The best approach to creating female villains

Spoiler warning: some plot development from Gone Girl is vaguely discussed to be as spoiler-free as possible

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Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel Gone Girl originally came out in 2012. The book quickly gained momentum as a modern crime-thriller, and as of October 3, a film adaptation is out in theatres. Like the book, the film has been highly praised, with some calling it the best movie of the year. However, both the book and the film have been consistently debated as to whether or not they are misogynistic.

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If you just smile

Art by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh

Art by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh

I was walking home from the SkyTrain one night when out of the shadows emerged a hooded face with a gravelly voice. “Smile, beautiful, it’s hard to keep a straight face like that,” he said to me as I hastened my pace and evaded his gaze.

This is a familiar narrative to a lot of women: that tale of being jolted out of a reverie by some exhortation about smiling. I wish I could offer an explanation as to why the command is so commonplace; regardless though of why certain men feel they ought to tell women what to do with their faces, it’s a tired request that keeps getting older. Women are becoming increasingly fed-up with the manhandling of moods.

While I know many men might not see it this way, asking someone to smile is a questionable cocktail that’s both sexual and patronizing. Sexual, because it’s often accompanied by some proclamation about the woman’s appearance—generally “You would look prettier if you just smiled.” Patronizing, because the commander assumes a position of authority over a stranger by telling them what to do.

More than patronizing though, it can be a form of intimidation. Comedian Nikki Glaser, for a NowThis Rant, said that while she never wants to smile in response to these commands, she does so anyways “because I’m a little bit scared.”

That’s the crux of the matter: this street harassment becomes an assertion of dominance. I doubt very much that a hetero man would, in all seriousness, say to another man “Smile, handsome!” Encounter a young woman walking alone though, and suddenly it’s open season on unwilling participants.

Most men don’t see telling women to smile as anything more than a teasing or flirtatious remark. As Damon Young writes for Ebony.com, he used to see the act as “playful and innocuous”; he acknowledges though that it’s “not about a legitimate need for women to be happy as much as it’s that smiling/pleasant-looking women are easier on the eyes and more inviting to approach. It’s really not about the women at all.”

To me, the point of telling someone to smile is to tell them what to do, and assert some alleged dominance—the goal isn’t actually to make the woman smile. I get what Young is saying about women being more approachable if they’re smiling (still not a good excuse), but haven’t you already approached the woman by telling her to smile? You’re either forcing a woman to smile in order to make her more approachable for yourself, or you’re forcing her to smile for the sake of it. Regardless, the woman and her actual happiness get lost along the way.

Artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh started the project Stop Telling Women to Smile to address “street harassment, particularly gender-based street harassment,” as she states in the project’s promotional video. Stop Telling Women to Smile began in the fall of 2012 in Brooklyn, and is Fazlalizadeh’s call-out to her harassers; rather than staying silent, she created a platform through her art to respond, and shared that platform with other women.

Instead of keeping her response in the confines of a studio or gallery, she chose to bring it where the harassment happens: the streets. Fazlalizadeh interviews women on their experiences with gendered street harassment, gathering accounts from real women about their fears, anxieties, and reactions. From there, she takes the women’s photographs, draws their portraits, and captions the portraits with what the women want to say to their harassers. The result is a series of poster portraits, plastered around New York and emblazoned with words like “I am not here for you”; “I am not outside for your entertainment”; and “You can keep your thoughts on my body to yourself.”

The commands to smile are, as Fazlalizadeh articulately describes, “unwelcome … unwanted … aggressive, and assertive, and really make you feel uncomfortable and harassed.” I don’t care whether or not the intention is to be “playful”; the fact is it’s a bizarre request that belies any innocuous intentions, and it can’t be ignored as white noise. Give women a reason to smile, don’t tell them to.

Originally published in the Other Press.

Their fame shouldn’t give you a free pass on sexism

In film, television, and even music, many in the spotlight are hired based partially on their physical appearance. If the person you’re watching on screen is considered fat, skinny, short, or tall, their presence is likely placed there intentionally. But with much of the media-based industry still heavily focussed on conventionally attractive men and women, have we in turn been trained to objectify them?

