By Alana Prochuk
There is no way I can think about violence against women without also thinking about the culture we live in.
And when I say “culture,” I’m not talking about some abstract academic notion with no bearing on our day-to-day lives. I’m talking about everything we participate in or bump up against as we make our way through society; our conversations, our daily routines, the stuff we accumulate (or the stuff we only wish we could afford). I’m especially talking about what normally gets dismissed as pop cultural ‘trash’: the vicious comments on some music video I’m checking out on YouTube; the vodka ad that stares me in the face in the bathroom stall at a club; the celebrity gossip magazine I idly leaf through as I stand in line at the drug store.
As December 6th approaches, it might seem incongruous—or even insensitive—for me to be frittering my mental resources on the junk-plastic universe inhabited by junior pageant queens on “reality” TV, gyrating back-up dancers in high-cut bikinis on MTV, and WWF wrestlers with names like Bastion Booger and Sycho [sic] Sid. But when I try to wrap my head around what happened at Montreal’s École Polytechnique on December 6th 1989—the murder of fourteen students who were targeted solely because they were women—I struggle to comprehend how our culture could have made such sexist brutality thinkable in the first place.
I don’t buy the “lone madman” theory. For one thing, Marc Lépine, the gunman responsible for the massacre at École Polytechnique, is far from being the only woman-killer in our country’s history. According to Statistics Canada, spousal homicide claimed the lives of over 600 Canadian women in the years between 2000 and 2010. And more than four times the number of women killed by Lépine were disappeared from the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver in the past few decades—most of them indigenous, and almost all of them living in poverty and involved in street-level sex work. (Given the deep entrenchment of colonialism, racism, and poor-bashing in our society, it is not surprising that the murder of these women—unlike the slaying of the fourteen white college women in Montreal—was initially met with callous apathy within the police force and the popular press.)
In case you still aren’t convinced that Lépine’s crime fits into a larger cultural picture, consider the anti-feminist vitriol spewed out in his suicide note. The rhetoric will sound nauseatingly familiar to anyone who has ever read right-wing blogs or even the Op Ed pages of mainstream newspapers: Feminists want to have their cake and eat it too. Feminists are rewriting history to exaggerate women’s achievements and bolster their dubious claim that women are men’s equals. Feminists champion equality of the sexes only when they stand to benefit personally. All of these ideas are in heavy mainstream circulation. Ultimately, then, the massacre at École Polytechnique is not an isolated incident but a reflection of a sick, violent culture.
At least some of the sickness in our culture is transmitted through pop cultural channels. To deny the impact of mass-mediated music, TV, movies and other cultural products is to be naïve about their reach and the massive time and attention they absorb. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, American teens spend 31 hours a week watching TV, 17 hours a week listening to music, three hours a week watching movies, four hours a week reading magazines, and ten hours a week online, for a grand total of nearly eleven hours of media consumption per day. And what is being consumed is not exactly a marathon of Rosa Parks biographies on A&E. Today’s youth—all of us, actually—are ingesting a dangerously high dose of hardcore violence, both symbolic and literal.
Contemporary culture is rife with examples of the glorification of male aggression. In the world of popular fiction, the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, which a British domestic violence organization controversially dubbed “an instruction manual for an abusive individual to sexually torture a vulnerable young woman” (and which could, less controversially, be summed up as a poorly written, eroticized mash-up of sexist clichés) has topped international bestseller lists, outselling even the Harry Potter series on Amazon.
