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My Way or the Hyperlane – Feminism, Slut-Shaming and the New Fan Conservatism

sabine

Mike: In addition to the manymany larger conversations that sprung up in the wake of the reveal of Star Wars Rebels‘ main cast of characters last month, some of us here at Eleven-ThirtyEight noticed an odd undercurrent to people’s reactions to both Sabine and Hera; well, maybe not odd, but unfortunate. Loosely speaking, it seemed as if people had certain preconceived ideas about what a good female character should be like, and were judging the females of Rebels one way or another less by their apparent merits and more by what they found “acceptable” for Star Wars—or even for popular fiction generally.

This warranted a response of its own, I felt, but as someone who’s fully aware of the specter of “mansplaining”, I asked guest writer Mia Moretti, author of the aforelinked™ “race factor” piece, to join me for a discussion of these issues.

Mia, the thing that first jumps out at me is the fact that while lots of people rolled their eyes at Sabine for (apparently) being what you might call a girly-girl, they actually responded very well to Hera, except that what they were actually responding to, from a certain point of view, was her lack of obvious femininity—in other words, she was a female Twi’lek who didn’t run around in lingerie for once. I have a little trouble with this one, because I’m as tired as anyone of scantily-clad Twi’leks as a storytelling trope (one which we’ve commented on here before), but it’s very easy to conflate the cliché with the outfits themselves, and I don’t think the problem there is skin (even for a cartoon, frankly), so much as creator laziness. How do you think people would react if Hera dressed in, say, evening gowns? How much wiggle room is there for people to oppose lightly-dressed female characters without crossing into sexism? And is that the same instinct that causes people to object to Sabine’s supposed “girliness”, or are those different issues in your eyes?

Mia: You know, the funny thing about the denouncements of Sabine as “too girly” is that the marketing department that put together her official reveal video made a very specific overall attempt to assure everyone that Sabine will absolutely not be “girly” in any way. She’s called a tomboy, they include a clip of her actress noting that she is far more prissy than Sabine would ever be, and they repeatedly emphasize her Mandalorian heritage, weapons and explosives expertise, and a general sense of being an incredible badass. Hera, on the other hand, is referred to as nurturing, and motherly. She’s the heart of the group, the glue that keeps the crew of the Ghost together, so the sound bites say. These are far more often considered feminine traits than what’s been attributed to Sabine, typically creating character profiles TV Tropes refers to as “The Chick” and the “Team Mom,” yet Hera is welcomed and Sabine taken with great wariness.

Hera_SyndullaWere Hera to don evening wear, as you suggest, I certainly think there would be an influx of negativity. Both for the impracticality of such attire with the state of the Ghost and her role as it’s ready-in-an-instant pilot―something I would view as legitimate criticism of design form over character function―as well as for a more questionable issue you need look no further than her own introduction video to get an idea of. To paraphrase Rebels art director Kilian Plunkett, Hera is glamorous without trying to be glamorous. She has the appeal of the “natural beauty,” who’s effortlessly attractive even in the plainest of clothes or without a trace of makeup. Put her in a gown, however, and not only is she taking on a more feminine look, now she’s beautiful because she’s trying. The appeal is, if not gone, then diminished.

As far as the sexualization vs sexism discussion goes, I think it’s a multifaceted issue that requires an awareness of trends and context. I would say that it’s fair to criticize the unimaginativeness of almost every other Twi’lek character being designed as a scantily clad bombshell―even for variety’s sake if nothing else―and equally fair to praise the bucking of the trend with a character like Hera, whose more rugged, coverall appearance is more naturally conducive to the type of work she does than something more revealing. These are reasonable issues that take a strong, out-of-universe position that places responsibility with the creator. On the opposite end, however, are the people who take an unpleasantly in-universe perspective, profiling and slut-shaming the characters themselves as we’ve seen happen to real women all too often. Even if the idea of these characters being independent, free-willed individuals is only a narrative illusion, if we’re going to take the in-universe position that they’re responsible for their own clothing anyway, then it bears repeating that choice of clothing is not a moral determination, and the showing of skin is not grounds for indictment.

