Movies + TV

Fun With Stereotypes

The joy of being a huge cliché.

Janis Ian from Mean Girls

Friends: the life of a feminist is a hard one. I—perhaps like you!—am constantly overthrowing the patriarchy (otherwise known as “the reason dudes are in charge of all the things, and also tend to think dudes are better than ladies, which is stupid”) and whatnot, primarily by complaining about TV commercials and song lyrics and movies. Oh, sure, the commercials/songs/movies are already written, and millions of dollars have already been poured into making them culturally ubiquitous, but what will happen to society if I DO NOT POINT OUT THAT THEY ARE SEXIST, preferably in the course of perfectly normal conversations with people who’ve worked all day and just want to relax a little? Anarchy, most likely. Or more patriarchy. I can’t decide, but I’m betting the patriarchy thing is right. Indeed, I cannot relax for even a moment.

And I especially cannot relax when I sit down to watch a movie or a TV show all by myself. What if there’s patriarchy in it! Just sitting there, dominating women’s lives and narrowing our options in life, waiting to be exposed! I need strong, admirable, fully rounded female characters with which to identify, or else my whole leisure time is going to go straight down the male-dominated drain.

But guess what. I found one! I found a female character in a mainstream film who actually speaks to my feminist soul, the real me, someone I can identify with, and who will save me from male domination. That character is Janis Ian, from Mean Girls.

OK, sure. Janis Ian is a joke—a parody of angry, alienated arty girls who are identified by their rage against the machine and their heavy hand with eyeliner. Janis’s attempts to better the female gender mostly involve being mean as hell to other girls. Even her name is an in-joke on Tina Fey’s part; she’s an unpopular teenage girl named after the songwriter who wrote the world’s most depressing song about being an unpopular teenage girl. (Liz Lemon, who is basically a grown-up and nerdier Janis, performs this song at karaoke in an episode of “30 Rock”—Fey has a lot to work through with regard to this song, apparently.)

But these grotesque exaggerations are exactly what make Janis real to me. I love Janis for the same reason I love the permanently, awkwardly self-righteous Britta Perry, or the sugar-high perma-optimist Leslie Knope. There are real Strong Female Characters that I’ve taken into my heart: no one can say no to Buffy Summers, or Kara Thrace from Battlestar Galactica. Although just naming Kara as a Strong Female Character forces me to acknowledge that my idea of “strong” is a surly alcoholic who gets yelled at all the time by her bosses, colossally screws up all her relationships with men, goes intermittently bonkers, and occasionally crashes her space plane on purpose. (JUST LIKE A MAN WOULD BE ABLE TO CRASH HIS SPACE PLANE WITHOUT HAVING TO EXPLAIN WHY HE IS SO “ANGRY”AND “COMPLICATED.”) My feelings about Kara are apparently very complicated, and I should probably deal with those at another time. But, as with Britta and Leslie and Janis, I love Kara Thrace for one reason: she’s flawed.

As a feminist, my job is to argue that women are people. And here’s the thing about people: in my experience, when you get to know them, they’re all pretty screwed up. At the very least, they’re imperfect. And I think our feminist characters ought to reflect that.

At its best, feminism argues against the impossible standards created by the patriarchy for women, standards none of us can ever live up to, and which keep all of us in a state of permanent insecurity. But at its worst, feminism can create impossibly high standards, which make us even more guilty when we fail them. We have to be strong and independent! But also sensitive and empathetic to the needs of others! And also in touch with our sexualities! But not dependent on our sex appeal and/or male approval! We must own and reclaim our vulnerabilities and femininities! But also, we must not be emotional or personal or frivolous or soft, you know, like girls are! We must love our bodies, even in a culture that works nonstop to make us hate them! We must also love other women, even in a culture where women are raised to compete with and distrust one another! And we must love feminism! All the time! Even though we are exhausted now! From trying to live up to it! And, most important: we can never, ever, ever be wrong.

