Tuesday, September 14, 2010

"Don't Be a Sue," Be a Feminist

I was very much amused when I came across a recent promo from the civic engagement campaign Members Project, featuring a rant from the cold-hearted, politically incorrect, but nonetheless hilarious Sue Sylvester (of TV's "Glee," as portrayed by the amazing improv comedienne Jane Lynch). 
In this promo, we listen as Sue expresses a deep disdain for animal rights (since all animals do is defecate on our property and tempt humans with their tasty, "delicious" flesh), an antipathy toward literacy education ("Words are hard!"), and indifference for funding the arts (the money would best be put forth helping smelly artists bathe themselves). Thus, Members Project implores "Don't be a Sue," and encourages its viewers to become involved in their communities despite Sue's glaring disapproval. (This promo and others starring the “Glee” cast can be viewed here.)
When Jane Lynch recently took home a much deserved Emmy award in August for her performance on "Glee," the folks at feministing.com were quick to laud her and her work in bringing Sue's special brand of "faux feminism" to life on the small screen. "Faux feminism"-- I couldn't have said it better myself (or with the same succinct alliteration). Sue's brand of "womanly empowerment" does seem to contradict many of the ideals which have been laid out by feminists over the years.
            Rising to prominence at fictional William McKinley High School as the head coach of the country's top high school cheerleading squad (Sue calls them her "cheerios"), Sue is a celebrity in both her small town and in the eyes of the major national sports media outlets who are persistently trying to score exclusive interviews with her and learn her secrets to success. However, even with her immense career achievements under her belt, Sue is extremely insecure, striking out at anyone who she fears is seeking to usurp her power and take the attention off her and her cheerios. Often, this is directed at the school's budding, talented glee club. With every available opportunity, Sue schemes to destroy the glee club at WMHS; her malicious tactics range from leaking the club's song routines to rival choirs, to manipulating its most promising singer to leave the club to star in the school's production of "Cabaret," to even recruiting spies to join the club and pick at its foundation from within.  

Sue does all of this without any bit of remorse, without a blink of her eyes, without any shred of a conscience. In a sense, Sue Sylvester is the best thing to happen to feminism in popular culture in a long time, because she is a satirical commentary of all of those old, negative, FALSE stereotypes many in the public associate with feminists-- you know, that feminists are a bunch of angry, aggressive, calculating bitches who have gone power hungry and (upon realizing that getting the right to vote isn't good enough for them) are dead-set on taking over the world, ultimately cutting the throats of any human being who stands in the way of their quest to show that they can be just as good, if not better, than men.
            Truth be told the tenets of Sue Sylvester and the tenets of feminists differ in many ways:

Sue is racist, feminism is not.
Aside from the fact that most of Sue's hand-selected cheerios (with a few notable exceptions) are Aryan clones of one another, Sue's bigotry can be seen in how she condescends to minorities ("I like minorities so much, I'm thinking of moving to California to become one") and uses pejorative nicknames for the glee club's minority students ("Aretha," "Shaft," "Asian," "Other Asian"). While the earliest feminist movement suffered from its own brand of homogeneity (most of those affiliated with it were middle-class, Caucasian women), second wave and third wave feminists have made a concerted effort to include the voices of women from numerous racial-ethnic backgrounds, realizing that how gender and skin color intersect can provide vital insight into how women are oppressed on several grounds.
Sue hates men, feminism does not.
The occasional instances of "male-bashing" aside, feminism has increasingly embraced the participation of men in the movement in the past couple decades. Men can be wonderful allies for feminists to have in transforming how gender relations are structured in our society, with these men striving to reverse how women are (mis)treated every day by their own fellows. Sue, meanwhile, seems to hold contempt for most men, especially one Mr. Will Schuester, the director of the WMHS glee club. Will has made repeated genuine attempts to negotiate with Sue so that the glee club and the cheerios can live copasetic and receive adequate funding/resources in order for both groups to thrive. Alas, Sue would never put herself in the situation of maintaining a non-hostile, mature relationship with a man (a man whose success might rival hers, that is), and as such, animosity between them ensues.

Sue is hypermasculine and "unfeminine," feminist is sometimes exactly the opposite.
The desire to produce children should not be seen as a prerequisite to being, but Sue's lack of the necessary equipment to even weigh the option ("Don't have the time; don't have the uterus") seems strange. Combine this with her short haircut and androgynous track suits. Then add in her unwillingness to show any signs of conventionally feminine vulnerability; she has her tear ducts surgically removed for this effect. Next consider some of her more unusual, masculine habits (like when she uses her juicer to make a steak--not fruit-- smoothie, or when she conspicuously purchases a man's zoot suit costume to wear at the local swing dance contest). All of this culminates into the image of one über-butch, manly (lesbian?) woman. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Plenty of feminists have been lesbians, and butch lesbians, and have claimed those identities with great zeal. (Adrienne Rich, anyone? Audre Lorde? Andrea Dworkin?) Still, there are also those feminists/feminist lesbians who are not afraid to be hyperfeminine and wear make-up and dresses, confident that they can compete on the same playing field as men without sporting "the pants" in the family. Either approach is an acceptable form of feminist genderness.
Sue wants to monopolize her success, but feminists are all about sharing the wealth.
Sue truly is an accomplished woman, as evidenced by her full trophy case of accolades nabbed by her cheerios. Sue is relatively untouchable from atop her ivory tower where she is constantly perched above all others, looking down her nose at everyone she meets and boosting her already inflated ego. While many feminists are finding similar career success as Sue (as lawyers, doctors, professors, CEOs, etc.), those feminists are also inclined to step away from their privileged seats from time to time, to come back down to earth and teach other women how to break through the glass ceiling of the professional realm and wrestle with the "big boys." Really, how could feminists expect women to change anything without encouraging one another to acquire those positions that have the authority to enact change?

     In the end, Sue Sylvester hammers her own nail in the coffin of each and every one of those erroneous, scathing feminist stereotypes, because, when you put them all together, there's something important you realize: there is no way that this is a real person. As funny and entertaining as Sue Sylvester can be to watch on a weekly basis, she is, in fact, a flat character. She is one-dimensional, too basic, and is missing quite a bit of back story and texture.
      No actual human being (unlike what that lame caricature of feminists seems to insist) can be that hateful, that vindictive, that generic, that vain, and that simple. Actual human beings, and definitely actual feminists, are far more richly charactered. They are layered, intricate, and complex. They are rounded out and hard to pin down to one profile. They CAN be evil, but they can also be good. They CAN be Eurocentric, but they can also adopt a mindset of cultural/transnational awareness. They CAN detest man-kind, but they can also trust in men as friends and companions. They CAN be sexless, butch, and lesbian, but they can also be very sexually expressive and even super feminine and heterosexual. They CAN be selfish and self-indulgent, but they CAN also provide a great network of social support to their peers. They CAN be a Sue, but they can also be a feminist (in all of its infinitely indefinable and multifaceted glory).

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