Deepika Padukone

Deepika Padukone

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Gimme an E-X-P-L-O-I-Tation!

Jills

“It definitely cost you a lot more money to be on the team than what you made.”

Who do you think said this? Could it possibly be a hockey player? A football player? How about a curler?

All wrong. The person who politely pointed out that she, and countless others, don’t get reimbursed for their time, effort, and energy, was Ceilynn Howse, former cheerleader and current choreographer for the Calgary Stampeders. She added that a paycheque “would have been nice.”

Five former cheerleaders for the Buffalo Bills have recently filed a lawsuit, bringing the extreme discrimination they’ve experienced to the fore. The primary allegation is a lack of pay, where cheerleaders are either working for free or below minimum wage—the CBC reports that one New York Jets cheerleader estimated she had worked for $3.77/hour.

Essentially, professional cheerleaders are being paid about the same amount as high school cheerleaders—but they get treated worse. Other allegations in the suit include being given a handbook with rules like not overeating bread, using appropriate products for menstruation, and allegedly “being forced to sit on men’s laps, and even a jiggle test to check their weight.”

This is extremely similar to the notorious Lingerie Football League, where the players are not reimbursed despite the long and physically taxing hours required—even being required to pay to register. The rules for the cheerleaders also harken back to those that Gloria Steinem reported on in her renowned piece, “I was a Playboy Bunny.” The work demands that you put up with degrading treatment, as those in authority take advantage of their positions.

This treatment is particularly horrendous given the fact that teams are often all-too eager to meet their players’ demands. Even in the CFL, where the pay is considerably lower than in the NFL, the cheerleaders’ pay trails long and far behind. The salary cap in the NFL is $133-million, while the CFL’s is a comparatively puny $4.4-million; the CBC reports that even the NFL mascots generally earn between $23,000 and $65,000/year. That cheerleader who estimated she’d made $3.77/hour had made $1,800 in an entire season’s work.

These aren’t just hobbies that the cheerleaders are signing up for. They should be treated like employees, especially given the hours they’re required to put in, and the training that is often behind their dancing ability. They’re skilled performers who attend rehearsals, mandatory cheerleading camps, training, and performances. The women often have to take on part-time work if they’re to make any kind of a living, while the football players they’re cheering for demand a few more zeros on their paycheques.

Neither the NFL nor the CFL treat their professional cheerleaders as anything more than volunteers: Eric Holmes, a spokesperson for the Toronto Argonauts, says that “Most of our girls will tell us they’d do it for free. They’re happy to find out afterward we do have an honorarium.”

I’m not sure I take his statement at face value: at the very least, I think there are extenuating circumstances, whether the girls were in reality making a hyperbolic expression of delight, or whether the (likely extremely small) sample of girls don’t speak for all cheerleaders.

Regardless of the verity of his statement, the leagues are either oblivious to the fact that it is unethical as well as unlawful—hence the lawsuit—to commit wage-theft, or the leagues are accepting labour for no reimbursement with full-knowledge of their culpability. Sorry Holmes, bud, but if you’re claiming the former, ignorantia juris non excusat. I can say I’d work for free all I want, but you’re still obligated to pay me. Reimbursement through sunglasses, tanning deals, and per diems don’t count, and it’s an insult to the cheerleaders that, not only are they not paid, but they have to cheer on millionaires.

Here’s a little piece of advice, direct from me to the football leagues: instead of tacking millions of dollars more onto athletes’ salaries which are already inflated, put that money towards giving your cheerleaders an actual wage—and make sure it’s minimum wage or higher.

Originally published in the Other Press.

Britain bans ‘sexist’ American Apparel ads

On August 7, a Back To School ad campaign by American clothing company American Apparel was launched to a viral uproar. The campaign was banned from Britain as of September 2, as an image from the campaign, shared by social media user Emilie Lawrence, brought attention to an up-skirt shot of a woman in a plaid skirt.

The ad in all its miserable glory

The ad in all its miserable glory

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