Which is why it’s a comfort to me that Community’s Britta Perry, who is genuinely interested in being the best she can be and making the world better as the result of her actions, is wrong about everything, to the point that her friends use the verb “to Britta” to mean “screw something up.” Or that Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope—who is actually much more successful and effective than Britta—is driven by her sheer manic enthusiasm into humiliating situation after humiliating situation. If she’s not successfully running a campaign for city council, she’s trying to take down a park-TP’ing 14-year-old whom she views as a dangerous terrorist. Or that Janis’s righteous fury is based mostly on the fact that Regina George was her best friend, until she got popular. All of these people are imperfect. And they’re wrong a lot of the time. But they’re still right a lot of the time, too, and we can still like them, because that’s how humans work.

There are a lot of obnoxious, reductive, wrong straw feminists in pop culture, too. Even Veronica Mars, which had a perfectly feminist title character—smart, self-possessed, funny, not about to get pushed around, spending much of the first two seasons specifically fighting class prejudice and sexual assault—felt the need to introduce a tribe of hairy-armpitted man-haters in its final season. (Maybe just so we knew that Veronica was a strong woman, but not one of those, you know? Smart, principled, strong women should be imaginary and not actually devoted to a real-life cause that might actually make things better in the real world, nudge, hint, et cetera?) But the good-hearted parodies and jokes, the women who are drawn with a broad brush and a generous spirit, are just great.

At least, they are to me. I spend my entire day doing serious work for the benefit of all womanity. I am a serious person. I take myself seriously. I need to be able to laugh at myself—I think all people do—for at least 30 minutes at a time. Men have been laughing at portrayals of other men, without feeling inherently bad about What This Says About Dudes, for centuries. If I don’t get to do the same, the patriarchy wins—no joke. ♦

46 Comments

  • Nadine October 3rd, 2012 11:24 PM

    I couldn’t help but just nod along as I read. Definitely sharing this. Thanks Sady!

  • Tyknos93 October 3rd, 2012 11:34 PM

    This is a MUCH needed read for me currently. I take things way too much to heart and I really need to learn to laugh more.
    I do understand entertainment isn’t perfect, but a lil more visibility would be nice…

  • Chimdi October 3rd, 2012 11:59 PM

    Nice article, I would love to see more media commentary on Rookie :)

    And seriously, you guys: please include intersectionality on here:)

    The feminists that you talk about on here on a regular basis are usually white, able, cisgender, etc!(usually that is, of course with exceptions like bell hooks who is often mentioned in passing)

    Rookie has never touched on cultural appropriation or anything of the sort (important with bindis and D&G earrings and the such, seeing as Rookie looks at fashion with a feminist approach, and teenage girls of color are part of feminism too), and only one out of five teenage diarists are non-white. Yes it is a step further and that is nice, but there are also Indian teenage girls and Maori teenage girls and people who don’t quite identify as girls, etc.

    The majority (not saying there are none) of photoshoots of girls on this site feature white girls who are conventionally attractive, which is of course not wrong in its self, but part of feminism is consistently encouraging all types of beauty :)

    It is frustrating seeing as Rookie is supposed to be a site for teenage girls, but it really just seems like a site for white teenage girls. It almost feels like a slap in the face as I learned about bell hooks from Rookie(she is the best!), and after getting into bell hooks and her work on intersectionality, I got into Melissa Harris Perry, and I watched this (http://youtu.be/1xkQu6w6fTs) and instantly thought of Rookie.

    LOVE you guys, just wanted you to know that there are a LOT of teenage girl peeps out there who do not feel included here :)))))

    • Chimdi October 4th, 2012 12:05 AM

      correction: I am of course not sure of the ethnicity of all girls in Rookie eye candy and such, but I should have specified and said white-passing.

    • Anaheed October 4th, 2012 12:07 AM

      We are working on a big post about cultural appropriation. Thank you for speaking up about this!

      • Chimdi October 4th, 2012 12:29 AM

        oh okay that’s nice. I was afraid you guys would not accept the comment, because I have tried to post on here about how some makeup tutorials look terrible with the warm tones of certain girls of color, etc., but they’re never posted.

