24 March 2013

Sunday is for Horizons: How to go to movies? The Bechdel test and so on.

#BechdelTest #movies #Sunday

Back to the conversations with popular culture that we are immersed into. One of your ways to chose culture to consume can be our inspirational movie suggestions, of course, but today we are offering an additional criteria.

OK, this is a practical advice column of in-case-you-didn't-know-this. So, meet Bechdel test, the idea that it just makes sense that in a cultural product there would be
   1) at least two women
   2) that talk to each other
   3) about something else than a love interest.

Sounds normal and easy? HAH! Not that easy. And we agree to Colin Stokes up there and the ladies in the comic below. Yes, you can find inspiration and role models in differently gendered characters than you identify (I have always wanted to be Yoda when I grow up, seriously). Yes, Bechdel test can lead you into weird paths (horror tends to be Bechdel test friendly, so is a lot of porn...).

It can still be a fun addition for not being able to consume the pop culture without questioning it. Aha, tiring, but be honest, you wouldn't want it in any other way.  
So, this movie list is a combination of bechdeltest.com and imdb.com evaluations. Assuming the accuracy of those, here you have good, fresh movies (7 and more in the scale of 10) that comply with the Bechdel test.

22 March 2013

Friday is the (Inspirational) Movie Night: Born Into Brothels (2004)

#InspirationalMovie #BornIntoBrothels

This week (and apologizing for not being there for you last Friday) we suggest a feature-lenght Oscar-winning documentary Born Into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids (2004, Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman). The outline is rather easy to understand:
"Briski, a documentary photographer, went to Calcutta to photograph prostitutes. While there, she befriended their children and offered to teach the children photography to reciprocate being allowed to photograph their mothers. The children were given cameras so they could learn photography and possibly improve their lives. Much of their work was used in the film, and the filmmakers recorded the classes as well as daily life in the red light district. The children's work was exhibited, and one boy was even sent to a photography conference in Amsterdam. Briski also recorded her efforts to place the children in boarding schools." (Wiki says)
Nevertheless, the movie find its way into many of the debates that the SRHR/development communities usually have. What to do about the human miseries? How can one as an individual make a significant change? Can you, actually? What are the best interventions? Short-term? Long-term? Creative? Bringing discipline? How do you overcome bureaucratic obstacles? How do you change a culture opposed to (our, Occidental) notion of human wellbeing? What are the primary needs?
And all of that without even entering in the debate surrounding commercial sex work.

So enjoy thinking. Answering is optional.

20 March 2013

Why so many videogame characters look like me, but I prefer to play with someone else, pt. III

(You may want to check out the part I and part II beforehand,)

"So, to sum up: there are different reasons why I intentionally deviate from the default model when playing videogames. First off, this has to do with identification. Most lead characters are white, muscular and above all: aggressive male. These characteristics shape the stereotypical ‘tough guy’ standard which features prominently in many video gaming adventures. To my taste, such ‘hypermasculinity’ – as if I were playing with a walking steroid – is not the type of hero I could recognize myself in nor want to play with, despite sharing a lot of overall features with this masculine and Caucasian default. On the contrary: I would prefer the more ‘in-depth’ characters that are known for their interesting stories or personality rather than their looks and so called ‘manliness’. Nah, I’d settle for someone that would act more like me instead of just matching some of my looks.

Secondly, even though colored male characters are seen more and more in videogames these days, they are still being a minority in regards to the white norm; not to mention the equally important underrepresentation of female models. And to make things worse: the women that do feature in such interactive adventures are too often limited to another cliché: that of the ‘sexy heroine’. Thus, despite that diversity in characters is slowly slipping through more and more, the options we as gamers get offered nowadays are still too damn restricted. And on a symbolic level, that means a lot, for the current sexist and racist standards reproduce the inherent message that certain roles are not ‘supposed’ to be played by characters with a specific gender or racial background. Representation is definitely an important factor in need of improvement. The easiest way to challenge the current harmful standard is by deviating from that norm whenever possible; to cherish the opportunity for change if the game offers even the smallest mode of ‘personalization’.

