Book Summary: Feminist Theory by bell hooks

For one of my classes this summer, I had write annotations/summaries for several books.  I enjoyed many of them and I thought that the annotations might be useful for other people, so I will be posting them here.  They’re somewhat rough, but considering how much everyone loves when someone at FtB posts about feminism, I doubt it matters.

This is one of the more important pieces of feminist writing, and it is very critical of the feminist movement at large.  I think it is a useful resource for the skeptic/atheist movement because it addresses the problem of contention within a movement.  The discussions and infighting within the feminist movement parallel very closely the kind of discussions and blindnesses and privileges on display with the atheist movement around questions of race and gender.  She also addresses the problem of being a minority within a minority — something that women in the atheist movement deal with.

hooks, bell. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2000.

Question(s) Investigated: What is the role of black women in the feminist movement, and what has it been?  What can be done to make feminism work towards ending all oppression, not just that of upper-class white women?

Time Period: Originally published in 1984, about the feminist movement in the 70s.

Geographic Region: US

Subjects studied: The intersection of gender, race, and class and their interaction with capitalism.  The importance of including all people in social movements.  Education, Parenting, and Violence.

Place in the literature: Considered a very important piece for pushing the feminist movement to be more inclusive of men, people of color, and different classes.  hooks also argued against women being separatist and that sexism negatively impacted men as well.  She criticized the movement for focusing on small goals and not systemic change.  Essentially, she saw the limits of contemporary feminist theory and addressed them.  Established hooks as a key figure in feminism.

Abstract:

The book begins immediately with her key argument, that feminist theory and feminism as a movement has been led by middle to upper-class white women who ignored the plight of poorer, non-white women.  In her first paragraph, she criticizes Betty Friedan, not because white women didn’t need liberating, but because Friedan ignored the problems that the majority of women faced.  hooks comes back to this later in the book, but one of her main arguments is that work is not liberating, it is oppressive, and the white women who sought careers to get out of the home ultimately found that work and capitalism were not fulfilling, as lower class women who had always had to work already knew.

She goes on to talk about how not everyone is oppressed equally, and it has been the least oppressed women who have set the goals and tone of feminism.  “Being oppressed means the absence of choices.  It is the primary point of contact between the oppressed and the oppressor.  Many women in this society do have choices…” (5)

White feminists have ignored the needs and causes of black women or treated black women with contempt, and so black women have not been pushed away from the movement.  Black women are the only group that has no “other” – black men and white women both have privilege over black women (16).

One of the main problems with feminism has been its willingness to accept small victories rather than to push for large change.  hooks argues that “society is more responsive to those ‘feminist’ demands that are not threatening, that may even help maintain the status quo” and reforms often reinforce “capitalist, materialist values (illustrating the flexibility of capitalism) without truly liberating women economically” (23).  The movement cannot be about small, personal goals, but about changing ideology.

Minority women often reject the feminist movement in response to the white bourgeois leaders.  hooks’ main argument is that capitalism supports an oppressive paradigm generally and being a feminist shouldn’t mean excluding other fights against oppression.  In other words, feminism should be one part of a broader anti-oppression ideology.  The system hurts everyone.

There is no “hierarchy of oppression” but “[s]exist oppression is of primary importance not because it is the basis of all other oppression, but because it is the practice of domination most people experience…” (36).  Sexist oppression occurs within family units, the hierarchy of sexes can be introduced before exposure to people of different classes or races happens.  Feminists have argued for the elimination of the family unit and that is problematic for black women, who get a great source of love and support that they cannot get from institutions richer, white women have access to (39).

The idea of sisterhood of women is important, but the white bourgeois version insists that all women are equal, while hooks believes the movement must learn to accept and embrace differences and except that there is no sameness (44).  They must also drop the victim mentality (45).  The rest of the chapter rehashes this idea in various ways.

(From pages 54 – 67 there is a very interesting discussion on the idea of minorities within minority movements.  The discussions and infighting within the feminist movement parallel very closely the kind of discussions and blindnesses and privileges on display with the atheist movement around questions of race and gender.)