In the world of Top 40 music, the video for Lady Gaga’s 2009 hit “Paparazzi” features Gaga as a starlet who is dogged by tabloid photographers and pushed over a ledge to her near-death by a male lover. Gaga’s character miraculously rises again after landing in a crumpled, bloody, limb-splayed heap, and she eventually exacts revenge by poisoning her abusive ex. But this pseudo-feminist conclusion to the video’s narrative of abuse does nothing to counteract the disturbing aestheticization of Gaga’s battered body:
And PS! If you feel you’ve seen images like this before—I mean many, many times before—it might be because Gaga’s “Paparazzi” trades on the supposed chic of dead or nearly-dead female bodies, as marketed in stomach-turningfashion ads like these ones:
While Gaga’s murder-fest of a video is disturbing—to say the least— it is, at least, fictional. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the violent allusions in the latest musical collaborations between ex-lovers Chris Brown and Rihanna. Brown, who three years ago left Rihanna with visible facial injuries and threatened to kill her, can now be heard crooning on her recording “Birthday Cake” that he wants to “give it to her in the worst way.” Rihanna also makes a guest appearance on Brown’s “Turn Up the Music,” in which she urges him to “turn it up and take me down.” In light of the much-publicized history of abuse in the two musicians’ relationship, these songs risk making male violence look sexy—in fact, they were probably designed to do just that. Of course, there are plenty more totally gross songs and videos where these ones came from, and they turn up in all musical genres (contrary to what the racist demonization of hip hop and R&B culture might suggest).
The great thing about the world of popular culture, though, is that it’s big enough to accommodate dissenting voices. Sure, we have to work a little harder to dig up songs, movies, and magazines that ignite our imagination and our passion for justice rather than… um, grinding us down into splinters of self-loathing. As a teenager in the dawn of the Internet era, before YouTube and the limitless smorgasbord of downloadable music and movies, I worked really hard to get my hands on feminist media. This involved sending away for $5 compilation CDs put out by tiny record labels, taking detailed notes as I listened to campus radio, and working up the guts to actually go to that house show featuring a queer girl-band from the States after somebody randomly handed me a flyer for it. I like to think that feminist culture might be within more folks’ grasp these days. The Internet offers lots of opportunities for us to talk back to the mass media or create our own—opportunities which depend, granted, on certain privileges: Internet access, tech savvy, print literacy, time on your hands, and the confidence to put your thoughts out there (trolls and flamers be damned).
There are lots of cool musicians and media-makers to be discovered on YouTube and MySpace, who can politicize us, entertain us, provide us some refuge from all the mainstream crap, and help us feel less alone in the world. One of my current favourites is Eekwol, an MC from the Muskoday Nation in Saskatchewan who isn’t afraid to talk about gender, colonialism, art, relationships, society, and the complexities of being alive in this world. In her song “Look East”—which is incredibly catchy in a haunting, very non-Top 40 way—she simultaneously calls on “the men in my life” to “stop hitting your woman and drag her down while you sink” and provides a powerful political context for gender-based violence in indigenous communities:
I know my man you’ve had it the worst
History dealt you the raw deal first
They took away your role along with your soul
And expect you to succeed, that’s taking its toll
Convinced you were devils and damned you with sin
Made you look down on your own brown skin.
I tell everybody to check out Eekwol, because she’s just that awesome. Here’s her MySpace page, where you can listen to “Look East.” And here’s an interview where she talks about her experience as an indigenous woman in the hip hop music industry.
Almost a decade before I first heard Eekwol, I discovered another mind-blowing musician who is just as outspoken when it comes to sexism in music culture: Ursula Rucker. (Fun fact: I first learned about Rucker from my Women’s Studies TA, who happens to be a feminist rawk icon in her own right: DJ Betti Forde of Vancouver’s own Stinkmitt.) The first Ursula Rucker album I acquired was the mighty Supa Sista, released in 2001; it tackles everything from sexual objectification in music videos, to sexism in Christian theology, to the experiences of inner city kids in the public school system, to the systemic overrepresentation of black males in American prisons, to men who regard women as their “own personal supply of bliss or in-house ass to kick.” In the duet “What???” with rapper U-Love, Rucker calls on popular musicians to assume responsibility for their impact on our culture: “Your mishandling of the mic and music’s power is played; it’s time for change”; “I demand reparations from all irresponsible fake mogul crap musicmakers and movefakers; your bad examples could kill my children’s future.” Instead of reducing women “to ass and titty” amidst an array of “thongs,” “whips,” and “guns” in music videos, Rucker challenges the male stars of hip hop to start “talkin’ about the injustices, the numbers, the blunders of black males in jail.” This woman completely blows my mind, and you should check out her MySpace page.
