Rumplestiltskin and Regina: Gender and Villains

Over the weekend I was at CONvergence, a delightful convention about sci fi and fantasy. While I was there I sat on a panel about Once Upon a Time, and an interesting question came up: Rumplestiltskin is far more compelling, relatable, and interesting than Regina. Many people found that in the second season they just got sick of Regina who spent the whole season flip flopping between good and evil. These observations ring true to me: Regina is a less interesting, engaging, and compassionate character than Rumple, and in general people don’t seem to root for her the way they do Rumple. She’s often written awkwardly and unbelievably, particularly in the second season in her relationship with her mother. The question that was asked was whether this could be related to gender: are the writers better at making Rumple a good character because they’re better at writing men?

At first I felt at gut level that this was wrong. The show has so many varieties of women written both strong and weak, good and evil, many of them extremely compelling and interesting. How could the writers have fallen down on gender lines here? And I think that there are a few elements that differentiate Rumple from Regina that are not about gender that make him a much stronger character:

1.Rumple has a clear core, a clear motivation, and a clear path to redemption. We have known what drives Rumple from the very beginning: he does not want to be weak and magic is his way out of being weak. His motivation has always been to regain Baelfire. Of course the introduction of Belle complicates this, but she becomes his path to redemption to regain Bael. His character is clearly set out and he doesn’t deviate from these motivations.

2.Regina’s motivation is always shaky. While the core of her character has always been betrayal of trust (when Snow told her mother about Daniel), she hasn’t had a clear path since then: the writers haven’t made her WANT anything except for Snow’s death, and that they’ve gone back and forth on. It makes her shaky and unclear. In addition, they’ve introduced smaller desires along the way that have muddled things up: Henry, her mother, her father, and the kingdom.

3. Rumple grows while Regina flips back and forth. Rumple moves clearly forward. He has a progression from weak to powerful to crazy to compassionate (and then back to crazy after he loses Belle). Regina is innocent then evil then more evil then psych maybe good no evil haha you think you know what’s going on.

4.Regina seems to be trying to figure out who she is, and this is reflected in the way she’s written. She is very human in this regard: people don’t go through nice clear narrative arcs in real life. They do flip flop and make mistakes and change their minds back and forth.

So Rumple has been written in a very clear way that gives his character strength, whereas Regina has a lot stacked against her. However I do wonder if gender plays a role in how these two characters were written. Rumple’s character was written around his self-image and the kind of person he wanted to be. This is the kind of motivation or struggle that can keep going and make sense no matter what the setting: it makes you the hero of your own story. Men in media tend to get stories like this: who am I and how strong am I and how do I fit in the world? They are the protagonists. Regina on the other hand started out as a love story. Her motivation was centered on another person, and that person was removed from her story early on. She is not the hero of her story. In fact she was set up in such a way that there is no story without the man, all there is is a lost, floundering woman with nothing to love.

This is what seems horribly unrealistic to me about Regina’s character and where I think the writers fall down in their presentation of different genders. When Rumple loses his wife his struggle is about himself, not about her. When Regina loses her love, the struggle is not about her and her personality, it’s about a loss and nothing else. Regina doesn’t stand on her own. In reality, it seems unlikely to me that Regina would have blamed Snow and cut herself off from the people who were trying to care for her. If we were to look at Regina’s original character, she was kind and clearly looked past class and expectations to pay attention to people’s personalities. She would have doubled down on her ability to do that: she would have looked to where she could find friends. She would have known that her mother was the reason Daniel was gone.

This seems to be another instance of “hysteria” stereotyping and female infighting presented by the media. Women cannot be angry, fierce, or terrifying without being bitchy. Even Snow never gets angry: she just “does what’s right”. And so when Regina was placed in a situation where anger was justified, the writers warped it into something wrong and ugly. This does seem to be gendered to me, and it’s one of the reasons why female villains often get written as more shallow than male villains. I do think that men are allowed to be “bad” in more realistic ways than women are. Women are stereotyped as bitches or whores when they’re “bad”, whereas men can be jerks or assholes or dicks or just mean. Men can be tragic, fallen heroes. Women don’t get these options.

