If I’m Being Honest: Strong Female Characters Part 3: Slut Shaming and Dressing for Empowerment

14 Sep

Sorry for the delay – I’m having what I’m going to call a flu turned bronchitis. I keep waiting for days when I’m more coherent. NOPE. And I was going to tackle beauty here too, but this is a big topic, and walls of text are scary, so expect beauty in a day or so.

Let’s first define slut shaming. I’m not going to talk about the politics of The Scarlet Letter, the tragedy of Dido or even the redemption of Fantine. That stuff is above my pay grade for starters, and there’s no way in this article I could actually talk about every aspect on women, sex, and sexuality. I could dedicate a career writing about one small aspect of the topic. I don’t care if you’re an everything goes kind of person or you have extremely conservative viewpoints, the point remains that in every society, you have what is considered modest, and what is considered risque.
ankle
Slut shaming, here, is going to be about the character who exists for the audience to hate, not the hooker with a heart of gold. The almost always female character who does things that we’re supposed to not like her for. She may or may not be a physically beautiful in a different way than the designated heroine (I’ve often seen it as a complement – a voluptuous raven haired courtesan to the lithe and golden haired maiden) when she flirts or kisses or goes after a man, it’s because it’s skanky. When the designated heroine/love interest does it, it’s pure, motivated out of love, something greater, etc. All bets are off if it’s the villain’s daughter or she has some sort of characterization other than “here to steal your man”.

There’s probably stuff that’s trigger-worthy to mention. I see the fall out from exploitation all the time in RL, so while I’ve learned to keep it civil as with the title, I am trying to be honest. I make it a policy to not talk about specifics of my job here.

The short answer to slut shaming in fiction is that it more often than not backfires. I’ve read books where it’s almost like we’re supposed to hate the slut, but I can’t because she’s being active. When it’s almost seems like it’s wish-fulfillment that tragedy befalls this character, I can’t help but wonder what the narrator thinks of people in general.

I’ll exemplify this in the character of Marcie Miller in Hush,Hush; a book I could lambast all day. Marcie exists to be what Nora is not – and while I have only read the first book, I’ve read enough online from like-minded people that pretty much confirms that Marcie exists to make Nora look like a good person. Marcie likes sex, and seems to have self-respect and have people meet her on her terms, unlike Nora, who is pretty much being taken advantage of by from what I can remember: Her best friend, her love interest, the guy who wants to kill her, homeless ladies, waitresses, her teachers – I could go on for a while. At one point, Nora dresses provocatively to play detective and get information – even to ask herself before she goes out, where is her inner Marcie Miller?

If you don’t believe that maybe this character doesn’t exist to be hated, I invite you to check out her wiki.

But let’s backtrack to the characterization of the slut being someone using sex to get what she wants. Isn’t this subjective, especially when we hear the argument for “Dressed like that, she was asking for it!” ? “Dressed like what?” because go to different areas, and showing too much skin is showing any skin – the geisha showed their necks.

In my eyes, the victim is never to blame, even if they are as dumb as Nora. I will caution people against doing stupid things that put them into harm’s way (such as going into a known gang bar in rival gang colors) but here’s the other thing – how little control does this other person have if the mere sight of a girl dressed less-than-modestly is akin to a grand seductress?

Let’s take an extremely basic story – the heroine has her designated love interest, but he’s seduced by some temptress, only to learn the error of his ways to recant, then he’s welcomed back by his pure first love. The other woman is to blame.
Well, why did buddy stray? Is he in such poor control over himself that he loses all control of his faculties the minute something easy shows up? Why is this on the seductress, but not the seduced? And don’t get me wrong – this can be hilarious if it’s making fun of the nincompoop who can’t recognize that’s a rabbit in drag.

bugs-cross-dresser

But if this is done seriously – why would the heroine want such a weak willed fellow? And don’t get me wrong – I’d be pissed off if some woman was snooping around trying to take my boyfriend/husband/slap-slap-kiss interest. Not nearly as pissed off as I’d be with him, mind you.

This is akin to making a harmless villain. Your hero is only as strong as the obstacles he overcomes. And while I think it’s normal to want to quell the masses who are still on Team!Jacob and pair the spares so that everyone lives happily ever after, it’s okay to let your audience feel that the hero picked wrong – but if the basis of your story is “which one will he pick” and in the eleventh hour, debase one of the choices as inferior because she’s a slut or did something where she can never be redeemed, that’s lazy writing.

