Yesterday, Jill at Feministe blogged about an NYU discussion board thread based on her appearance - namely, as a 200-lb fat pig.
This spurred an interesting phenomenon among the Feministe readers. A lot of the 83 comments she received were the admittedly normal knee-jerk reaction of "Oh, you're not ugly! You're gorgeous!" Which she is. But why does that matter? This, thankfully, led Zuzu to expose the problematic nature of these reactions: "These guys are obviously assholes, but it bothers me that being called fat and/or hideous provokes such a strong, “But you’re not fat! You’re not ugly!” response. I could just be feeling marginalized by the idea that being fat is the worst thing a woman could be called."
Jill wrote a follow-up post today, expanding on Zuzu's comment, explaining that her posting about the ridiculousness of the message board was not her fishing for responses like "Oh, but you're so pretty!"
Some excerpts from Jill's post:
What insults like that do is they attack all women everywhere. They let us know that if we don’t fit a certain standard, we don’t deserve to have our ideas addressed on their merits.
If it’s agreed that Lauren and I are pretty, then we run the risk of being labeled bimbos, or Ginger and Maryanne. If we’re ugly, then we’re only feminists because we can’t get men. I do think that the fact that neither Lauren nor I would be considered ugly by most people (message boards aside), and that we’ve both been in long-term relationships with men does give us a bit of a privilege in the feminist blogging world, because it takes those arguments away from our opponents.
And here, I insert a little bit of Ani, because she always says it best:
"And god help you if you are an ugly girl,
'course too pretty is also your doom
'cause everyone harbours a secret hatred
for the prettiest girl in the room."
But Jill never really addresses the fact that there were rape threats made on this message board. That people were threatening to "hate-fuck" her, and making other more graphic and unnecessary threats. Amanda at Pandagon does, though, slightly:
...[people were] making jokes about raping her, which puts this incident into a different stratosphere from your run-of-the-mill running around and saying that feminists are bitter because we are ugly and/or can't get a man. The rape jokes are of a different degree of awful, but I think it's safe to say that those comments come from the same impulse that causes people threatened by feminism to make assertions that feminists are ugly/bitter/lonely--it's a desire to retaliate against people who speak out against the injustice of male dominance by telling them, in so many words, that as far as you're concerned women exist only as sex toys for men.
I know that the main problems that arise from this post are based around the (over)valuing of women's looks, and how that does or doesn't detract or add to her credibility. (This is true in some ways for men, too, but way, way more for women.) But Amanda dealt with those nicely, as did Jill. So I'm going to tackle the problems of the rape jokes, because it hits close to home for me, and, let's be honest, that's one of the main themes of this here blog.
A bit of background: Last year, when Lauren (not of Feministe, my own Lauren) and I were co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Wells College, trying to keep it a single-sex institution, I got a lot of the same thing. Yahoo! News ran the story, including our full names and hometowns, but luckily, no pictures (although they were available elsewhere, on other news sites). Yahoo! News also has a feature that enables comments on the news stories, which is where things became problematic.
There were a few comments that actually pertained to the story - some agreeing with us in our lawsuit, some pulling the line about separate-but-equal (which does not apply to single-sex institutions, but that's another rant). The majority of the comments, though, were surrounding our looks. They (mostly men, I presume, but there could've been some women in there too, I don't know) called us fat, ugly dykes, they said we only wanted Wells to stay single-sex because we couldn't get a man, or because we were afraid of men, or other ridiculous assumptions.
My first reaction then, too, was to say, "Well, if they saw pictures of us, especially of Lauren, who has DD boobs, they wouldn't say we were fat or ugly. At least WE know we're not fat or ugly." And then I realized the problems with that as well, with defending myself based on my appearance. But these things didn't really bother me, because they weren't basing this on a picture. They based this solely on assumptions based on our ideals and desire to attend a women's college. Which, really, is no basis at all.
What bothered me were the rape threats.
The "Oh, she just needs to be f***ed really hard." The "They just need to be raped so that they shut up." The "Mmm, I bet she's a good lay, since she'd fight it all the way."
I realize now that Amanda's right, that these threats really do come from the same impulse that made them call us fat and ugly and dykes.
But then, when I read them, I felt very, very unsafe. This Yahoo! news story not only gave my full name and my hometown, but Wells College had a total of about 400 people. If they really wanted to find me and rape me, they very well could have. It wasn't - and still isn't - exactly the safest place.
I absolutely freaked out. I immediately emailed Lauren, and directed her to the site, and told her to read some of the comments, which by then were numbering over 300. I didn't really take these threats seriously - as in, I don't think I seriously expected some guy to drive all the way out to the middle of nowhere in Central New York just to "teach me a lesson," but it was still incredibly frightening.
And this is a problem, and one that neither Amanda or Jill really address. The fact that these (presumably) men think it's ok to threaten rape, think it's funny to threaten rape, is absolutely terrifying. Yes, it's just another product of our rape culture, but that doesn't excuse it. It begins to explain it, though.
It was simply used to, as Amanda said, "assert male dominance." But just because we, the readers of Feministe and Pandagon, who are mostly feminists, see this as nothing more than ridiculous chest-pounding, does not mean that will be how the rest of the world will see it. Because, let's face it, a good portion of the world is pretty misogynistic. A good portion of the world would see this as a "boys will be boys" thing.
And that's not what it is.
Boys will be boys only if you teach them to be boys in that manner.
Boys will be boys only if the rape culture persists.
The fact that this is a product of the rape culture does not mean that it's unchangeable. The rape culture itself is not a permanent fixture. It's an intricate aspect of the patriarchy, yes, but even the patriarchy can be overthrown.
It's just a matter of doing it.
I may be wrong, and maybe Jill and Amanda are just not addressing this because they don't want to delve into it, or don't want to take the focus away from the concentration on female beauty or lack thereof, but I see it as a huge problem that even Jill and Amanda, my two favourite feminist bloggers, are avoiding the implications of these rape threats.
Just because these rape threats were not serious, just because the chances of them becoming a real danger for Jill are slim to none, does not make the implications of the threats any less real, any less serious.
And until feminists - and everybody, but especially feminists - start acknowledging the fact that even rape "jokes" and "fake" threats are perpetuating rape, and therefore perpetuating the patriarchy, I don't see how this system can be overthrown.