        I’m really happy you’re working on a cultural appropiation post, but I reallllyyyyy mean it about the photoshoots.

        For example, this video came out recently

        (http://youtu.be/Hy9W_mrY_Vk)

        and I have not done my homework and have instead sent all day emailing it to my fellow African sisters (not fictive kinship, literally my immediate family) and replaying it multipleeee timesss and singing along because it is amazing and has the Okpo sisters in it and it is just SO REFRESHING to see black girls being part of fashion in a non-derogatory way! Can’t describe how ecstatic it makes me, and I am sure other girls of color would be very happy to see girls of color being on the staff of Rookie and being in Rookie photoshoots (fashion and others).

        Also, I understand that Tavi is a white feminist along with a good amount of the staff, and I can see how it may be hard to look really, really, really past your privilege and try to be inclusive of marginalized or discriminated against groups of people that you are not part of.

        That is why I think probably the best idea for getting Rookie on the path to intersectionality is adding staff from ALLLLL groups of people, like those who are disabled, those who are African (ideal for me hehe), those who practice Islam and other religions, etc., and colored girls! of all types :)

        Again, thanks :)

        • Tavi October 4th, 2012 12:39 AM

          Oh man, that Solange video is amazing.

          As always, I’m glad to see our readers being this critical. We are not exceptions to the standards we write about.

        • Anaheed October 4th, 2012 12:43 AM

          I have never not accepted a comment because it commented on what makeup would or wouldn’t work on different skin tones! I have only rejected probably 30 comments in our entire first year, and that was because they were abusive to our young writers or seemed to come from pervs or felt like they were too self-promotional or linked to something problematic. Or if they seemed to be adults trying to tell kids how to think. If something that doesn’t fit one of those categories was rejected, I promise you that it was a mistake, Chimdi, and I’m sorry.

          We have worked hard to include all kinds of people in our photo shoots — we’ve actually improved a lot in this regard, so I hope you don’t still think all of our models are white/thin/cisgendered. They’re not! This isn’t to brag; I mean we obviously have a LONG way to go, but we are headed down that long road.

          And we’re always trying to add diversity to our staff. More and more all the time. Thanks for your good-faith constructive criticism.

    • bunnyscout October 4th, 2012 12:29 AM

      i 100% agree! i was wondering when someone was going to bring this up

    • Tavi October 4th, 2012 12:31 AM

      We agree with you! I appreciate your comment, and promise we are constantly working to improve this — at a little over a year in, we are still figuring out how, among three editors, to distribute all of our energy and time so the site can improve in all ways it needs to. Intersectionality is a big priority of ours, but we also want the relationships with our staffers that can only develop with time instead of the convenience of tokenism. Keeping close tabs on casting for our photo albums also takes time. We have a post on cultural appropriation slotted for next month, and working on it so far has taken about two months, because we know these topics are serious and want to give them the thought and energy they deserve (usually our posts are written by one person and finished within 3 weeks; this one is a group discussion and it went on for a long time, and now we’re in the particularly lengthy editing process). Additionally, I would feel presumptuous asking a writer who is oppressed in a way I am not to write about their experience, which can’t be easy, unless they wanted to first. I really encourage that our readers send in their work to submissions@rookiemag.com, so that these stories can be shared. (And that, unfortunately, also takes time — we get hundreds of emails a day, and have a lengthy backlog.)
      In the case of this post, the problem is that feminists like these on TV and in movies usually are white. But, I know that Rookie has a responsibility that’s different from that of movies and TV, and that, in an indirect but definite way, we are influencing the same culture that creates these characters. We take that seriously, and I know time is not an excuse, but hopefully it offers some explanation.

      • Chimdi October 4th, 2012 12:57 AM

        okay that is nice:) but really I think you should be open to casting calls.

        Of course I am not saying that you and Untitled Mag should be the exact same, but they are very good with being inclusive of marginalized groups (I mean they should be as that is their sole and complete goal) and they are constantly putting casting calls out there. No one (I know of!) is criticizing them for token casting because marginalized groups, even those who are not being called for, really appreciate it.

