Thursday, 1 May 2008

Bones and Ownership

Contains spoilers for the most recent episode of Bones, "The Player Under Pressure".

I was watching Bones last night, which is a show I generally like, and was struck rather unpleasantly by the conclusion. The story was about a murdered basketball player, who turned out to be murdered by the father of a girl who was blowing him immediately before the murder. The motivations were somewhat unclear – the father seemed racked with guilt over the fact that in his youth, he, too, had been an enormous man-whore of the use-'em-and-lose-'em school of seduction, and was devastated to discover that his "baby girl" was just as susceptible to the attractions of the team's star as everyone else.

But despite the subplot about how Brennan was dismissive of athletes as immature and Booth's feeling were hurt by the idea that she thought "guys like him" were perpetually trapped in childhood, no one, least of all Brennan (who really should've been all over this), actually pointed out the fact that it is completely, entirely fucked up for a grown man to be so involved in his daughter's sexuality that he fucking killed a guy over it. I mean, damn, I know Brennan doesn't like psychology, but if that's not a case of projection, I don't know what is. Everyone just treated it like it was a logical reaction to the situation, not an extremely fucked up way to view your daughter. I could almost grasp it if he'd committed suicide, having realised that he was a total bastard, but murdering the guy his daughter was blowing is just...weird.

Look, I grasp that the athlete was an arse, and probably deserved a kicking. I grasp that there are men who use and women who are used, and professional athletes get a lot of opportunities for that sort of thing. I grasp that the guy was portrayed as being a bit of a heartbreaker, at least in relation to another young woman, so he could be presumed to have failed to be clear about the fact that he just wanted to get laid.

However, I really, really resent this notion that somehow a man has the right to kill a man who fucked his daughter, and it really felt like the show and its characters tacitly approved of this murder.

Firstly, I am tired of this notion that sex is degrading for women. Now, the girl in question, a cheerleader, may have been conned by the athlete, but that's never spelled out in relation to her - the only person heartbroken is someone else entirely, someone who is outside the circle of athletes and cheerleaders, and who presumably didn't know his reputation (and you can't tell me that any of the cheerleaders hadn't heard about that). The only information we're given about the two of them was that she was blowing him under the bleachers. Whoop-di-do. She had a fiancĂ© herself – there's no particular reason to believe that she was in love or unaware that he didn't want anything more than sex, or that she wanted anything but that herself.

Secondly, the girl was an adult – a college-aged adult, but she was old enough to decide to get married, certainly old enough to decide to have sex. Her father's place in her sex life should be non-existent. I'll grant you, it would be pretty icky to discover in that particular way that your daughter cheating was on her fiancĂ©, especially in a public place, but that doesn't make her father's reaction any less fucked up and bizarre.

And finally, the implication of the father's final confession – "it's different when you see your baby girl..." – is that, well, he never really understood before that using women like toilet paper was wrong, and now doesn't understand that it's wrong because women are people who shouldn't be treated with disdain (not that casual sex isn't fine if both parties are fully aware what it is when they're going into it), but because his "baby girl" has fallen prey to it. Well, probably, we don't really know, her motivations are never explored. But he only feels bad – is apparently only driven to murder – because, OMG! Turns out? Men using women is bad if it's someone's daughter. Because it's not like every goddamn woman you meet is someone's daughter.

(Aside: I had a boss once who had his fourteen year old daughter at work with him at his video store one day, and some lout came in and was making suggestive remarks about her, and he replied "that's my daughter", and the lout quickly back-pedalled with "oh, I didn't mean anyone's daughter, mate, not anyone's daughter…")

I am squicked out by this. I realise that it's probably not an unrealistic portrayal of a certain kind of man, and it's not that I don't think that kind of man should never appear on film – I just think that in a show like Bones, in which our extremely tough female lead is perfectly comfortable criticising the sexual behaviour, not to mention the emotional development, of most of the male characters in the episode, it is very peculiar to have no comment from her on this subject. I feel let down by it, to be honest. Brennan can be annoying with her insistence on viewing everything through the limited glass of her profession, but honestly, couldn't she pull it out when it matters? Wouldn't this actually be a really important thing for her to comment on?

Strangely, this actually does have something to do with eating disorders. I've seen a lot of comments lately from possibly well-meaning, possibly trollish, men on fat acceptance and feminist blogs which amount to "why do women want to be skinny? Men don't like skinny women, so it's not our fault that you've all got fucked up relationships with your bodies and with food". On one level, I understand the protest – probably the individual males making the protests don't pressure their significant others to lose weight (although I'd be interested to know at what point they would consider it acceptable to start that pressure – I doubt very much that most of them are into fat chicks, and they probably still have a notion of what makes an attractive woman, which probably doesn't include "size not important").

But at the same time, it's a disclaimer that I distrust – partly because the assumption that it's all women's own fault that we have body issues implies that only women should have to take any action (I also doubt whether these guys are actually telling women of all shapes and sizes that they're beautiful OR that being beautiful isn't the most important thing in a woman's life), and partly because it comes back to the same old bullshit that was bothering me on Bones last night: many men, I daresay most men, still think they own us.

