There’s an old analogy about boiling a frog alive. If you drop poor Froggy into a pot full of hot water he’ll jump right out again, the story goes; but start with cool water and heat it slowly, and the temperature will rise so gradually that he won’t notice until it’s too late. He got used to 29 degrees, and so didn’t register when it turned into 30 degrees; he got used to 30, and then it was 31, and so on. (This is not science, by the way. Do not try to boil any frogs to make a point.)
Now, imagine Monsieur Grenouille had a friend, waiting in a pot full of cold water next to the stove. She sees the flames underneath him and calls out to him in frog language: “Monsieur, your pot is heating! You’re being poached in there! They’re going to mange us!”
Monsieur brushes her off with typically Gallic dismissiveness: “Mon oeil! This is MY pot! Don’t you think I know better than you what’s going on in here?” Rolling her eyes at his blatant frogsplaining, our resourceful mademoiselle scoops him out with a slotted spoon and drops him into the cold water in her pot, where he is stunned to find that he can see steam rising out of the saucepan he’s just vacated. He ribbits wildly in shock: “Zut alors! I ‘ad no idea!” Mademoiselle pats him comfortingly on the back and refrains from saying I told you so.
In the wise words of Community’s Dean Pelton, sometimes we don’t see our own patterns until they’re laid out in front of us. We, as consumers of media and culture, absorb a lot of sexist, racist, heteronormative bullshit every day, and we never really question it because we see it every day. We internalise it. We expect it. It feels normal — until something fishes us out of our warm pot and forces us to see the steam.
That’s what Dustin Hoffman is talking about in that clip that did the rounds last week.
Hoffman is brought to tears as he recalls the moment in which he realised that women who cannot meet a certain standard of beauty, through no fault of their own, are dismissed on sight by certain kinds of people — and that he had been one of those people many times. This epiphany occured during a makeup test for Tootsie, which for my money is not only one of the funniest movies of all time, but also one of the most pro-women. Hoffman’s character, Michael, pretends to be a female actor named Dorothy to get work, and is subsequently shocked at the difference between how he’s treated as a man and as a woman. As Dorothy, who is unique among women in that she’s not accustomed to being disrespected just for being a woman, Michael has no qualms about calling out sexist bullshit when he sees it.
“That was never a comedy for me,” says a very teary Hoffman at the end of the clip. He had seen his female face in a mirror, measured against his own standards, and found it wanting — and it dawned on him then that the whole deal was desperately unfair for women. The cold water was a shock.
Tootsie came out back in 1982, so gender-flipping as a tool to expose double standards is nothing new – but it does seem to have taken off recently. It can be as simple as posing a hypothetical: “Would Julia Gillard have been subjected to the same diarrheic torrent of abuse if she had been a man making identical decisions?” has been a popular one recently, with at least one “let’s give it to Kevin!” article appearing within days. “Would John Inverdale have felt the urge to comment on Andy Murray’s looks?” is another one.
Gender-Flip The Images
The announcement of Matt Smith’s imminent departure from Doctor Who saw many fans politely debating the idea of a female Time Lord (Time Lady?). Author Maureen Johnson asked her Twitter followers to imagine how famous books’ covers would look had they been written by women and published today. Publishers have a nasty habit of giving books written by women wafty, girly covers with dandelions and grass and “the feeling of smooth jazz blowing off them” – designs bearing no relationship to the content. (Some of the entries in the Photoshop flurry sparked by Johnson do the reverse, and de-girlify covers of decidedly ungirly novels written by women.)
The book cover flip is epecially good because it takes the flip out of the realm of the hypothetical and presents the two different scenarios next to one another in stark contrast. Visual genderflips are so effective because they tend to highlight the way the same visual signifiers are assigned to “male” and “female”-oriented products, and how visual representations of people tend to cater to the male gaze. Women’s bodies are used to sell everything from rental cars to tampons. Women are presented too often not as consumers of the product, but part of the product – a sexy body sexily getting ready to surf, or a sexy body sexily wearing American Apparel. We’re used to seeing women look sexy and undressed in ads, while men in ads tend to just wear the clothes properly while also looking handsome in the face area.
Men, of course, are also bombarded with unrealistic images of how they should look and act – there’s no denying that. But we’ve become accustomed to a much higher level of stylised, silly, overtly sexy images of women, ones that present them as primarily sexual – which is why similar images of men are jarring. The female model on the desk in this ad looks a bit odd, but no more than any fashion editorial.
The man in the same pose, photographed by independent Swedish clothing company ByPM, looks straight-up silly.