Sabine, I feel, is at a crossroads of many different issues. You’ve got people who hate the fact that she’s a teen girl. Pop culture’s taught us that teen girls are shallow, vapid creatures good for nothing but texting, spending money, fawning over boys, and self-righteous backtalk, so right off the bat she’s destined to be worthless. You’ve got people who hate the fact that she’s Asian with multi-colored hair, decrying “otaku-pandering” anime influences. You’ve got Mandalorian fans, still gun shy after The Clone Wars’ poor handling of the culture, feeling wary over whether this cute, lightly armored young girl will live up to expectations. You’ve got people who decry her as too desperate an attempt to be cool and appealing to the “hip” crowd, again attacking her hair as too “emo,” with the popular website Topless Robot even calling her a Suicide Girl, in reference to the alternative modelling group that favors the “scene” aesthetic. And you’ve got people who never made it beyond the initial images of her fuchsia-colored armor, writing her character off due to outdated gender-based connotations of anything resembling pink as a “girly” color.

Mike: I’m curious what your feelings are/were about Ahsoka’s tube top outfit back when The Clone Wars was starting out. If there’s ever an argument to be made against a female character showing skin, I suppose it’d be with an underage ascetic girl…right?

Mia: Ahsoka and her original series outfit is an interesting case, because there are a number of ways you can approach it, each with their own merit. Observing the context of how old she’s intended to be, Ahsoka’s role as the lead female character in the show, and the audience she would be viewed by, a case could be made that her predominantly male creators are continuing the trend of sexualizing the prominent female character, one all the more troubling because of her young age. However, Ahsoka’s attire is similar in style to clothing worn by various indigenous peoples around the world for thousands of years. Prior to European colonial influence, there just weren’t the same cultural norms toward female modesty and the showing of skin among these varied peoples. Matters of clothing were dictated strictly by weather concerns, tradition, and in certain cases, ceremonial conditions. Therefore a case could also be made that it was only the standards of the Western eye that attributed sexuality to otherwise neutral garb, as has happened repeatedly in the past.

My own personal grumble with Ahsoka’s style of dress came simply as a Star Wars fan. As a Jedi initiate-turned-Padawan, I felt she should’ve been dressed in traditional Jedi robes rather than attire that wouldn’t be mistaken for Jedi under any circumstances. Even Aayla Secura, one of the best known examples of a Jedi wearing atypical clothing due to her appearance in the films, still wore Jedi robes prior to gaining the freedom of expression offered by Knighthood. Though her top was indeed revealing, her presentation and portrayal didn’t strike me as exploitative or overtly sexual.

Mike: Shifting slightly, there’s a broader issue here of how Star Wars “should” handle, well, not even sexuality, but titillation, I guess? It’s interesting to me that as much as Star Trek is known as the more serious-minded franchise, it seems much more willing to explore carnal subject matter—or even that the characters have sexual desires at all. The closest thing to real sexuality in the Original Trilogy is the slave bikini, which Leia is forced to wear, and there’s not even the slightest wink to suggest that anyone in the story actually notices. Even Han (who, to be fair, is mostly blind during the bikini episode) slave_leianever so much as slips Leia the tongue during their encounters. Then you get to the prequels’ Anakin/Padmé romance, which, well, I’ll just let this link do the talking.

Of course, these are mostly PG movies we’re talking about, so I think reasonable arguments can be made in favor of relative chastity in their romantic plots; but I do think you can be chaste regarding overt sexuality without being prudish altogether—and fundamentally, the idea that a female character (or a male character, for that matter) who doesn’t dress like a Quaker should be taken less seriously is something I find troubling. It’s a big galaxy out there, and if Wookiees and Ewoks can run around basically naked, I think the GFFA could stand to expand its definition of both human and alien modesty. The closest the films have come is, I think, the Outlander Club—which isn’t really presented as a positive cultural sampling so much as a bunch of skeevy club-hoppers.

Likewise, getting back to Sabine, I don’t think a “girly” fashion sense should be seen as reductive any more than a risqué one should. Ultimately, Star Wars could absolutely stand to reach out more to female fans, and if a fuscia Mandalorian does the trick, well, then, who gives a shit? It hearkens back to a phenomenon I see all the time in diversity conversations, wherein whiteness, masculinity and heterosexuality are never questioned or even noticed, but anything that isn’t one of those is seen as erroneous, and has to justify its own existence right out of the gate. Saying “this character is girly” is just another way of othering them, because it suggests that someone bent over backwards to make her that way (generally with disingenuous motives) unlike all those manly men who apparently just sprang from the ether like that.

Mia: I think, as I said before, context is a major component of whether something that can be considered sexy feels natural or exploitative. In the MedStar novels by Michael Reaves and Steve Perry, for example, Barriss Offee is shown to meditate in the nude. While Barriss is certainly attractive, the presentation of the scene is entirely neutral; the fact that she is naked isn’t played for titillation, it just is. However, on the other end of the spectrum, in the novel Invincible by Troy Denning, a scantily clad, undercover Leia Organa is depicted in a much more lurid manner, with greater emphasis placed on not only how attractive Leia is, but why, as well as the type of reactions her appearance elicited from male viewers and even her semi-envious daughter. When the character not wearing a stitch feels less exploited than the one who’s dressed, there’s something to be said for the execution.

