Jennifer Aniston: The Engagement

Poor Jennifer Aniston. Ever since she was ditched by Brad Pitt in 2005 she’s had to watch him flounce around with homewrecker Angelina Jolie, while her own love life sputters along to the tune of constant disappointment. She’s finally got the chance to be happy, though; Aniston got engaged to actor boyfriend Justin Theroux on Friday and the media are all of a frenzy. No more heartbreak for Jen! Perhaps THIS time it will work out! Maybe NOW she can finally be happy!

Is anyone else tired of this narrative? I’m sure I am.

Jennifer Aniston engaged to Justin Theroux - Beckie Smith

Ever since her high-profile divorce in 2005 (and, let’s face it, before then as well), the media have been obsessed with Jennifer Aniston’s relationship status. The Sun sums up the tone of the last seven years perfectly, happily declaring:

She’s since developed an unlucky-in-love reputation following a string of failed romances, dating such stars as singer John Mayer, model Paul Sculfor and actor Vince Vaughn

It is as though every tabloid newspaper, magazine and gossip show in the Western world pegged Aniston as a victim when she lost out to The Other Woman, and since then they have refused to see her as anything else. Every article about her past or current relationships is laced with seemingly inescapable reminders about the divorce, Pitt’s ‘betrayal’ and the happily loved-up life of Brangelina. Even Aniston’s engagement is somehow overshadowed by the rumours about Brad and Angelina’s marriage plans:

fans questioned whether she’d find a soul mate, especially after Pitt united with actress Angelina Jolie and their family grew (CNN)

I’m baffled as to how Brangelina’s acquisition of children warrants an ‘especially’ in that sentence. Does their accumulation of tiny human beings have a direct impact on Aniston’s dating success? Of course, this all comes down to the difference in how we report about and treat women and men in media. When the two are placed alongside each other, the difference is embarrassingly conspicuous. The Huffington Post offers a helpful picture gallery of women that George Clooney has dated, but no comments about numerous ‘failed relationships’ or serial heartbreak. This charming website even ranks the women Leonardo DiCaprio’s dated (or supposedly dated) in a way which seems to congratulate him for his prowess.

While men are congratulated for their celebrity scrapbook of previous loves, women are showered with pity. And they can’t win – instead, they are forced by mainstream media into one of two narratives: lonely and abandoned, or defiant and independent in spite of it all. The second, while it may sound empowered, is deceptive; underneath the superficial praise for their emotional strength and badass attitude is an undercurrent of sympathy. When a magazine tells me that ‘Jen is staying strong after ANOTHER devastating breakup’, the sentiment seems somewhat disingenuous. There is an implication that she is still fragile, and may break at any moment.

Other media outlets ignore declarations of strength altogether, as demonstrated by CNN’s spectacular misinterpretation of an interview earlier in the year:

“Having experienced everything you don’t want in a partner over time, it starts to narrow down to what you actually do want… As I get older, I realize what qualities are important in love and what suits me. And what I won’t settle for.”

Now I can all but guarantee that if a man had said that, he would be seen as tough and the sentiment that he wouldn’t settle for someone who doesn’t fulfil his romantic needs would be viewed as a mark of self-respect. Instead, CNN followed the above paragraph by saying that Aniston’s “quest ended” on Friday, as though by saying this she was indicating that her one life goal was to convince a man to marry her.

The media infatuation with Aniston – the scrutiny of her relationships, breakups and the obsession over whether or not she’s baby-crazy – just highlights the sexism inherent in a lot of writing about celebrities. It’s part of a wider problem which I’ll come back to in a later post in which women are portrayed as victims in almost every situation. In this day and age, the damsel in distress/lonely princess waiting for her prince/old spinster framework is seeming increasingly tired – and if anyone’s tired of it, it must be Jennifer Aniston.

Image: kozumel on Flickr

Exploiting the Aurora tragedy

I’m a fan of reasoned argument, but every now and again someone says something that makes me so angry I have to fight not to lose all sense of reason. Today’s ‘someone’ is William Bennett, who has written for CNN on the Aurora shootings. Specifically, he has written about Jon Blunk, Alex Teves and Matt McQuinn, who each lost their lives during the attack by a masked gunman at the screening of the new Batman film at a cinema in Colorado on July 20. Each of the three men died protecting their girlfriends by using their bodies to physically shield them from the gunfire.

