Knee-Jerks, or Elle and the Belle Knox Interview

I was going to post something on gotcha questions and how they are both overrated, (as rhetorical tools), and valuable, (as nudgers of social change). However, I’m putting that aside for a second because I got a distracted by my own annoyance.

Why am I annoyed? Because of an interview. Or, rather,  by certain public responses to an interview.

Yesterday, published a bit of very timely journalism. Rachel Kramer Bussel, an editor and journalist with a well-established track record in the area of sex and culture, did an interesting, insightful interview with Belle Knox, “the Duke porn star” who was outed by a fellow student awhile back.

The interview reveals Ms. Knox to be a thoughtful, self-possessed young woman who sees herself neither as a victim of her choices, nor of circumstance. Her grounded lack of entitlement was unexpected in the face of Ms. Bussel’s questions, which were insightful and wide-ranging. Clearly, a great deal of thought went into this piece and what emerged was the portrait of a real young woman, with a brain in her head. But this doesn’t matter. What matters is that she was a porn star. Apparently, this devalues EVERYTHING she might have to say. is in the process of receiving a bit of flak for running an interview with, in the words of one concerned reader, “an over-educated whore.”

So, why am I annoyed? Because of the name-calling? I don’t like it, but no. Because of the stigma placed on a young woman’s sexuality? I really don’t like that, but no there, as well.

The source of my annoyance is the blatant lack of thought displayed by many of the people who have posted negative comments in relation to the article. To put it bluntly, it’s fairly clear that many of them didn’t bother to even read the interview before opining. They just had a knee-jerk reaction and ran with it. Much quicker and easier to skip all that reading and head to the comfort zone of righteousness and outrage.

Righteousness and outrage are emotional drugs. They feel good, especially when we get together with a mob of like-minded people carrying torches and sticks. The quality of the journalism doesn’t matter. What many of the commenters did was see is “Belle Knox”, link it to “whore” and then judge Elle for having the temerity to run a piece of journalism that offends or threatens a particular set of sensibilities.

But here’s the thing. In this case, it seems that it isn’t the interview that offends so much as the fact that it was published at all. When it comes right down to it, this post, (okay, rant), isn’t about Elle, or Belle Knox, or porn. It’s about thinking, and how so many people in our culture just don’t.

So, here’s what I propose. If you don’t want to read something, don’t read it. But keep your thoughts to yourself. Consider reading, (or listening, or watching), to be your ticket to voicing your opinion. If you don’t like the coverage, or the interview, or the film, or the book, or the show, that’s perfectly fine. But know what you’re disagreeing with before you open your mouth. Let it be your disagreement – considered and full of your thoughts – rather than the unthinking disapproval of your demographic, whatever that happens to be. Let your brain off the leash and take it for a nice, long walk. It might feel really good.

Barnard on Feminism in the 21st Century

Recently, a representative of Barnard College reached out to me with the details of a new initiative that explores what it is to be a feminist in the 21st century. How do young women engage the notion of feminism in art, ideas and activism now? In an effort to explore this question and many others, Barnard College is beginning a new podcast called, Dare to Say the F-Word. In it, issues from identity and perfectionism to why many young women today hesitate to identify as “feminist” will be explored.

At a time when there is so much contention over what the word “feminist” even means, I think this sort of initiative is incredibly valuable, if only as a means to explore, and possibly even attempt to redefine, the word for a new generation.

Rather than go on at length, however, I’m going to provide a link to post written by Barnard President Debora Spar, author of Wonder Women: Sex, Power & the Quest for Perfection. In it, she explains that while many women today struggle with the idea of perfection, they also struggle with the concept of feminism itself, which is one of the many issues that will be addressed in Barnard’s new podcast, Dare to Say the F-Word, which I mentioned above. Here’s the link:

Read President Spar’s thoughts in this exclusive post.

While I have my own thoughts on what feminism is and how it functions (or fails) to now, I am personally, very heartened by any effort to explore an ideological issue from a discourse-driven point of view, and it seems to me that Barnard is attempting to engage feminism from just such a place. As a result, I applaud their efforts and very much look forward to seeing what comes of it.


Old Spice Makes It Clear How They Really Feel

I will rarely Reblog or link directly to someone else’s post without adding some thoughts of my own, but this post at Velociriot was too good not to share.

