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7 Student Responses to the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
S.M. Walters and M. Kimmel
Lisbeth has good sex with men and women, including BDSM sex, and is not monogamous. The sexual relationships in the books depict trusting and loving friendships
with non-monogamous lovers (Shippers 2012). Just because the sex is not monogamous or following the traditional gendered script does not mean that the relationships suffer. This allows the reader to safely insert herself into a sexual fantasy
where the heroine is supported and loved by her lovers, allowing her the support to
resist patriarchy and societal constraints.
Lisbeth is physically strong and takes revenge on her sexual assailant. Her
strength is different than Bella and Ana’s. Although Bella and Ana are physically
strong in the books, in the end their male heroes show up and save them. For Ana
this is when her supervisor tries to sexually assault her and Bella has a number of
physical attacks that Edward shows up and saves her from. Women identify with
Ana and Bella as strong women who fight back, but Lisbeth is in a category of her
own. Lisbeth gives women the courage to confront sexual assault independently.
Women also identify with Lisbeth as an outsider and a loner. Her character makes
them feel like this is okay and sort of cool (Stewart 2011).
We argue that because the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo strays so far from the normative script, in that it blatantly challenges patriarchy, the movies did not make as
much in the box office as the Twilight films. The result of this is that this series did
not reach as broad of an audience as Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey. In fact, we
have found in our classes that most women who enjoyed the Girl with the Dragon
Tattoo already identified as feminists and were critical of patriarchy. Yet, in Twilight
and Fifty Shades, the audience is broad and women who read these books and
watched the Twilight films do not identify as feminists. Thus, the audiences for
these series are very different. Women who read Twilight and Fifty Shades embodied gender and sexuality norms, but the books (particularly Fifty Shades) helped
them find agency in a patriarchal world.
In this way The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo differs from the other two novels.
The reader still finds pleasure in inserting herself into the story, but the fantasy is not
for sexual pleasure and marriage. It is safe for the reader to insert herself in the
Twilight and the Fifty Shades of Grey because the romantic relationships positively
impact the heroine. The men that Lisbeth chooses in The Girl with the Dragon
Tattoo are different from the other series. They are loyal and gentle, with a softer,
less masculine appearance and demeanor. They do not force themselves on her, but
when she is ready they provide her with satisfying sex and much love. The reward
is friendship, however, not marriage and this can be very liberating for women who
are always pressured to be in monogamous, heteronormative relationships and to
become mothers. Lisbeth does none of this and some women desire a life like that
Using The Dragon Tattoo as a contrast to Twilight and/or Fifty Shades of Grey is
a powerful teaching tool. First, we suggest using Twilight or Fifty Shades, as they
are more palatable for students, especially because they are so embedding in normative gender. Yet, slowly, throughout your course you can challenge their beliefs.
Once you finish the Twilight or Fifty Shades lessons you then can challenge more by
using The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
14 Pulp Friction: How College Women Navigate Identity, Sexuality and Gender…
Fiction in the classroom is an excellent teaching aid for instructors who want to
examine femininity and masculinity as societal constructs and to meet students
where they are interested (with popular fiction). Students can insert themselves into
the story and begin to question gender and agency associated with gender. As
instructors we can help them understand gender as a social construction and begin
to challenge femininity and masculinity.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo allows for deeper discussions on gender and
sexuality. Using Lisbeth as a model, we can begin conversations about gender performance and sexuality being on a spectrum. Lisbeth presents herself in nontraditional gendered ways and has multiple sex partners of both genders. This allows for
students to begin envisioning alternative genders and sexualities. The Girl with the
Dragon Tattoo also allows for a discussion of patriarchy in a more obvious manner.
Twilight and Fifty Shades allow for a critical examination of patriarchy, but since the
heroines of these stories are embedded in normative gender and sexuality it becomes
more difficult for students to see.
All three series offer moments of entry for discussions around gender, sexualities, patriarchy, and inequalities. Since the three heroines differ, along with the male
characters, different lessons can be learned from each. It is useful to combine one or
all three of these series in a classroom. Since Twilight and The Girl with a Dragon
Tattoo are already films available for the classroom, one pedagogical approach is to
show the films rather than have students read the books. Once Fifty Shades of Grey
is released to video instructors can do this with all three.