This, it goes without saying, is an incredible and selfless thing to do. So why is it that I have taken issue with an article praising them for it?

I’m generally uncomfortable with the idea of hero-worship, but I can understand the need to commemorate someone who has made such a great sacrifice. But Bennett’s article, published a couple of days ago, can hardly be said to honour the memory of the three men.

These men were three of the 12 innocent people killed early that morning. Their incredible sacrifice leaves us asking: Why? Why would a young man with his entire life ahead of him risk everything for a woman he has no legal, financial or marital obligations to?

Does this question even need answering? Is the idea that someone might not need a ‘legal, financial or marital’ obligation to protect someone they care about so unbelievable that it even needs mentioning?

So with an intro that’s questionable at best, let’s read on.

As Hanna Rosin so eloquently pointed out in a recent article, calling it chivalry would be a tremendous understatement. By all appearances, these men believed that a man has a responsibility to protect a woman, even to the point of death. They believed that there are things in life worth dying for and the innocent woman sitting next to them was one.

They believed, to put it simply, in a code of honor. They put the lives of the women before their own, an old fashioned notion to be sure, but certainly an honorable one (if you have any doubt, ask the survivors). Their instincts were to protect, not run away.

It is not only absurd but incredibly arrogant to assume to understand the ethical or moral code of a man whom you have neither met nor spoken to; even more so to presume an understanding of what these particular men felt in their last few moments. Who is Bennett to speak for them? Who is he to tell anyone whether or not these men acted out of instinct? And the assertion that the notion is ‘old-fashioned’ seems like a spiteful crack at the inadequacies of young men today. It hardly seems mentioning in the face of all this that to say the idea that a woman is ‘innocent’ and more worthy of protection than a man simply by virtue of owning a vagina is ridiculous.

We are told that little is known about the men – except one. He has his own struggles, including “an ex-wife and children living in Nevada”. An odd fact to throw in at this time:

He was scheduled to visit them to resolve marital issues. This isn’t to take anything away from Blunk or the other two heroes, but to illustrate that, in spite of shortcomings, men can still recognize what it means to be a good man and act like one.

This is the point at which I began to hear my heart beating in my ears.

To throw in such an offhand judgement upon the family life of a recently-deceased man is shocking. To make any suggestion that because of this, we might assume he lacked any sort of moral judgement or integrity is inexcusable. And to use it as a vehicle for preaching a certain kind of morality which centres around archaic patriarchal values is utterly sickening.

This is especially important given the state of many men today. Record numbers of men aren’t working or even looking for work. Record numbers aren’t marrying or even acting as fathers to their children. These men need heroes to imitate whom they can relate to in everyday life, not just make-believe superheroes who catch their imagination for an hour or two. They need heroes like the Aurora three….

In an age when traditional manhood has been increasingly relegated to fiction — capes, masks and green screens — these three men stand as real-life heroes. Their actions remind us that good triumphs over evil, not just in movies, but also in reality.

How dare he hijack this tragedy to illustrate the failings of The Youth? In doing so he reduces the incident to little more than ammunition for his self-righteous cause.

It also reduces the value of the sacrifice that these men made. In assuming they acted in accordance with some code, it denies them autonomy and assumes they acted out of an obligation, rather than the need to protect someone they cared deeply about. God forbid they acted out of love.

I don’t presume to know the intentions of these men; I will say that they did an incredible and self-sacrificing thing, and leave it at that. But to hold this up as the expected standard for men to live their lives by not only creates an incredibly sexist worldview in which the male must protect the female, it also diminishes the value of what these people did. By definition, a hero is someone who gives more than is expected or deserved, often at a high cost to themselves.

For anyone wondering at why I cannot simply accept this article as a tribute to the heroism of these three men, I would draw your attention to the editor’s note above the article. It is no coincidence that the writer of this article is also the author of “The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood.” Usually at this point I would be using words such as ‘unethical’ or ‘immoral’, but that hardly seems to cover the gall required to write such an article. The fact that someone would exploit this tragedy to push their own sexist world view, and still manage to employ the kind of cynically, emotionally manipulative language used here, is astounding.

I don’t think anything could compare, however, to the insensitivity and lack of basic human decency displayed by James Taranto, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal:

James Taranto - Aurora Batman shootings heroes

There are no words.