It also makes me wonder whether writers have a hard time imagining what a woman would be motivated by unless it’s love or petty jealousy. We know that women are more complex than that and have just as many motivations as men, but unfortunately even in a show as good as this one, these are the motivations given to a woman who is “bad”, while the “bad” man has a deep and complex range of emotions. It seems clear to me that the writers are working very hard to give Regina more of a backstory and make her a more believable character, but it does look like they may have fallen prey to some subtle stereotypes about what could make a woman mean.

I dearly hope that in season 3 they clean it up.

 

Losing a Love: Sexism is Pushing Me Away from Dancing

I’ve been feeling really frustrated for some time now and I’m uncertain of what to do. I’ve been noticing some serious problems in a community that I really care about and want to be a part of, and I’m uncertain of how to address them. This is a post about swing dancing and about sexism, and if you think that those two things don’t happen together then you should probably go away right now because I’m not particularly interested in trying to convince anyone that they do exist. What I do want to do is talk about how to react when someone mentions that your scene has a problem with sexism and that it’s bothering them. Two caveats: I don’t travel much for dance, so this post is limited to my local dance scene, and I have not done much by way of digging into other people’s experiences so this is primarily my own experience. However I think that if anyone in the lindy scene is treated as I have been, then it’s a problem.

 

I have noticed from the very first time that I began swing dancing that there was a problem with sexism in my community. The examples of this are too numerous to list in full, but to begin, there is the extremely gendered nature of the lead/follow roles. Some people might suggest that it isn’t sexist to have separate roles, but any time all the people in one gender feel pressure to do one thing and all the people of another gender feel pressure to do another thing, and there is exactly 0 space for nonbinary people, I start to worry. When it’s perfectly acceptable in a class for the instructor to say “guys” for leads and “girls” for follows, even when there are female leads in the class, I get really worried.

 

In addition to the fact that the two roles are gendered, it seems from my experience that they are also weighted differently. In competition, the male’s name is always called first, and he wears the number: he is considered “the couple”. This may seem small, but it is symbolic of a larger hierarchy in which leads tend to get more attention, praise, and time than follows. Follows are generally given short shrift during lessons, particularly in beginning dance classes which focus a lot on teaching leads particular moves. In the vast majority of the classes that I have been in, the male partner of the teacher duo speaks far more often than the female, and dominates the class. More often than not, he speaks exclusively to the leads. Therefore leads get most of the class time focused on them.

 

I have also heard following described in a derogatory fashion many, many times. I’ve done it myself. I’ve seen it stereotyped as easier, lazy, unimportant, or as not contributing. I’ve heard follows referred to as trailers. Leads are told that they’re there to “show off” their follow, as if she’s an object. And as an odd pairing with this, follows are told that they’re “always right” and that leads are “stupid” in a bizarre mimicry of the putting women on a pedestal while treating them like they can’t do anything.

 

And even beyond the gendered nature of the roles and the prioritizing of one over the other, there is absolutely policing of heterosexuality and gender roles in the dance community. Some people might say that everyone is free to choose the role that they prefer, but there is a great deal of rhetoric that men are more suited to lead, and when all of your gender is choosing one thing, you absolutely get jokes or comments when you choose something else. And when you look at who dances with whom, it’s highly gendered. Sometimes women will dance with other women. That is true. Generally it’s their close friends, and when there aren’t enough men around. Men very rarely dance with each other, and a bizarre kind of fetishization takes place when they do: they get cat-called, or watched like no one else does. Men who follow get a lot of attention, but not really for the quality of their dancing, simply for being different, exciting, and “sexy”. Certain styles of dancing are considered feminine, and others masculine (seriously, try being a fly on the wall when an instructor asks guys to do hip swivels. 90% of the men look highly uncomfortable, and the instructor treats them like they’re physically incapable of moving their hips. I realize that women are typically more flexible through their hips but it’s not like we all need to be Nina Gilkenson here folks).