The Roxy Pro ad last week was ridiculous enough to break out of the usual feminist outrage bubble and be mocked in the mainstream; the French shot-for-shot parody ad starring a man was supposed to be silly, yet it still highlighted the fact that you’ve never seen an ad like that starring a man.
The Hawkeye Initiative is another take on the visual flip, and possibly the most effective of them all. Sick of seeing female comic book characters drawn in poses that maximise boob and butt protrusion but care not for spinal alignment, some Tumblr users began drawing Hawkeye in those poses. Not “oh, this is TOTALLY how female heroes are drawn, hurr hurr” caricatures, but identical poses, next to the original image — like a control group.
And because he looks ridiculous, we are forced to look at the poor twisted-up super-ladies again, and realise that the men tend to be drawn in somewhat more practical poses.
From there, it’s hard to defend drawing supposedly powerful female characters like sexual homunculi who dive on foes tits-first. Nobody expects superhero comics to be realistic, but if the women get anatomically impossible bubble butts, why not give Bruce Banner a monstrous Hulk penis that bursts out of his fly like the Kraken? Put nipples on the Batsuit and you’re a punchline for decades; draw Catwoman with her ribcage folded in half and it’s harmless cheesecake.
Gender-Flip The Words
Flipping is also a great tool for analysing written media, where differences in representation often aren’t as blatant. Jailbreak the Patriarchy, despite the obnoxious name, is an incredibly entertaining Chrome extension that, when switched on, flips the gender pronouns on whatever page you’re reading. It can’t flip gendered names, and works better with some topics than others; one of the most effective uses is to switch it on for profiles of female politicians, business leaders, or celebrities like Gentleman Gaga, and notice how strange it is to see so many references to appearance, grooming, shoes and kids in an article about a man and his career.
Flip The News is a tumblr that does just what it says on the tin – similar to Jailbreak, but with more attention to details like names, and some commentary on gender bias in news coverage thrown in.
Last week, the New Statesman published a deadpan op-ed by Cara Ellison, issuing a proper smackdown to the petulant fake-geek guys who won’t stop bitching about there not being enough decent male characters in video games. It was a spot-on satire of the whiny blogs and comments that spring up every time someone questions attitudes toward women within the industry: “Why shouldn’t we make videogames where we can look at sinewy, naked males who moan sexually when we toy with them? Why don’t you start your own games industry where you can make your male-led games about football and the colour blue? Perhaps then we will stop making jokes about how you can get back in the kitchen and take the bins out.”
Walk A Mile
And then we come full circle, to The Tootsie: putting yourself in a situation where you can actually have the experience of being treated as the opposite gender. One man copped an earful of abuse from two dudes when playing Mass Effect 3 online under his wife’s gamertag – abuse which became even nastier when they realised “she” was better than them. Management consultant Kim O’Grady blogged last week about having no luck in his job hunt for months – before he added “Mr” to his resume and got an interview for the very next job he applied for. He concludes his post with a thought that Dustin Hoffman might recognise:
“Where I had worked previously, there was a woman manager. She was the only one of about a dozen at my level, and there were none at the next level. She had worked her way up through the company over many years and was very good at her job. She was the example everyone used to show that it could be done, but that most women just didn’t want to. It’s embarrassing to think I once believed that. It’s even more incredible to think many people still do.”
What Can We Do?
All this flipping and flopping is part of a process. It’s hard to constantly make yourself analyse what you read and see; it’s exhausting and exasperating to be told to “check your privilege” or whatever phrase is the current flavour when it comes to asking people to think about how they consume culture and express ideas.
The basic skill to develop, though, is the one that lies at the heart of flipping: asking, “What if?” If I were a woman, would I talk to me at parties? If women told men their complaints were irrelevant, would that attitude be worth worth fighting? If I were writing about a male musician, would I talk about his clothes and his famous exes this much? If I drew Hawkeye in the pose I’m sketching Black Widow in right now, would he look ridiculous? If Trayvon Martin had been a white kid, and George Zimmerman a black man, would the verdict have been the same?
The Hawkeye Initiative and Flip The News won’t make us all into enlightened, thoughtful social justice warriors overnight, but those moments of epiphany and empathy add up. Social change happens slowly – often so gradually, you don’t even notice until it’s all around you.
UPDATE: We couldn’t resist adding this video by Mod Carousel to the catalogue of genderflip genius. While the flip does highlight just how clothed the singers are and how naked the dancers are, it’s also a great example of how there’s more than one way to be sexy, no matter what parts you have — like being fully clothed ad out-rapping TI (not that that’s hard).