[Credit and thanks go to the good folks at Shakesville for sharing the original links.]

The Summer Blog Project: fashion, androgyny and drag.

A couple of weeks ago I set up a collaboration blog called The Summer Blog Project, with the aim of improving my writing and getting the chance to discuss interesting and topical issues ranging from politics to current affairs to women’s rights to pop culture. This week’s topic is ‘fashion and gender’, and so bears some relevance to this blog. My entry for this week can be found here.

The existence of Samantha Brick, or when will the Daily Mail stop trolling its readers?

Samantha Brick Fifty Shades of Grey porn Daily Mail article - Beckie Smith

Daily Mail writer and professional troll Samantha Brick is back. This time she has turned her attention to the ‘mummy-porn’ bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey. The woman who “caused an internet storm” a few months ago, we are told, has dealt a blow to EL James by labelling the book “demeaning and degrading to who we are.”

Now, that’s funny, because her sentiments echo the reaction – at least in part – to Brick’s own article which claimed that women were universally unkind to her owing to her beauty. There are many reasons why I took affront to That Samantha Brick Story, not least of which is that it was a prime example of the Daily Mail trolling its readers. Sure, Ms Brick came across as smug and self-satisfied and I won’t deny that my hackles were raised at her assertion on This Morning that women were incapable of befriending women they thought were prettier than them. But my major issue with the publication of the article was that it revealed the bare-faced hypocrisy of the Mail: that bizarre paradox in which it courts and undermines a hefty proportion of its target demographic. Despite every feminist’s efforts, the Mail is one of the most widely-read daily newspapers in the UK, with circulation figures bested only by the Sun, with women accounting for just over half its readership. A large proportion of its writers are women; yet in spite of all the figures, the newspaper remains one of the most misogynistic publications available. So it is always amusing when the vitriolic and gossip-laden Femail trots out a story which claims to defend women, as with yesterday’s account of Samantha Brick “slamming” the ‘mummy-porn’ bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey.

The most interesting thing about this latest incident is that the article in question is not actually written by Brick. In fact, the introduction to the article almost appears to suggest that the Mail have no connection with old Samantha; but just in case anyone had been fortunate enough to forget about the ‘I’m so beautiful’ furore, the editors are here to remind you just how personally insulted and belittled you were by la Brick. I haven’t read the book and have no desire to; I’m not really concerning myself with the subject matter here. Instead, I’m interested in how she is portrayed in the article. I may hate Brick’s writing and attitude, but there is no question that she is not the only blameworthy party here. Her editors knew exactly what the reaction to the ‘I’m so beautiful’ story would be. Everything about the presentation of the article was engineered to stoke the indignation of its readers, from the unflattering photographs which accompanied the story to the front-page placement of the infuriating ‘the bile proves I’m right‘ follow-up. So it comes as no surprise that the Mail’s editors are still using the whole debacle to sell stories; and that in doing so it displays a sickening disloyalty to its own writers. The reminder that Brick “claimed she was too beautiful for women to like her” is a cheap (and, sadly, effective) device for attracting hate-readers, especially when the subject of the article is a best-seller.

A quick look through Brick’s recent articles serves only to confirm that this kind of trolling is a staple of both Brick’s writing and the Fail’s editorial. ‘Independence? A career? Who needs them!’ and ‘I use my sex appeal to get ahead at work… and so does ANY woman with any sense’ are perfectly-packaged nuggets of misogynistic idiocy to satisfy the casual reader’s appetite for smug superiority. ‘Sorry, some women ARE too ugly for TV’ is another, in which Brick defends AA Gill’s assertion in the Sunday Times, in the face of a fierce and loyal backlash, that the historian and TV presenter Mary Beard is neither young nor attractive enough for our screens. The article itself is bile and certainly cannot be said to represent the views of a nation. Comments to that effect quickly came pouring in, and a response from the Mail quickly followed. The snide comments embedded in what is otherwise a warm appraisal of Professor Beard, entirely deserved, were no doubt calculated to bring a balance and nurture the ‘love to hate’ mentality among readers.

“Samantha Brick, the journalist who prompted a furore for claiming women hate her ‘for being beautiful’, today turns TV critic in an article in the Daily Mail.”

