Archive of ‘TV’ category

Gender and the Geek

Gender and the Geek

This article (via Chaos Theory) is absolutely excellent. Both in its analysis of the show Beauty and the Geek (which is fascinating and touching, despite being incredibly shallow), and in its analysis of why it’s so uncomfortable to add Nicole and Sam, the female geek and male beauty, to the show.

But I think there’s also more to it than that. I’ve discussed the idea of a reverse-gender cast with GC before (as we accidentally watched all of season two together in a New Years marathon last year. In one sitting,) and have always been against the idea. Which at first struck GC as odd, what with me being, you know, a female geek and all. But there are two points I’d like to make about this.

First: I don’t like having Sam in the competition against the female beauties. First off, because a lot of their challenges are things which are, in this society, gendered as male activities*, such as the week they were building bottle rockets. As GC pointed out, there’s a much bigger chance that at some point in his childhood, Sam had already done that, or at least known kids who did and was familiar with it. But it isn’t just that.

The stereotype of the shallow, sexy woman is also invariably tied to low self-esteem and a lack of self-confidence. The theory seems to be that the cliche beauty, the sort found on the show, uses her body in place of brains, and thus has never tried to use her brains. She may not be dumb, but she’s uncomfortable and doesn’t like being put in a position where her smarts and not her body are being judged. So that’s what the show does. It repeatedly challenges these walking stereotypes to learn something, and to be confident in their newly-acquired knowledge, and in almost any competition, the most confident wins.

The thing is? Good looking men aren’t socialized that way. That stereotype does exist for guys, but with guys, “lack of confidence” and “attractive” aren’t inextricably linked. Where beauty for women is generally passive and objectified (literally meaning they’re at their prettiest when they’re not contributing anything but good looks), it isn’t for men; a man can be attractive and shallow without getting the message that he should shut up. So to have a contest such as the one where the beauties had to debate against each other, but throwing him in the mix, is unfair. The show is a learning journey, where the beauties gain that confidence. Sam, raised in a society that can appreciate his opinions as well as his attractiveness (not to mention one which urges him to be competitive while it urges women to be supportive and gentle), is not lacking in that confidence.

And then there’s the matter of judges. Society already values male opinions over female one; in a contest where there are, what, eight women stumbling to find an answer and one guy (who, while not especially well-spoken, is also not shy or nervous), who is going to stand out more? I’m not saying that he didn’t genuinely learn his material and present it well, but regardless, the whole competition was already biased in his favor.

Point two: let’s talk about being female and geeky. It isn’t easy. Though male geeks tend to appreciate your existence, society overall is confused, baffled, and just doesn’t know what to do with you. You’re smart, but instead of being judged on competence, you’re judged on looks. But the thing is, inherent attractiveness isn’t even the point. Different things tend to be important to geeks as compared to most of the rest of the population, and one of the major differences is that looks (and with them, fashion, the ability to use make-up, or do your hair) are waaaay further down on the priority list.

Look at Nicole. She’s not ugly, but she doesn’t dress with attractiveness in mind. Especially when she’s surrounded by other women, all of whom are concerned primarily about being attractive, the message is that she’s lacking. Actually ugly or not, she might as well be, because not caring means being ugly, and being ugly means, well…dealing with it.

This is not a society that’s kind to the unattractive. At all. And when all you want is to be judged by your intelligence, and instead you spend your life having all of your hard work barely noticed but your physical attractiveness scrutinized…well, it’s hard. It’s frustrating. Being yourself without apologizing for it is hard, because no matter how awesome you are, you’re fully aware you’d be treated better if you were prettier.

So back to the show. The reason having the female geek on a show where the geeks all get makeovers and learn to better fit in with society is that it’s damn hard to not do that. It strikes me as very much taking someone who has, consciously or not, rejected the patriarchal idea of female beauty, and trying to shoehorn her right back into it. Because the thing is, guys can be appreciated for being geeks. Which isn’t to write off their legitimate struggles with social awkwardness or attractiveness; when I said this society isn’t kind to the unattractive, I meant that, full stop. Both genders. But for men, there are other ways to contribute to society and be appreciated for them. For women, it’s beauty first, kindness and femininity second, and everything else after that. So for male geeks, learning to jump these hurdles and conquer personal demons is a bonus. It’ll make life much easier, sure.

But for a female geek? It’s akin to saying, “You’re really great at what you do. But you’d be better if you were prettier and easier to get along with.” Which is the same damn thing women are told every day. It isn’t subverting the societal message of what a woman should be, it’s reinforcing it.

I get enough of that in my daily life, as someone who’s female and a geek. I identify with Nicole, and it’s rare to find someone on reality TV (or, for that matter, TV generally) I can see myself in. I really don’t want to see her buy into this.

* Mostly unrelatedly, fuck you and your “boys are different” campaign, Playskool toys. Because sure, only little boys like toy trucks and want to run around…but at least they make girl toys! Play houses! With play kitchens and a play washing machine! Seriously, fuck you.