Thirdly, I choose variety in my gaming experiences merely for the sake of variety itself – to see what could *also* be a way to play an adventure. For instance, to grab back to the Mass Effect example: changing the gender of my hero(ine) goes hand in hand with switching to another voice actor, meaning that the story will be experienced differently, as each of two actors does a different job to it – despite having the same lines to perform. Both have their own style of adding life to the Shepard-character, for that is all voice acting is about. Furthermore, going with a different skin color and other bodily features than my own makes me, the gamer itself, look differently at the game as a whole. It makes me able to approach the adventure and interactions with other character ‘through a different lens’. Even though the voice acting will still be done by the same person that delivers the lines to the ‘white’ Shepard, throughout my whole 40-hour-long-gameplay do I get to look at and identify with a protagonist of color (if I chose one of the variations on this racial spectrum). Not only does this experience teach me that epic adventures are open to anyone and not just the Caucasian-looking ‘tough guy’ standard; it also makes me more susceptible to look at the racial background of the other non-playable characters in the game besides my own. ‘Becoming a character of color’ (instead of white, as is the norm) makes me question the lack of representation of colored characters in that game as a whole, as I constantly get reminded by ‘my’ looks what is otherwise not included or at least misrepresented. In other words: changing the racial identity or gender of the protagonist makes me aware of the privileges of playing with the ‘white guy’ model, as this is still the unquestioned standard in most games. Thus, by intentionally seeking more variety I get to think critically about my own position and how standardized ‘my own identities’ are, for now I become more alert of the ‘normative’ and the ‘deviant’; it makes me question why these are the norms in the first place.

Concluding: emphasizing variety in gender and racial identity is at this point still needed to show the structural lack thereof. Ironically, to ‘make aware’ that inclusion of all kinds of humans is still limited and no equal representation has been achieved yet, the current differences need to be pointed out exactly because of such existing lack - as it then becomes a sort of ‘in your face’-message. I know that I for one took a long time to realize that so many games I played were exclusively targeted at me and people like myself that fitted a limited gender- and racial-category. Because of having the privilege of being part of the norm I did not realize how alternatives to this sexist and racist standard are underrepresented. Therefore, by playing with different kinds of characters – different in many ways, not only in regards to gender or racial features – I hope to become better alert to able to speak out against such structural racism; as that is what lack of inclusion and underrepresentation is all about. And I can tell is that actively ‘adjusting’ my in-game looks hasn’t been a bad decision at all – rather the opposite. So I am expanding my gaming experiences by trying to identify with a different protagonist than the usual white ‘tough guy’ model, while at the same time seeing my own privileged identities in video game land being emphasized and therefore questioned? There seems to be no more enjoyable way to make me learn of the current sexist and racist standards in videogames and use this ‘experienced knowledge’ to share with other than by doing – by literally ‘gaming to differ’.

For as we have seen with the Mass Effect example: if only enough of the gamers themselves raise their voice and share their issues with the default norm, can change on a more individual level lead to improvement on a larger scale in the end. And that’s exactly why I deliberately choose to play with a character I am ‘not supposed to’: simply because I get to identify with a model that looks different from myself, I get made more aware of what is *also* among the possibilities that are not part of the privileged norms. Something which is beneficial to me as well, as that deliberate choice for variety is exactly what turns out to add more and more depth and pleasure to my videogame experiences compared to sticking to the default choices. Only by playing with a female heroine, character of color or choosing for the protagonist to develop a same-sex relationship, which would usually not be the standard option, does this underrepresentation and problem of non-inclusion get emphasized. Turns out I need to get ‘embedded’ with the minority identities in games to question my own prevalent privileges, for otherwise I would not have known. Now talk about irony." 

The genderswapped Super Mario characters are done by Rolling Rabbit, we found them too cute not to be posted as illustrations for this topic.

Daryo is one of those people that enjoys playing videogames and has a mind set at reflecting on things with 'feminist glasses' on, hence the love for Gender and Sexuality Studies.

19 March 2013

Why so many videogame characters look like me, but I prefer to play with someone else, pt. II

(Happily continuing from where we left it yesterday...)

