Saturday, March 28, 2015

CORE RESPONSE: Does It Matter If It's A Man Or A Woman?

When it comes to gender representation, no issue is too small. Such is true for the story of Lisa Hanawalt, Production Designer for Netflix cartoon BoJack Horseman. On an otherwise regular day at the office, Lisa changed two background characters from men to women. This stirred up more controversy than anyone would have expected. You can find the NPR story here.

I thought this story was pretty interesting and highlights how "male" is the norm in American popular culture. Men can be funny, gross, and weird, among millions of other things, but women need to fit into pre-conceived notions of femininity. 

As the show's producers point out, the gender of background characters on a cartoon may seem trivial, but I'd have to agree with third-wave feminists Jennifer Baumgardener and Amy Richards that "media visibility is absolutely crucial to politics." (Banet-Weiser, Sarah, “What’s your Flava? Race and Postfeminism in Media Culture.” 208) Normalizing the diversity of the female experience is a big part of advancing feminist causes. 

I also wanted to bring attention to the conclusion of the piece, in which show creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg talks about the response he has gotten when he tells this story. He says that people have congratulated him for learning a lesson, because, as Susan Berridge points out in a recent article for CST Online, "white men are frequently portrayed as better feminists than female characters.” (“My Mum was a Feminst in the 1970s: Radical Feminism in Fresh Meat,” 2014)

Since we as American media viewers have been programed to see the world through the eyes of white, male protagonists, we relate more to the struggle of the kind white man who is just doing his best to understand the increasingly diverse world around him. He should be applauded for even recognizing the existence of “others,” not to mention understanding and sympathizing with their struggles. 

Because of this problem of identifying white men as better feminists, I was pleasantly surprised that NPR chose to end the story with a focus on the woman who brought up the issue. The point wasn’t that a white man learned a lesson about gender representation. As reporter Neda Ulaby puts it, “The point is that Lisa Hanawalt was right.”

The point is that Lisa Hanawalt participated in active, political feminism at work. Unlike the feminist that Banet-Weiser admonishes, Hanawalt represents a type of feminism that isn’t ambivalent. She took a small issue on a cartoon and made it matter, because as McRobbie says in her essay "Post-Feminism and Popular Culture," “relations of power are indeed made and re-made within texts of enjoyment and rituals of relaxation and abandonment.” (262) The background of a little Netflix cartoon matters - it matters if it's a man or a woman. 

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