Hannah Montana, Part I

Hannah Montana, Part I

I have a love/hate relationship with Disney’s Hannah Montana. For those who haven’t run across it (though it’s becoming ever-more ubiquitous as its popularity grows), it’s a TV show/music franchise about a girl named Miley Stewart (played by Miley Cyrus) who has a normal life with her father, Robby Ray (Billy Ray Cyrus) and her brother, Jackson (Jason Earles). But Miley has a secret: she’s actually the most famous pop star in the country, Hannah Montana. She keeps that a secret by way of a blond wig, and keeps the lives separate so that she can still go to high school like a normal person. So she deals with friends, with bullies, and with boys just like everyone else, even though she’s famous! The show itself is mildly charming, though often completely nonsensical; the music of Miley/Hannah is pure bubblegum pop, which I happen to love. (The music is actually sung by the real Miley, who performs concerts be-wigged as Hannah, but has recently released her first “real” album as herself, the B-side of a Hannah album. It’s kind of confusing, but the upshot is that she does some writing, much of it is written for her, and all of it is her surprisingly excellent singing voice.)

I do have real fondness for the show. It’s a lot of fun, it fulfils a lot of childhood fantasies that I’ve lived out as Mary Sues in my head a hundred times, and I really, really love pop music. It’s a cut above most of Disney’s mediocre programming on a lot of levels. On the other hand, though, while on its surface it’s nothing but wacky hijinks, the show has some seriously deep flaws when it comes to race and gender. I don’t think there’s a mustache-twirling villain trying to indoctrinate tween viewers with stereotypes, but the show is rampant with them, and the fact that it probably isn’t intentional is almost more problematic. It means the show is regurgitating the disturbing stereotypes from the writers’ and producers’ subconsciouses, and transmitting them to a new generation. So while I enjoy this show, I am decidedly not pleased with it at the same time.

Race is probably the biggest problem on the show. As I get started talking about this, though, I want to offer up a general note; I grew up very much as a clueless white girl, and while I’m doing my best to become less clueless about race issues, I still often back away from them out of fear of screwing up. I’m trying not to do that any more, but the fear of saying the wrong thing is still there, so if I do screw up, feel free to wield a cluebat as necessary.

Okay. So. There are only a handful of characters of color in the otherwise totally white cast. This is, sadly, not too surprising, given that a lot of shows have that problem. But things are worse when you actually look at the roles the non-white characters play.

The most minor of them is Cooper, Jackson’s best friend in the first season. Though occasionally a jerk, Cooper was no more or less so than the rest of the cast; he was just a bit player who showed up sometimes when Jackson needed a friend to converse with. The problem? Between seasons, the character abruptly disappeared, and the role of Jackson’s best friend was filled by a new guy — a blond, white character. I don’t think Cooper appeared in more than one or two episodes this season, and never with more than one or two lines, and his friendship with Jackson is all but forgotten about while Jackson has hijinks with Thor instead. (Thor, for the record, is a terrible character in his own right, but that’s a different essay.) So there’s that.

Next we come to Amber and Ashley, African- and Asian-American respectively. These two are Miley’s classmates and nemeses; they’re rich, spoiled, snobby, and stupid. They are the closest thing the show has to villains, and they’re often the only characters of color to appear in an episode. Gosh.

Next there’s Rico. There are actually a lot of problems with his character, which I’ll get to in a later essay, but they certainly tie into his race. Rico is Latino, and despite the fact that he’s the youngest regular character — he’s eleven, everyone else is in the 14-16 age range — he’s also extremely oversexed. (I believe at one point he refers to himself as, “a sexy Latin lover.”) And on top of that, he’s another antagonist. Virtually all he does on the show is sexually harass Miley and find ways to taunt and torment Jackson.

So far, that gives us one character of color who was replaced with a white guy, and three who are nothing but antagonists. But, you may be wondering, is there any recurring, non-antagonist character of color? Why, yes! Her name is Roxy, and she’s Miley/Hannah’s bodyguard. And…oy. Where to start? For one thing, in one of her appearances she mixes up what amounts to a voodoo potion she calls “the funk” for her white employer. Which definitely raised my eyebrows.

But that’s nothing compared to the episode which seems to have been designed to let Roxy chase after a teenager, screaming, “Come back here, you cracker!” But it’s wacky and hilarious! Because she’s chasing off a bully! A bully who happens to be nicknamed the Cracker because she’s constantly cracking her knuckles and can crack nuts open with her bare hands. So when Roxy comes to Miley’s rescue, when Miley fears being beaten up, she aggressively chases after the bully, calling her by the nickname in question.

I…I just…whaaaaa? That isn’t something that happens by accident. It’s not an, “Oops, we didn’t realize there were possibly problematic racial undertones to this!” punchline. It’s something that was carefully set up for. I really just can’t imagine what the writers were thinking or trying to accomplish.

So Cooper, Amber, and Ashley, I can assume were probably not intentionally written in a problematic way. They may even have been backfired attempts to up the diversity in the cast. But oversexing the only Latino character? Having the black woman yell potentially offensive, certainly charged terms? And playing it off as comedy?

And how’s this for another one-off gag the show offers: At the end of a recent episode, to bring the physical comedy, two white characters get tangled in an African-American woman’s braided hair in the middle of a fight.

Disney, what the fuck?

(Next time, or whenever I get around to it, the show’s issues with gender and sexuality.)

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