Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Harlan Ellison was just ahead of his time

I love it when friends I know from non-feminist circles get feminist.

Tablesaw, whom I know from ifMUD, critiques a write-up of something calling itself The Open-Source Boob Project.

As for what I think about the Project itself, not having been there I don't know the actual dynamic, but the summary sets off a lot of warning bells. Tablesaw addressed most of them in his comment on the post, but the ones that stuck out for me:

1. The validation aspect:

There wasn't that undertow of desperation of come on, touch me, I need you to validate my self-esteem and maybe we'll hook up later tonight.

They were awesome breasts, worthy of being touched.

By the end of the evening, women were coming up to us. "My breasts," they asked shyly, having heard about the project. "Are they... are they good enough to be touched?" And lo, we showed them how beautiful their bodies were without turning it into something tawdry.

Which is it? Is it about validating self-esteem or not? And seriously? "Good enough to be touched?" Do insufficiently attractive breasts communicate diseases or something? The impression I get from that is that it became less about body positivity and more about being "good enough," which leads to the next issue.

2. Groping as grouping:

My God, these are beautiful breasts you have, along with the backstream compliment of Thank you, you're worthy of touching them.

And if you weren't a total lout - the women retained their right to say no, of course - they would push their chests out, and you would be allowed into the sanctity of it.

It was an Open-Source Project, making breasts available to select folks. (Like any good project, you need access control, because there are loutish men and women who just Don't Get It.)

Though I've lumped them into one issue, there's two things going on here. First, there's the idea of "access" as a measure of "worthiness." If she says yes, you're special and honored. It's that whole tired "gatekeeper" idea. Second, there's the idea that it's all or nothing, that this is a group acceptance and not an individual one. If you're a lout, no boobs for you; if not, nobody refuses you. Again, I wasn't there, and don't know the real dynamic, but I suspect there's an element of peer pressure involved, and an element of wanting to avoid "Why did you say no to me when this other woman didn't?" And while there's lip service paid to the voluntary nature of the activity, there's *always* lip service paid to the voluntary nature of the activity. The fact that nobody in the hallway situation said no makes me a little suspicious about the claim that the decisions were all totally free and uncoerced.

I think it's a little telling that the "Yes, you may" button says only that - it keeps it in the Super Secret Boobie Touchers Club. Yes, I recognize the problems with a more explicit button, and having to deal with the fallout from that; on the other hand, I don't think it's entirely coincidental that the statement elides "Yes, you may ask" and "Yes, you may touch."

3. Making it about the menz:

In this moment, all of the societal restrictions had fallen away

I felt the terrors of high school washing away from me. It could be this easy. Just ask!

For a moment, everything that was awkward about high school would fade away and you could just say what was on your mind. It was as though parts of me were being healed whenever I did it, and I touched at least fifteen sets of boobs at Penguicon. It never got old, surprisingly.

Well, that's great that touching women's breasts gets you over your personal issues with high school, but so what?

4. Keepin' it patriarchal:

exploring thoroughly but briefly lest we cross the line from 'touching" to "unwanted heavy petting."

It could have been a base lechery. But instead, it was sexual desire made simple.

We weren't degenerating into an orgy, but rather exploring the amazement of how beautiful this body was and how wonderful it was to have access to them.

This could go wrong, collapsing and turning us into cruel lechers who'd make her feel uncomfortable and shamed of who she was....

But it was a miraculous sexuality that didn't feel dirty, but clean.

And there haven't been any hookups that I know of thanks to the Open-Source Boob Project. It is, as I said, a very special thing.

it's strangely wholesome and sexual at the same time.

There's a definite sense of "good sex" versus "bad sex" going on here. The "Open-Source Boob Project" is "good sex" because it doesn't lead to anything else, particularly to "bad sex." Why is it a bad thing if people hooked up? Why is the touching/"heavy petting" distinction equated with the wanted/unwanted distinction? Why would additional sexual activity be a "degeneration" and not, say, a "metamorphosis"?

5. Short skirt chasing:

Because a beautiful girl in an incredibly skimpy blue Princess outfit strode down the hallway, obviously putting her assets on display

You didn't just ask anyone, but rather the ones who'd dressed to impress

Abso-fucking-lutely not. I can't see how any cosplayer wouldn't be insulted by that.

Power Girl, for example, is a favorite among a lot of my comics-loving friends. Her costume has a relatively revealing cutout. Does that imply that someone dressed as Power Girl is there to "impress"? (Heh, I can just imagine someone asking Peej for a feel. Stick with Starfire, boys.)

Or take some of the more elaborate anime/videogaming costumes. The ones for women (and some of the ones for men) are often quite skimpy, but also very elaborate. Someone who makes (e.g.) a Lulu costume may be wearing it low-cut to "put her assets on display," or it may be more about the fact that that's how the costume is designed, and accuracy is important.