        And it totally makes sense that you want quality relationships with your staffers. The only problem with that goal is that, well, as Rookie is based in the U.S., and POC and disabled people, etc., are minorities in the U.S., there is a very good chance that you will not sort-of-just-happen-to-hit-it-off with a WOC (/GOC, for girl of color) or otherwise discriminated against person who has the time and resources to regularly write for Rookie.

        I realize that you guys(gals? sry you know it is hard to consciously not use male default pronouns) have a lot on your minds, but I hope you will seriously consider the the thoughts and feelingzz of marginalized girls who come to Rookie and see the same white supremacist (unintentionally, like in a bell hooks way not a Ku Klux Klan extreme way) spouted at them that they see everywhere else. I know you guys are already working on it, but please, take notice that many of us have already felt this way for a whilleee

        • Anaheed October 4th, 2012 1:07 AM

          I’m not sure what you mean by “be open to casting calls.” We have put out casting calls. We cast our shoots in a lot of different ways — using friends and acquaintances, street-scouting, putting out casting calls on our Twitter & Tumblr, etc. And our staff is actually quite international. And pretty diverse, but not diverse enough yet for us (or you). I do promise you that we are listening to you and keeping your thoughts & feelings in mind! Hence this conversation that we are having right here, right now!

        • Tavi October 4th, 2012 1:11 AM

          FWIW, I wasn’t talking about casting when I brought up tokenism — tokenism in casting people to model is way different from tokenism when it comes to hiring people to be on staff. I agree that representation in a photo album is not the same as tokenism. When I talk about having relationships with our writers, I don’t necessarily mean on a personal basis/whether we hit it off, I just mean that we ask for a lot of writing samples from everyone and our story editors work with each writer very closely, and that takes time. Again, it’s not that this isn’t already on our minds — we’ve improved since our very beginning, though obviously too slowly — it’s just a challenge to keep up with everything, and we’ll continue to work and work harder on it.

      • Chimdi October 4th, 2012 1:16 AM

        ok I understand. Good night (idk what time it is where you live) :)

        • Tavi October 4th, 2012 1:19 AM

          Thank you again for your comments! Good night (morning? afternoon?) to you :)

        • LuxOrBust October 4th, 2012 2:02 AM

          It was wonderful to read this intelligent conversation, im looking forward to seeing positive change. chimdi i loved how you commented articulately and respectfully while still getting your point across.

          • Anaheed October 4th, 2012 2:06 AM

            I loved that too. You are awesome, Chimdi. All of our readers continue to just floor me with your thoughtful comments. This is the only comments section on the internet that I will ever read, because you all keep it so civilized and respectful and ~posi~.

            • Tavi October 4th, 2012 2:08 AM

              Seriously! When we had a Just Wondering question about abortion a while back I was really bracing myself for comment section battles but people were so focused on the discussion and not ego and that made it productive. You all rule, Chimdi, you rule.

    • raggedyanarchy October 4th, 2012 10:30 AM

      Chimdi, I’m in class so this’ll be short.
      If you want to see more multi-culturalism and sexual orientations and diversity, submit photo sets and articles about multi-culturalism and sexual orientation and diversity. It’s like clubs in school; if your school doesn’t have a Harry Potter club, then make one yourself.

  • allyishere October 4th, 2012 12:03 AM

    AMEN SADY! Whenever alone I make a conscious choice to only watch tv shows (Community, 30 Rock, MSCL, Parks and Rec, Girls) that truthfully depict women and avoid sexism because I get so fired up if I’m watching a generic sitcom that stereostypes gender roles and I have no one to rant to.

    smash the patriarchy.

  • rookypox October 4th, 2012 12:13 AM

    love the article, but i really do struggle with britta as a feminist. i know, i know, she’s an imperfect character, but i really can’t stand her slut-shaming judging ways. just because she’s a pretty blonde who shaves her pits, doesn’t mean she’s putting a good perception of feminism out there.

