The Other Movie Project: Here we go!

The Other Movie Project

For 2015, I have challenged myself to watch every single movie released in a cinema near me that is not a story about a white guy. Is the movie about a woman, or a man who is not white? I must watch it. Is the movie about someone who does not identify within the gender binary? Heaven help me, I must watch it, because it would be wonderful to see.

I’ve noticed how many movies (and TV shows and books and articles and narratives in general) centre around a white guy. If a woman or a man of colour does occupy a leading role in a film, they are almost always an offsider or partner to a white guy. They’re the love interest, the villain, or the best friend. They’re the other character. I am pushing myself to challenge this internalised bias, that stories about white men are inherently more valuable. I feel like I’ve watched plenty of movies that follow the emotional journeys of white men. I want to watch the other movies.

So I’m putting my money where my mouth is. If a film is released in a cinema near me, and the narrative centres around a woman and/or a person of colour, I will go buy a ticket and watch it. Movies about women of colour? Bonus points!

By seeking out movies about non-white-guys, I’ll have to actively notice how many movies are about white guys. At this point, I’m not sure what the stats are. I might end up watching hardly any movies for this project. I might end up spending heaps on movie tickets (I kind of hope so). How do industry statistics translate into session times at Australian cinemas? I’m going to find out, at least for Brisbane.

After each month is over, I’ll blog about the movies I saw (and the ones I didn’t). First post coming soon. Here we go!

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Women. Am I right?

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“This is a real phenomenon: When women feel like outsiders, they lose interest.”

I read the above quote in an article today, and it struck me dead. In the article, a science student writes about gender bias in the scientific professions, and even though I don’t know my boron from my bunsen burner, I found myself strongly relating to it.

See, the thing is, on Wednesday night I had my first go at stand-up comedy. I entered myself in RAW Comedy, where beginner comedians can compete for a spot in the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. I had never set foot onstage at a stand-up gig before, and I don’t mind telling you I was petrified. I had a lively group of friends around me, chattering and laughing and telling me I was going to be fabulous, but every now and then I would just go blank with hot white terror.

Part of my terror came, I think, from the fact that I was one of only four women competing on the night. The other 11 were, as you might imagine, men. That in itself wouldn’t have been that intimidating. After all, I’ve been performing at poetry slams and readings for years now, which are still heavily male-dominated. That wasn’t the issue. It was what the men were saying. Joke after joke about violence against women. Seriously. One guy’s punch line was actually – and I quote – “Wouldn’t it be great to know you fucked a woman to death?” Then he talked about going to her funeral and gloating, saying, “Let that be a lesson to all you other ladies”.

Yes. Let that be a lesson to us. In case we ever forget, we aren’t safe here. Comedy is not a safe space – for anyone, I suppose, but especially for women. One male comedian spent his five minutes extolling his disgust at Julia Gillard, saying she had a penis and she couldn’t arouse the most desperate of men and so on and so on. Textbook misogyny: “a-woman-can’t-be-in-power-without-losing-her-femaleness” with a dash of “if-she-can’t-get-me-off-what’s-the-point-of-her”. Not a word, of course, about her actions as Prime Minister. Another man raged against his ex-wife, calling her a “crazy bitch” at least six times before I tuned out. One young, harmless looking guy, who looked like someone your brother might play Call of Duty with, thanked all the women in the audience for setting their Facebook profiles to ‘public’ so that he could masturbate to them.

I am truly baffled when I see male comedians make demeaning jokes about women, and then chuckle: “Ha ha, all the women in the room hate me right now”. All the women in the room – that’s fifty per cent of your audience, buddy! Too many amateur comedians seem to forget that alienating women means alienating half your potential ticket-paying customers. That comedy isn’t just for the benefit of other men.

By the time it was my turn to perform next, I was feeling sick to the stomach. I waited by the sinks in the ladies’ room, staring up at the posters of upcoming comedy tours. Rows and rows of male faces grinned down at me. I smoothed down my hair, eyeing my outfit. Before I left the house that night, I had pulled a ribbon out of my hair, not wanting the audience to be distracted by my gender. Already, I was “gender priming”, having been told for years that female comedians “just aren’t as funny”.