Now I have no doubt that this "project" was a positive experience for many or most, for all kinds of reasons. Hell, in other contexts (at somewhere like Burning Man, for example, or maybe some part of the con that's semi-private space), with other spin, I'd probably be posting about this as an example of the direction our attitudes need to go. But it's not above examination. Basically, the problem I'm having with this "Open-Source Boob Project" or at least the summary thereof is that it seems to take something that is, or at least could be, "free-as-in-speech love" and turn it into "free-as-in-beer love."


Sam said...

"free-as-in-speech love" and turn it into "free-as-in-beer love."


SunflowerP said...

I can easily see this coming up at a con - the hallway could very easily have been the kind of space you mention at the end of your post. And it could be that much an example of where we need to go.

But I'm doubtful that, in this particular instance, it was wholly such an example. For one thing, there was, without question, at least one guy who Didn't Get It: The Ferret. And if you've got women asking if their breasts are worthy... uh, no; at that point, if not before, it's gone in a whole 'nother direction, one that shows that even in an environment like (con-going) fandom, just how much farther we have to go before what was (apparently) being attempted can be done successfully.

Issues of this kind do play out somewhat differently in fandom; it is an environment in which experimentation with the dynamics of sexuality is more possible and more productive than just any ol' where. But, as in this case, the results aren't always as encouraging as some folks imagine them to be.

I'm reminded of an incident some years back at my "home" con, in which some women had set up an "ass contest" for the men - guy gets his tushie groped by the women in question, and receives a certificate. Certificates for all, bearing variations on "awesome ass" and "bodacious butt", with no ranking system (I suppose the men could have squabbled over whether "awesome" was better than "bodacious" or vice-versa, but they didn't). In theory, everyone was a winner - S. and her sisters got to grope a lot of male butt, which was pretty much their goal, the guys who wanted to play got not only a grope but a laudatory certificate. Just one problem: they were offensively aggressive in trying to get every male backside at the con to play. Just your classic "nag until they give in out of sheer weariness" garbage, with the genders reversed.

I spent a lot of that con trying to point out that the gender reversal didn't make it any less sexual harassment (if anything, more so, because of the way our cultural narratives discourage men from exercising their agency to say no). Same kind of deal; most folks were so focused on the way it played out differently than in the "mundane" world, they couldn't see it still contained the same problematic assumptions.

IMO, you've nailed exactly what was off-kilter in The Ferret's account of the incident, even better than Tablesaw did (or his partner, whose takedown he links to in a later post, and which is well-worth reading if you haven't already). I suspect it may have been somewhat less squick-inducing from the POVs of others who were involved (if The Ferret's tone was an accurate reflection of the overall tone, I'm pretty certain it wouldn't have gone over anywhere near that well with the women), but I'm dead sure it wasn't the taste of post-shame utopia TF wants it to have been.

(And I've just spent the better part of two hours following links, reading about this, and composing my long comment, when I had been planning to work on a certain in-progress email.)


Gin said...

Because a beautiful girl in an incredibly skimpy blue Princess outfit strode down the hallway, obviously putting her assets on display

You didn't just ask anyone, but rather the ones who'd dressed to impress

You missed this: This is she asked for it in geek speak. Why were you dressed like that if you didn't want any action, heh heh heh.

jfpbookworm said...

Gin: absolutely it is - to the point where I can't imagine how anyone could read those lines and *not* think that.

I focused on the cosplay angle mostly as a concrete example of *why* it's not "asking for it" to dress in revealing costumes. (Which isn't to imply that outfits that aren't based on anime, video games, etc. are "asking for it" either, of course.)

annejumps said...

You missed this: This is she asked for it in geek speak. Why were you dressed like that if you didn't want any action, heh heh heh.

He's actually written in the past pretty much that exact thing.

pduggie said...

"Someone who makes (e.g.) a Lulu costume may be wearing it low-cut to "put her assets on display," or it may be more about the fact that that's how the costume is designed, and accuracy is important."

I find it hard to imagine an intelligent woman thinking she could completely seperate those two aspects, or that she shouldn't consider how other's around her will perceive her.

One doesn't randomly choose a costume with no reflection on its skimpiness, or one should not assume that its skimpiness can be "unnoticed"

jfpbookworm said...

pduggie: I think there's a false dichotomy there.

I chose Lulu and Power Girl as examples for a reason. They're strong, likable characters, and they're characters whose outfits tend to reveal a lot of cleavage, but their personalities are very much *not* "sex kitten."

If I see someone cosplaying as one of those characters, sure, there's a good chance I'll be (respectfully) checking out the cosplayer as well as the costume. If that were the complaint, I'd be much less sympathetic to it - but it's not. There's a wide gulf between noticing someone and assuming that it's okay to ask to touch them *because* of their costume, in a context where the norm is that such a proposition is disrespectful and unwelcome. The message becomes "you must choose between cosplaying this character and being treated with respect," and that's just stupid.

I'd also point out that if you're a female cosplayer who rejects costumes on the basis of skimpiness (and doesn't want to cross-dress), you're going to be severely constraining your options, especially in comics fandom.