 

Perhaps worse than anything, some of the leaders of our community repeatedly make inappropriate and misogynistic comments and are still hero worshipped. I have even talked to other follows who have been groped while dancing with some of the leaders of our community and no one will bring it up or ask people to change their behaviors. I have absolutely had non-accidental boob and butt grabs happen to me while dancing and that is 100% Not OK. That is harassment. Plain and simple.

 

And yet there is absolutely no system in place to address concerns like this. When I have been grabbed or made to feel uncomfortable, there is no one for me to speak to about it, and I rarely feel as if there is a system in place at events for me to deal with or process it. It could be as easy as instituting a harassment policy in classes, events, or social dances, so that if someone is being inappropriate, there is someone to tell. And in addition to the lack of any oversight about harassment, the reaction when I have mentioned that things might be a little off has been…unwelcoming to say the least. When I try to bring up sexism in the dance community, every single tired old excuse for sexism gets trotted out in front of me.

 

I’m told that’s just the way things are, or that people just happen to feel more comfortable in the same role as the rest of their gender. I’m told that it’s an overreaction, that I’m the “PC Police”. I’m told that men are naturally better at leading, and women are naturally better at following. I’m told that men and women’s bodies move different ways so we can’t expect them to do the same things. I never hear discussion of these issues unless I bring them up, and when I bring them up there is so much defensiveness that I start to wonder if I’m hallucinating all these things that make me feel so uncomfortable and if I should just give up.

 

And that’s a huge problem to me. If someone in your movement takes the time to say that they feel something is wrong, that they feel uncomfortable or unwelcome in some manner, the response that they’re just making it up or overreacting is not the right response. Even if they are overreacting, you should still take the time to listen to their concerns and do your best to address whatever is making them uncomfortable. But when you gaslight, or get defensive, it alienates them and anyone else who might have had similar feelings. It illustrates that you’re more concerned about saving face and being right than you are about ensuring the comfort of the people in your community.

 

If leaders in the community, particularly instructors and those who organize dances, took the time to listen to some of the concerns, they might realize that the ways we can address some of this sexism are things that are fairly easy to institute and would generally improve the community even if sexism weren’t a problem. It absolutely wouldn’t hurt anything or destroy all gender roles or result in a breakdown of all order. It would simply allow more flexibility for everyone to learn all parts of the dance and challenge themselves.

 

Some suggestions:

 

1. Start out beginner dance classes as ambi: switching between lead and follow. If not beginner classes, then at least have ambi classes as an option.

2. Start a series of classes for intermediate to advanced dancers to learn the other part.

3. During social dances, announce one song a night that’s the gender bender song: everyone dance a different part or with a different gender than you typically would.

4. Try starting some dialogues, particularly in more advanced classes, about why people feel comfortable in particular roles and how we can make more roles comfortable.

5. Try to teach across genders: have a female teacher try to teach to the males, or vice versa.

6. Use gender neutral language when teaching.

 

I have a hard time imagining negative consequences to these actions, and if someone has thoughts about negative consequences please let me know. I can however imagine a lot of positive consequences. Each of us has individual talents. Some of them might be more likely to fall in one gender or another, but we all have talents, and if we were to be able to choose our role based upon which one we’re better at and feel more comfortable doing, rather than our gender, I imagine we’d all enjoy ourselves more. In addition, having an understanding of both parts of the dance can only make us better dancers. It increases our number of potential partners. It could help to desexualize many dances (which in my mind is a good thing: I don’t think dances should be sexualized unless both partners want it to be). If nothing else they will make us more aware of ourselves and each other, and improve our dancing by allowing us to understand more parts of the dance. So why do people react in such a negative way? Why are people so defensive about sexism in dancing?

 

To me, this illustrates that some people have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are, or that some people are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of breaking down some of the gender roles and power structures that currently exist in dancing. I’m not entirely sure why, and I’m not sure what they gain by keeping things the way they are. But every time I bring up one of my concerns and am told that people are just joking, or to loosen up, or that I’m overreacting, I become less and less interested in returning to the dances around town. I enjoy myself less and less. I know that dance communities pride themselves on being welcoming and thus may not like to hear that someone feels unwelcome, but one of the most important things to do in order to be welcoming is to listen.