“Even in areas where actual performance is equal, when a certain group is reminded that they are supposed to be bad at something, their performance weakens.” (S. Wofford, Feminspire)

But I did it. I told some jokes. At the end of my set, I sat down with my friends, shaking like a flippin’ leaf. I had survived. I had even gotten some laughs. I put my head down on the sticky table and tried not to gasp for air. I know public speaking is meant to be scary, but it had never really scared me up until this point. Comedy is such a different beast. You can lose the crowd so quickly. And then you’re dead.

Later that night, after seeing off my friends and dragging myself home, I felt empty. Like all the humour had been sucked out of me. My five minutes up there hadn’t been too bad, I thought, but the other comedians’ various attacks on women had shaken me. I comforted myself that the crowd had liked those jokes as little as I did, with most people shifting uncomfortably in their seats or sitting in stony silence. At least the misogyny wasn’t being openly encouraged. But I wondered. After years of going to comedy nights, I can say that jokes at the expense of women are incredibly common. They’re often aggressive and sometimes violent. Why do these comedians still think these jokes would be an awesome idea?

I found myself thinking, are these the people I want to work alongside? Is this an industry I want to join? If I’m going to have to spend years feeling like a second-class citizen, why would I bother? And then today, I found clarity, staring at me out of that science student’s article. I felt like an outsider, therefore I was losing interest. I was already thinking of opting out of my lifelong dream (my mother says that as an eight-year-old I solemnly informed her, “I want to be a stand-up comedian”) because of some dickheads with microphones. Seems to me that comedy is so male-dominated not because women aren’t as interested in comedy. Rather, I think a lot of women listen to the sexist jokes and see the other female comedians putting themselves down to get laughs, and think, “Fuck this noise”.

Well, I won’t be so easily discouraged. If I cancelled my dreams every time some idiot made me feel inferior for being a girl, I’d never have gone anywhere or done anything. I’m gonna have crack at this comedy thing. And whether I keep working at it or decide it’s not for me, I hope my decision will be based on factors other than my gender.

Here’s a bit of smart-arsery I wrote for Edith Cowan University’s student magazine, GSM.

It has been out of vogue for a while, but we think the feminist movement might be poised for a come-back. So, GSM reviews feminism: hot, or not?

Feminism burst onto social scene in the 1700s, with the women’s suffrage movement. Oppressive patriarchy was hugely fashionable back then, but two tres chic Frenchwomen came up with a provocative new idea: women should be allowed to vote. Oh, la la! This new French trend started turning heads all over the world, until suffrage finally exploded in Britain.

Then feminism got really exciting. Not to be outdone by the French, the British suffragettes took extravagance to new levels. In London, 1907, the big look for Winter was ‘mud’ as over 3,000 chilly damsels marching through the sludgy streets. They were showing the British public their determination to be recognised as equal citizens, and they did it with breathtaking flair. Colours were dark, muted tones, with splashes of red and white. Protesters accessorised with matching red and white posies, bound with cute vintage hankerchiefs. And the girls really made a statement with their white banners and scarlet slogans. Feminism was hip; it was edgy. It was haute.

Of all the stylish ladies (and gents, John Stuart Mill!) who supported votes for women, none was hotter than suffrage it-girl Mrs Pankhurst. This gutsy goddess inspired countless women to starve themselves in the name of fabulousness. In the middle of one hunger strike, prison officials tried to barge into Mrs Pankhurst’s cell and force carbs down her throat. Our heroine raised a clay jug over her head and cried, “I shall defend myself!” The woman was fierce. Making civil rights fashionable was her lasting legacy – because, as she famously declared, freedom is to die for.

