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ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: The Gender Swap as a Feminist Revenge Fantasy

ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: The Gender Swap as a Feminist Revenge Fantasy

In a recent Slate
article called “The Brilliant Misandry of Orphan
Black
,” Jessica Roake argues that the men in Orphan Black are ciphers, emotionally shallow and boring, the kind
of cardboard cutout characters that women often play on T.V. shows. Roake
argues that this “switch” is subversive. “Finally!” she says, “Men are the sexy, empty
listeners!” But is portraying men as one-dimensional as women are often
portrayed really as subversive and politically minded as Roake claims? Is
revenge a meaningful reaction to the pervasiveness of misogyny in popular
culture?

The politically minded gender swap is everywhere these days.
The Hawkeye Initiative Tumblr features drawings of classic male superheroes in feminine
poses, calling attention to how overtly sexualized female bodies are often
presented, ass and chests sticking out provocatively. The swap is an
interesting kind of power play since these revamped “sexualized” male comic
book characters are not really sexualized at all; they are merely rendered
feminine, in classic pliant poses that are obviously funny, rather than erotic.
Indeed, the gender swap is often done for comedic effect. Amy Schumer, whose
Comedy Central show Inside Amy Schumer
often spoofs traditional gender roles, had a recent skit “Lunch at O’Nutters” that
is a quintessential gender swap revenge fantasy, with Schumer and her friend
taking a coworker out to lunch at a restaurant that is the female equivalent of
Hooters. At one point, a waiter puts his nuts up on the table for the ladies to
ogle. Later there is a “wet nut” contest, where guys around the bar get their
pants sprayed with water.

Schumer’s comedy intends to highlight the absurdity of
restaurants whose entire purpose is to objectify women, just as the drawings
found on Hawkeye Initiative are intended to get us thinking more critically
about the ubiquity of sexualized female characters. One of the biggest problems
with this and other similarly minded “gender swaps,” however, is their
suggestion that, in order to level the playing field, we should allow women the
opportunity to demean and objectify men. In one popular gender-swapped parody
of “Blurred Lines,” for example, the female singers threaten to emasculate
their half-naked male background dancers. And a gender-swapped Wolf of Wall Street parody shows women
engaging in “bad boy” antics, but in this version throwing female midgets and
taping cash to a half naked man’s body. 

Popular wisdom suggests that incredibly sexist ads and music
videos and films and T.V. shows exist because sex sells. But the fantasy of sex
is not actually what we are being sold at all in the vast majority of
sexist-leaning media. What we are being sold is a fantasy of power, in which
women are presented as property in the same way that nice jewelry, a new car,
or a brand new iPhone might be. The problem with the feminist revenge fantasy
is that it doesn’t actively dismantle this type of power system at all. It
simply inverts the players, ultimately supporting the very system it seems
poised to protest.

Nowhere is the problematic nature of this more readily
apparent than in the way that some female artists have appropriated other
women’s bodies as a kind of exotic display. We saw this in Miley Cyrus’s VMA
performance, for example, which featured African American women twerking
provocatively behind her, and we also saw it in Lily Allen’s critique of
Cyrus’s performance, where almost exclusively black background dancers are used
to illustrate the obsession with sex and excess in the music industry. Most
recently, Avril Lavigne’s “Hello Kitty” video has garnered healthy criticism
for its portrayal of Japanese culture and its inclusion of blank-faced Japanese
women as background singers, echoing Gwen Stefani’s past performances with her
famous Harajuku Girls. All of these pop culture displays reduce people to caricatures
and all involve a single powerful female artist who feels entitled to collect
people as if they were merely ornaments or objects. 

The film Fight Club
criticized the way that consumer culture gives individuals the illusion that
they can buy power and happiness, all the while showing us that we are really
just cogs in a well oiled machine, rather than the unique and special snowflakes
we strive to be. At one point Tyler Durden comes up with the brilliant idea to
make soap out of liposuctioned women’s fat and then sell these beautifully
packaged bars of soap at expensive department stores. “It was beautiful,” the
narrator says.“We were selling women their own fat asses back to themselves.”

The political gender swap presented in recent years
functions the same way. It presents itself as critique, but really just
reassembles old, outdated ideas about power dynamics in a way that seems smart,
shiny, and new. True feminism should not be about “reclaiming” harmful and
hateful power dynamics in which one person always ends up being the victim.
Instead it should be about promoting justice, and about a world where no one is
reduced to being someone else’s plaything.

Arielle Bernstein is
a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American
University and also freelances. Her work has been published in
The
Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She
has been listed four times as a finalist in
Glimmer Train short story
contests
. She is currently writing her first book.

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