by Alice Wilder
Last week, I was invited to a screening of the documentary Miss Representation at Queens University in Charlotte. Before the event, I got a chance to interview Dr. Alexis Carreiro, a professor at Queens and the editor of the Journal of Digital and Media Literacy. Before the screening we talked about reality tv, how dreamy Cory Booker is, and the need for male allies in feminism and media literacy.
Alice Wilder: What is the research that you do?
Alexis Carreiro: Well my work at Queens has really been focused on the journal, so working with other people to get their work out there. Up until this point I have done some publishing in feminist media criticism. One of the book chapters that I published was on a critique of female roller derby–there was a TV show a while ago called Rollergirls, it was set in Austin and I lived in Austin for ten years, and the basic gist of it was just this critique of the idea of “post feminism,” this idea that we’re beyond feminism and we’ve already achieved equality. So we can…
AW: Go back to our houses and cook dinner!
AC: Yeah, or become Lara Croft and become this hypersexualized tough girl tattooed, bad girl, sex pot, because we have equality so who cares? But the larger argument is that “post feminism” equates real world political power with superficial aesthetic. So that’s where my effort and my interest has been.
AW: That’s really cool! There’s this whole idea of like, we have the Spice girls, Katniss and Hermione so you know, we’re done. You could think that there’s not problems still.
AC: Right, and again if you can count them on one hand it doesn’t mean that we have enough. One of the women in Miss Representation talks about the female action star as a “fighting fucktoy” so now we have female action stars like Catwoman and Tomb Raider and Electra, but they’re all designed for the male gaze. They’re not really “feminist” characters.
AW: It feels like they’re kind of like, okay you can have this one thing but you’re still gonna get harassed on the street…I feel like they’re trying to pay us off.
AC: Yeah, it feels really one step forward two steps back.
AW: I can still want other things even though there’s been progress!
AC: Right, and I think that the tricky part is it’s not that these women are sexy or dress in an alluring fashion. I think there’s a difference women who feel empowered about their sexuality and comfortable with their sexuality as the subject in their own lives, versus looking a certain way or acting a certain way so that you can be an object for someone else.
AW: Yeah maybe Katniss was the wrong example, or I think she’s a good example because she’s someone that’s self possessed, and feels like she’s this doll for other people to look at. She’s doing this performance. One of the things I loved about the advertisements for the movie is that on the posters she’s not like sexily covered in dirt-
AW: She just has like a regular v-neck shirt and regular cargo pants like the boys, not showing more skin than them. They were presented as “here are the people” not like “here are two guys and the hot female lead.” I thought they did a really good job with that.
AC: Peeta’s the one who more readily objectifies himself. He knows that he’s the pawn in the game and he wants sort of play and be looked at and perform in a certain way for the camera. He’s also the one that’s pining for love and more sensitive than Katniss is.
AW: She doesn’t even want to think about it, that’s why I hate the whole “are you team Peeta or team Gale” thing because that’s not what Katniss is even thinking about, she’s thinking about “am I going to even be alive tomorrow” she’s not like “which boy am i going to make out with” that’s like the bottom of her list of concerns. I think that in the hands of a different author or a different filmmaker it would have just been a love triangle thing. But it’s not about that, it’s about her.
One of my friends and I were extras in the movie…Jennifer was a couple rows behind us and one of the girls was like “oh, did you have to go on a diet” and she was like “no the boys had to gain weight and I had to get smaller?!” she was really upfront about it, she was like ‘this is ridiculous.’
AC: There was so much criticism about her not losing enough weight. The message that it sends to girls and women about this sort of action star and character being badass, bold and brave, is more important than making sure that she looks hungry. You can walk out of Die Hard or the Avengers and no one says “that wasn’t realistic,” but you cast a woman in a leading role and she’s not skinny enough and then that’s not realistic. Did you just pay $10 to watch the Avengers? I don’t hear that argument about Iron Man fitting into his suit.
AW: What kind of media right now do you think is on the good side of it, is doing a good job?