    • Chimdi October 4th, 2012 12:35 AM

      THANK YOU
      I did not want to say it because I have already err commented enough on this post but the Aerodynamics of Gender episode makes me want to scream, plus that one episode with the lame boyfriend she keeps coming back to and Jeff Winger wants to know what makes women want guys like that, as if all women are the same and ughhhh I literally could not force myself to finish that episode.

      Honestly Britta is a huge straw feminist. If she didn’t call herself a feminist I would never be able to tell. Ever.

      (In contrast, Leslie Knope is a feminist. She does not need to say that for you to know. Tis’ a fact. She has problems as a feminist without being problematic AS a feminist role model. Not that she has to be a role model, just making an example c:)

      • allyishere October 4th, 2012 7:16 AM

        in the Aerodynamics of Gender episode they focus on competition between women without as though its normal and they hardly resolve it ugh grinds my gears

        • Chimdi October 4th, 2012 10:55 PM

          Yes me too! And with the way the Abed finds it easy to track their periods because they ALWAYS have pms on their periods (I can’t remember a time when I had pms tbh), how all of the female members of the group are brutal slut-shamers, the competition between Annie and Britta for Jeff which is sort of resolved but not really? (haven’t watched in a while so I may be forgetting something)

          I could go on and on but I really cannot see Britta as a feminist. I’m reluctant to say that because I reallyyy do not want to focus on criticizing women which is why I’ll cut this short, but as a feminist character, Britta is definitely the straw type.

          However, I appreciate that Community has flawed female characters and passes the Bechdel test (depending on episode.) I just think that Britta is…meh. I wouldn’t have a problem if she weren’t supposed to be a feminist character. That’s all :)

  • fizzingwhizbees October 4th, 2012 12:13 AM

    As soon as I saw the picture of Janis (aka my ~Very First Lesbian Crush~) I knew I was going to love this article. I was right.

  • Whatsername October 4th, 2012 12:15 AM

    Omg a Mean Girls post on October 3rd. This was definitely intentional.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3eORqi-n2V0&feature=youtu.be

  • kendallakwia October 4th, 2012 12:16 AM

    Ok, I don’t need a “media feminism” 101 article.
    Complaining about representations of women on television is not the same thing as “overthrowing the patriarchy”
    Like, can we please talk about more important things and ways to actually make a difference?
    Like how rookie has STILL not acknowledged that it has a problem with intersectionality?
    Maybe getting a more global perspective on women’s rights issues?
    I’m becoming more and more disappointed with rookies representation and discussion of feminism
    It’s more than woman symbols and vagina symbolism

    • georgie fruit October 4th, 2012 7:05 PM

      the argument that discussing popular media through a feminist lens is “not important” is frustrating because it presupposes that if someone DOES have that discussion, s/he cannot ALSO have discussions about “more important things,” or participate in activist projects–not to mention it dismisses the real value cultural critiques can/do have on societal conditions.

      furthermore, Rookie is an internet magazine for teenage girls, the stated mission for which does not oblige it/its staff to dedicate their occupations solely to the doing of “more important things”–if you’re uninterested in a “media feminism 101″ article, then perhaps you could engage specifically with what you disagree with regarding the article instead of the article’s existence in the first place. again, feminist efforts=not a zero-sum game. the Bitch Magazine blog has an excellent comments policy regarding arguments like this one: http://bitchmagazine.org/comments-policy

      lastly, Rookie has repeatedly acknowledged that it has issues with representing a teenage girlhood that is broader than one that is cis/white/etc. refer please to the beautifully articulate conversation above, between an awesome reader, Tavi, and Anaheed.

  • Ginny October 4th, 2012 12:19 AM

    Love this article.