"Well then, are all videogames like this, limiting you to play with this one-dimensional ‘tough guy’ type, both in ways of body shape and personality? Of course not; there are lots of games that do offer lead character of color, a female protagonist or any other personage that otherwise deviates from the limiting norm as mentioned above. It is not like no alternatives are offered ever at all. Nonetheless, adding more options to the pile of features doesn’t necessarily create more difference in gaming models. In contrast: this simply constitutes another norm, as the variety within the category ‘women’ in videogames is also a lacking issue. While the presence of their gender is already underrepresented, the female characters that do appear are often limited to one ‘type’ of body as well: that of the (usually) light skin color, ‘fit’ body shape and big – if not huge – overly present breasts. Furthermore, their role often seems to be limited to being a sexy sidekick or simply functioning as background decoration. Because of this, the main goal of their appearance in videogames seems to make them look sexy, rather than focusing on actual contribution to the story, such as through their personality, humor, in-game capabilities or combat experience, for instance.

Now of course, being sexy is not a bad thing per se, but the fact that so many female models are created along these limited lines does proof problematic, as it then becomes a matter of sexual objectification. Rather than being included in the adventure for, say, their tactical insights, witty personality or maybe even physical strength, many of these ‘sexualized’ women see their presence being reduced to providing visual pleasure. This gets even more emphasized by the clothes they are sometimes wearing, underscoring even more the uselessness of their ‘attractive’ appearance; as something not inherent to the story, yet overly present within videogames. Where most male characters are at least wearing comfy and protectful gear that makes sense considering the adventure they are heading towards – often a dangerous one - lots of female models are unnecessarily ‘stripped down’ and ‘sexed up’. Rather than getting armor that suits their needs, heroines commonly get provided with clothes that are primarily pointing out their bodily appearance rather than being fitted for the dangers they might be facing. If you’re wearing an armor that shows your naked legs and visible belly button, while at the same time emphasizing the size of your breasts, you are obviously not fit for an adventure on high heels against countless enemies trying to hurt you, right? Well, try to explain this to the many game developers then, as their games often suggest otherwise. Despite the illogic of this kind of dress within the setting of the game, lots of female characters are nonetheless portrayed in such a ‘senselessly’ sexualized way, insomuch as that this then becomes a whole other cliché on itself. Thus, while the norm of ‘maleness’ is being challenged by adding more female characters to the pile of protagonists in gaming, this has the ironic consequence of helping another limited and stereotypical norm into place: that of the ‘sexy heroine’ as an alternative to the ‘tough guy’. Once again, a one-dimensional portrayal of characters becomes the dominant standard. And all because that is what the game developers choose to display – rather than offering the options to deviate from these fixed models.

Then, what does it mean when a videogame does enable me to decide upon the looks of the protagonist? Well, quite a lot actually, for now I am provided with the ability to make my own choices; to be able to ‘own’ the gaming experience. Especially when the ‘default’ model is yet another copy of that ‘tough guy’ type or ‘sexy heroine’, I will, simply for the sake of variety, often deliberately choose to play with a character that deviates from these standards. More than once, I intentionally alter my gaming model’s gender, skin color, hairstyle, clothing or other features whenever such options are available. By doing so, my actions become an ‘act of resistance’, however small that may be. Rather than playing with that overly used ‘hypermasculine’ (and often white) default character, I try to add as much variety into my gaming experiences as possible. Having played with too many ‘male’ characters already? Then the next session I’ll choose another gender. Tired of seeing a white modeled hero in a lead role again? Time to go for a different skin color as of now. You see, being able to make such subtle choices on the looks and likes of the protagonist can make a big difference on how I would experience a videogame. Not only does such variety make one adventure contrast more to the other, it also breaks with the rigid notions that there can be only be one ‘sort’ of character for a certain type of game; it questions stereotypical thinking that links gender, ethnicity and body type among other features to the limited places where they supposedly ‘belong’. For example, adding more female characters to action games challenges the idea that heroines have no place in ‘dangerous’ adventures. Rather than regulating them to second-tier-roles, women could thus become a core-part of (action) games we well.