When women won the right to vote, the heady days of feminist militance and red posies seemed over. Feminism disappeared from view, only to return more fabulous than ever in the 60s. Feminist theory was back, and it was sexed-up. Fearless females were burning their bras (not designer, we hope!) and upping their erotic IQs. They were saying, ‘What if I don’t just want to be a wife and mother? What if I want to be a career girl, or a sex bunny, or a princess?’ YES. We loved the movement’s new mystique, and The Female Eunuch was a real page-turner, but sadly this new wave of feminism left us a little dissatisfied. After all those decades of fab fems working hard to get equal rights, it was still super hard for a girl to get ahead at work, and her bum was still getting pinched. By the time Y2K came around, we were pretty glum about the whole thing.

But all is not lost. Feminism may not be as exciting or as glamorous as it was last century, but it certainly has the classic appeal of self-righteousness. The movement’s central tenet – that life is way suckier for women than men – is hard to deny. A lot of the super un-fun stuff that women have to deal with (like childbirth, yuk!) is unique to the female sex. Men can never, ever understand what ladies go through, which is great for feminists – it gives them an edge in debates.

If you’re a white, middle-class woman living in a Western democracy, then feminism is a good fit for you. (If you’re a lesbian too, then bravo for going the extra mile!) For you, being a feminist requires very little maintenance. Mostly, all you have to do is keep being female. While one hundred years ago the suffragette sisters were starving themselves and risking beatings to defend their rights, now you don’t need to go that extreme. It’s easy to defend your rights; you don’t have to be employed, get an education, or even vote – you can simply say you’re exercising your right not to. Hurrah!

As social movements go, feminism is sounding pretty foxy, right? But wait. A lot of feminists you meet seem to wear comfortable shoes and hate men. Don’t worry, that doesn’t mean you have to! Follow these easy steps, and you’ll be prepared to respond to any questions about your feminism. In case a non-feminist challenges you, memorise this classic fact: ‘In Australia, women earn on average 17% less than men.’ (This is always a safe statistic to quote because it hasn’t changed in thirty years – it isn’t going anywhere!) Should a militant feminist ask you why you’re wearing heels and a Playboy bunny tee, simply learn this adjective: ‘post-feminist’.

So now you know all you need to become a fully-fledged feminista. You’ll feel smarter for being politically active, with the added bonus of moral superiority. Enjoy your newfound sisterhood, but remember one thing: never laugh at feminism. There is nothing funny about it.

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Pelican article: “Man Gives Birth?” 2009

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*This article I wrote about gender reassignments was published in Pelican magazine, August 2009 – but not a whole lot has changed since then, so here it is again.

About a month ago, a man named Thomas Beatie (dubbed ‘the Pregnant Man’ by the media) gave birth to his baby daughter in the USA. This story sparked a highly intriguing headline: ‘Man Gives Birth’. Bad news for women – giving birth was the one thing we could claim over the male gender. Men get higher salaries, the Presidential candidacy, and standing up while they pee – and now, apparently, they can get pregnant as well. But … is Thomas Beatie really a man? He was born a woman, then went through a gender reassignment and had his gender legally changed to male. However, he kept his female reproductive organs. So, at least in a biological sense, it was a female giving birth. Yet Beatie is legally a man. Confused much?

In an article that Beatie wrote for an American newspaper, he repeatedly affirmed that throughout the pregnancy his ‘gender identity as male [was] constant’. I find it interesting that a transgender person such as Beatie can so emphatically claim a fixed gender identity. What defines the male gender? Beatie has had his female breasts removed, and has taken testosterone to grow facial hair, but kept his female reproductive organs. So does this mean that every woman of flat chest and hairy upper lip is actually teetering on the edge of the male gender? Or, that any man who cannot grow a full beard is not a man? (I’m sure there are numerous Facebook groups with opinions on that.) Gender is not governed by indisputable boundaries, not for anyone, and the issue of gender identity can become confusing when you are trying to shoehorn each unique individual into one of two categories. Philosopher Judith Butler stated that the body cannot serve as a foundation for gender definition; there are simply too many different kinds of bodies for us to categorize all of them into ‘male’ or ‘female’. When you consider gender as a fluid concept, it becomes easier to accept a wider range of gender identities.

