I had the pleasure of attending a seminar on the relationship between gender and the media at the John Morton Center a few weeks ago. I was impressed with the scholarship that was presented, the work being done at the Center, and the town of Turku. I spent four days getting to know the former capital city of Finland and was entranced by its mix of old and new, urban and rural, past and future. As an historian, what I was most taken with was the way in which every building, every bridge, and every café seemed to have a story. Take, for instance, the story I was often told about the Turku Cathedral, which had been built three times, once because it was destroyed by a major fire.
Turku Cathedral by Katharine Bausch (2016)
The story I now tell about the Cathedral is that every day that I was in Turku, I could hear its bells ring at noon and that when you stand in front of it, you can see all of the beautiful bridges that cross the river in the center of town. I repeated my personal experience of Turku, along with the tales of locals, when I returned to Canada, making my story part of its story.
It strikes me that the dynamics and politics of storytelling—whose story is privileged and whose story is silenced; which stories are official and which are folk; how a story is marketed and how a story is consumed—is at the core of current studies of gender and the media. This was clearly reflected in the seminar at the John Morton Center.
bell hooks reminds us that, for example, an artist like Beyoncé has so much privilege, despite being a woman of colour in a white supremacist society, that she “can both create images and present viewers with her own interpretation of what those images mean.”[i] In her seminar presentation, “From ‘Anaconda’ to ‘Formation’: Black Feminisms, Body Politics, and the Rhetoric of ‘Reverse Oppression,’” Dr. Katariina Kyrölä argued that meaning-making was precisely what Beyoncé and Niki Minaj do with their music videos. While many critique their videos as anti-white, sexually exploitative, body shaming kitsch, Kyrölä reminded us that both artists are trying to change what Chimamanda Adichie calls “the single story” of black women in America. Regardless of whether or not you agree with their message, Kyrölä contended, these two women have the power to tell their own story instead of being objects of white supremacist imaginations.
This is not the case for all African American women. In fact, most African American women are controlled by racist and sexist structures of power in popular culture, making it very difficult for them to tell their own stories. Dr. Derrais Carter made this clear during his seminar presentation, in fact, when he showed us the casting call for last summer’s blockbuster, Straight Outta Compton:
SAG OR NON UNION FEMALES – PLEASE SEE BELOW FOR SPECIFIC BREAKDOWN. DO NOT EMAIL IN FOR MORE THAN ONE CATEGORY:
A GIRLS: These are the hottest of the hottest. Models. MUST have real hair – no extensions, very classy looking, great bodies. You can be black, white, asian, hispanic, mid eastern, or mixed race too. Age 18-30. Please email a current color photo, your name, Union status, height/weight, age, city in which you live and phone number to: SandeAlessiCasting@gmail.com subject line should read: A GIRLS
B GIRLS: These are fine girls, long natural hair, really nice bodies. Small waists, nice hips. You should be light-skinned. Beyonce is a prototype here. Age 18-30. Please email a current color photo, your name, Union status, height/weight, age, city in which you live and phone number to: SandeAlessiCasting@gmail.com subject line should read: B GIRLS
C GIRLS: These are African American girls, medium to light skinned with a weave. Age 18-30. Please email a current color photo, your name, Union status, height/weight, age, city in which you live and phone number to: SandeAlessiCasting@gmail.com subject line should read: C GIRLS
D GIRLS: These are African American girls. Poor, not in good shape. Medium to dark skin tone. Character types. Age 18-30. Please email a current color photo, your name, Union status, height/weight, age, city in which you live and phone number to: SandeAlessiCasting@gmail.com subject line should read: D GIRLS
Straight Outta Compton Casting Call by Hamilton Nolan (Gawker, July 17, 2014)
This casting call is an expression of male fantasies about black femininity, leaving little room for a space in which African American women can tell their own stories. Their voices aren’t privileged in this model. They are little more than objects in someone else’s story.
Women of colour, non-heterosexuals, and those outside the middle class are often no more able to tell their stories in popular culture deemed feminist than they are in popular culture more generally. Many of the popular culture feminist icons of the 20th century fit the same mold— white, able-bodied, heterosexual, middle-class women — epitomizing the idealized fantasy of femininity in North American culture. Consider, for example, Wonder Woman, one of our most popular “feminist” icons. Wonder Woman was created by William Moulton Marston, a suffragist and women’s rights advocate, as well as the lover of the niece of controversial feminist Margaret Sanger. Wonder Woman first appeared in a comic in 1941 as an Amazonian woman, sent to earth to fight prejudice and sexism.[ii]
Historian Jill Lepore calls her the missing link between the first and second “waves of feminism,” not only solidly situating Wonder Woman in the story of the fight for gender equality, but also privileging her voice as one of the storytellers.[i]
But seeing Wonder Woman as an icon of the feminist movement continues to privilege the voice of the white, middle-class, heterosexual part of feminism. It does nothing to fill in the blanks between the “waves” of feminism that are occupied by LGBTQ+ peoples, women of colour, non-Western women, disable-bodied women, and working class women. Their story remains untold as their voices are not privileged by North American popular culture.
Also integral to understanding the ways in which storytelling and storytellers are shaped in North American popular culture is acknowledging the role that the capitalist imperative plays. Popular culture is, after all, for sale in our society. Part of Niki Minaj’s privilege comes from her ability to sell a product. Gender is depicted, then, in ways that are often determined by what people want to consume, or more accurately, what companies want people to desire and consume. Dr. Elizabeth Whitney argued this poignantly at the JMC seminar in her talk on “Shoe Girls: Consumer Seduction and Invisible Labor.” Whitney pointed out that companies use a post-feminist vision of femininity to defend a “woman’s right to shoes.” Empowerment, the story goes, is being able to wear expensive shoes. Equality, the story continues, is being able to pay for the shoes yourself. Like the tale of Carrie Bradshaw, the proclaimed “feminist” icon of HBO’s Sex and the City, the capitalist story of gender equity starts with a purchase.
“A ‘Vogue’ Idea,” Sex and the City Episode 65 (2001-2002)
The relationship between gender and popular culture is not all doom and gloom, though. In recent years there have been multiple audience studies that emphasize its power for make-meanings regardless of the intent of an artist or company. Audience members can take a story and reimagine it to fit their own desires and impulses, ultimately making it their own story. Scholars can also use multiple interpretive lenses to understand a story. Dr. Dr. J.V. Fuqua, for example, posed the interesting question as to whether “animal friendship videos” showing interspecies pairing can be read as queer in their seminar presentation “Peaceable Kingdom or Queer Partners: Interspecies Animal ‘Friendship’ Videos and Gender.” Additionally, Dr. Derrais Carter asked why Quentin Tarantino’s film Django Unchained has yet to be interpreted through a homoerotic lens in its depiction of male on male violence. Both of these propositions demonstrate the way in which popular culture can be read in multiple ways and the way in which the audience is part of the storytelling process.
I left Turku and the John Morton Center, then, with many great impressions of the rigorous work being done in studies of gender and the media; work that is at the core of the study of popular culture in the 21st century. I also, equally importantly, left with the memory of the generosity, beauty, and kindness of an historic city set among the forests of Finland. At least, that’s my version of the story.
Text: Dr. Katharine Bausch, Assistant Professor of Gender Studies, Trent University (Canada)
[i] Ibid, xiii.
[i] bell hooks, “Moving Beyond Pain,” bell hooks Institute (blog). May 9, 2016, http://www.bellhooksinstitute.com/blog/2016/5/9/moving-beyond-pain.
[ii] See Jill Lepore, The Secret History of Wonder Woman. New York: Vintage, 2015.