Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Modern-day 'Madwomen in the Attic': Kyle Sandilands and Sam Newman

It's always puzzled me how certain misogynist male celebrities, like radio host Kyle Sandilands and AFL Footy Show presenter Sam Newman, don't get dumped from their respective programs when they continually spout misogynist abuse. It's particularly surprising given how much bad publicity these outbursts usually attract, and the fact that their views are generally considered unacceptable.

Take Sandilands' latest gem, last Thursday: he called a female journalist a 'fat slag', declaring, 'You haven't got that much t*tty to be wearing that low cut a blouse', among other abusive threats. http://www.news.com.au/breaking-news/youre-a-fat-slag-i-will-hunt-you-down-kyle-sandilands-radio-rant-at-female-journalist-over-review-of-his-show/story-e6frfku0-1226203313542

One sponsor, Holden, has officially dropped Sandilands' program, because of the incident, but the radio station has given no indication that it will axe the show, or discipline its offending host. It's just like Newman's many offences, such as when he stapled a picture of respected football journalist Caroline Wilson's face to a skimpily dressed mannequin, then groped its crotch and fondled its breasts while (ostensibly) attempting to change its outfit. (I've written about the incident in The Australian Feminist Law Journal: http://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=254048597938454;res=IELHSS)

These cases are the ones that attract a strong backlash. However, they're really only exaggerations of the roles these characters typically play on these programs: to create controversy. They're actually employed to be routinely misogynist, and it's only when they take it 'too far' that they attract media attention. In the incidents that aren't extreme enough to attract media attention, their co-hosts will often suggest that Sandilands and Newman should 'settle down', or make some vague comment that the 'ladies' might not like what they say, and don't participate actively in the ranting. They are cast as figures outside the mainstream - the 'clown' or the 'shock jock' - so that their views are (somewhat) distanced from the other presenters.

My theory on why these characters persist is that they function as 'Madwomen in the Attic', to borrow Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's excellent phrase. (I'm sure both Newman and Sandilands would love to be called madwomen!). In The Madwoman in the Attic, Gilbert and Gubar argue that 19th century women writers used marginalised, monstrous, mad characters, like Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre, to express emotions and ideas that were socially unacceptable, and could not have been acceptably expressed by their heroines. So these 'men' can say what their co-presenters (producers?)would like to say, but can't, because they're marginal figures. Clowns, shock jocks, and kind of nuts.

It's for these reasons that networks can get away with keeping them on. Enough viewers actually support their views, and many of those who don't can follow the other presenters in distancing themselves from him. 'Oh, that's just Sam. He's crazy (the madwoman in the attic...?)'.

There's no 'just' about it. Misogyny is misogyny, no matter how 'mad' the person who spouts it.

(Madwoman is a great book, by the way, and I highly recommend it: http://books.google.com.au/books?id=3oxf7_BsD_sC&dq=madwoman+in+the+attic&hl=en&ei=2cnVTpTgLeWJmQWkkdha&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CDMQ6AEwAA)

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Rape Slavery and Four Corners

We all know that 'sex slavery' is bad, right? I don't think many people would argue that it's OK to kidnap someone, or manipulate them into coming to a country, and then force them to have sex with strangers to repay an imaginary debt.

However, there are a few problems with the way the issue is represented, which has an impact on how we view it. Four Corners' recent expose, 'Sex Slavery' http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/stories/2011/10/06/3333668.htm, is quite problematic for a number of reasons. While it was clearly aiming to expose the extent of the problem, which is of course commendable, it manages to both completely marginalise the victims and sexually objectify them - not cool.

For a start, why call is 'sex slavery' at all? We're talking about 'force', so that really means that it's not 'sex slavery', but 'rape slavery' (you have to consent for it to be sex). It might seem like a trivial distinction to make, but there's something a bit titillating about calling it 'sex slavery' that disappears when it's labelled 'rape', and I think it's important to make the violence of the acts visible in the language we use to discuss it.

The majority of the program is taken up by a doomed romance narrative about a victim who was not a rape slave - a man. Abraham Papo was allegedly murdered while trying to rescue his girlfriend, who had been taken as a rape slave (narrator Sally Neighbour even calls it a 'scene from a tragic romance'). Bashed to death with a tyre iron outside the brothel where his girlfriend was being held captive, Abraham Papo's story is certainly a tragic one, deserving of recognition. However, such a strong focus on another (exceptional) type of victim squeezes out the women whose abuse the program was supposed to be 'exposing'.

While the victims' voices do begin to appear as the program progresses, most have been re-voiced into English from the women's native languages, and their stories take a back seat to Deanna Papo's, which focuses more on the brutality of her son's alleged murder than the rape trade the program is supposed to be uncovering. Of course, it makes more gripping television to focus on the grieving mother whose emotion is plain on her face and in her voice than victims who, for obvious reasons, do not want to show their faces on camera, and cannot express themselves vocally to viewers because they do not share a common language. However, the disproportionate focus on the alleged murder rather than the myriad rapes subtley suggests that Papo was the 'real' victim - perhaps the most victimised - which lessens the sense of injustice regarding the rape victims.

