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ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: The Gender Swap as a Feminist Revenge Fantasy

by Arielle Bernstein
May 5, 2014 1:55 PM
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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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  • Andrew Gretes | May 28, 2014 12:21 PMReply

    I wasn’t sure I would find this topic terribly interesting/meaningful, but I must admit: Ms. Bernstein’s article and the various comments below responding to the article do a wonderful job of outlining what seems to be a crucial dialogue involving gender justice and one possible path towards attaining that justice – i.e., subversion. And while I find many of the below comments excellent counter-claims which challenge and force Ms. Bernstein to refine, bolster, and clarify her point, I still think her initial claim offers us a penetrating insight (a caveat) of the utility of gender-swapping as a platform for feminist progress. Humor can certainly be used as a social corrective, a sapper of questionable cultural mores, but, as Ms. Bernstein noted above, the sapping (and let’s keep in mind the militant connotation of that word) is still an act of destruction…. And not to linger on this metaphor for too long, but I would just add that it is interesting to consider what happens, in the end, to a sapper. Anyways, irony is one of the oldest and most effective means of creatively negating, shattering old notions so as to build new and more capacious ideals from the pulverized powder of shattered systems (and, yes, misogyny is certainly deserving of some pulverizing). But one of the takeaways I took from Ms. Bernstein’s article was that irony can often drift into cynicism (“can’t beat em, join em!” – i.e., acquiescing to the old sophistic truth that it’s all about power-play, so let’s play the game, let’s be the ones on top). Or to put the point more historically, Socrates can, in a generation or two, spawn Diogenes. Ms. Bernstein simply asks us to question whether we should continue to play the game at all. One typically doesn’t realize one is playing a game until one poses such a question: “Wait, are we in a game?” (I can’t remember the quote exactly but David Foster Wallace illustrates this wonderfully with his anecdote about two fish having a conversation and suddenly one of them says the word “water” and the other one just stares blankly and says, “Wait, what’s water?”). I find the question Ms. Bernstein poses to be provocative: is there a way to invert power relations which isn’t simply yet another power relation? And do the means to an end taint/color the end? To simply refute these questions with comments like “you need to do your POMO” seems callow and uncharitable. Having taken Ms. Bernstein’s comments seriously (as opposed to a prospective straw-man which I can now publicly dismantle in order to flex my cranium), I find them stimulating, and, truth be told, a little frightening.

  • Andrew Gretes | May 28, 2014 1:36 PM

    Weird, I apologize for the distortion - it appears that all the unusual characters in my response like quotation marks and dashes were translated as a-circumflex's. Hope it's still readable...

  • enfilmigult | May 8, 2014 4:57 PMReply

    "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."

    I think you miss the point. Schumer's sketch wasn't saying " let's make O'Nutters a reality, it's great." Reversing the sexes for comedic effect IS dismantling the first place, by drawing our attention to the fact that it suddenly seems funny and absurd with the roles reversed. Why is that? Aha.

  • Gabby | May 7, 2014 9:47 PMReply

    Isn't there a difference between revenge fantasy (i.e, satirizing male objectification) and actualized revenge (treating real-world men, not characters, like objects)? The point, as Bernstein herself admits, is that the satires "are not really sexualized", because our cultural context of men as people makes the attempted objectification "obviously funny, rather than erotic" -- and in doing so reveals the double standard at work. I think critics are too quick to assume feminist cultural work is always literal: irony and satire are important tools for subverting the patriarchy, and media representations like this aren't necessarily intended as a call for real women to "demean and objectify [real] men", but as a 'what if' that serves to highlight patterns of sexism that would otherwise be taken for granted (as Kelsey suggested in a previous post.

    Ultimately, the difference is that women don't actually go to Nutters, but men DO really go to Hooters, and as long as this is the case, genderswap (as fiction!) is helpful for revealing the distinctions our culture makes about women and men as sexual subjects and objects.

  • bruce wilson | May 7, 2014 2:09 PMReply

    you desperately need to do your POMO homework. this is parody, not pastiche and the distinction is important.

  • Kelsey Higham | May 7, 2014 1:08 AMReply

    I think it's disingenuous to compare objectifying white men and objectifying women of color. The first is about inverting a power dynamic; the second is about embracing a power dynamic. They're opposites.

    Objectifying women of color is demonstrably harmful. There are plenty of studies on how media treatment affects our attitudes towards the oppressed, and there are plenty of studies on how our attitudes affect living conditions of the oppressed.

    Objectifying white men is demonstrably helpful. Anecdotally, as a very recent feminist, genderswaps help to open my eyes towards casual sexism I wouldn't have noticed otherwise, and that awareness improves the things I say and the content I produce. And I haven't read any evidence suggesting genderswaps harm anyone.