See my issues with the ‘fixed game models’ now? Being able to make my own choices enables me to break with racist, sexist and other restricting assumptions common in video game land. Even though I am, with all my choices, still bound to the options provided by the game developers, cherishing every opportunity (however small) that challenges the limited norms in videogames is a victory on itself. Maybe not so much in the eyes of everyone – the majority of the game developers are still white men and pre-dominantly target a male audience - but on a small scale, it can make a difference to the individual that does seek those alternatives. And maybe this is just a small step to the bigger change I am hoping for – that a little while from now ‘female’ models or ‘characters of color’ are not seen as additional features to the ‘tough guy standard’, but become an equal and worthy part of the world of video gaming as well. For there are games in which the ‘second option’ has become as popular as the ‘default model’ over time: one of my favorites being Mass Effect series, insomuch as that the final game in the trilogy made male and female characters starring the promotional videos. Not to mention that the female version of protagonist Shepard is dubbed ‘Femshep’ in popular culture; as being a whole different character on itself rather than just a twist to the masculine standard. Indeed, while the first part of the Mass Effect series started with the white and male default, the sequels developed in such a way that in the end the lead character Shepard was no longer exclusively promoted as single gendered. On top of that, the popular opinion goes that the voice acting for Femshep is genuinely better performed than that of the original ‘guy Shepard’ – ironically, the ‘alternative option’ being the superior of the two. Oh, and then there’s this addition to Mass Effect 3 in which same-sex relationships become fully optional; something which was lacking in the previous two parts for at least the male designed Shepard, but which changed after many fans condemned the series for not including such romances and sexual subplots.

Therefore, the above example shows how merely including an opportunity to change the looks and likes of our videogame characters can lead to a shift of norms on the long term – if only the players embrace this as a chance to show the developers the need for more such ‘personalization’. What we see here is the change of a popular game hero from initially the white Caucasian and heterosexual male standard to a character that now varies in gender and sexual interest, while giving the gamer the option to alter the racial identity and looks of their hero(ine) as well. Of course, although you are still limited to the options given by the game itself – Shepard is young, slim shaped and muscular nonetheless and doesn’t vary at all in body shape – the underlying argument still stands: applauding the opportunity for small change in your videogame experience might lead to shifts on a bigger scale in the end. Even if the ‘second option’-kind of inclusion of Femshep in the first Mass Effect part were merely symbolic, the fans picked up on it – and that lead to the developers investing more into this path after all. Both sequels would not have taken that first step to add further diversity if it hadn’t been applauded as much by the fans. All because we, as gamers, actively deviated from the ‘default character’ did the game creators see what could *also* be part of an intense and worthy gaming adventure. The individual demands for more variety thus lead to a change on the larger scale; to the representation of more types of characters."
(Come back for more tomorrow...)

While waiting for that, some further reading:

Daryo is one of those people that enjoys playing videogames and has a mind set at reflecting on things with 'feminist glasses' on, hence the love for Gender and Sexuality Studies.

18 March 2013

Why so many videogame characters look like me, but I prefer to play with someone else, pt. I

"There are many reasons why I like to play videogames, but the most enjoyable aspect seems to be the bonding I (as a gamer) develop with the lead character of the story. If the protagonist of the game has a personality I can relate to or an appearance I can identify with, this simulates the experience as if I were in the middle of that adventure myself. This is what distinguishes gaming from other more ‘passive’ events like reading a book or watching a movie: the active manner in which to command the main characters through their story. You, the player, are not simply experiencing a videogame, but literally doing it. By guiding the actions of the lead characters, one gets personally involved in the situation. In other words, the gamer becomes the hero of the story. No, even better: I get to be that hero. All that occurs in the game only happens because I’m the one pushing a button on a joystick. If I don’t, the story would cease to develop any further. It’s this feeling of being ‘in control’ that makes video gaming so rewarding, as it is only due to my own efforts that the adventure progresses the way it does. A simple conclusion would thus be that my feeling of ‘being involved’ is related to the amount of control I have over the events happening. After all, if it is going to be my adventure, I want to have a say into as many aspect of the game as possible. So, whenever I am given the option to decide on the looks of the protagonist, or to alter their personality in accordance to my desires, I will therefore happily do so.

