North American gender ideologies are ones that highlight extreme sexual dimorphism – that is, men and women are understood to be completely different. We sign post these differences through dress, body modification, and social mannerisms.
North American society, like many others, also carries a set of values that simultaneously sexualizes gender roles and holds ambivalent feelings –one might almost say fears- about that sexualization. If anything the sexualization of gender representations have increased and intensified over the past half century here in North America. Images that were once restricted to domains of pornography now infuse popular culture. We have indeed come along way from Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls just want to have fun” to Myley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball. Lauper’s video, which was daring in it’s day, seems quaint when viewed from the vantage point of Cyrus’ video. In 1982, when Lauper’s video was released one would have had to look to the pornographic magazine Hustler to find images that parallel those of Cyrus’ today.
Hustler was infamous in its day for graphic & violent imagery that pushed the soft tones of playboy and penthouse in a decidedly violent direction. One infamous 1978 cover, of a women nude and head down in a kitchen meat grinder, caused a strong public reaction. Lady Gaga, in her Born That Way tour, picks up this theme. She first places a man in the meat grinder saying this is how she treats all her former boyfriends. Then, upon the encouragement of her all male dance troupe, she jumps into the grinder. The men proceed to turn the meat grinder handle. It is unclear to me that playful invocations of gendered violence does anything other than provide an environment that continues to tolerate gendered violence.
Not a Love Story is a powerful Canadian documentary, released in 1982. It documents the close linkage between pornography and violence against women. The film takes us into the world of pornography through the eyes of a stripper, a female photographer, and a range of real people directly involved with issues of gendered violence and the production of pornography. I recall from my student days seeing the film and participating in discussions following the film. At the time it became apparent that men were focused on arguing over definitions of what was really pornography. Women went straight to the matter of what it felt to see the graphic images of violent acts being presented as sexuality.
What is it about our society that tolerates gendered violence? Our society is filled with examples: the Suader School of Business rape chant , longstanding tongue and cheek one liners “no means maybe; maybe means yes,” date rape, and direct stranger assaults. There is a persistent discourse in North American culture and society that individualizes these social and collective acts. The perpetrator’s role in enacting culturally endorsed values of gendered violence is ignored. The targets of assault are victimized and their experiences individuated. However, these acts of gendered violence are part of a continuum of actions. They are not separate isolated acts. Given this it is critical that we do not segregate the popular imagery that trivializes gender violence from the more overt acts of gendered violence. Yet, that is often what happens. Violent assaults are presented as anomalies when they are more properly understood as part of a socially sanctioned spectrum of North American culture.
Focusing upon violent assaults as isolated events linked to the pathology of an individual does two things: (1) it removes society responsibility for changing the ways in which we act and respond to gendered behaviours, and: (2) it disempowers the targets of assault and individualizes the responsibility. Take note of the Police and University warnings recently issued- their clear advice is for women to not walk alone at night. This is a variant of the so-called ‘blame the victim’ thesis. It is well intentioned. However, it extends and normalizes the device of fear as a way of controlling and constraining one gender’s capacity to move freely and unimpeded through society. It ironically maintains and reinforces the gendered violence of the original assaults – it does not actually work to end such assaults.
Taking action by reclaiming public and domestic spaces is the only path available. In terms of parenting it means shifting away from fathering and mothering to actually co-parent. It means working to undermine clear and obvious gendered differences throughout society. Whether one cloisters or sexualizes gender, ideologies that construct extreme dimorphic models of gender will be far more prone to gendered violence than societies that are more androgynous. We have a responsibility to undermine extreme gender ideologies. We can advocate for approaches to urban design that facilitate social space and integration – rather than privatizing public spaces we need to open them and make them visible, safe and usable by all.
One long-standing direct action tactic has been the take back the night actions that began in the early 1970s and continue to this day. We need to take back the night so that no one, no women, no man, no child, fears the dark of their own home or community. We can shift away from gendered violence in play and performance. We can recognize our own societal complicity in gendered acts of violence. We all have a responsibility to act – personally and collectively.