Chapter 5 focuses on how important it is to include men in the feminist movement and how sexism hurts men as well as women.  In the feminist movement, there has been some push for complete separation of women from men, which is neither realistic or possible, relationships between women and men are important to many women (79).

Chapter 6 focuses on power and how white bourgeois women have focused on increasing the power that women have rather than examining how problematic power is because it depends on dominating others (85).

Chapter 7 goes back to the idea that work in a capitalist society is not necessarily rewarding and is often exploitative and that white women insisting that working was a key to liberation made no sense to the poor women who were not liberated and already had work.  There needs to be a new system and women need to learn not to devalue their own work and low-wages are considered a sign of personal failure in this culture (105).

Chapter 8 introduces the importance of education and how many poor women and many people of color are not literate so the feminist focus on transmitting ideas through writing necessarily was exclusive (109).  Although the feminist movement has been interested in education, it has been interested in higher education not teaching basic skills like literacy.  There is also a tendency in black feminists to be anti-intellectual, to think that theory doesn’t matter, while white feminists in the academy often neglect to understand real world problems when they create theory, both sides need to learn to embrace the other.

Chapter 9 discusses the feminist movement’s attempt to end domestic violence, which is a way of establishing dominance.  Related closely to the previous chapters on power and on how sexism hurts men, this chapter focuses on how economic exploitation makes men feel powerless despite the fact that they are told they should be powerful (118-119).  They take the resulting frustration out on their home life rather than at work.  The entire culture is violent, including women.

Chapter 10 discusses parenting and the movement of feminism away from dismissing motherhood as something that stops women from achievement towards embracing it.  This shift has made black women feel more welcome because family life is very important to them.  The problem now is that motherhood is being romanticized when the reality is that men still do not contribute equally and society as a whole doesn’t provide infrastructure for taking care of children – children need a community and are not individual possessions (145).

Chapter 11 is about sexuality and sexual freedom.  The feminist movement was successful in creating a world in which women could be sexual but didn’t remove the stigma that came with women who were openly sexual (151).  It also didn’t remove heterosexism – the lesbians in the early feminist movement were known as the “lavender menace” (152-153).

Resources used: There is a very long bibliography, it focuses heavily on works written within 10 years of the publishing of this work.  Much of what she cites is to point out flaws in seminal feminist works.  Key works cited, in style of book:

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: W. W. Norton Company, 1963.

Brown, Rita Mae. “The Last Straw,” in Class and Feminism. Eds. Charlotte Bunch and Nancy Myron. Baltimore: Diana Press, 1974, pp. 14-23.

Barber, Benjamin. Liberating Feminism. New York: Dell, 1975.

Greer, Germaine. The Female Eunuch. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971.

Boggs, Grace Lee and James Boggs. Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974.

Morrison, Toni. “What the Black Woman Thinks about Women’s Lib,” The New York Times Magazine, August 22, 1971.

Spelman, Elizabeth. “Theories of Race and Gender/The Erasure of Black Women,” Quest, Vol. V, No. 4 (1982), pp. 36-62.

Schechter, Susan. Women and Male Violence: The Visions and Struggles of the Battered Women’s Movement. Boston: South End Press, 1982.

Book Summary: “You play like a girl” by Elena Bertozzi

She teaches, makes video games, and writes novels? I’m in love.

For one of my classes this summer, I had write annotations/summaries for several books.  I enjoyed many of them and I thought that the annotations might be useful for other people, so I will be posting them here.  They’re somewhat rough, but considering how much everyone loves when someone at FtB posts about feminism, I doubt it matters.

Bertozzi, E. (2011). “You Play Like a Girl”: Cross-Gender Competition and the Uneven Playing Field. In G. Dines, & J.M. Humez (Eds.), Gender, Race, and Class in the Media: A Critical Reader (pp. 443-454). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Question(s) Investigated: What is the environment in video games like for women?  Does gamer culture encourage cross-gender competition?

Time Period: 2000s

Geographic Region: US

Subjects studied: Video games, competition, gender relations

Abstract:

Women play as many video games as men, but different ones, generally ones that involve less developed skill.  Because gamer culture and the culture at large are so gendered, even in gender-neutral gameplay, the gender of the players impacts the way that the game is played – especially when there is a lot of interacting with other players (444).  Civility is taught as something men should always show women, and violence towards women is abhorred (445), yet violence against female characters may be necessary when playing against women.