 

And I’m speaking up: I am losing something that makes me extremely happy because I feel unwelcome and ignored due to my gender. I feel like I’ve been actively told to shut up when I bring up these concerns. This is not the way to handle concerns in a community, and it means that you are actively losing someone who wanted to be part of your community. I realize that I have very little power and that whether or not I continue to dance means very little to anyone but me, but I know that I am not the only one who feels this way. If something doesn’t change, you will continue to alienate people. I have no desire to attack anyone, name names, or point fingers. This is likely no one’s fault, but is rather a vestige of the past. All I ask is for some changes, or at least some acceptance that there might be a problem and that we could improve.

Sexist Language-Chicken and Egg

It’s fairly common knowledge that the way we speak can help to ingrain stereotypes and can be degrading. Much of our language is inherently sexist. We often assume masculine as the default, or include diminutive endings for the feminine versions of words. Oftentimes we make words meaning “female” synonymous with weak or bad, or we use them as insults or as ways to dehumanize others. We use words like “bitch”, “pussy” or “girl” to infantilize men that we want to appear weak.

 

Many times, it seems that we assume that we can change our language. We recognize that we have no good words for women or women’s bodies that aren’t either scientific or degrading, and we try to suggest new ones, as if these words were only considered degrading by happenstance. It’s as if we just mistakenly forgot to create words for women that were appropriate and respectful, or that our insults just happen to be female-coded more often than they are male-coded.

 

However it seems to me that the reason these words are considered degrading is not happenstance. Any word that we introduce which is feminine coded that exists in society as it is today will take on a negative connotation because words associated with women are inherently negative in today’s society. Because we associate womanhood with weakness, we associate words that imply womanhood with weakness. While it’s important for us to recognize the unconscious part that language plays in our conceptions of women, it’s also important for us to recognize that simply changed our language will not help.

 

This is true in all kinds of language. In the past, people used the word “retarded” as an insult, and so to create more respect for those who are developmentally delayed, we introduced the phrase “special needs”. Unfortunately, that phrase has now become an insult. While it is important to continue to allow our language to change based upon the desires and needs of oppressed groups, we must recognize that our language responds most to the dominant groups, the people who use language most often and who have the power to control discourse. While we may want to create a word to reclaim our identity, the truth is that it’s likely to be co-opted by the dominant society and used against us because its association with our marginalized identity will necessarily give it a negative connotation.

 

As someone who is highly interested in linguistics, I respect the power that language has. But it is in a reciprocal relationship with culture. Language can’t create culture or thoughts all on its own. The Sapir-Whorf theory is pretty much bunk. Language may help us think in certain ways or confirm our ways of thinking, but we have to shape the language and we can think outside the bounds of our native language. So while we should be aware of language and work to change the problems that language reveals, we always need to remember that language is not the problem, it’s just the symptom.

Coverflip: Some Meandering Thoughts About Gender and Marketing

Maureen Johnson (one of my absolute FAV authors especially for following on Twitter because she’s just as weird as I am) recently conducted a small experiment that she called Coverflip. The idea of the experiment was to take books and imagine if they were written by someone of the opposite gender as their true author, and then create a cover, thinking of how it would be different based on the gender of author. So for example you might take The Great Gatsby, imagine it was written by a woman, and design the cover for it. There were some really interesting covers, and some interesting reactions (many of which included things like “wow, now that this doesn’t have a girly cover I really want to read it!”), and I found myself thinking about how I view books that are marketed as chick lit.

 

I don’t read a lot of “chick lit”. Lately I’ve been into the classics because it took me so F’ing long to start reading them that I have to catch up, but when I read easy or fun books, I tend towards sci fi and fantasy. Now some of these are marketed with female oriented covers, but for the most part they highlight adventure or intrigue or mystery. I realized after this coverflip exercise that when I DO read chick lit books I often feel like I have to apologize: I try not to read them in public, I’m ashamed to be seen reading something that is marketed as trite and empty headed. I’m getting to the point where I’m a little self-conscious of reading ANY YA fiction in public (which is stupid because YA fiction is fantastic and I like it a lot better than most adult fiction which tries to be all edgy by having sex in it, but that’s a topic for another day), and I’m starting to realize thanks to this exercise that having shame about what you read is silly. When you are reading, you are doing something for yourself. You are occupying your free time, doing something that you enjoy. Why should you capitulate to what others suggest you SHOULD be reading rather than what you actually enjoy?