Hell, they still think they own women they've never met, to the extent that they think their approval or disapproval of our bodies is what should define our relationships with said bodies. They sound like they're disclaiming ownership because they're disclaiming responsibility, but actually, the crux of the question isn't "why do you want to be skinny?" but "men don't like...". The question doesn't mean "why have you developed an impossible goal for you, why can't you love and enjoy yourself the way you are?"; it means "why are you doing something that might actually make you less attractive to some men than you are now? Isn't being attractive to men the most important part of your life?"

The worst part is that it's not an entirely stupid question. It's an offensive question, but not an entirely stupid one, especially for those of us whose battle with our weight has been at least partly motivated by a desire for the attention of the opposite sex. My own father was the one who told me I had to lose weight or boys would never be interested in me. He was wrong, as it turned out, but I believed him. Part of me still believes him, even though I'm married now to a man who thinks I'm gorgeous.

But there I am again, you see. I'm still wrapped in the question of what is attractive to men, even if it's just one man, who has already agreed to spend his life with me, so clearly likes me quite a lot.

Not all eating disorders come from the same source, or have the same goal, of course. My sister was anorexic in her teens, and that at least partly resulted from being raped at the age of twelve. I doubt that she was interested in more male attention just then, and her recovery didn't begin until she took up martial arts and felt some kind of control over her own body again. But a lot of my own self-loathing over the years has been rooted in the notion that I could never be attractive, and I would never be worth anything until I was.

Lately, as well, there's been the wholly disturbing "Open Source Boob Project", which is apparently a group effort to make scifi and fantasy conventions as uncomfortable as possible by forcing women to actually answer the question "can I feel your boobs?" to anyone who cares to ask. (Yes, you can wear a badge that says "don't ask me", but honestly, shouldn't the default assumption be that this is a fucking stupid question to ask a stranger? Ask me and you'll get your fingers broken.) Again, this question of ownership hasn't gone away, even amongst men who tell themselves that they are enlightened and not at all sexist.

But the lead on the "project" also commented in the now-deleted comments that he wouldn't feel up someone who was unattractive to him, because he "doesn't do pity gropes".

I know I said in my last post that I was getting away from anger, and I still am. This is...not anger, exactly, a kind of weary frustration, born of a gut feeling that this is just wrong.

Most of the time, I hate my body and I can't control my eating. Most of the time, this may not be about what actual individual men like or don't like. It's not even about what my husband likes or doesn't like, because all the internal evidence suggests he likes me just fine, at any weight, at any level of craziness. But it is, to a lesser or greater extent, to do with the fact that in my heart – as opposed to my head, which is outraged – I still believe that being attractive to men is of primary importance for a woman, and that being fat is fundamentally unattractive, and you can't disentangle that from the fact that it is still considered appropriate for men's opinions of our bodies, what they look like and what we do with them, should be proprietorial. Fat is still a feminist issue, because regardless of whether an individual man is going to find me or any other individual woman attractive, our culture is still founded on the notion that the opinions of men at large about the bodies of individual women are important, whether it's because they're telling fat OR skinny women that they're not attractive.

And I don't accept this notion that it's all women's fault, because, oh dear, we're putting pressure on ourselves to be TOO thin. We're also putting pressure on ourselves to have bigger (or smaller) breasts, and smaller (or bigger) bums, shiny hair, perfect skin, bigger eyes, not to mention every other damn thing, and it's got nothing to do with what YOU, THE INDIVIDUAL MALE, find personally attractive and everything to do with what SOCIETY, of which you are a part (as am I), says is attractive. If you're genuinely that offended by the notion, try to get some of the companies promoting these images to put some of what YOU'RE actually attracted to into their advertising, or, better still, start encouraging the women of your acquaintance to love themselves as they are, regardless of whether they fit into any social standard of beauty. You can't disclaim responsibility while you're still claiming ownership, and you're still claiming ownership while you assert the importance of what you (or men) are attracted to in relation to women in general, as though, as we already feel, what we look like is really all that is of importance about us. That you don't like "skinny chicks" doesn't make you morally superior, as much as fatter women may often like to make you feel it is. We want people to find us attractive too, and we're more likely to like you if you seem like you might, because it makes us feel better. You're still asserting a proprietorial right to judge, even if you seem to be judging in our favour.

(I do wonder sometimes if I would find this whole thing easier if I were a lesbian, or if I'd just find a way to feel like women couldn't find me attractive either. I don't know. But the lesbian gaze doesn't yet have a strong enough hold in culture at large, so doesn't really come into this entry.)