    (Also, I appreciate that the piece talking about Janis from Mean Girls was posted on October 3rd http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3eORqi-n2V0)

  • herRoyalMadness October 4th, 2012 12:21 AM

    “We have to be strong and independent! But also sensitive and empathetic to the needs of others! And also in touch with our sexualities! But not dependent on our sex appeal and/or male approval! We must own and reclaim our vulnerabilities and femininities! But also, we must not be emotional or personal or frivolous or soft, you know, LIKE GIRLS ARE!” My favorite paragraph!
    haha, totally relatable and very well-written Sady. This is GOLD.

  • poppunkgurrrlx October 4th, 2012 2:36 AM

    i definitely needed to be reminded that, as a feminist, it is okay to not live up to every “feminist standard” and it’s okay to be wrong! thanks for the article =)

  • Devyn October 4th, 2012 3:10 AM

    Whoever decided to post an article featuring Janis Ian on October 3rd/Mean Girls Day is a genius.

  • gnarlyelixir October 4th, 2012 11:10 AM

    All women should read this. This info is great. The only thing I didn’t understand is this, “And, most important: we can never, ever, ever be wrong.”
    Can someone explain???

  • Narci October 4th, 2012 11:19 AM

    Hello! I’m just wondering if you could do an article on strong female POC characters from popular culture as well? such as Martha Jones from Doctor Who (who is my facourite companion ever!). Thank you so much!!

    • Chimdi October 5th, 2012 1:25 AM

      I support this comment. I think Kerry Washington in Scandal is a good example of a female character that is independent minded and does her own thing, but still struggles with problems. I wouldn’t quite call her character a feminist or a womanist, but she is certainly a more dimensional character than most of the choices for female characters on television.

  • porpita October 4th, 2012 12:53 PM

    Every character played by Lizzie Caplan is my favorite.
    This is related: strong-female-characters.tumblr.com
    I made it :o

  • christinachristina October 4th, 2012 3:58 PM

    I love every female you mentioned, so so so so much.

  • GlitterKitty October 4th, 2012 4:28 PM

    I feel like everyone else has already written enough about feminism so I’m just going to spread the Parks & Rec love. I would vote Knope any day.

  • MissKnowItAll October 4th, 2012 7:45 PM

    Okay so this is really off topic but has anyone seen the gif of that guy on tumblr teaching his cat to hug him?http://yourstrulyjackiee.tumblr.com/post/32081637004/lifeofthelovelyone-ahhhhhh-seeing-mr-lopez-on
    yeah, well that’s my trig teacher. And yesterday we all wore pink (it’s a Mean Girls thing). Today we aksed him if he watched Mean Girls. He said yes (he was wearing a pink shirt). And in Unison, our whole class said “we only wear pink on wednesdays”

  • letthemeatkake October 4th, 2012 7:50 PM

    I love this article! I’m also super super excited that you referenced BG and Kara Thrace/Starbuck. I might be just a tiny bit obsessed with that show (Okay, I’m very much obsessed with it).

  • Eryn October 4th, 2012 8:02 PM

    This is a really great article.

  • onewithahippiesmile October 4th, 2012 9:04 PM

    just loved it! completely agree! you rookies always help me be more confident about my feminism and make me realize that it is not about being super confident all the time! thanks :)

    and also, I just love Janis since the first time I watched the movie when I was just a kid. though she’s a stereotype, people always say i’m a bit like her! she’s an awesome character!

  • nicoledelcore October 5th, 2012 12:35 AM

    I love that this article exists and that it used some of my favorite characters, ever, to drive points home, but I think Britta Perry is more of a counterexample than a point for feminist representations in a joke. Yes, she has flaws and that humanizes her, but her character has literally been reappropriated to a flat-out joke. They’re not giving her the depth they gave her in season one or even season two, and now, in my opinion, she’s just a parody what a real, true feminist character would’ve been. (Like, that Subway arc? Really?)

  • Juli October 5th, 2012 12:51 AM

    Heh. Gotta love Janis.

  • victoria October 5th, 2012 1:28 AM

    SADY. Why are you so awesome????

  • a-anti-anticapitalista October 6th, 2012 10:40 AM

    This article just reassured me of my reasons to just call myself an anarchist and to just answer with that if people ever ask me if I’m a feminist.