culture and Sexual Coercion