In Oregon, where Thomas Beatie lives, he is legally recognised as a man. Despite this, he reportedly still has trouble convincing some of his neighbours to recognise this. However, the media coverage of the Beatie story has consistently referred to him in male pronouns. Since the story came to the media’s attention, even the most sceptical headlines said ‘Man Claims To Be Pregnant,’ instead of ‘Pregnant Woman Claims To Be A Man’. Looking closer to home, how does our own state treat its transgender community? If Thomas Beatie were a Western Australian and had delivered his baby in this state, would the papers have announced ‘Man Gives Birth’, or would WA have denied Beatie’s status as a man? It is true that in the last decade WA has radically improved its legislation with regards to the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community. However, many of WA’s transgender residents are still stranded in legal limbo. It all comes down to the question of defining gender, at least in terms of the law. Under the Gender Reassignment Act 2000, a person hoping to apply for a recognition of gender change must have taken on the ‘characteristics’ of their adopted gender. The Act defines gender characteristics as ‘the physical characteristics by virtue of which a person is identified as male or female.’ Whether this extends to include such physical traits as muscle size or hair length is not specified; in fact, the Act’s definitions are extremely vague. At one point in Australian history, it was commonly considered a male characteristic to wear trousers. That social viewpoint has clearly changed; what else could change? Who decides which characteristics belong to each gender?

In 2006, New York City proposed a new rule, to allow people to legally change their gender without medical alteration or surgery. The intent of the new legislation was to let people decide for themselves which gender they are. In WA, however, in order to legally change your gender, you must have undergone ‘a medical or surgical procedure … to alter the genitals and other gender characteristics of a person.’ Gender reassignment procedures can be extremely expensive and painful, and are not within everyone’s means. Some transgender people don’t view surgical alterations as necessary. Is gender, therefore, a personal choice or governed by our physiology? If it were the latter, where would that leave Thomas Beatie?

So far, in this article, I have used the word ‘gender’ twenty-four times. Often, when you have used a word so often within a short space of time, it begins to lose its meaning. Perhaps gender is beginning to lose its meaning and its importance – after all, why are we so concerned with gender? In making it difficult for people to change their gender, what is our society so jealously guarding? For many people, an ideal world would consist of men and women having equal opportunities and an end to gender discrimination. For decades, activist groups have been fighting for this very cause. In practicality, gender discrimination still occurs in Australia. For example, women in the army or navy are not permitted to fight in direct combat, on the basis that their physiology is inherently weaker. Where do transgender people fit into this? Could a man who was born a woman fight in combat?

If everyone was considered equal regardless of their gender, it wouldn’t matter which gender we claimed. Thomas Beatie is a man who wanted to have a baby, so he did. As Beatie said himself, ‘Wanting to have a biological child is neither a male nor female desire, but a human desire.’ While Beatie’s pregnancy may not quite be a biology-defying miracle (some women may have been thinking, ‘Damn, so I can’t get my man to go through labour for me, after all’), his story’s worldwide exposure has shown that our society’s view on gender is gradually broadening. And that, in itself, is a miracle.

Poem: “No men are islands, but some women are”

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John Donne may have stated that no man is an island, but I’m sure that many women have felt like islands: lonely specks on the horizon, being lashed by rough seas. Gazing out across an empty ocean, waiting to be rescued. Ladies, if we could just see far enough, we would see that each island is just a stone’s throw from another. We are a sprawling archipelago of single women.

John Donne was right, though. No man is an island. Not the single men, anyway – they are driftwood. Floating in the seas, free but equally alone. Sometimes they wash up on an island, at the feet of a stranded female. Tired of the monotony of her empty beach, and of always drinking her coconut juice alone, the woman may be tempted to grab onto whatever piece of wood floats by. But we must be resolved. We must busy ourselves about the island, cooking fish over an open fire and even talking to volleyballs, because it’s better than settling for an eternity of drifting in the cold ocean, clinging uncertainly to a slippery bit of driftwood.

Sit on the beach, light your signal fire, and wait for your ship to come. Ladies, your ship is coming. And even if it passes you by, at least you’ll still be on your very own island, standing on solid ground. It may be lonely sometimes, but it’s yours.