Men are also extremely hostile when they are beaten by a woman (446).  Women and girliness are associated with gayness and weakness and are to be avoided at all costs – to play a woman means that victory will be hollow and loss will be humiliating (447).  Women know this as well and it makes them uncomfortable when playing against men (448).Friendly open aggression between men is ok, but there’s no equivalent for women and no equivalent for inter-gender interaction.  Women do not use games to establish a dominance hierarchy the same way that men do; women use beauty not skill for their hierarchies (449).

The article ends with suggests as to how to make the gamer community and gaming in general more friendly to women and to crossgender gaming.  Normalize crossgender play, create a broader range of female character types, etc.

Resources used:

Alix, A. (2007) ‘Online Game Talk and the Articulation of Maleness,’ in Flow TV 5

DeBoer, K.J. (2004). Gender and Competition: How Men and Women Approach Work and Play Differently.

Levy, A. (2005) Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture.

Lucas, K. and Sherry, J.L. (2004) ‘Sex Differences in Video Game Play: A Communication-Based Explanation’. (this link is a pdf)

Taylor, T.L. (2005) Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture.

 

And here’s a video of her talking about teaching and play: http://www.uww.edu/news/videos/why-i-teach-elena-bertozzi ”

If there were more women involved in making games, then we would see a lot of different kinds of games. We will also have more women running corporations that run technology. We’ll have a female Bill Gates and a female Steve Jobs.

Book Summary: Enlightened Sexism by Susan J. Douglas

For one of my classes this summer, I had write annotations/summaries for several books.  I enjoyed many of them and I thought that the annotations might be useful for other people, so I will be posting them here.  They’re somewhat rough, but considering how much everyone loves when someone at FtB posts about feminism, I doubt it matters.

Susan J. Douglas is one of my new favorite writers.  She is clever, into pop culture, and one of the funniest academic writers out there.  Her book Enlightened Sexism is one I highly recommend if you are interested in television culture, Buffy the Vampire SlayerXena, or good writing.

Douglas, Susan J. Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work is Done. New York: Henry Holt, 2010.

Question(s) Investigated: What do representations of women’s power in the media mean?  Is feminism’s work over because we see powerful women in the media?  How are women’s interests being harmed by the media?  What harm is done by spreading the belief that sexism is over and feminism’s work is done?

Time Period: 1990s-2000s

Geographic Region: US

Subjects studied: Media portrayal, stereotypes, equality, beauty

Place in the literature: This is a very recent book, but it is an important response to reactionary anti-feminism and claims that the world is post-feminist.  Despite many claims to the contrary, Douglas claims that feminism’s work is not done, and the lie that it is done has caused ground to be lost in the fight for equality.  Partially a call to action and partially a denunciation of those who claim that the fight is over.

Abstract:

CH1 – Teenage Girls
The focus here is that teenagers, particularly teenage girls, became an important demographic in the 1990s.  Beverly Hills 90210 became the most popular television show for young women in the 90s, along with shows like Melrose Place and Murphy Brown.  Depiction of women in these shows generally were stereotypical, either of superficial women who used sex to get power or women who were too busy with their careers to have lives. Women were always beautiful. Even in shows that were theoretically empowering, like Murphy Brown, employed tropes like motherhood was “natural” for women and careerism was not (40).

Interestingly, shows with strong female leads were highly rated, even when they did not have traditionally attractive women as leads: Roseanne, Designing Women, Murphy Brown, Murder She Wrote, and Grace Under Fire (43).

She also talks about Riot Grrrl, a rock movement from the early nineties that mixed punk with feminism, dealing with complex and troubling problems facing women, problems that were ignored by the mainstream.  The mainstream press did not appreciate that and were very dismissive, but the terms of the movement found their way into a sanitized mainstream version of “girl power” (45).

