Sunday, October 25, 2015

Sexual Anxieties and Horror: Teeth

Sexuality and horror films often go together. They represent the promise of new life, the pleasure of intimacy coupled with the fear of death and the terror of isolation. Beginnings and endings are ideas I am pursuing in my dissertation. I'm interested in how these concepts emerge together in many contemporary controversies. Horror films are another place where beginnings and endings are merged seamlessly. In this three-post series, I take a comparative look at three horror films, Teeth, It Follows, and Crimson Peak. I find a pattern of sexual anxiety and sexual exploration that pushes boundaries of "normal" sexual behavior. If people haven't seen these films, or don't want to be "spoiled," this is a warning that I will be talking about film details and plot elements. These films have captured my imagination because they play with and expand on the agency and power of females, which I think is a positive (and at the very least interesting) trend in contemporary film.

Post image retrieved from this website.
This poster brings up an interesting correlation between Dawn's last name, O'Keefe, and the
association between flowers and vaginas in Georgia O'Keefe's paintings.
Teeth (2007) is about Dawn, an advocacy speaker for the purity movement at her church. When she is raped by a fellow church member, she discovers that she has vagina dentata or a "toothed vagina." These teeth act on their own accord and work to protect Dawn from her rapist, castrating him in a gruesome scene. At first, she is understandably frightened and considers her plight a result of her sin. After research about herself and these teeth, Dawn has an epiphany. Her enlightenment, as indicated by her name and frequent references to the sun, comes in the form of sexual empowerment, where she can use her teeth to her advantage. Although the teeth are not under Dawn's direct control, they do not attack in a scene where Dawn is enjoying consensual sex. When the same sex scene invites Dawn's scorn and rage, the teeth attack and emasculate him. There are certainly problems in this film that disempower Dawn. Dawn does not preemptively attack or fend off potentially negative sexual encounters. For Dawn to fight back in her unique way, she must first be penetrated and submit herself to the sexual advances of men. At the end of the film, Dawn takes refuge in a man's car, who begins licking his lips and making sexual advances towards Dawn. Knowledgeable that the imminent sexual encounter will result in his castration, she smiles.

Dawn at the end of the film. Image retrieved from Rotten Tomatoes.
This film blurs lines of consent in the sense that Dawn "willingly" engages in certain sexual encounters with the knowledge that her teeth would attack her sexual partner. Despite these issues, Teeth does show a sexual empowered female who explores her own sexuality and comes to terms with her unique strength and eroticism. In Audre Lorde's "The Uses of the Erotic," she argues, "the erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plan, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling" (p. 87). The erotic is a power that is oppressed and corrupted by dominant power structures to keep women from realizing its power. For Dawn, the religious group is the source of oppression, where her sexual power is "vilified, abused, and devalued" (p. 88). Issues of purity and virginity are non-identities, where a lack of participation (such as atheism or vegetarianism) in an action indicates membership. Lorde argues that this oppression keeps women "in the service of men" as "a distant/inferior" person (p. 88). Teeth offers Dawn the opportunity to reclaim her sexuality and eroticism from men who take advantage of her and only see her as a sexual object. Dawn transforms from a meek virgin to an empowered crusader throughout the film, in part from her increased knowledge about sexuality and the body. In one scene, Dawn removes a sticker (shaped liked a golden sun) from her sex ed textbook covering the anatomy of the vagina. The film makes a strong statement that her religious upbringing and lack of accurate and complete sexual education directly leads to her vulnerable, naive condition. It is through knowledge and an enlightenment religion that Dawn becomes a more powerful female. Lorde argues that when women embrace the erotic, they "rise up empowered" (p. 88).

Image retrieved from this website.
With that empowerment, however, comes scorn. Lorde said, "women so empowered are dangerous" (p. 88). Women who claim power and dare to challenge the system, as seen in the new movie Suffragette, they receive backlash. The contemporary feminist movement is often accused of grasping for more than women are due, that attempts at "equality" are really clothed attempts at dominance. Similar to arguments about affirmative action, those that oppose feminism truly fear losing their place in the system or damaging what is deemed "normal," and thus the desired order. In a recent r/ChangeMyView post on Reddit, a female redditor claimed that "Men are superior to women." Her reasons were because of men and women's physical differences and also the presence of men in more challenging/intellectual jobs. It's clear to me that even disturbances in an order that disadvantages women receives scorn from women themselves. If everyone is equal, perhaps there is no reason other than our own shortcomings to blame on our failures. Or, if everyone is equal, then perhaps our successes are not as meaningful as others. In a powerful article by Carole Blair, Julie R. Brown, and Leslie A. Baxter, they argue that the academic review process, filled with intelligent and intellectual women, is also a biased space. They respond to an article that ranks the publication count of female communication scholars and rejection letters they received on an earlier version of the article. Their attempt to challenge the ranking article was met with scorn and rejection from both male and female reviewers. They argue that the original report "is a thematic marker of a masculinist ideology and that the anonymous reviews of our original essay are unusually explicit manifestations of the apparatuses that sustain and enable those ideological themes" (p. 384).