Articles presenting opposing views within the same publication is no new phenomenon; it is quite normal practice for a response or counter-argument to an earlier article to appear in the same title. It is rare, though, for a picture of the original writer to appear with the response with the caption ‘deluded’ underneath it. Classy.

The whole thing, I have to admit, is an impressive feat of manipulation; the Mail have honed reader-trolling to a fine art. And Brick is the perfect vehicle through which to do this: everything she writes has an infuriating air of narcissistic self-satisfaction, and the topic of each article is calculated perfectly to grate on even the most balanced and indifferent readers. I am beginning to doubt, in all honesty, whether Brick is a real person at all, or simply a fictional construct designed to be a target at which readers can aim their frustrations – much like the News of the World’s Edward Trevor. Just as the now-defunct national protected its reporters from blame by using a fake byline to break its most salacious scandals, perhaps the Brick-bot is simply a group of sniggering hacks behind a CGI image. Surely one person could not be capable of dealing with the sheer volume of criticism and, often, threats levelled at her.

We may never know the truth behind The Existence of Brick; perhaps she merely feels vindicated by the force of her critics. Let’s not forget that many of the responses were violent and disproportionate to an article which essentially reveal her to be a vain, deluded trophy wife under the thumb of a controlling and selfish husband. Perhaps instead the payment of large sums of money cushion the blows of the feminists and journalists and general public who critique and revile her work. Perhaps she is deluded. The one thing we know is that the editors at the Daily Mail are anything but. They are perfectly, expertly aware of the effect of each phrase and headline – and that is the true art of trolling.

People for the Ethical Treatment of People

PETA BWVAKTBOOM vegan advertising campaign feminism - Beckie SmithIn an uncertain world, it is comforting to know that there are a few things which can be consistently relied upon – if only to provide disappointment. There is no longer any shock value in saying that a new ad campaign which uses sex to sell something which is in no way related to sex has overstepped a few boundaries and angered a few people.

I’ve talked before about the advertising industry’s perturbing reliance on sex to sell, well, everything – but there is usually a degree of subtlety involved. It’s rare to hear a narrator talking explicitly and at length about the sexual prowess a product has bestowed upon them. And while advertisers have a habit of subtly degrading women and suggesting that our self-worth should be defined by our physical appearance and sexuality, there is a certain kind of blatant sexism which is alarming and very, very ugly. While it’s easy to think that this particular brand of casual misogyny is confined to ‘lads-mag’-rags and Lynx ads, it’s particularly unsavoury when flaunted by those who claim to champion a moral cause. Speaking up for the defenceless, the abused and the downtrodden, welcome onto the scene PETA: the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

In their latest video offensive, Boyfriend Went Vegan And Knocked the Bottom Out Of Me (BWVAKTBOOM), PETA have once again stirred up needless controversy in order to gain publicity. The campaign is stunningly crass from start to finish, from its parody of a charity appeal for victims of domestic abuse, to its bizarre, fake video blogs in which people (mostly women) gush about getting laid and injured in the process.

The campaign begins with an appeal disturbingly like those designed to raise awareness of help for domestic violence victims, featuring a girl in a neck brace awkwardly climbing the steps to her home. We are told she suffers from BWVAKTBOOM: “a painful condition that occurs when boyfriends go vegan and can suddenly bring it like a tantric porn star.” The ad is grossly insensitive and tasteless on a number of levels, most of which don’t need spelling out.

The next stage of the campaign consists of a series of mocked-up home videos in which women testify about their male partners’ new-found insatiable sexual appetite and energy. Clearly aimed at men, the message of the videos is that adopting a vegan diet will lead to a huge increase in sex appeal and stamina. However, there is another, more sinister, interpretation: that a vegan diet increases the chance of becoming an abusive carnal maniac, to the point of inflicting physical harm on sexual partners. Women lament the injuries they have sustained as a result of prolonged sexual activity – bruising, sprains, joint pain and concussions. Interestingly, one of the only narrators not to mention any negative side-effects of their lovers’ change in lifestyle is male. This seems to add to the worrying view that men are more active participants in sex, whereas women are passive objects who are acted upon and ‘damaged’.

A few choice quotes set the tone for the ads:

He’s like a sex robot with no off button

Do they make joint cream for the uterus?

I was an only child with daddy issues; I went to private school; I pledged a sorority at a top-ranked, basketball university where I was also a cheerleader; and then I went on to become an intern in Washington. So, yes. I like to have a lot of sex.