I'm not blaming individual men OR women (apart from those of either sex who glaringly deserve it, who individually harass individual women or make their partners feel bad for being heavier than they think they deserve etc) for a society-wide issue that crosses nations and continents. But I don't believe that women's investment in being attractive, even if we're individually hit and miss with men's supposed requirements (as though those are universal), is purely a woman-created problem – how could it be, in our still male-dominated society? Men as a group feel quite free to dismiss us if they consider us unattractive, whether it's by leaving "men don't like skinny women" comments on our blogs, or criticising our bodies from building sites, or dumping us because we are too fat/thin/short/tall/ugly for them. Even our concerned commenters seem to feel quite free to dismiss slender women, as though they're somehow lesser because they're thinner than the commenters themselves find attractive. If they're really that concerned, they should find a way to be sympathetic to the pain of those obsessed with their weight and attractiveness without dismissing the concern because "men don't like skinny women". That doesn't engender confidence in slender women, it doesn't make fat women feel any better because we may not be skinny but we're probably still too fat, and it doesn't move us any further from the fundamental position that men's opinions of our bodies are still paramount.

This is a sticky business, because attraction is obviously still pretty important to the human species. Without it, we come to a dead end. I'm here in a blog no one is reading, muttering about television shows and my own struggles with my weight and my eating, and I have no real answers. I just know...I'm tired of this. I'm tired seeing the assumption of male ownership of women plastered everywhere, from stupid TV shows that can't be bothered to question a man's possessiveness about his daughter's sexuality to advertising which uses women's bodies as a kind of public message board about what's acceptable and isn't solely in order to make us buy things, to commenters who disclaim their part in women's obsession with being attractive because we're not doing it the right way for THEM, to my own despair when I look at my body or the newly forming lines on my face. I'm not even angry. I'm just tired.

So far my fat positivity has not come around to the notion that I could be devastatingly attractive at any weight, or that it doesn't matter a fuck if anyone ever finds me attractive because I'm clever and talented and a bunch of other good stuff. If I ever get there, you'll know I've recovered. And that I've reached a new level of personal evolution in which I understand in my heart as well as believe in my head that my attractiveness to men, or lack thereof, is not the most important thing about me.


Anonymous said...

Oh my god... I totally agree with you about the whole "Men don't like skinny chicks, so why are you trying to be skinny?" thing. Whenever guys say that it infuriates me because they just assume that women base their actions solely on what men want. Which is totally incorrect. SOME women diet to be more attractive to men, but I think the majority of women diet because they like the way being thin looks. Some men can't seem to understand that a lot of women like being svelte, regardless of what men want.

It's the same thing with guys who say "Why do women wear so much makeup? Men like natural beauty!" They can't understand that some women enjoy wearing makeup, use it as part of their own personal style, and wear it for THEMSELVES. It's arrogance to think that everything women do is for men, and it is very controlling. I haven't seen many people write about this particular issue... so thanks!

Maddie said...

Thank you. :) And thanks for being my very first comment.

To be honest, I didn't exactly mean that women's behaviour is all for its own sake - I think a significant amount of it probably is to be attractive to men (though you're entirely right about the presumption that men are the central reason for women's behaviour). What I was interested in, though, was the fact that the people who make that argument are trying to separate themselves from any responsibility regarding women's body issues, while at the same time asserting their ownership of women's bodies. "We own you, so don't be too skinny; but also, it's not our fault that you're that skinny because you should be how we like you, which is...; but that doesn't make how you feel about yourself our responsibility, even though we'll judge you for being too skinny, too fat, too anything."

Michelle said...

First of all, I just stumbled onto your blog today and spent the morning reading all the entries... and getting no work done in the process! haha :-)

This entry is especially interesting to me. Your thoughts here about men trying to seperate responsibilty and sense of ownership is such an epiphany to me. I've never understood why I had such a disconnect with feminism... I mentally believe the things it stands for and demands, but my heart never felt fully in it. Could it be because I'm still shackled to this notion of dieting and "looking my best"? How can I expect my passion to ignite when I've given so much and hold so tightly to fitting into some idea of attractiveness? And therefore agreeing to the ownership that others have on me?

This is a fantastic blog - glad to have found you and I'm looking forward to further entries!

Maddie said...

Hee, thank you, Michelle! I'm glad you're enjoying me. :) I'm glad someone's reading!

I'm a firm, and fairly radical, feminist, but I totally understand the ambivalence about it. It is very difficult - if not impossible - to distance yourself entirely from the culture of which you are a part, and gender roles are very much intertwined in that. But even I - a woman who hasn't shied away from the notion of being a feminist in a decade - still feel this disconnect between what I believe to be true and important and what I find myself doing every day to make my face and body acceptable to other people - and to myself, because I judge myself as harshly as anyone else ever could.

I mean, yes, the extent to which this is for men is arguable - see the previous commenter's remark. Women participate in the judgement of women's faces and bodies as actively as men do. But I do think that the pressure to fit into a cultural notion of attractiveness to men, especially in our media-bombarded culture, is intense, and even if you're a feminist, it's hard to fight that pressure which, unless you've been living at the bottom of a well, you have almost certainly internalised. It is a very tough situation.

But I'm glad if my rambling is giving you some food for thought! Always good. :)