Teeth brings up these important issues of female agency and how sexuality can be used as a force of attraction but also creating fear. This film puts an interesting spin on how female sexuality can itself be a weapon, the monstrous female fighting back with the strength of her form. I see many movies that laud the adjusted or upgraded female, such as Aeon Flux and Ultraviolet, but less often do I see films that empower the everyday female to fight back. There are definitely a notable few which I hope to address in a later post. As recent articles have suggested, it is oftentimes females who end up surviving horror films, oftentimes with the help and intervention of others. Teeth, however, empowers the female protagonist to use not only her self, but her sexual self, to survive.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Pope Francis and the Environmental Movement: "The Pope is Pando"

On Friday, September 25th, I attended an event at the USC Caruso Catholic Center hosted by many organizations including Pando Populus. This organization takes it name from the pando tree and describes its significance on its website: "Above ground, Pando appears to be a vast grove of individual trees. Underground they are all interconnected through a single root system. Each part is affected by and nourishes the other. It has survived this way for as long as 80,000 years." The pando tree is a synecdoche for the interconnectedness of all life and an analogy for how we must work together to correct the damage done to our environment.

Image retrieved from this site.
The event was held in support of Pope Francis's visit to Washington D.C. and the release of his encyclical "Laudato Si." The event was religious-themed with the Bishop Mary Douglas Glasspool representing the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, held in a Catholic Church, with speakers from the Muslim Public Affairs Council, Faith2Green, and Interfaith Power and Light. The theme, "The Pope is Pando" lauded the work of Francis as a figurehead and representative of how religion can be a uniting force for environmental activism. I've previously discussed the rhetoric of creation care as an emerging social movement with the potential power to tip the scales in favor of larger influence. While the group I studied was primarily evangelical rhetoric, it's clear that many religions are finding common ground in the spiritual to influence their view of the natural.

Logo for the Pope is Pando event. Retrieved from this site.
In Francis's encyclical, he made repeated mention of an "integral ecology" where life is integrated in a familial metaphor. Common to Catholic and Christian rhetoric, the familial metaphor connects people and faith leaders as fathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers. Francis incorporates the environment in the familial metaphor as shared children in God's creation. He argued that the Earth and nature are female family members: "our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us" (p. 3). The feminization of "Mother Earth" is a phenomenon I would like to explore in a different blog post. For now, I will say that emphasizing the femininity of nature implies vulnerability in need of our protection and to motivate us to save her as one might a damsel in distress. Francis argued, "This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her" (p. 3). If we are all interconnected - a united organism - then a threat to one part of it is a threat to the whole. Faith appears to be one way that people are transcending differences in order to focus attention away from economics and politics and onto justice, morality, and the environment.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Rape Myths still Happen Here: Sexual Assault on College Campuses

It has been a few weeks since my last post. I've been hard at work at job applications and this post has been particularly difficult to write. This post is about a movie screening of "It Happened Here" held at USC. The movie addresses issues of sexual assault on college campuses and the effects on students there. "The Hunting Ground" is another recent movie that addresses these concerns and I recommend both of them to people interested in delving more into real life experiences and stories of those affected by sexual assault and rape. I will first summarize the reasons why I find films like these extremely important and the rhetorical techniques they used to communicate their message. Then, I will discuss the prevalence of rape myths and why I had to walk out of the Q&A at the movie screening.

IHH and THG tell the larger story of rape and sexual assault that plagues women across the country through the individual stories of a handful of women. The startling statistics that 1 in 5 women are victims of sexual assault during their time in college are presented through the voices of the few. These exemplars add detail, nuance, and a face to the victims of this particular crime. Statistics can often feel cold or unpersuasive - especially if people do not (think they) know anyone affected. There are many reasons why people may not want to share their story, so these crimes may appear anonymously in public discourse - or we only hear the amplified stories of the very few that are false. Kenneth Burke argued that the "circumference" of an event affects its communicative influence. The circumference is related to what counts as the event or environment for an action. For example, if we expand the circumference of "bullying" from only in person to also online and cyber-bullying, the term can take on a whole new meaning. In these films, they seem to be narrowing the circumference, and showing only a few campuses and a few women as stand-ins, or synecdoche, for all college-aged women. The audience is forced to engage and experience the narratives of each woman and, at least in part, sympathize with their situation.