Apparently Old Spice has a new ad out, one that borrows a touch too heavily from Oedipus Rex. It also puts into questionable song an uncomfortably casual disrespect for mothers, girlfriends and women in general, as well as the young men that they love. But don’t take my word for it – head over there and take a look at the original post. It’s a good read and the analysis is sound. Nicely done to folks at Velociriot! (But not you, Old Spice. You dropped the ball on this one).

Marketing Feminism, or Return to Downton Abbey

The holidays are over, which means that, here in the States, the 4th season of Downton Abbey is upon us. If you haven’t experienced the cultural phenomena that is Downton Abbey, allow me to say that, objectively speaking (of course), it’s the classiest soap opera since

Image courtesy of

The Cast of Downton Abbey, Season 4

Upstairs, DownstairsEven more importantly, the delight that is Dame Maggie Smith’s performance as Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham can only be rivaled by the series’ costume design, which is, suffice it to say, both inspiring and gush-worthy. But I digress.

Despite my gushy lead-in, this post isn’t actually about Downton Abbey. Rather, it’s about how the 4th season is being marketed in the United States. (I’d actually be curious as to how it matches up with the show’s marketing in Britain and elsewhere, so if anyone has comparative insights, please share).

In preparation for the airing of the 4th season’s first episode on January 5th, PBS has been running a number of trailers and sneak peeks, all of which are pretty much standard for the marketing of any film or TV series. In addition to the standard stuff, however, PBS also ran a special called Return to Downton Abbey, in which American film (and feminist) icon Susan Sarandon takes the viewer through highlights from Downton‘s 3rd season while hinting at the 4th.

This special is what I found curious as far as the marketing goes, because it wasn’t selling Downton Abbey on the basis of the show’s plots, characters or even costumes. Rather, it was selling the show based on a feminist interpretation of the script – that behind every strong man (Mr. Bates, Sir Robert, Carson the butler and even Matthew Crawley), there is an even strong woman (Anna, the Dowager Countess, Mrs. Hughes and Lady Mary), and it is the women who, unbeknownst to those rather adorable, silly men, are actually running the show.

Now, to be fair to the special, Downton Abbey‘s primary demographic is women between the ages of 35 and 50, a fact no doubt influenced by the show’s wealth of interesting, intelligent, strong, complicated female characters, most of whom enjoy interesting and complicated story lines. In light of this, calling attention to the women of the show isn’t especially odd, particularly as they are such a deeply woven part of the show’s overall narrative tapestry.

However, what did strike me as slightly manipulative was how the PBS special teased those threads out and focused on them to near exclusivity at the cost of the show’s various other strengths. It was a less-than-subtle bid to appeal to the show’s dominant demographic through the rhetoric of post-modern feminism. In other words, the special was laid out to emphasize the presence of “women as the backbone of the show,” while presenting the male characters in a decidedly less impressive light.

Dame Maggie Smith as Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham

Dame Maggie Smith as Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham

Now, as a woman, I like seeing varied and complicated portraits of women in media. But I also like seeing varied and complicated portraits of men, because both sexes are varied and complicated. One of the reasons Downton Abbey appeals so deeply is that it’s characters, both male and female, and varied and complicated people.

What I question isn’t so much that Return to Downton Abbey underscored the female characters, but that it did so at the expense of the male ones. Sir Robert thinks he knows best, but his wife and mother know differently; while Carson is afraid of the telephone, Mrs. Hughes buys a toaster; and so on. It’s a focal imbalance that’s prevalent in post-modern feminism – that in order for women to be strong, men must be useless, weak, myopic or crippled in some way – and I think it does both sexes a great injustice.

It’s a tired appeal that sprung out of an impulse to make room for women in the 20th century because so much room had to be made for women to develop and exert their various strengths. But we have progressed since Eliza Doolittle needed Henry Higgins to tell her what to do. I’d like to think that we’ve progressed to a point where we can accept intelligence and capability in women as a normal, expected, trait. I’d like to think that we no longer require strength in women to be paired with weakness in men.

Image courtesy of

Strength, wisdom and capability aren’t feminist virtues – not anymore – and a woman who possesses these virtues isn’t extraordinary. She’s an adult. As far as I can tell, being an adult is a distinctly human condition that members of both sexes should now be able to enjoy without the diminution of the other.  As a woman, I don’t want a cookie, (or special, aren’t-you-amazing-and-powerful-just-because-you’re-a-woman marketing campaign) for acting like a grown-up.