I completely agree with you about the need to be cognizant of how we approach female sexuality in fiction. Judging a character―or individual―strictly by the clothes they wear or how much skin they show is an awful mindset to get into. I wholly agree with your assessment of Sabine, as well. Even if she were adorned in bubblegum pink armor, with vibrant blue, anime-styled hair and a brightly cheerful personality, none of these traits add up to create the worthless characters several of her detractors would have you believe. I, too, feel she stands to be a strong character young girls can become fans of and latch onto, and coming off of Young Justice, I think she’s just the kind of character Rebels producer Greg Weisman has proved adept at. And to complete my round of nodding along in agreement with what you’ve said, I would absolutely say that there’s been an unfair standard that’s been espoused in regard to Sabine across several corners of the fandom. Her youthful. feminine traits have definitely set her apart in a way that’s uncomfortably all too familiar when it comes to fiction.

Mike: Fair warning: agreeing with me that vociferously just makes me want to try that much harder to be disagreeable.

To that end, let’s take this out of the GFFA and into the real world. It seems to me that reactions like the ones we saw to Sabine were of a piece with the infamous “fake geek girl” meme, insofar as they reveal a retrogressive vein in geek culture regarding what is and isn’t a “valid” expression of fandom. It’s partly misogynistic, no doubt, and oppositional to the idea of women getting an equal seat at the table, but I think it’s bigger than that—as I sort of suggested in my piece on the Brian Wood controversy last fall, I’m not totally convinced that geek culture is misogynistic as much as it’s just unusually conservative overall.

martin-starrI think that, ironically, pop culture has ingrained in certain segments of geek culture the notion of a sort of “greatest generation” of geeks; namely, middle-class, D&D-playing, ESB-bedsheets-sleeping white guys in the 1980s—basically, Martin Starr in Freaks and Geeks. And thanks to all the hell guys like that went through as children, we see a certain nobility in that period, an assumption that “our” idiosyncrasies made us better people; our struggles more righteous. That generation, of course, grew up to become guys like JJ Abrams and Robert Kirkman and Joss Whedon, and to hold unprecedented power in this, the golden age of geekdom—and this seeming “victory” inculcates in geeks both young and old the idea that that mold is simply the “right” way to do things, and that anyone outside that mold, be it Team Unicorn or some random 16-year-old cosplayer, is just trying to horn in on something that they didn’t earn. And that, I think, is what’s really going on here—all the anti-feminist, anti-diversity, my-way-or-the-highway attitudes are just the surface-level ripples of a deep-seated belief that geekdom by definition should be the smallest tent possible.

So, final question: what comes first, the geeky interests, or the conservatism? Does one tend to encourage the other, or am I looking at skewed data?

Mia: I think, in general, I would say that it’s the result of suffering for their interests that’s spawned these exclusionary attitudes.

As you said, a lot of these fans grew up in a time when being a nerd was the absolute worst thing you could possibly be. A nerd was ridiculed, ostracized, and overlooked by their peers, turned down and denied by romantic pursuits, often forced to struggle for friends, and all too commonly, beaten up. Within this group, there are those who have come to consider this almost like a hazing of sorts: you took your lumps and you’ve somehow earned a spot at the head of the table now for your troubles, and now it falls to you to decide who else gets the remaining seats. These are absolutely your small tent people. Those who do not look the way they look, like the way they like, or know however much they know, never had a chance. They never will have a chance. Just below them are the fans with the “challenger” mentality. With the sense that they’ve been harmed by popular society for their interests, they’ve turned inward, wrapping themselves in what had brought them scorn for comfort. New people become dangerous. Will they come openly and honestly into the fandom, contributing and interacting positively? Or are they leeches and two-faced infiltrators, there to capitalize on the popularity while continuing to hammer the fanbase? With these people, you can get in and you will be accepted, but expect the “application” process to be pointed, arduous, and in some cases, always possessed of just one more test.

