Long essay ahead:
The other day I was watching The League with a guy I’ve been dating. It’s surprisingly funny, and I found myself laughing aloud fairly frequently. For those who don’t know, The League follows five guys (and eventually one woman) who play fantasy football. The fantasy football element is basically a plot device to bring the guys together for hijinks and hegemonic masculinity.
As the show went on, I found myself growing increasingly uncomfortable with the treatment of women characters. Even when the women were awesome, the show constantly and unrelentingly focused on their attractiveness to determine their worth as humans. (Please note that none of these women were unattractive at all, despite what the show would have us believe.) When I tried to explain why this made me uncomfortable, I didn’t get anywhere. Basically, he said that because ugly women still get laid more easily than ugly men, women come out better. So, it’s ok. I dropped it, because it’s hard for me to admit how much this can affect my own personal insecurities. I was not brave.
I often couch my feminism in the safety of humor and light remarks. Or I wrap myself in the language of academia, pulling the words of others close as a bulletproof disguise. For then arguments about feminism are to be won as any other logical debate or political discussion. Distance makes me safe.
Except, the thing about feminism is that at some point it’s not going to be a safely removed debate. At some point the words “this can hurt people” start to become a lie. I don’t mean that. I mean, “This hurts me. I am vulnerable and I am damaged and I want you to care.” This is about women, yes, but I am a woman and this is about me.
This gets harder when the thing that hurts is loved by someone we care about. Critiques of favorite media can so easily come across as “you are hurting me” and not “that thing” is. It would then be easy to reassure you here that it’s not you, it’s the thing. Well, complicity hurts too. Liking something that hurts me with its sexism might not be an intentional injury on your part, and it doesn’t hurt the same way, but it is also not a neutral action. That is why this is difficult to say and why I am asking you to listen even when you feel defensive, and to understand why I am hurt.
We can like things critically. All of us have to if we want to like anything in this world. Just the acknowledgement of why something is hurtful, though, can do much to correct the damage and legitimize my experience as a woman. So, this is not a critique of the entire show. This is a critique of the episodes I saw. These are the words I wish I had been able to articulate in that moment.
When women see male characters routinely refer to female characters purely in relation to their desirability, it is hard for women not to believe that men think of them with the same limited view. In fact, that society thinks of us and our worth in this way. I hope I am not being overly generous to men when I believe that many of them do think of women (at least specific women they know) as complex, while beings in the same way that they know men are. However, can you not see why we women are psychologically and systematically abused by the cultural notion that half of society is constantly and relentlessly evaluating and degrading us based on our weight and sex appeal, and indeed that we should continue this abuse onto ourselves through our own internalized body shame and loathing? This is supposed to be funny. This is routine for entertainment media.
This notion is so pervasive that it is deemed hilarious that a woman might have emotional scars from a car wreck, because she got plastic surgery and was made “hot” afterwards. The target of this courtroom joke was the woman. The victim. It was not the men who sexually harass and demean her pain in the courtroom, or the system that apparently gives hot women cheaper rents and raises, or the idea that emotional duress is impossible if men now find you more sexually attractive. No, it is the woman for having the gall to not fall over herself in joy at the fact that being in an accident bad enough to require surgery left her face changed to more conventional beauty standards.
The fact that one male character was attracted to fat women was worthy of public shaming for years, and culminated in him marrying a hot woman, apparently just to regain social standing in the male sexual competition hierarchy at their high school reunion. The joke was not on the men who ridiculed another man for being attracted to fat women, as if it were impossible for such a woman to be beautiful or loved. It was on the man for once being attracted to them in the first place (it’s ok now though because he’s no longer that way and married someone hot). It was on the fat women who were apparently happy to get and share whatever they could because no one else wanted to fuck a fat bitch. All was right in the end when, at the high school reunion, an old fat girlfriend was put in her place on the sexual hierarchy by the appearance of the hot wife.
The “trophy” for the fantasy league is called “Shiva” after the awkward, nerdy valedictorian from their high school class. Even Shiva is later redeemed, it is not through her humanity, but through her beauty. She got hot, so the men’s jokes about her high school awkwardness are on them, because now they’re missing out on getting to know a beautiful women. If she didn’t become conventionally gorgeous, she wouldn’t have been redeemed at all - after all, she was intelligent in high school too and it didn’t help her then.
The issue goes far deeper than who can have sex when. (I’m purposefully leaving aside whether “ugly” men or women have a harder time getting laid, because that is a statistical question I have no way of answering and is its own bag of worms.) It is about the constant psychological battering we endure as women. It is about the voice in the dark corner of my mind ranking myself against each and every woman I see. That cancer in my mind is cruel not only to me, but to all women. While I’ve finally learned to leave it in its cage, these cultural messages rust the bars I’ve built faster than I can rebuild.
When men joke about a woman’s undesirability, they imply an objective standard of rating us. They constantly compare us and deem one to be more or less hot than the other. There is also a multibillion dollar industry/industries that thrive off of promises to fix our flaws, flaws they are only too happy to reveal to us. Is it so strange then that we would compare ourselves to the women who these jokes target? And that when we inevitably find ourselves similar to or even worse than the targeted women, we therefore internalize those jokes and believe ourselves to be unworthy of male desire and love? And, in a society where the male gaze is everything, being unworthy of that is just being unworthy.