Sunday, June 5, 2016

Think piece: Calling out the casual misogyny of that X-Men: Apocalypse billboard

In response to overwhelming criticism, 20th Century Fox recently removed a billboard that showed a shocking act of violence directed at a woman by a man. I’m posting the image here purely for illustrative purposes. TW to anyone who is sensitive to the impact of images of gendered violence on our society:

In the image above you might think you are seeing one fictional blue-skinned mutant character fighting another fictional blue-skinned mutant character. If so, that is proof of your delusion. You have spent your entire life within a system of oppression whose effects are so pernicious that you’re unable to see the undeniable truth: The X-Men: Apocalypse billboard is a horrifying depiction of misogynistic violence that we as a culture have for too long turned a blind eye to.

The actress Rose McGowan bravely stood against the ad, eloquently stating:

"There is a major problem when the men and women at 20th Century Fox think casual violence against women is the way to market a film. There is no context in the ad, just a woman getting strangled. The fact that no one flagged this is offensive and frankly, stupid. The geniuses behind this, and I use that term lightly, need to to take a long hard look at the mirror and see how they are contributing to society.”

The ad shows a woman fighting desperately for survival against a strong, dominating, patriarchal figure. That she is being choked is significant, as toxic masculinity is often so oppressive that women actually have to struggle simply to breathe in our society. McGowan is right to point out that there’s no context to the ad. The tag line “Only the strong will survive” adds a further element of danger, implying that only those with the physical strength of a man deserve to survive in a future dominated by outmoded gender ideas, and the women will either submit or be choked out— at the whims of the men. The burned-out buildings in the background show the destruction that’s caused by toxic masculinity.

It all contributes to casual violence against women being used to market a film.

20th Century Fox’s removal of the billboard is good first step. Unfortunately it’s just that: A first step. There are so many other places that we can look for even more problematic imagery that needs to be addressed. For example, here is the poster for The Conjuring 2:

Here were see an attractive woman being choked by a hand that has a crucifix on it. You might think that this is a subtle statement against Christian bigotry, but in fact it reinforces Christian bigotry by showing the choking hand in complete control of the woman, who clearly enjoys being dominated. Look at the longing gaze in her eyes, the almost grateful flaring of the nostrils and the sensuous parting of the lips as she seems to say, “You are my master, Christian male, dominate me!”

Then there is the poster for Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising.

In the foreground of this image we see a middle aged man gazing with entitlement at a young woman whose eyes show a desire to be completely dominated by a strong male figure. She's probably wearing a bikini even though you can't see it here. In the middle ground there is a sexy, chiseled young white man who is positioned just slightly above a young woman of color who is clearly scowling in what is a subtly racist insinuation that women of color are angry all the time. Then in the background there is an older but still sexually desirable woman facing off against an overweight woman who clearly has to be hidden (diminished), despite the fact that she’s just as beautiful as the other two attractive college women, probably. I can’t really see her all that well, so if there’s any doubt it’s only for that reason and that reason alone.

Then there’s this poster for the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie:

If I have to unpack the horrifying levels of objectification displayed in this image, there is no hope for you. You’re just a shitlord who’s perfectly happy to live within a system of oppression.

What many people fail to understand is that the line between entertainment and real life is a fine one. Many of us spend our lives online, watching films, playing video games, on social media. These images have a real impact on us. The danger this poses is illuminated by Jennifer McCleary-Sills, director of gender violence and rights for the International Center for Research on Women, when she points out that the image from the X-Men: Apocalypse billboard is sexy:

She adds that the "striking image" of Apocalypse choking Mystique is a reminder of how violence against women is used as a default and "seen as sexy for all the wrong reasons."

This is a deeply disturbing insight. A lot of misogynistic men are going to find that image immensely sexy, and perhaps even become sexually aroused. That is wrong. Very, very wrong. No man should be aroused by the image of a woman being choked. Women have enough to deal with.

I’ll give a real-world example. There is a young woman, a senior in college, who lives in the apartment building down the block. She has a healthy tan and shapely hips and large breasts. She stays slender thanks to her regular volleyball training (she has a scholarship). Sometimes she and a friend of hers, a brunette who is a football cheerleader, lay out by the pool to work on their tans, and sometimes even take a swim. They wear bikinis that accentuate their figures. If I happen to be near the window in my house I can see them, if they’re in the right lounge chairs and I have my binoculars. They’re both very attractive women. Unfortunately, the volleyball player is a Trump supporter. She actually has a “Make America Great Again” hat. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen her in that hat and I’ve wanted to choke some sense into her.

In a society in which calls to violence are all too common and women are judged purely on how much sexual arousal they inspire when sunbathing, we certainly don’t need film marketers creating more sexy, violent images to legitimize misogyny.