 

But Coverflip brought up more questions than just how societal pressures can force us to feel guilty about the things we actually enjoy. One of the biggest ones for me is about romance in fiction, how romance is marketed, and why we often view romance as an unimportant, badly written, or trashy topic. Romance is generally associated with female writers. In YA fiction, it’s often marketed towards girls, and viewed in the same way as chick flicks. Interestingly, one of the reasons I didn’t take John Green seriously for a while was because his covers gave off the same light, romancey vibe that a lot of female YA authors did. In my mind, that meant he didn’t write about important topics. Once I really read his books, I found that he engaged with some very basic questions of what it means to be human and to look for human connection. So why is it that when I think romance I think trite?

 

One obvious reason is because romance is considered feminine. Men aren’t expected to want romance. They’re expected to want sex or grit or violence. Romance is for women. Which means that it’s empty headed right? But the problem with that is that romance is actually a fairly universal drive. Romance is about connecting with another human being, about what it means to feel close, about what love is. Men have those drives too, just like women do. And even if women were the only ones who had those drives…what on earth is trite about trying to find someone to spend your life with? What is trite about human connection? What is trite about trying to understand what drives us to be around other people? These questions are not trite at all. Romance is about what makes us human and how our human nature resonates with others. This is far from trite, and so making covers of people making hearts with their hands diminishes the importance and power of what it is to be in love or to seek out love. Whether these read as feminine or masculine, it shouldn’t be diminished in this way.

 

An important element of this is the idea that women are relational and that men are independent. In the hierarchy of male and female, this means that individualism gets prioritized over relationships. Many of our great writers (or people who are considered great) write about people fending for themselves or overcoming odds: Jack London is a perfectly typical example of this, and he’s considered a Good and Serious writer for young adults (despite the fact that he focuses almost all of his descriptions on violence and doesn’t do a whole lot of focus on character growth). So for some reason books about relationships are considered unimportant. Obviously most books have relationships in them, but they are not the focus. Action is the focus. Books that are almost exclusively about relationships are designated as chick lit (even when they deal with important themes, a la Jane Austen). Again, it seems odd to me that books about family, friends, lovers are considered unimportant or boring.

 

In relation to this, many of the images on “feminine” coded books were of people, often people holding hands or kissing, young people, or women (or all of the above). In contrast, many of the “serious’ coded books were images of things, textual covers, or had fantasy styled covers. These types of dichotomies play on all sorts of sexist stereotypes about what is appealing to men and what is appealing to women, but one piece that seems very bizarre to me is the idea that covers with people on them are not as serious as covers with objects on them. What is it about a person on a cover that reads to us as “this book doesn’t tackle real issues”? Why do we seem to feel that humans or connecting to humans is unimportant? Why are we afraid of books that are open about the fact that they include people interacting with each other, or are even FOCUSED on people’s interactions with each other?

 

Overall, this experiment confirmed to me that in all sorts of marketing we view women as relational and men as doers or actors, individuals who venture forth. We view those individualistic stories as important, and we view stories of people relating to each other as trite. None of this makes any sense to me.  Every human being on the planet has relationships, and those relationships are what keep us alive, and often the things that make our lives worth living. Most often we read books because we want to connect with another person, to get inside the ideas and feelings of another life. The whole point of literature is connection on an emotional level, and yet when we advertise that openly the book is viewed as shallow. And beyond that, why should we feel guilty for books that might appeal to things that are silly or shallow within us? Why should we feel guilty for letting ourselves be goofy and bubble-headed? Is there something wrong with just entertaining ourselves with books, or are books supposed to be a bastion of academia, only for Serious Men and the few women who can be just as serious? But perhaps the biggest question left in my mind is why people on YA covers NEVER HAVE HEADS?

