Women’s Lit: Understanding Systemic Issues

March 26, 2019

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So you’re reading a book and there’s something you just don’t like about it, but you can’t quite put your finger on it. Or maybe the movie you’re watching is just so good, but you’re not sure how to explain what makes it that way. Learning media criticism gives you the tools to talk about the stories you consume, how they affect you, and how they affect our culture. Learning feminist criticism gives you the tools to talk about the stories you want to see.

Maybe you’ve had a conversation like this before:

You say “Yeah, Hermione is a strong female character but I don’t like that she’s always portrayed as ‘not like other girls’. It’s not a good example if girls are told that they aren’t interesting or good unless they stop being ‘like a girl’.”

And somebody else says “Being girly just isn’t her personality! And the other girls in her year are kind of mean to her”.

And maybe you feel like that response is kind of missing the point, but you don’t know how to explain why. Well, you’re right. That person is missing the point, and it’s a very important one. Here’s what’s really going on.

You are talking about a problem that you encounter in a lot of media, over and over again. The other person is justifying it happening in one particular place. If you brought up other examples of the same problem, they would probably be able to find a reason for it in each individual case. They’ll always be able to show you how it makes sense in the context of the book or the movie. But it doesn’t matter if it makes sense every single time it happens: the problem is that it happens over and over again.

Seeing the Pattern

That’s what we call a systemic issue. Most of the things that feminist media critics focus on are systemic issues, from not passing the Bechdel test on upwards to big issues like how bodies and sex are portrayed. We’re not complaining about one little issue in one piece of media. We’re talking about that piece of media as a part of the whole body of popular media, and we’re talking about how women and minorities are represented in that big-picture sense. How people are represented overall affects how we think about them, and if they’re mostly represented badly, we develop the wrong idea about them.

Not every systemic issue is bad by itself — something like having girls in media who aren’t traditionally feminine can be good, for example, but stories that show women as just sex objects aren’t good even if there’s only one of them. But whether the idea is good or bad in isolation, it’s dangerous as part of the pattern.

That’s how a systemic issue works: media says the same thing over and over until we start believing it and it becomes part of the way that we understand the world. It’s not just about Hermione, from the example above. It’s that girls are told over and over again that being feminine isn’t good, and that they’re better if they stop being feminine, and that doing so makes them better than other girls. It’s not just about one movie not passing the Bechdel test, it’s about never seeing women talk together, about seeing women’s lives revolve around men, and how it teaches girls that ‘girl talk’ is just about boys and that they should prioritise the men in their lives.

Changing it Up

So the system needs to change. One thing at a time, we need to add good representation to the big picture, so that the picture itself starts to change. It can’t happen overnight, because there’s a long history of media to catch up on, and we don’t want to throw it all out indiscriminately. But every time something new comes out, we need to think: does it add to a negative portrayal or stereotype of a group of people, or does it help form a positive portrayal?

What’s the big picture?

By Sarah Regier