Accountability, pop culture and the politics of fiction

I was outraged this week to see on display in a popular clothing store in Zurich (New Yorker) a men’s t-shirt that was sexist and misogynistic. It had several graphic images (photos) of inebriated women with breasts barely in their bras, and the words ‘Excessive all-night party — all drinks on me’. This t-shirt is for teenaged males.

Aware that Ms12 and her brother have both been in this shop, I couldn’t let it go: I spoke to the shop assistant, who admitted that she, too, had been embarrassed and uncomfortable about the t-shirt. She immediately took me to two other t-shirts in the shop, both of which had images of naked and semi-naked women with guns, and explained that they had these in size XS for younger boys, which she thought in really poor taste.

“It’s the rap culture,” she told me. “It’s horrible. But it sells.” (And, trust me, she didn’t need to think about this one. She took me in a direct trajectory across the shop to the other t-shirts. She knew exactly where they were.)

Had she spoken to her boss about this? She shook her head. “I’m worried about losing my job.”

In the week leading up to International Women’s Day (March 8th), I have to ask: is this really still happening? In 2012? Are women still not empowered enough to be able to say, ‘No, that’s not OK!’ without fear of losing their jobs?

Let’s jump to another scenario for a moment.

Recently I came across an article in New Black Man by academic Lisa Guerrero, entitled “Chris Brown, Too $hort, and the Disposable Conscience of Consumer Society“. [Shout-out to @pigtailpals for the tip-off.]

In it, Guerrero examines, among other things, how an online or public persona can enable and excuse otherwise unacceptable behaviours. As she puts it:

American media culture in the 21st century works in earnest to create an impenetrable discursive distance wherein no one is responsible for the consequences of their words and actions when they exist within the mainly ethereal boundaries of pop culture.

Such is the case with rapper Too $hort, aka Todd Shaw, who recently released (and subsequently retracted) a ‘mentor’ video for young men (it was on XXL), on how to take them ‘to the hole’. (Ack.) And (I read part of a transcript) it was aggressive, and did not come across as though a woman’s consent played any part in this equation. [Read another discussion on this by Dr Bryce Watkins on NewsOne.]

When faced with a backlash, Todd Shaw hid behind his online persona, saying he got carried away with his Too $hort persona. He, Shaw, would never behave or condone behaviour like that in real life.

I’m not going to debate at length here the reasons a writer writes fiction. (Do we write to be understood or do we write to understand? Do we write for ourselves or do we write for the market? Do we write strategically to get a message across or do we write because it’s a ‘creative’ compulsion? I could go on. It’s complex.) But I will say one thing, and it relates to books as much as to so-called ‘celebrities’: Overt or not, fiction embodies the politics of its writer.

This writer doesn’t want her daughter – and her son – to grow up in a world that disrespects women, whatever their age.

This writer believes we need to challenge popular culture and its various, transmedia authors who hide behind the anonymity that the internet and ‘branded personae’ afford.

This writer believes in the power of words to bring about change.

This writer also still has a lot of writing to do. So off I go. To continue writing Charlotte Aimes.

PS. More on this theme from the eloquent JJ Marsh in her blog-post, ‘Social Disease’, in which she shares a similar moment of outrage.
PPS. If you want to get your teeth stuck into the politics of design (architecture, writing, code, whatever you like to call it) as well as anonymity and accountability in cyberspace, try reading Code version 2.0 by Lawrence Lessig.


    1. I am waiting to hear back from New Yorker HQ, but I’ll post an update.

      Thanks for taking time to comment on my post, Rachel and Oniya.

  1. That’s disgusting. He “got carried away” with his persona. How about you be real instead?

    Stop the misogyny!

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