When it comes to “geek girls” and female fans in particular, I feel as though that specific shade of fandom conservatism comes from this ingrained sense of women being wholly alien to the geek community. Girls don’t read comics, girls don’t like games, women aren’t into sci-fi, women don’t read fantasy…so on and so forth. It’s one of pop culture’s most prolific misconceptions, and one Hollywood and popular media seem insistent on hammering home over and over for easy laughs. And the worst part is, there’s still a substantial portion of male fandom that’s internalized that with whatever grain of truth they feel they’ve attained through their own personal experiences, growing up without the presence of “geeky” female peers. Attractive women are especially susceptible, both from the self-depreciating idea that as a beautiful woman, you could be doing anything so why are they doing this, as well as the bitter resentment of male fans who wonder “where were they when was growing up?”

Combining both aspects―the general exclusionary attitudes toward variance and the ideas of women existing naturally outside the sphere of “geekdom”―as is the norm in these situations, you get a completely unwelcoming portion of the fanbase that thinks their exclusionary position is entirely justified. Franchises should cater to them because they’ve earned their “preferred” status through their hardship…as if female fans, fans of color, and LGBT+ fans haven’t undergone their own hardships, compounded by invisibility and denial from the people who should be their allies. We should also, sadly, not overlook the much plainer existence of those who are simply sexist, racist, and homophobic in all things, and these prejudices merely carry over to “geek spaces” as they do everything else. Thankfully, these people are ultimately a minority in the fandom, though an outspoken one, and there seem to be just as many fans of all genders who’re perfectly willing to take in new people with open arms…and stomp on the self-obsessed few who aren’t.

7 thoughts to “My Way or the Hyperlane – Feminism, Slut-Shaming and the New Fan Conservatism”

  1. Heh. Interesting topic. The retrograde nature of geekdom when it comes to gender is something that I often have occasion to think about. I’ve speculated on its sources, from internalizing old stereotypes, to the rather outdated social mores often present in fantasy (which is usually quasi-medieval), to the attendant assumption that the nice guy deserves the girl (who is, after all, his reward for being so nice… or heroic, in the in-universe conception). To let females intrude on that, whether by participating in the fandom or by gaining power in-universe is to disrupt that dynamic. There’s a lot of resistance to that.

      1. Yeah, it’s an interesting phenomenon. Possibly a coping mechanism — the narrative goes that folks are socially ostracized for being smarter, etc. that’s not to necessary put all the blame on geeks or to even treat geekdom as a monolithic entity, but it seems that the defensive superiority complex around social exclusion has a lot to do with the way “geek culture” developed.

  2. Might be useful to separate out the two, a quick Google and hit on the Wiki gives us:

    “Nice guy is a term used in the general public discourse and in popular culture that commonly describes an adult or teenage male with friendly yet unassertive personality traits.[1] As a description, “nice guy” is used both positively and negatively.[2] When used positively, and particularly when used as a self-descriptor, it is intended to imply a male who puts the needs of others before his own, avoids confrontations, does favors, gives emotional support, tries to stay out of trouble, and generally acts nicely towards others.[3] In the context of a relationship, it may also refer to traits of honesty, loyalty, romanticism, courtesy and respect. When used in a negative context (sometimes capitalized), a “Nice Guy” implies a male who is unassertive, does not express his true feelings and uses acts of ostensible friendship with the unstated aim of progressing to a romantic or sexual relationship.[citation needed] The term is often used in the context of dating and romantic or sexual relationships with women.[1]”

    “The word geek is a slang term originally used to describe eccentric or non-mainstream people, with different connotations ranging from an expert or enthusiast to a person heavily interested in a hobby, with a general pejorative meaning of a peculiar or otherwise dislikable person, esp[ecially] one who is perceived to be overly intellectual.[1]

    Although often considered as a pejorative, the term is also used self-referentially without malice or as a source of pride. Its meaning has evolved to connote “someone who is interested in a subject (usually intellectual or complex) for its own sake.””

  3. This was an intriguing article. It made me more open to Sabine, whom I hadn’t really been too interested in before because I felt she might be too “girly” and “teenagerish” for the classic Star Wars aesthetic I had come to hope that Rebels would have. So good job there :).

    I was actually quite impressed by Hera, however, after I first heard about her. I suppose it’s because I am attracted to the level of maturity that Hera appears to possess. Also, I like the fact that she holds a commanding position in the show without being overtly “badass.” Her beauty is understated but nevertheless obvious, and she has wholesome qualities like leadership and compassion and organization, as opposed to being scantily dressed and constantly trying to prove that she’s just as good as the males. This, to me, is a relatively new kind of female character for modern Star Wars fans, hearkening back to the strength and elegance of Princess Leia and Padme Amidala. She doesn’t have to be sensual to be feminine or in order to feel courageous and be regarded with respect by her peers.

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