Nonetheless, many videogames do not offer any options for character personalization; a lack which, I think, puts a distance between the gamer and the game itself by holding out on some level of ‘personal connection’. An immediate question that pops up, would be: why can’t we always choose the looks and likes of the lead character? Does it really matter whether the protagonist has a certain gender, skin color, hair style, body shape or personality? In many instances it doesn’t, I would argue, as these characteristics are often not inherent to the story and thus become interchangeable features. More importantly, lots of video games are already designed so that the character’s looks can be decided upon by the player – albeit you are still limited to the options provided by the game developers. Being offered this chance in the first place means there is no need for a ‘fixed’ model in that game; any variety in body type or physicality will do.

Regardless of such positive examples, however, a bigger share of video games still does not include any options for character personalization, despite there being room for this anyway in light of the story. As if it would matter whether ‘the hero’ has a specific ethnic-cultural background or portrays a certain gender; anyone could save their friends and family from yet another invasion by either a foreign army or aliens, right? (This is a popular setting in videogames in which ‘an average citizen’ becomes the sudden hero. Nonetheless, the variety among these ‘accidental protagonists’ is highly restricted.) For no apparent reason, almost every ‘occasional hero’ is male, white and highly masculine in its features with no option to change any of this. And that bothers me, these unnecessary limitations to a fixed set of characteristics. Why does it always have to be that single type of protagonist; that one ‘default model’ again? Especially when the story is about an ‘average citizen’ and the adventure takes place in a multicultural and ‘Western’ society like the United States – where lots of action-type games come from and/or are taking place – it would make sense to include more variety in the looks and likes of its lead characters. Or even better: to provide the player with the option to make their own choices on these features. After all, the opportunity to make your gaming experience more personal, to affect your character’s look in a way you feel most comfortable with: that’s what I see as one of the most important aspects of a worthy video game. If I can make the lead role in the game reflect my looks or personality, it gives me the impression I am living the story myself. This character I then play with, the protagonist I give commands to… that is me I’m guiding through the story and not someone else I do not care about as much. Being able to identify with the lead roles(s) and their looks or actions increases the amount of involvement.

Unfortunately, as already said, too many games are limiting the gamer by only letting you play with a fixed character. Now, on itself that shouldn’t be an issue per se. If it would make sense ‘story-wise’ for the protagonist to have a certain look or personality, I can see why the developers want to stick to their decisions and don’t give gamers the option to change this. Sometimes there is a reason behind the choice – and no alternative seems suitable. However, in many games with an unchangeable lead character, the latter is not the case. In such instances, where the protagonist has interchangeable features but the developers decide to stick to a ‘fixed’ model nonetheless, it becomes a downright negative thing to limit the game to that ‘default’ character rather than offering the player a chance to customize. Especially when such ‘preset characteristics’ are yet again shaped like the ‘tough guy’ default, this male-focused and ‘white’ standard in video games becomes recertified once more. Lack of diversity then becomes exclusion, as only a limited type of ‘gaming heroes’ is being displayed, diminishing the variety of in-game models that players could recognize themselves in.

Now, this does not mean that I can’t enjoy a game in which the main character doesn’t reflect my features or personality. I don’t mind playing with a model that acts and looks different from myself as long as the story is well written and this personage has some ‘depths’ to offer. That is, when the character has a rich background and the game develops in a profound way; as if watching an amazing film or reading a wonderful book. If that were the case, I would be totally fine with such a ‘given’ set of characteristics, as it would be in accordance with the story to not deviate from this fixed model. Appearance is one thing to identify with, while character traits are another – and it doesn’t necessarily have to be both to make a game enjoyable. If protagonists looked different from myself, but acted in ways I would be doing as well in alike situations, this would still enable me to identify with them; to get involved in the events as if I were experiencing these on my own. Nonetheless, despite being able to relate to characters that look different from myself, this doesn’t negate the fact that a limiting standard in videogames is occurring. Namely, in terms of gender and race, we are still offered a rather restricted default of the male, white, heterosexual and ‘hypermasculine’ hero; the walking steroid, known for its physical brutality rather than personality or brains..."