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S.M. Walters and M. Kimmel
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Doing Critical Pedagogy in an Ironically
Valerie Chepp and Lester Andrist
In 1992, Sir Mix-a-Lot released his hit song “Baby Got Back.” Throughout the
track, Sir Mix-a-Lot proclaims his appreciation for women with large butts, speciﬁcally black women, and he casts this “celebratory anthem” against a critique of
female beauty ideals centered on whiteness and thinness. The song spent 5 weeks at
the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart and went on to win a 1993 Grammy Award
for Best Rap Solo Performance. Since its release, the song has ﬁgured prominently
in the literature on gender, race, and hip-hop. The track and what it represents has
been criticized for its sexist lyrics and for objectifying black women’s bodies
(Collins 2005:129; Henderson 2013:160; Parasecoli 2007:116; Rose 1994:169;
Story 2007:239). Other feminist critiques have pointed to the song’s reiﬁcation of
racialized sexist tropes while at the same time highlighting the subversive legitimacy of positioning black women’s bodies as sites of desire and beauty rather than
symbols of deviant sexuality (Hobson 2003; Miller-Young 2008).
Speaking more than two decades after the release of the song, Sir Mix-a-Lot
(2014) reﬂected on the popularity of it, speciﬁcally pointing to the track’s supposedly black feminist undertones:
The black, female body was not accepted as the norm anywhere. For years, all you saw on
television was overweight black maids or black women who would assimilate to white
culture, as far as the look is concerned… I wanted to do something that was tongue-incheek but, at the same time, making a real point.
V. Chepp (*)
Hamline University, St Paul, MN, USA
University of Maryland, College Park, MD, USA
© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016
K. Haltinner, R. Pilgeram (eds.), Teaching Gender and Sex
in Contemporary America, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-30364-2_15
V. Chepp and L. Andrist
Sir Mix-a-Lot’s twenty-ﬁrst century feminist framing of “Baby Got Back” presents a unique set of present-day challenges for instructors who teach students how
to think critically about gender and gender equality. If Sir Mix-a-Lot’s song is sexist, it is a sexism that is more difﬁcult to identify than the sexism of earlier decades,
as the lyrics were intended to be “tongue-in-cheek.” Sir Mix-a-Lot’s remarks suggest he was fully conscious of the representations he deployed. He even claims there
was an emancipatory potential in his hyperbolic message; that he truly sought to
respond critically to the limited representations of black women’s bodies in popular
Of course, a myopic focus on black women’s butts is hardly a critical response to
the stereotypical representations of black women’s bodies and, in fact, plays into a
racist and sexist fetishization of black women dating back at least to Saartjie
Baartman in the early 1800s—the so-called South African “Hottentot Venus” whose
body was placed on public display for white spectators at various exhibitions
throughout Europe (Harris-Perry 2011). Moreover, the beauty ideal touted by Mixa-Lot remains quite limited, thin, and unattainable. Like the 36″-24″-36″ body measurements of the supposed “brick house” celebrated by The Commodores 15 years
earlier and cited in “Baby Got Back,” these body dimensions remain well below
those of the average American woman (Sekayi 2003). However, irrespective of the
content of Mix-a-Lot’s critique, from a pedagogical perspective we are interested in
the delivery of his critique, and irrespective of his intentions, how his message is
received. What is the purpose of concealing the supposed “true” intent in hyperbole? While such hyperbole may seem new and even sophisticated, is it just different wrapping on the same sexist candy? For instructors of sex and gender, what
challenges does this hyperbolic, or ironic, approach present for feminist criticism?
Ironic Sexism: What Is It?
In this chapter we examine the relatively new strain of “ironic sexism” increasingly
found in popular culture, and particularly prevalent in contemporary visual media
(Blloshmi 2013). Also sometimes referred to as retro sexism (Sarkeesian 2010) and
hipster or liberal sexism (Quart 2012; Wallace 2012), ironic sexism is distinct in that
it deploys the sexist imagery and controlling images most typically associated with
the popular culture of the mid-twentieth century, but does so with a tongue-in-cheek
method of delivery that appears to suggest to viewers a punch line is forthcoming or
that they are witnessing veiled social criticism.