The Pros and Cons of Dichotomies

We as human beings like to sort things. It makes things easier, allows us to make quicker decisions to keep ourselves safe, and is generally just useful in a lot of ways. Unfortunately, because of our brain’s quick abilities to sort things, we often like to create dichotomies. We see this explore in a lot of feminist theory (Man is to Culture as Woman is to Nature by Sherry Ortner) when we see dichotomies lumped together: feminine is emotional is irrational is the body is nature is…and on and on and on. We see emotions and logic set at odds with each other, because we like to categorize things as one or the other.

 

Unfortunately for us, the world does not exist in neat categories and dichotomies. Oftentimes we have to hold conflicting ideas together in our minds and belief systems: I can be doing my best and still have to work harder. I can be emotional but still make a good decision. There are lots of dichotomies like this. Oftentimes, I see people who haven’t had a lot of experience with mental health trying to categorize things into good and bad: they list traits of successful people or successful relationships, they talk about what makes a person happy or sad, they talk about how to be healthy. Often this involves juxtaposing these supposedly good traits against their negatives.

 

I recently saw a post on facebook about successful vs. non-successful people. Successful people’s traits included things like “making to-do lists”, “complimenting others”, and “exuding joy”. Unsuccessful people “criticize”, “lie about keeping a journal”, and “don’t know what they want to be”. This is bad dichotomizing. It shames people for things that may not be under their control, and creates categories of things that may not go together: so for example, I am very good at setting goals, making to do lists, taking responsibility for my failures, and recognizing the success of others. However I also don’t exude joy, I don’t know what I want to be, I’m bad at setting goals, and I do a number of other things from the “bad” side. We can’t label people as one or the other: we’re all mixed bags. And the trick isn’t to make yourself everything on the “good” side, it’s to balance your traits so that YOU can be successful: some of the “good” traits are useful, others are not. This depends on individual propensities.

 

Dichotomies can be used in helpful and unhelpful ways. They can be really unhelpful when they’re simply unrealistic. This happens a lot when we’re talking about gender, or about race, or about sexuality, or any other large human characteristic that people like to pain with broad brushstrokes. We just get it wrong when we try to encompass everyone in a dichotomy. It erases those people who don’t fit, either by telling them that they don’t exist or by telling them that they shouldn’t exist (see: genderqueer individuals and bisexual individuals for good examples). This often makes people feel guilty or ashamed when they don’t fall neatly into the category they’re “supposed” to be in. These kinds of dichotomies try to force things into one category or another, but really just make a situation more confusing by obscuring what’s going on.

 

However there are times that dichotomies can be pretty great. Sometimes you need shorthand to come to a quick understanding of a situation: you’re not necessarily looking for nuance, and you need to know yes or no, white or black. This is often helpful in emergency situations, or situations where you need to act quickly and don’t have time to explain carefully. But I think there’s another really important area where dichotomies can be extremely helpful, one that doesn’t get talked about much. This has to do with dialectics. I’m currently in a therapy called Dialectical Behavior Therapy, and one of the underlying principles of this therapy is that we often live in situations that have a dialectic between two mutually opposing forces in our lives. So for instance I can at once be doing my best and have to do better. These two things contradict each other, but they can both be true. And for me to survive as a human being, I have to hold the dichotomy together as a dialectic.

 

For some people this is more true than for others, but I find that dichotomies are everywhere in my life: in order to gain back control of my life, I have to give up control to therapists and dieticians. In order to be more stable and safer, I have to make myself vulnerable to others. These are bizarre dichotomies, but if we are to move forward in our lives we have to recognize them and accept them. These are personal dichotomies, about understanding the relationships of certain things in our lives, rather than about categorizing outside things and people. And where these dichotomies become very helpful is when we can understand that the tension between them is not destructive, but creative. When I recognize that my eating disorder is both a method for me to take up less space and to assert myself into space, I can do some amazing things with trying to fulfill both of those functions in new places, and with trying to understand those needs creatively through writing and art. Tension drives us to try to understand, and when we need to understand we build things around us: narratives, art, symbols, concepts, systems. If we can make these things dialectical instead of oppositional, we can do a lot for ourselves.