Douglas then goes on to talk about the magazine “Sassy,” which she is a fan of and which, frankly, I’m upset I didn’t have when I was a teenager, it sounds pretty amazing.  An article went backstage to reveal the codes used behind the scenes at Miss America: WC, H, BB for Weak Chin, Heavy, and Big Butt (48). The chapter also addresses the problem of being a teenage girl: “if they behave like true adolescents, they can’t be feminine, and if they adopt the mantle of femininity, they aren’t really adolescents.” (53).  The briefly powerful moments of Riot Grrrl and “Sassy” were immediately co-opted by major media outlets and tamed into something profitable and not good for women.

CH2 – Violent Women

Lorena Bobbitt in Vanity Fair

Framed within news stories surrounding destructive women like Lorena Bobbitt, Amy Fisher, Tonya Harding, and Janet Reno, this chapter focuses on the anxiety around changing/evolving gender roles.  The stories in the media reflected themes in TV and film at the time (56).

“Enlightened sexism rests on that ever-quaking and shifting fault line about female sexuality: it should be exploited and stoked (especially to sell products) but it should be policed and punished (to keep girls and women in their place)” (57).

I was 8 when Amy Fisher was news, and I never heard anything about it.  I was 9 when the Bobbitt’s were news and there were lots and lots of penis jokes.  I didn’t realize how young they were, she was only 22 when she attacked her husband.  Also, this is the picture I found of her when Googling:

CH3 – Warrior Women
This chapter is about Warrior Women like Xena and Buffy with whom “we saw the proliferation of a new kind of heroine, a sexy, mouthy, physically violent ass-kicker whose duty it was to save the entire world from really monstrous evildoers” (77).  In the 90s, feminist concerns had moved from explicit discrimination, particularly in the work place, to sexual politics and more subtle discrimination and personal violence (79).

And then there was Charlie’s Angels, which brought back women using their sexuality to defeat men.  And then La Femme Nikita, which included the line “there’s no weapon as powerful as your femininity” (95).  Dark Angel emphasized that female sexual desire was dangerous, by having the lead go into heat (96).

CH4 – Feminism as Ugly
Focuses on media that dismisses feminism as a thing of the past or unattractive.  Clueless heralded the beginning of female narrated films, but those narrations came with a focus on “girly” things like fashion and whether boys wanted them.  And this happened at the same time as the warrior women (104).  The idea of essentialism, that women and men were fundamentally different, was promoted (105).

She goes on to discuss Ally McBeal, which managed to be both feminist and anti-feminist; Miss Congeniality and Legally Blonde, which were about balancing feminism with girliness; Down with Love, which implies that women aren’t really feminist they just want men to be good to them.

CH5 – Black Women
This chapter focuses on the black female power and how the media represents black women.  There’s focus on what she calls “Black Speak” and sass and powerful women’s ability to move from speaking white middle-class to speaking black.  This is escapist for white and black people.  The problem is that black women are represented as having power giving the impression that in the real world, feminism isn’t necessary.

Black women earn “62.5 cents to every white man’s dollar (in Louisiana it’s 48.9 cents to his dollar)” (130).  Even as representation of women got more complex in general, it embraced stereotypes of black women, such as in shows by Martin Lawrence (141) and crime shows generally (144).

Douglas writes at length about Oprah.  “Oprah and her audience construct a fantasy, a utopia where white and black women come together as allies and friends. And how many black women, besides Oprah, have launched a magazine named after them, featuring herself on the cover every month, and have it be a hit with white women?” (147).  Although Oprah herself is committed to helping people, she focuses on individual self-improvement in a world where not everyone with the will to succeed necessarily will, these problems “can’t be overcome simply by pulling up your bootstraps or finding your spiritual center” (150).

CH6 – Sex in America
This chapter is about American sex culture and how it focuses on women and very young ones at that.  There is a “culture that is prudish and pornographic – how’s that for a contradiction to navigate?” (155).  She introduces the idea of the “sexpert”, someone who is an expert at sex and openly talks about it – sexual empowerment got twisted into self-objectification (156).

Then she goes on to talk about very young girls who are exploited by the culture, including those on Toddlers & Tiaras (she drops the ampersand for an ‘and’) and the tragic case of JonBenet Ramsey (157-158).  She also addresses how horrible Cosmo and Maxim are in their advice to women.