    (I'm a white cisdude, FWIW)

  • Arielle | May 7, 2014 9:15 AM

    Thanks for your comment, Kelsey. I'm really glad you've noticed that gender swapping has helped you think more critically about gender issues.

    I'm still skeptical about whether or not the "revenge" gender swap is as effective in enforcing longstanding change on a broader level.

    When you see a swap like J Lo's "I Luh Ya Papi", for example, you have men of all ethnic backgrounds being objectified and the women seem to be genuinely having fun. "Why the guys gotta have all the fun? Why can't the girls have the fun?" one of the women squeals.

    This is a fantasy of money and power. I think we need to focus on making it clear that objectifying people period is simply unacceptable and we can do that more effectively by boycotting sexist goods and media.

  • Cordovan Splotch | May 7, 2014 6:43 AM

    All men have always been objectified, that's what chivalry is at it's core, making a man's worth as a human being be measured by his usefulness to women.
    It's what the military does when it dehumanizes both it's recruits and it's enemies in the interest of making more effective soldiers, killing machines, objects.
    It's what the media does when it glorifies the heroic, self-sacrificial men, adhering to the adage of "Women and Children First".
    It is what feminism does when it insists that it is men's responsibility to make the world safer and more comfortable for women.

  • K. | May 6, 2014 9:23 PMReply

    I like your writing on equality. Did you know that the M-word is a slur?
    Please check out the Little People of America website and their position on the M-word.

  • Arielle Bernstein | May 6, 2014 6:47 PMReply

    Thanks for everyone's comments! I find it so heartening that so many people are concerned with the way that gender is presented in the media.

    Just to clarify, my argument is that I don't think this kind of gender-swapping is very subversive or even very effective at promoting awareness about sexism in pop culture. A lot of the comments on Schumer's skit on YouTube, for example, are people saying how great it would be if women had their own version of Hooters, or that the skit would be better if the guys were hotter.

    I know the problematic cases are not gender-swapped, Jen. My point is that even self-described feminist women will often use an "other" to market a good or idea and I just don't think it's ever an effective strategy in promoting awareness. I think feminism has a lot of powerful and important work to do and that not buying products from sexist ads and refusing to watch T.V. shows that are sexist in nature is the more powerful and effective way to say this is unacceptable.

  • Janet | May 6, 2014 9:00 PM

    I appreciate what you're saying, but how do you know it's ineffective? I think these kinds of gender reversals can highlight the real disrespect of sexism using humor and absurdity. I like to think it succeeds in opening the eyes of some people.

  • Jen L | May 6, 2014 5:56 PMReply

    The problematic cases that you cite at the end are not gender-swapped. The objects are still women. They prove nothing about genderswapped men as objects the way women are treated as objects because it's still women being treated as objects, in this case, in racist ways. Your proof is a non sequitur. What I got from this article is that you don't find genderswapping to be funny, thus it doesn't show the nature of the problem to potential allies, who are the actual target audience.

    Genderswapping's intended audience isn't women. It's ally recruitment through humor. It doesn't matter whether or not you believe it to be funny because it's not for you.

  • shaina | May 6, 2014 5:06 PMReply

    "Schumer’s comedy intends to highlight the absurdity of restaurants whose entire purpose is to objectify women...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."
    I don't think they're suggesting that women should demean men, they are simply, as first stated, highlighting the absurdity of it all on both sides. Nobody is going to run out and open an O'Nutters. Although I'd definitely go. Skits like these make people think about the crazy things considered normal in our society because of unquestioned gender norms.

  • Luzeblitx | May 6, 2014 4:13 PMReply

    You lost me at "True feminism should not".

    True feminism should try everything.

  • Cordovan Splotch | May 7, 2014 6:55 AM

    Does "everything" include culling down the worlds male population to 10% of what it currently is, like some feminists suggest (radical feminists in general)?
    Aborting the majority of male fetuses?
    Should feminism lobby for women's right to murder their spouses and let them be free of legal action if they merely claim that the spouse was abusive in some way? Like some feminists suggest (Elizabeth Sheehy)?
    Should feminism demonize men and male sexuality by defining rape as something only men can perpetrate, and marginalize male rape victims of female rapists as merely "forced to penetrate"? Like some feminists suggest (Mary P. Koss)?

  • David Moss | May 6, 2014 2:54 PMReply

    It's hard to see how sketches like Schumer's can be seen to be presenting a "revenge fantasy."
    An equally viable reading seems to be that these inversions of male/female gender roles are showing the absurdity in those roles.

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