And WHY can she never be redeemed? This might be my religion talking – again – but even if the character had consentual sex she has since regretted, how is she an inferior character now that she’s maybe learned something? Where I stand, we’re all fallen from grace and not perfect, and I can’t relate to perfect characters very well. I’ll mention Naguset from Tower of Obsidian here – the woman is implied to have lived through horrific abuse, and at one point tries to seduce Aaron because the only thing she has going for her is her ability to please men and he can keep her safe from what she considers worse men. Aaron politely declines, mostly because he was never in any of the quest for his personal gain – even though he keeps hoping that his secret-beloved, Aoife, notices his noble heart while they save Kale. (He’s also a bit of a do-gooder and bad with women in general). The scene plays out with him letting her touch his rough hands to know that he’s never going to lay a stray hand on her – and the guy’s a big strong warrior, she’s a half-starved tiny woman; he can do pretty much whatever he wants and no one cares about the abused brown woman. She doesn’t have to do a thing to earn his protection. Naguset never asked for the quest, she got stolen and dragged half way across the world twice, and life as a thrall sucks. Her initial goal was survival and returning home, but after that scene, she had genuine respect for Aaron, so it made her actions reflective of what she remembered before her ordeal – in trying to match true nobility for nobility, she saved his butt what, three times before they even get to the tower? (And if you’ve read the book, Aoife’s not in it for the higher good – she’s pissed off with Kale. Saving him is a by product.)

So what about the dressing for empowerment bit? You know – the one that coincidently looks like they’re fulfilling a sexy fantasy. I’m not going to say no, not ever – after all, Princess Leia killed Jabba the Hutt by strangling him with her slave chain.
manga

But for all that goes right, we have much much more that’s basically there to pander.

powergirlcostume
I’m really not an expert, but let’s look at women who enter fields such as modeling, dancing in music videos, and even porn to make a killing. They’re business women, and they know that the images convey more than just displaying body parts, when it gets into themes or selling ideas, quite often the image of a beautiful woman helpless can stir an emotional response of anyone. I remember going to a lecture about how many beautiful dead women were on CSI on prime time and being thankful I hardly watched TV.

Not all of it is done in poor taste, but more often than not the model, actor, whoever, enters and needs to fulfill a role – they need to fit the sample size, they need to project an idea, and it’s about using a person to showcase their ‘art’. I think one of the reasons I got into writing rather than acting was because while an actor can rebrand the character slightly and make it their own, the writer was the one selling the theme. Sure – a director can get ahold of the story and change the intent completely, which is where we get people complaining how different it was from the book when things start to get lost in adaptation. While the actor might be the person who brings in the audience and they’re who we remember, we all have our favourite actors in the show we despise – they can only showcase their talent if the medium’s worth watching.

We also have to consider the reality that while you could argue burlesque is an art, but at some point all of it is a business, to the point where people have to be imported because the locals don’t want to be exploited. At this point, it’s not about empowerment. I would argue, like modeling and acting, for every porn star who has a really good go of things and is happy, socking away money (for knowledge that they can’t exactly get a job as a teacher easily in their fourties) there’s always going to be numerous people who don’t have that exclusivity and, if we are honest, often times porn is selling a fantasy that it’s okay to objectify these women because that’s their job. For more reading, how about Female Chauvenist Pigs by Ariel Levy? It’s been a few years since I read the book, but going into the politics of playing into fantasies is important, as I for one am not convinced that the pornographic industry will ever going away, and we need to talk about it honestly.

The erotic business doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and we see things trickle down into more mainstream media on a regular basis. When you start saying stuff like “everyone wants to be a pussycat doll” you’re making some grandiose claims you better be able to back up. Even saying “We represent girl power!” and mostly just have the spice girls dance around, it’s sending out a conflicting message.

Have I said in conversations that I think singers are whoring themselves out? Absolutely – I said some of them are going the way of soft core porn years ago. And let’s be honest – am I wrong?

I’m taking for granted that every one reading this is of sound mind to know the difference between tolerating something and embracing something. Just because you don’t think it’s wrong to wear miniskirts and haltertops, it might not be your style. And there are times when you do make yourself more attractive, and times when you are using sex to sell a product or an idea. And, even if halters and minis are your thing, there is a time and a place and I certainly hope you wear them because you like them.

In short, we can rebrand something until we’re blue in the face, about what it’s supposed to mean and how the audience just doesn’t understand. Just expect some of us to be all like, “Not for me, thanks.” And go and write and push against the tide where sex sells and the boring ‘ideas’ take too long to get across.

It’s okay to have an opinion about utilizing and objectifying the human body to promote an idea, even if you don’t agree with what it seems like other people are saying. If we’re to smile and go, “it’s all good” we’re probably not going to be completely honest with the power of media that surrounds us. However, when we start to subject people to the idea that their worth is based on what they’ve done, rather than their personhood, we start to negate a person’s inherent value. In short, if you need to solve a love triangle by demonizing a character, maybe you can refocus on building up the designated pair’s chemistry instead.

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