The real strength of the show, and the feminist angle that I’d like to see implicit in its marketing, is that the women of Downton Abbey are fully adult human beings, with all of the strengths and flaws and complications that accompany this fact. The real angle I’d like to see marketed is that the women on the show are just as marvelous and interesting and human as the men.

On Women and Submission

I had originally intended to write on something entirely different today, but I just read a post that got me thinking, so I’m going to tread carefully into the territory of women and submission instead.

Four things up front:

Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

  1. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m addressing submission and domination that are consensual in nature. Situations in which there is no consent are entirely different, and merit their own discussions.
  2. Sexual submission and domination are only part of what I’m looking at. What I want to focus on is the impulse – socially, emotionally and sexually – to dominate or submit.
  3. There are dominant women as well as dominant men, just as there are submissive men and submissive women. Many people fall somewhere in between. Because I want to try to keep this from becoming a dissertation, I am looking at the prevalence of the desire (in women) to submit to powerful men, for the purposes of this discussion.
  4. A disclosure. I am not a submissive woman. It’s something of which I’m neither proud nor regretful. It’s just a fact of my personality. So, while many women look at this picture of Loki and get mildly to extremely turned on, I look at it and want to punch his lovely face. Nothing personal. I just won’t be ruled.

These points made, I respect the fact that submission appeals to many women. What’s more, I’m genuinely curious as to why this might be. What is it about submitting to male dominance that, against our own modern, feminist principles, appeals?

And that’s the tension, isn’t it? The 21st century woman is openly, and some might say, defiantly, empowered. We are shattering glass ceilings and railing against the “male gaze.” And yet, BDSM fairy tales, like 50 Shades of Gray that feature the explicit submission of empathetic women to complicated, dominant man, are ubiquitous, while Twilight’s Bella Swan, whose defining characteristic is, arguably, her submissiveness, has become something of a cultural icon, (though not unexamined).

Our culture has recreated women as powerful and empowered, and this is a very good thing. But biology is stronger than society, which is why it may be that, even as women enjoy a new found social dominance, so many are drawn, individually, to fairy tales of emotional and sexual submission, ie: 50 Shades.

Allow me to suggest, up front, that this is not a bad thing. Here’s why. I suspect that submissiveness is an evolutionary trait. I suspect that, through the millennia, submission has served a valuable function, which is why women are, generally speaking, quite aware of social hierarchies, even amongst other women, (I’m looking at you, mean girls). Dominance and submission are something a silent negotiation, a way of placing one person in charge so things get done, rather than having even more wars than we already do.

Following that thread, I’d like to suggest that submission has served women, evolutionarily speaking, particularly well, while dominance has served men. At it’s most basic, submission was (and in many places still is) a type of currency – “I will submit to this demonstrably powerful male and he will protect me and my young”.  We’re animals after all, and just as the males of most mammalian species vie for female attention through shows of aggression and dominance, most human women find dominant males to be undeniably attractive because that dominance signals the ability to procreate and protect. This would extend itself to being turned on, to varying degrees, by sexual domination and submission, quite naturally.

It’s something of a biological script, and those who follow it are, contrary to feminist theory and conservatives alike, simply following impulses that are evolutionarily hard-wired into the human brain. As a woman with a more dominant personality, even I can say that I see dominance in men as fitness marker. While I have no desire to be dominated, it does appeal on a very basic level, as a social indicator, if nothing else.

Biology moves slowly, much more slowly than culture. It may be that in several millennia, our wiring will catch up to our conscious minds, and questions of dominance and submission, and indeed, even of gender, will cease to be relevant. But they are relevant now. A tension exists in the social / sexual power dynamics of our culture. As a result, the relationship between women and submission remains an interesting, even pivotal, one – so much so that those of us who would punch Loki in the face, are, to some degree, aberrations.

All right, I’m looking down five discursive paths as we speak, so rather than get tangled up in an off the cuff ramble, I’ll end this post here. There’s too much to consider. Apologies for the lack of conclusion on this one, but I’ll be returning to this topic in future posts. In the meantime, I welcome comments, thoughts and input on this issue even more than usual.