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ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: The Gender Swap as a Feminist Revenge Fantasy

Press Play By Arielle Bernstein | Press Play May 5, 2014 at 1:55PM

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.
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Gender swap promo

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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