Ursula Rucker ’s song “What???” is a great reminder that, as feminist punk-rock superheroes Sleater-Kinney once put it, “Culture is what we make it, yes it is. Now is the time, now is the time to invent.” Oh, Sleater-Kinney! Sigh. Can you imagine me doodling the band’s name surrounded by hearts, femi-fists and lightning bolts in my Grade 11 math binder? This late great all-grrrl trio is at the top of the list of musicians who helped me survive high-school and blossom into a proud, well-adjusted feminist adult. Their song “#1 Must Have,” which is the source of this blog post’s title, also includes such kick-ass lines as: “Will there always be concerts where women are raped? Watch me make up my mind instead of my face. The number one must have is that we are safe.” (Rumour even has it that “Watch me make up my mind instead of my face” has been in heavy rotation on the WAVAW button-making machine.) Here’s a live televised performance of the song, courtesy of YouTube.
Though Sleater-Kinney evidently made it big enough to be featured on daytime TV, they were never really a household name. Of course, this isn’t to say that mainstream musicians never inspire young feminists. While the mass media is a powerful filtering device (actually, I imagine it as a ferocious-looking industrial juicer that extracts sugary stuff and trashes the ‘pulp’ of women’s ideas and lived experiences), it doesn’t run smoothly all the time. Sometimes, powerful women do manage to access a mass-media platform. I think back to Grade 8, for example, when Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill topped the charts. Morissette wasn’t explicitly feminist, but her lyrics were smart and uncompromising, and her videos showcased her ideas rather than her body. This was a big huge deal to thirteen-year-old me, as I was still years away from being able to attend to house shows or mail-order stuff from indie labels (actually, I had no idea that house shows and indie labels even existed).
My colleague and friend Sharon recalls a similar awakening via the hit music of the 90s, at the even tenderer age of about ten. The first feminist songs she heard were “Free Your Mind” by En Vogue and “None of Your Business” by Salt n Pepa. Both groups were made up of powerful women with loud, strong voices—women who stood out from all the others Sharon had seen on TV and in magazines. As a young viewer of the runway documentary TV program Fashion File, Sharon admired the creativity expressed in the clothing design but was put off by haute couture’s sickly thin beauty standard and elitist culture. She and her friends also liked to fill out the quizzes in Cosmo magazine; although she identified with the image of sexual empowerment that the magazine promoted, she sensed a certain emptiness underneath it all. En Vogue and Salt n Pepa were totally different. They moved with power. They exuded self-respect. They had substance. Sharon describes exactly what inspired her about “Free Your Mind” and “None of Your Business”: “Both songs are women saying, ‘We’re doing what we’re doing, other women can do what they do. And respect them. Respect their choices and trust them.’”
In a culture that still questions women’s choices, often going so far as to blame the victim rather than the perpetrator in cases of sexual assault (“Why were you wearing that?” “Why were you alone?” “Why were you with that guy?” …and so on and so on, ad nauseum), Salt n Pepa’s lyrics ring as true as ever: “Now every move I make somebody’s clockin’. Don’t ask me nothin’, will you just leave me alone? Never mind who’s the guy that I took home.” If culture is what we make it, then let’s make a culture that respects and trusts women’s choices. Let’s dig around to find music, movies, TV shows and books that inspire us and reflect our multi-dimensional realities, and if we don’t find any, let’s make our own. In a world as violent as ours already is, the last thing we need to feel entertained is to watch women being dehumanized, beaten up, reduced to disembodied boobs, or piled on top of male rock stars.
Now is the time, now is the time to invent.