CH7 – Television
According to her, “a close look at reality TV reveals it to be the ground zero of enlightened sexism” (189).  She discusses several different television shows and then, from pages 198-210 offers the top 10 sexism in action:

  1. Women are to be judged first and foremost by their appearance

“if you’re beautiful, you have it knocked – all else will follow. But at the same time they show us that we can never be beautiful enough… such shows provide an excellent selling environment for the multibillion-dollar diet and beauty industry…” (201).

  1. Women need to compete over men
  2. Women can’t get along with one another and will stab each other in the back
  3. Women are overly emotional and obsessed with relationships
  4. Women should be sexy, but not overly sexual
  5. The worst thing a woman can be is a bitch: strong women are bitches and rich women are bitches
  6. African-American women are lazy, threatening, have a chip on their shoulder, are not marriage material, or all of the above (except for Tyra Banks)
  7. Women (especially blondes) are shallow, materialistic, and live to shop
  8. Housework and child rearing are a woman’s domain
  9. Lesbians? What lesbians?

Reality TV resurrects these stereotypes, leads to approval of them, lets women know how they are judged on appearance.

CH8 – Dieting
This chapter is about the rise of diet culture and the mean girl culture.  Women failing to live up to the ridiculous standards of beauty, requiring extreme thinness and giant breasts, has lead to them being angry, and they turn that anger inward and towards each other rather than at the media (220).  She complains about the increased spending on cosmetic surgery and the focus on cosmetic surgery in television – I would point out that, like many medical fields, the technology and results have improved massively over time and the costs have come down, I’m not sure it’s reasonable to entirely blame this growth on a change in the media landscape.  It is certainly based on a beauty ideal that is unattainable, but that ideal has existed all along.

She then goes on to address the mean girl phenomenon, something that isn’t new and isn’t particularly widespread, despite the focus on it.  She argues that the focus is to create the idea that women themselves are the problem, not the culture, and women need to be put back into their place because they can’t do that for themselves (236-237).

CH9/CH10 – Celebrity Culture
These chapters are about celebrity culture and how obsessed the media is with controlling the femininity of women celebrities and politicians.  Magazines tear women apart for being too fat, too thin, too controlling, lacking children, lacking a husband, aging, and just about anything outside of the cultural model of perfection for women.  “Losing your man is a tragedy, but remaining childless is a thermonuclear disaster” she says of how magazines cover women’s family planning choices (259).  Meanwhile, women with political power give men like Tucker Carlson castration anxiety (269).  She then goes on to talk about the representation of female power in fictional television, and how it focuses on women who are in typically male jobs and not very feminine, rather than focusing on jobs where women usually work (279-280).

She also writes about the lack of representation of lesbians in the media, with the exception of the occasional straight girl make-out session (290).  She mentions Ellen and Rachel Maddow, but argues that their sexuality remains in the background, but I think that this isn’t true – they both speak often about LGBT issues and certainly their sexuality more openly impacts what they report on than most people with talk or news shows.  Her point about fictional representation stands, though.  The root problem is that lesbians are politicized and anti-consumerism (291).

Resources used:

Ariel Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (New York: Free Press, 2006)

Rosalind Gill, Gender and the Media (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2007).

Angela McRobbie, The Aftermath of Feminism (London: Sage, 2009).

Kara Jesella and Marisa Meltzer, How Sassy Changed My Life: A Love Letter to the Greatest Teen Magazine of All Time (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007).

A. Susan Owen, “Vampires, Postmodernity, and Postfeminism: Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 27 (Summer 1999).

Dawn Heinecken, The Warrior Women of Television (New York: Pete Lang, 2003).

Kristal Brent Zook, Color by Fox (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Laura S. Brown, “Outwit, Outlast, Out-Flirt? The Women of Reality TV,” in Featuring Females: Feminist Analyses of the Media, ed. E. Cole and J. H. Daniel (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2005).

Jackie Stacey, “Feminine Fascinations: A Question of Identification?” in The Celebrity Culture Reader, 252-85.

Amanda Lotz’s work in general