Angie Epifano - one of the storytellers in IHH. Image retrieved from the IHH website.
The two films showed a variety of people affected by sexual assault and rape. There were women who had been drunk, those sober. Some women were at a party, some were victims in their own dorm rooms. Some didn't know their attacker, others were assaulted by friends and significant others. The variation in stories gave the impression that rape and sexual assault happen in many different ways to many different types of people. THG contained a few stories from men who had experienced rape or sexual assault. Overall, the individual narratives united to create a holistic view of sexual assault and college life. The films could have easily focused on the past and fetishized the experiences of the story-tellers. Both films, however, emphasized the present and even the future, choosing to spend most of the films engaged in the reactions of the college administrators and the steps the women were taking to combat future sexual assaults at their universities and across the nation. Descriptions of the assaults were left in the victim's own words and comprised very little of the movie's time. Instead, the films focused on the larger impact of these occurrences and how the women were working to reclaim their voice through campus events and protests (like Take Back the Night) and Title IX lawsuits. I have previously argued, among many others, that documentary films have an immense power to shift public discourse. These films are certainly persuasive and advance an argument, but they also provide real life examples packaged for public consumption. I hope that films like this will help to shift how people talk about sexual assault and rape.

Image retrieved from this website.
My optimism upon seeing this film and reflecting upon it and THG was almost immediately tempered during the Q&A. I first want to thank Director Lisa F. Jackson for attending the screening and handling two audiences members with aplomb and respect. It was far better than I would have done in that position. There was a couple in the back of the auditorium that dominated the Q&A session. As I told people of the event and even as I write it now, I am convinced no one will believe me. They presented a startling cliche of rape myths and expressed my greatest fear - that the film could not soften the hardened distrust of women and rape victims in the public. This is a warming that the following description of the Q&A may be triggering.

The gentleman in the back of the room raised his hand and was called on with the first question. He started his question with a preface about how he was the eldest brother of four sisters. Thinking back, this should have been an immediate red flag a la "I have a lot of black friends" before racists start talking. He asked Jackson why she didn't include any stories of false reporters and those who lied about their assault. He noted that this would have been more "fair" to share "both sides" of the story. Media representations of controversial events are often framed as debates, where there are two equally balanced sides. Similar to John Oliver's report on global warming, Jackson argued that there are so few false reports that giving them space in the film would not be reflective of the overarching narrative. Indeed, the number of false rape reports mirrors the false reports for other crimes. I groaned a bit at his question and I saw a few people shifting in their seats, but so far, it was bearable.

Image retrieved from this website.
A few other people asked questions, but my friend in the back wasn't done. He raised his hand and asked whether women don't "disassociate" themselves from the event while its happening and then "forget" in the morning that the activity was consensual. Perhaps, when reflecting on the event, women "make up" a story to make themselves feel better. It was "obvious" from the film that some of the women couldn't remember a lot of details, and that was an indicator that they were lying as opposed to those that would have a factually accurate and complete story. The women had "wanted" the attention initially, but then regretted the potential effect it would have on their "reputation" and thus cried rape afterwards. Everyone had turned to look at him, and I asked, "Are you serious?" The woman a few seats away from me said, "You're victim blaming." This person, sitting through the entire film, seeing women share their painful stories, hearing the statistics about the frequency of this crime, and learning about how the system fails victims, held fast to his beliefs that it was the victim who was at fault.

In response, a brave woman in the front of the room shared her story of assault and noted that there were probably more women like her in the audience as well. She wondered whether it was the larger culture that encouraged this type of behavior and rewarded men for aggressive behaviors. Our friend raised his hand once more and it was all I could do not to interrupt and claim the microphone back for the female voices in the room. As he received the microphone again, a handful of women left the room. The man echoed the concerns of the previous speaker and talked about the powerful force of masculinity over the mind. He argued that men are not at fault at all and it is really their sexual drives, natural to all men, that are at fault. This man was truly a sight to behold. Some of the most common rape myths that pervade our culture and insidiously undermine the stories of those brave enough to speak out. In retrospect, I'm surprised that he didn't ask what the women in the film were wearing when they were assaulted.

Lady Gaga's music video, "Til it Happens to You" about sexual assault

I mentioned that this person was a part of a couple because at this point, she spoke up. She asked Jackson why more women don't go to the cops right away to have their story verified. She said that the issue of lying and false reporting would be eliminated by lie detector tests. I applaud Jackson for ignoring the absurd part of this question and focused on the many reasons why women may not feel comfortable going to the police and how we might create changes in police protocols. The response I wanted to give, but could not muster the strength to, was to say that all women experience trauma differently. Expecting anyone to submit themselves to being tied up in a chair being asked probing questions about their assault shortly afterwards is completely illogical. Furthermore, lie detector tests measure nervousness and heart rate to detect lying, two things basically guaranteed to happen after an assault. There is a reason why they aren't used in criminal justice systems - they are not accurate enough. This woman echoed her partner's concerns that the victim should be analyzed and be on trial for being assaulted.

I was deeply hurt but this couple's comments and had to leave the audience when the man raised his hand again. He was overpowering all of our collective voices and challenging the basic tenets of what I felt was an excellent film. The Q&A experience highlighted for me that there is still a lot of work to be done to change the minds of many members of the public. This films are making important strides, but rape myths and dominating ideologies can be intractable parts of culture.