Daryo is one of those people that enjoys playing videogames and has a mind set at reflecting on things with 'feminist glasses' on, hence the love for Gender and Sexuality Studies.

10 March 2013

Sunday is for horizons: Martha Gellhorn

This is stuff for serious #Sundays.
We present you Martha Gellhorn (1908-1998), novelist, journalist, travel writer and a renowned war correspondent. And for us, snoops, the best thing is that both her professional and private life are depicted in her books (you don't go to interpretations of others, which in case of important female personalities seem to be a very slippery slope towards sensationalism and looking for weirdness).

Martha mostly wrote about people and places, not herself explicitly. But she is a reporter, so we see the places and the people through her eyes and experiences. She is a woman in 20th century going the most unwelcoming places of her time and getting to know war, misery, poverty and human suffering around the globe the old way - by seeing it herself and talking to people. And that hurts, even more than lack of running water and the eminent danger of falling bombs does.

And for the interest in emancipation and feministing, she is known for A) by choice prioritizing her professional vocation over family life and B) trying the achieve the maximal level of objectivity, knowing that her work was under more scrutiny than that of her colleagues. Also, her writings are good. If we don't convince you, read this.

In case you want a cinematographic teaser before you read her work, here you have the rather mediocre Hemingway and Gellhorn (2012, Philip Kaufman). See it but then go get her books, they are worth it.

08 March 2013

Friday is the (Inspirational) Movie Night: Easy A (2010)

#InspirationalMovies #Virginities

Well, this is tricky. A US-made fake-virginities and slut-shaming movie with actors much older than they should have been... Nevertheless, we still recommend you watch Easy A (2010, Will Gluck).

It won't give you any answers but might serve to start to talk about the meaning of virginities and the I'm-not-a-prude-but-not-a-slut-either paradox, about rumors and LGBTQI bullying, about the roles that parents and friends should have in our lives, about sex work, about the counseling services available, the hard-core morality (anti-choice, broadly seen) groups... almost all of the (youth) sex-related issues present in our daily life and discussions.

Use this a conversation starter with yourself or your youth group. Easily digestible and mainstream while packed with ideas for discussion.

A big + for the movie - although slightly out of the believable age group - is the amazing Emma Stone.

03 March 2013

Sunday is for horizons: Makers (2013)

#Feminism #MakersChat #InspirationalMovies

Again, a #SundayIsForHorizons slightly out of what it was conceived to be. Perfect and extremely educational, though. The three-hour PBS documentary Makers: Women Who Make America (2013) is a very well done account of the history of feminism and empowerment of women during the second half of the 20th century.

While there is some (rightful) criticism regarding the portrayal of the current movements among women and feminisms, this is a very solid work of documentation on how the feminism (the second wave, that is to say) we know as such started. Even if you are not that into women studies. Even if you are not that into the history of the U.S. Even if you don't identify as a feminist (ouch!)... these are things every person to some extent involved in the social movements, social justice, and living in a society should know this story of empowerment and enormous (although not as big as hoped for) success.

And while not a feature film as #InspirationalMovies tend to be, still full of very real testimonies and able to push for change (even if those are baby-steps and very basic awareness raising).

+ The greatest thing is that you can streamline it for free right now! All three episodes.
Go! Take notes and expand your role model list. And your reading list. Revolutionize your own life. Build a movement.

01 March 2013

Friday is the (Inspirational) Movie Night: Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (2008)


This week's offer is a growing-up feel-good. What you have in Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (2008, Peter Sollett) is two rather marginalized young people melomaniacs stuck in toxic relationships (not with each other). And what it does is to follow them through a one night road trip around New York City in a capricious Yugo dealing with exes, friends, and strangers, and looking for a mysterious indie band.

Sweet? Yes. Cute? Yes. Believable? Well... Relatable? Defintely.

Empowerment lesson? It is completely OK much better being single than being stuck with people who hurt you. And while it doesn't mean waiting for the right one and such, it means that spending time with people that treat you well and appreciate you for who you are is the path to happiness.

A little + : Kat Dennings is not as skinny as most of the young actresses around, so, yay for at least some body diversity!