This was originally written in response to a conversation on tooth_and_claw
's lj, but as usual, I'm too long-winded. Since it stands alone, I'm posting it here.
I've had a trifecta of experiences recently that have put gender issues and representation in the forefront of my thoughts. The first is the MJ marquette that tooth_and_claw
linked to. The second is a dream I had and a story I'm going to write about identity. The third is the recent reports of the upsurge of ritual stonings of women in Iraq since our invasion -- what is being called by some news sources the Talibanization of Iraq.
For me, all of these situations are related to my own personal gender crusade. As people who know me know, I actively resent and work against having a gender identity imposed on me. I am a much more complicated being than a pair of breasts or a cunt or a womb or whatever other biological markers people use to impose a female identity on me. I am a much more complicated being than any of the stereotyped behaviors associated with female-ness can account for.
Fiction, whether it be comics or literature or film, actively constructs the identities that then get imposed upon us because of biological or cultural markers. It is not the only place where such identities are constructed, but it is a prevalent and powerful one. The elites (who are currently and historically marked -- both biologically and culturally -- as white males) have control of this medium and the construction of these identities.
Take, for example, the person in comics known as Mary Jane, or MJ. Rather than assuming her as a being with certain essential characteristics, lets imagine her as a constructed entity. What are the foundations she's been built on? The basic blocks that differentiate her from, say, Gwen Stacey? Well, She's female. She's married to (or will be married to, or has been married to) Peter Parker. She grew up next door to him. She has red hair. She calls him 'tiger'. She's a model/actress.
Now, what do any of those things mean? How are they represented? There's a lot of space here for constructing that meaning. MJ can be represented as a traditional damsel-in-distress (the way she is in the movies), an individual with moxy (as JMS and Bendis tend to do in the comics), or as a cheesecake, wankeriffic wifey-poo (as in the marquette). All of those representations are choices, and influence the way we the audience perceive the iconic building blocks of MJ. What does it mean to be a woman? What does it mean to be married? To be married to a powerful man? To be beautiful? To be the girl-next-door? Even what it means to have red hair.
That is why I take issue with the marquette. Rather than choosing to use their power to construct the iconic imaginary of MJ as a symbolic representation of empowered and self-determined and -defined femininity, the individuals responsible for that marquette chose to construct MJ as an object to be ogled and consumed (and wanked over, in both senses of the term). That this was done to a character who is associated (through marriage) with the mantra "With great power comes great responsibility" is doubly ironic.
As an aside, the above issue is why I vehemently disagree with drydem
over the casting of Jessica Alba as Sue Storm. While I had many problems with the first F4 movie, I liked that Sue was represented in a more interesting way than just the white, blonde, mother-figure of the F4. I felt they kept to the basic tenets of the character, while at the same time moving her beyond some of the more problematic aspects of those basics (except for the Dr. Doom stuff, but I blame Julian McMahon's lousy acting for that).
One thing that I feel is important to point out is that while I hold the individuals who construct these identities responsible for their constructions, and while those responsible tend to be white and male, this does not mean that all those individuals who are marked as white or male are evil or wrong or even culpable. The meanings associated with whiteness and maleness are also constructed -- it just happens that those constructions are often associated with self-determination and power, whether or not everyone marked white and male enjoys such personal sovereignty.
From my perspective, *anyone* who resents having an identity (and associated expectations) imposed on them should take exception to such disempowering constructions, no matter what form they take, if only because of enlightened self-interest. Unfortunately, part of the white male identity construction that white males often embrace is that the (women, blacks, muslims, infidels, what-have-you) are storming the gates of power and want to turn the tables. Contemporary constructions have those marked as white and male on the defensive, but what is less-often discussed is that what is being defended is the very system of identity construction, representation and imposition that disempowers most individuals in the first place.
The process of stereotyping is the process of dehumanization. It is how we construct individuals as less-than-human so that we can justify enacting violence against them. Everyone is culpable in it, and everyone is susceptible to it. If we want to construct a world where the violence of having an identity imposed upon us is not acceptable, then it behooves anyone with melanin in their skin, or testosterone and estrogen in their systems, or belief in their hearts, to rail against such impositions, and to demand the right to self-determination.