AC: That’s such a good question…well not the Real Housewives franchise. It’s easier for me to think of what isn’t working than what is working. Again, because I have the Miss Representation screening on my mind, I’m thinking about reality television. We don’t need them! In so many of these Basketball Wives and Bad Girls Club, there’s such a narrow definition of who we are and what we’re about and this idea of bickering and competition between these women. Maybe I’m isolated from that, but I don’t have friendships like that. I don’t have relationships like that. I don’t covet that type of drama; that seems so unnecessary. The flip side of that is, where is the role of pleasure in all of this? I can watch the Bachelor and just have a good time because it’s hilarious. If I need a pick me up, my friend Jennifer and I will watch the Bachelor and just think it’s fun.
AW: My friends and I are big on the Kardashians. I love the Kardashians, I love those shows.
AC: I am a fan of Khloe.
AW: Khloe’s my favorite!
AC: Khloe is the thinking person’s favorite Kardashian.
AW: She just is so open when she thinks things are wrong. It’s weird because I think on paper as a feminist you’re not supposed to like those things
AW: So I always feel like I need to apologize. There’s this sense of “oh you’re a bad feminist because you’re watching reality shows”
AC: Or the housewives of Beverly Hills. I’m fascinated by them, I’m fascinated by them in a way that I think a scientist would be fascinated by an amoeba under a microscope. And they make me laugh and they confuse me, but yeah there’s that sense of “you watch the Kardashians? They’re the worst of the worst!”
AW: My parents are like, horrified.
AC: Yeah, “how could you based on what you say you believe and think and do, how could you?” so there’s this sort of difficult position I think we’re put in by justifying those two things. But I don’t think that we can discount pleasure and the sort of ironic viewing. There are very many ways for people to view media. You can be a critical viewer, a disinterested viewer, you can watch it ironically, there’s hatewatching shows. So even though “x tv show is good or x tv show is bad” it’s actually more complex than that because the way people are watching it is more complex
AW: I think I started out watching those shows ironically but then I was like “no, you know what? i enjoy this,” and it’s okay to genuinely enjoy those shows. The reason i like the Kardashians is that there’s bickering but the thing is…it’s very family focused, they’re like “yeah, I may hate what you just did but I’m always going to support you because you’re my sister and I’m always going to have your back no matter what” that’s something that i really enjoy, a lot of it is positive in a weird way.
AC: Right, but then again my media literacy vibe kicks in and you know, it’s constructed in that way on purpose, so I don’t think Kris Jenner, or Ryan Seacrest, the executive producer, put forth a show that was just them bitching about each other and to each other and complaining that they don’t have enough money or enough clothes, there wouldn’t be enough redeeming content to make it last as long as it has. So you always have to questions that that “and they all lived happily ever after” narrative closure that they try to do every episode.
AW: They do make themselves look bad sometimes though, I’ve seen Khloe answer the phone when it’s her mom and say “Hi Satan”
AC: Can you imagine talking to your mom like that?
AC: It’s confusing!
AW: I feel okay watching it because I’m media literate and I know that watching it is not going to make me want to go marry a basketball player, although I’m not saying no to that.
AC: As long as he’s a feminist!
AW: Sometimes people simplify it too much, they’re like “teen girls are watching Kardashians and now they’re gonna go get DUI’s.” Give us a little more credit than that, we don’t just see something and go “I should do that because Khloe did it”
AC: Exactly, and that’s one of the things I talk to my students about. The answer to all of this, to all of this messy misogynistic patriarchal degrading media culture, isn’t to kill your TV, to shut it off and throw all your technology against the wall and pretend it doesn’t exist. The antidote is to be a critical consumer. The antidote is critical thinking so that you can still engage in the world but from a critical distance so that you have critical perspective. It’s absolutely too simplistic for anyone to say “oh my son watched a violent video game now he’s gonna shoot someone” or “oh my daughter watched a promiscuous tv show now she’s going to be sixteen and pregnant.” It’s really not that simple. We know if it were that simple then we could change the media and fix every social issue.
The Queens screening was itself a part of the solution. The discussion afterward was lively and insightful. I was especially impressed by how many men stayed for the discussion. Even if some were required to be there for their classes, it was great to see a discussion that talks about what men can do to help solve the problem of sexualization and under representation in the media. There were voices from all types of people. It’s so encouraging to know that there are screenings like this happening all over the world, with support from SPARK, PBG and all our awesome partners!