Arts & Entertainment
Critic's Notebook

Fresh spate of sexism, violence ominously familiar

EntertainmentColumnTelevisionNews MediaElliot RodgerMindy KalingLouis C.K.
.@marymacTV: In recent years, we've grown comfortable viewing the realities of sexism from a distance
As recent news shows, sexism and violence against women aren't things of the past
The good news is we're talking about sexism, says @marymacTV

It's a long way from "Lysistrata" but in recent weeks, more than 2,400 years since Aristophanes gave voice to female discontent in a patriarchal society, the gender wars erupted once again in ways both refreshingly modern and disquietingly familiar.

Discontent with society's still-narrow female beauty standard, set to simmer in the last few years by performers including Amy Schumer, Melissa McCarthy, Mindy Kaling and Lena Dunham, boiled over following Sarah Baker's now famous fat-girl's lament on an episode of "Louie."

The firing of Jill Abramson, the New York Times' first female editor in chief, amid reports that she had been paid less than her male predecessors launched a renewed discussion of pay equity and the double standard many women leaders still face.

Several well-publicized rape and sexual assault cases caused many to protest the state of sexual hostility on college campuses, where rape, assault and harassment are often under-reported or handled by campus authorities rather than police. The increase of sexual violence on television, meanwhile, prompted some viewers and critics to question the use of rape as a narrative device.

Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday created a media dust-up by suggesting that Hollywood's worship of frat-boy mentality, and its attendant portrayal of women as trophies that every man deserves, might have contributed to the horrific shootings in Isla Vista.

Even this year's reshuffling of late-night shows sparked high words when it became clear that no female replacement for Jay Leno or David Letterman was even in the running.

Every question, protest or, in the case of "Louie," celebration was met with passionate and often furious response from both sides of the issue, fueled in part by the rush-to-judgment that social media now facilitates, but also the very real sense that these issues are not the nostalgia pieces many of our popular period dramas would have us believe.

In recent years, we've grown comfortable viewing the realities of sexism from a distance. We watch shows like "Mad Men" and "Masters of Sex" with self-righteous outrage — when will Joan realize she's got twice the business mind of any man around and how dare William Masters pay Virginia Johnson so little and then take credit for her ideas!

But as "Mad Men" inches to its close, it may well overlap with the current news cycle, which hearkens more and more to the mid-'80s, with its Take Back the Night marches, letters-to-the-editor campaigns against those Calvin Klein Obsession ads and rise of a reactionary men's movement.

For those who took part in those marches, it is dispiriting to see how many of these problems still plague us, and how deeply they have been buried under assumptions that they do not.

Whether or not a "frat boy" mentality was at work, there is no denying the misogyny of Elliot Rodger's UCSB-focused rampage; in chilling videos, he revealed a murderous hatred for the women who "rejected" him, particularly the sort of beautiful blond and popular women so often used as pat symbols of cruelty and/or sexual worthiness in film and television.

To argue that entertainment does not impact culture is absurd. Hollywood doesn't get to take credit for breaking ground with films such as "Philadelphia" and shows like "Will & Grace" or for that matter "Girls," only to wash its hands of more destructive attitudes.

The recent revelations about rape and other violence against women, and the often outrageous ways in which they are dealt with on college campuses shocked many, including President Obama, out of a vague assumption that sexual violence against women is no longer the problem it once was.

Likewise suggestions that Abramson had been fired for protesting an inequitable salary (which the New York Times denies), or for a managerial style that might have been acceptable in a man, caused many women to raise their heads from their cubicles and look around their own workplaces for discrepancies that still exist (women make, on average, 77 cents to a man's dollar) but no longer fuel the political conversation.

The good news is we're talking about it, and with a speed and diversity of voice once impossible to imagine.

Social media, despite its oft-deserved reputation for cyberbullying, is a huge factor in this renaissance of socio-political debate. News events and opinions from all over the world can be shared instantly by everyone; you don't have to be a member of the mainstream or even outlier media for your voice to be heard. Earlier this year a Twitter argument over the role of "provocative" clothing in rape (yes, these arguments still occur) led to hundreds of women tweeting photos of what they were wearing when they were raped. In the wake of the Isla Vista killings, women from all over the world shared their fears, outrage and experiences with sexism on #yesallwomen.

This instant access can be deceiving; controversy is so much easier to foment and categorize when it consists mainly of blog posts and retweets. As comforting and informative as it may be to watch social progress play out in the personal lives of characters on "Downton Abbey" or "Mad Men," those changes didn't occur organically, they were the result of sustained and often violent protest. Twitter is a platform, not a movement. It may have aided the Arab Spring, but it was people in the streets that made it happen.

But conversation, whether between the early abolitionists, a group of fed-up drag queens at the Stonewall Inn or online fans of Louis C.K., is where change begins. It is probably no accident that we are discussing issues formerly known as feminist at a time when it seems quite possible we will soon have a female candidate for the presidency.

In many ways the 1980s are distant as Lysistrata's famous protest over the Peloponnesian War; in others it could be yesterday.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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EntertainmentColumnTelevisionNews MediaElliot RodgerMindy KalingLouis C.K.
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