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Dark Fairytales: How Even Well-Intentioned Media Normalizes Gendered Violence

Out of all the harrowing descriptions of assault found in Ronan Farrow’s interviews with Harvey Weinstein’s victims, Asia Argento’s stood out to me as the most viscerally horrifying. She describes her encounter with Weinstein where he forces oral sex on her as, “A big fat man wanting to eat you. It’s a scary fairy tale.” 

Argento’s description of her assault as a fairytale is painful to read, precisely because it connects her actual lived experience with the kinds of stories that most girls grow up with, one where becoming a woman means you are entering a world that will see you alternately as property or as prey. In the world of fairy tales, young maidens are stalked, kidnapped, locked up in towers, married off, disposed of, beaten, ignored, isolated, and devoured. At Lit Hub, the wonderful writer Amber Sparks refers to the lessons taught in these types of tales as “useful,” highlighting how these tales of female suffering, which were historically passed down from woman to woman, were not meant to paralyze women, but to provide a practical roadmap, preparing young girls for the threats they were likely to encounter in the very real world. 

Today’s media landscape is filled with images of female trauma, from the dead girls we see on shows like "Law and Order: SVU," to the long-suffering female characters on “Game of Thrones.” If the most famous, most prestigious TV dramas of the past decade have centered on male antiheroes, they have similarly been obsessed with female victims—from “Twin Peaks"'s Laura Palmer, to “Breaking Bad"'s Skyler White. Much of the conversation surrounding these depictions of female suffering has revolved around whether or not scenes of sexual and domestic violence serve as a mere plot device, or if they are told from the perspective of female protagonists, designed to produce empathy, rather than titillate the viewer. 

On the surface, these stories of female degradation might seem to serve the same purpose as fairy tales—to give voice to female pain, to inoculate the modern woman against very real threats of misogyny. And yet, the modern obsession with female suffering that we see on screen seems to do something fundamentally different—it numbs, rather than frees. It creates a world where suffering becomes the primary means by which female identity is constructed. It implies, by constantly reiterating the same mash of images over and over again, that gendered violence, if not ideal, is basically normal. 

These media images start in childhood—the '90s cartoons I grew up with were filled with female characters who had to cope with being objectified. Poor Hello Nurse from “Animaniacs” was chased, pawed at, and cat called mercilessly by Yakko and Wakko, much to the disdain of Dot, as was Minerva Mink, another bombshell character who was literally hunted by a dog who is obsessed with her. In one crossover scene, Yakko and Wakko fawn over Minerva, their tails wagging and tongues lashing lecherously, until Dot hits them over the head with a mallet and carts them off in a suitcase, “Boys,” she tells Minerva, shrugging. On "Tiny Toon Adventures," cat calling and harassment were played up as regular jokes—“sexy” female characters are normally introduced to the tune of male characters hooting, hollering, and slobbering, even when those female characters were their friends. Moreover, the female characters on shows like these expressed mild annoyance, or were even flattered by the attention. This was true in many classic animated films as well: when Lola Bunny first makes her entrance in the campy “Space Jam”, she has to fight for the right to play hoops and get taken seriously. She is met first with lecherous glances and the assumption that girls can’t do much. Most Disney Princesses have their moment of objectification or harassment, from Belle being ceaselessly propositioned by Gaston to Jasmine being forced to wear a sexy harem girl outfit for Jafar. Certainly, these men were the villains, rather than heroes, but the message that girls receive is the same: womanhood is something which is always under threat, and that girls and young women have to fight for respect, rather than simply expect it.  

Even now as an adult, the ubiquity of these images remains surprising to me—how many boys and girls are ushered into a world where sexual behavior is represented as a game of predators and prey, where even our female heroes have to endure the threat of harassment and assault. A lot of children’s and also adult-oriented programming try to reframe women overcoming misogyny as a kind of plot point that is more powerful than the princess locked in the castle and saved by the handsome white knight (a trope I looked at with Serena Bramble in our 2014 video essay, “White Knights and Bad People”). But what sticks with me is not the heroic message of women fighting back (the refrain of, “We are not things!” in “Mad Max: Fury Road," the image of Slave Leia destroying disgusting Jabba with her own chains, the cheerful autotuned insistence that “females are strong as hell” in the autotuned opening to “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” the vision of Beyonce rising up against misogyny, racism, and cheating lover, smashing through windshields in “Lemonade”) but the depressing reality that the image of female identity still hinges on overcoming gendered violence. 

Will this ever change? I was both heartened and devastated when watching Netflix’s recently released, “Big Mouth,” a tender and incredibly foul-mouthed look at puberty for both boys and girl. But while many of the show’s gags rely on natural body changes, from fluctuating hormones, to sexual feelings, many of the most harrowing parts of puberty for girls have nothing to do with the changing body at all. In the scene where Jessi gets her first period on a class trip to the Statue of Liberty, she imagines Lady Liberty herself giving her a pep talk about being a woman, 

“Being a woman is misery,” the anthropomorphic statue says in a world-weary French accent. She lights a cigarette with her torch, “It is nothing but pain and unwanted babies from terrible lovers, and, worst of all, le cramps!”

“Is there anything good about being a woman?” Jessi asks.

“Well, if you are very lucky, a man will jack off at you on the Subway, so … no!”

Later, the puberty monstress bellows at Jessi at her Bat Mitzvah, “You’re a woman, Jessi, and this is what women do: We suck up all the bullshit that the world dumps on us, and keep smiling through it all in our boxy ass dresses!”

While I laughed at this hilarious scene, I also felt just about as world weary as Lady Liberty. I want to live in a world where puberty for girls does not mean coming to terms with a world that will control, diminish, objectify, and force them to take on the weight of the world. The aspect of #Metoo that has been most heartening to me has been the rage—the number of women not only willing to come forward with their stories, but also the number of women who have been putting the pressure on our actual culture to change the way we have come to tacitly accept that this is the way things have to be.

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