Their justification for the use of ‘controversial tactics’ in the past has been weak at best, but surely even PETA must realise that perpetuating slut-stereotypes is tacky. Amongst the other complaints about the videos this seems like a minor transgression, but adds insult to (literal) injury and highlights the cheapness of the campaign.

No less disturbing are the responses to the videos. It seems pertinent in the wake of the recent UNILAD scandal, and discussions about sexual violence entering the mainstream in a major way, to mention the high volume of comments on YouTube whose sentiments range from ‘it’s only a joke, don’t take it so seriously’ to making light of domestic violence – “I’m mean come’on, who wouldn’t want to hurt their girlfriend during sex, and she actually enjoyed it” [sic]. PETA is shamelessly engaging with this kind of thinking in order to gain publicity.

It’s rare that comments of this calibre provoke from me any response other than utter disdain. However, one did cause me to rethink my perspective – though the likelihood of this being intentional is slim to not-a-chance-in-hell:

Quit your whining, Men are always portrayed badly in the media, don’t see you up in arms then. Darn feminists and their double-standards

This, of course, is quite true; questionable portrayals of men can be found throughout the media. These are valid concerns which should be addressed, beginning with the example of the PETA campaign videos.

My initial anger upon watching the videos stemmed from the misogyny displayed in the portrayal of violent, exploitative (towards women) sexual relationships. Since then, however, my feelings have changed.  Let me be very clear: I am no less disgusted on second view; but I have equally growing concerns about their portrayal of men. The campaign preys upon some men’s insecurity about sexual inadequacy, implying that a man’s worth is measured by his ability to guarantee sexual satisfaction.

Instead of focussing on the quantifiable and realistic benefits of adopting a vegan lifestyle, PETA delivers an ad campaign based solely upon exaggerating the chances of men who eat meat developing erectile dysfunction. In the interests of thorough research, I visited PETA’s BWVAKTBOOM website. If, like me, you begrudge them the traffic, here are the opening paragraphs from the page entitled ‘A Vegetarian Diet Can Help With Impotence’:

Every year, impotence, or “erectile dysfunction,” affects millions of men across the world, with one study showing that as many as half of men over the age of 40 are impotent at least part of the time.

Originally, it was thought that impotence was caused by anxiety, but according to the Erectile Dysfunction Institute, up to 90 percent of all cases of impotence are physical as opposed to psychological. That’s right: High cholesterol, obesity, diabetes, prostate cancer or inflammations, and hormonal imbalances cause the vast majority of all cases of impotence.

The good news is that medical science suggests that all of these conditions can be managed or in some cases even prevented with a low-fat vegan diet […] These foods will scrub the plaque off the arterial walls to get your blood flowing and your love life going again in no time.[1]

Leaving aside for a moment the dubious ‘medical science’ behind the claim that a vegan diet will “scrub the plaque off the arterial walls”, let’s consider a couple of the website’s FAQs. “Why can’t I eat all the meat that I want and then just take Viagra?” is followed by “What if I’m already experiencing impotence?” The implicit message is not difficult to spot: eating meat will definitely lead to impotence – a condition that few meat-eating men are lucky enough to enjoy living without.

It is not only the myth-making and scaremongering that demonstrate PETA’s apparent misogyny and misandry. Feminist film criticism challenges film-makers who objectify women by prescribing a particular physical appearance and attire for female characters; but also for their failure to represent women as autonomous beings with inherent value and the capacity for independent thought. This is typically demonstrated in a lack of female lines, compared to large speaking roles given to powerful and ‘important’ male characters. Interestingly, in all but one of PETA’s videos, the voiceless role is that of the man, who does not even make an appearance; no details are given about him beside his diet and sexual prowess. The male partner is no less objectified than the female.

This whole campaign is tasteless in the extreme. It preaches that men’s greatest worth is based on their ability to satisfy sexually women and themselves; preys upon men’s fears of impotence and sexual inadequacy; and trivialises suffering of and sexual violence towards women. As far as I’m concerned, there is nothing positive about these ads. It is a great shame that PETA is incapable of showing the same respect to humans as it does animals; though in all honesty, I have come to expect nothing better.

Image: PJMixer on Flickr

Originally published here on 4 March 2012.