Sally Neighbour uses words like 'degradation' and 'humiliation' to describe the treatment of the women, but the fact that the majority of the footage of these victims is of their semi-naked bodies in fact invites the viewer to participate in this degradation, humiliation and objectification. The program repeatedly shows hidden-camera footage of Asian women emerging from behind a curtain one after the other, with their faces obscured. They are wearing only their underwear, presumably parading so that the 'clients' can choose from amongst them. Although the program is obviously critical of their treatment, there is nevertheless a voyeuristic pleasure available in this type of portrayal that adds to the titillation that so often accompanies the issue.

Drawing attention to the harm of rape, and allowing victims' voices to take centre stage, is critical when raising the issue on television, and media producers could be doing a lot better on that score.

Monday, 14 November 2011


Hi there! I'm an academic working in the fields of media, communications and literary studies, at Monash and Deakin universities, and I'll be sharing my academic-eye views here on current media issues and anything else that crosses my radar. I take 'media' in the broad sense, covering literature, film, music etc. Don't worry if you're not overly into academia - I won't be cluttering up this blog with jargon or fancy theories to make myself look smart. That's really not helpful.

I wrote my PhD on the representation of footballers and sexual assault in the media, so don't be surprised if posts about rape and sex pop up here fairly regularly. Gender, law, fantasy and sci-fi literature and film, sport, children's media and social media are all my areas of research and interest, and may be the subject of future posts, so stay tuned!

Lately, I've been thinking about how the issue of 'sex slavery' is portrayed in the media, and reading some fantasy literature that's got me itching to write, so look out for those in coming weeks...

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Woman = sex: Neil Gaiman's American Gods

Having been impressed with Gaiman's Coraline, and the racial subversion ofAnansi Boys, I thought it would be worth checking out  American Gods to see what kind of subversion the partner novel engages in.  In Anansi Boys, all the characters are black, but it's never mentioned and many readers don't pick up on it unless it's pointed out to them. There are heaps of hints - for example, there's a group of women who practise voodoo, and speak in dialect, the white characters are identified as white, Anansi is an African god, and builds a model of himself out of tar - so if you've read it and didn't pick up on it, it's definitely worth a second read! This technique is a great way of drawing attention to the general 'invisibility' of whiteness in western culture by confronting the reader with their own erroneous assumptions when they realise who the characters actually are. (invisibility of whiteness: it's seen as the default, and not a racial category, which effectively normalises white privilege - see Richard Dyer's 'White', or Aileen Moreton-Robinson's Talkin' up to the White Woman).

I had such high hopes for American Gods I set it for a reading group I've been involved in at Deakin over the last few months - although Anansi Boys doesn't do anything particularly great in terms of gender, it's not terrible. To put it bluntly, in gender terms, American Gods is just that - terrible.

All of the female characters are defined by their sexuality, and any form of'deviant' female sexuality is punished with death, preferably graphic, violent death.

The first female character the reader is introduced to is a prostitute, who turns out to be a goddess who gets off on swallowing clients with her vagina when they 'worship' her. There aren't any teeth, but it's a representation of dangerous female sexuality - like the praying mantis figure - nonetheless. She is later run over and her dead body violently mangled, a scene which is evoked in graphic detail, and arguably a (narrative) punishment for being sexually aggressive. I'm not suggesting that it would be a great idea to kill men with your vagina, even if that were possible, but this forms part of a pattern throughout the novel of evoking anxieties about female sexuality. Ie: that women use it for evil...

Another important female character is the male protagonist's wife, Laura, who dies seemingly tragically in a car accident two days before Shadow is released from prison. Only it turns out that she was giving Shadow's best friend a blow-job while he was driving... Shadow accidentally reanimates her, and her dead body rots around her as she spends the rest of the novel saving Shadow's life by murdering anyone who tries to hurt him. Arguably, her rotting body stands as a symbol for the inherent corruption of the America Gaiman portrays, which, I would argue, makes a concrete link between female sexuality and corruption. Again, I'm not suggesting that cheating on one's partner is an appropriate act, either. However, the 'best friend' that Laura cheated on Shadow with is let off the hook, as he suffers no ongoing punishments, nor is his body made into a grotesque object. It's very much the same hypocritical beliefs underpinning the ancient laws (resurrected today in strict Sharia law) decreeing that women must be stoned to death for adultery, while adulterous men go completely unpunished.

None of these female characters has any agency of her own - the vagina-goddess has no real purpose other than to consume men with her sexuality, and zombie-Laura's primary role is to help Shadow out of trouble. Oh, and she'd also like to be truly alive again, rather than a rotting corpse, but it's an ambition that is never fulfilled. She was sexually deviant, and although she tells Shadow that she regrets cheating on him, she must be punished with death, with no hope of redemption.

The way that both deaths draw attention to the women's grotesque, dead bodies is also quite problematic, as it effectively fetishises them. This is, sadly, just a repetition of the historical understandings of female bodies as objects of desire or degraded and corrupt (and thus still objectified).

The one nod to progressiveness is the fact that the one female character who survives and is portrayed relatively positively is revealed to be lesbian. Hooray! Being a lesbian is normal, not deviant! However, she is still defined by her sexuality and sexual acts, not by her goals. One of her major actions is to kiss Shadow in an act of defiance against a town that has turned against him, and she has no real function in the novel outside of showing her sexuality.

I can't argue that the novel does nothing positive for humanity - it is quite progressive in racial terms, as Gaiman's work usually is, making whiteness visible and constructing the protagonist as 'racially ambiguous' - but its portrayal of gender is so backwards and damaging that it's depressing in this day and age, particularly from an author who clearly thinks about issues of social justice.