Like the sexism of old, this twenty-ﬁrst century ironic iteration still depicts women’s bodies as sexual objects (Kilbourne 2010). Women appear in less digniﬁed and
less intelligent roles than men, and women are still rigidly linked to the domestic
sphere where they appear to conﬁrm many stereotypical notions of femininity. The
deﬁning feature of this newfangled sexist media is that it carries a subtext that suggests the creators of the media are perfectly aware of their incursions into a terrain
that has long been identiﬁed by feminist critics as sexist. The media presents itself
Doing Critical Pedagogy in an Ironically Sexist World
as “just a joke” and “all in good fun.” Media producers can defend their deployment
of these sexist tropes by suggesting the media is not really sexist, but is instead
intended to be funny, satirical, or sarcastic. However, ironically sexist media provides no punch line or real critique. It offers only an ironic grin that invites viewers
to wonder if there is more going on than scantily clad women in sexually provocative poses. But alas, there is not.
For instructors who teach about gender equality and movements for change, this
era of ironic sexism presents new challenges, with an especially insidious one being
our ability to help students recognize the severity of this seemingly more playful
and less obvious brand of sexism. In this chapter, we present tools for identifying
and responding to ironic sexism. First, we examine the emergence and development
of this new form of sexism, situating it within a larger backlash that has been leveled
against feminist critiques of sexist media. We outline its distinctive characteristics,
and we articulate why this new form of sexism remains harmful, despite its implicit
claims of being tongue-in-cheek and therefore above criticism. We conclude by
offering strategies to help students learn to identify and analyze this type of media.
Ironic Sexism: Where Did It Come from?
As with all gender ideologies and sexist practices, ironic sexism emerged from a
particular social and historical context. At its core, ironic sexism constitutes a
response to more than three decades of feminist criticism leveled against sexist
Following the feminist victories and consciousness-raising of the 1960s and
1970s, by the 1980s and 1990s, the feminist movement had thoroughly articulated
the idea of patriarchy and successfully incorporated it into a broader public discourse on gender equality. In addition to drawing attention to the ways patriarchy
permeates the labor market, spaces of political participation, and even intimate relationships, feminists had also leveled an incisive and sustained critique of how patriarchy is maintained through media representations, namely the ﬁlms and
advertisements that pervade both public and private spaces. To name just a few,
Betty Friedan (2001) famously critiqued the media for its role in sustaining a “feminine mystique,” or the illusion that among other proclivities, women were naturally
suited for the domestic sphere. Jean Kilbourne (2010) drew attention to the infantilization of women in advertising, while bell hooks (1992) vividly identiﬁed the
way gender, race, and sexuality intersect in the media as coherent representations,
propagated through capitalism in the service of sustaining a white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy.
Signs of a backlash against such feminist critiques began to take shape in the
1980s (Faludi 1991). Distinct from a grassroots social movement, the backlash did
not consist of activists marching in the streets, but was instead characterized by the
articulation and promotion of an emergent ideology that sought to redeﬁne feminism and justify established, gender-based patterns of inequality. The feminist
V. Chepp and L. Andrist
movement became reinterpreted as a smattering of misdirected, if not selﬁsh,
women who merely sought to skirt family responsibilities. Many of the achievements of feminism were recast, not as strides for gender equality, but as efforts to
strip men of a dignity founded largely on men’s identities as ﬁnancial providers.
Media manifestations of this backlash took particular, yet distinct forms in the
1980s and late 1990s. While popular media of the 1980s tended to depict women as
sexual objects and men as hypermasculine fantasies, by the turn of the century,
media producers were redeploying these familiar tropes, with a twist. Increasingly,
stereotypical media images of femininity and masculinity began to appear as if they
were done tongue-in-cheek. The new format coincided with a more general postfeminist turn in popular culture; another “backlash” moment that presumed feminism unnecessary and sexism a thing of the past. Under the pretense that sexism was
over, an ironic form of mockery became fair game (Blloshmi 2013).
The growth of this ironic framing appears to have been anticipated by sociologists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno (1944), who worried about the “phoniness” of mass culture, a concern that might be easily extended to the phony
subversiveness claimed by ironically sexist media. More pointedly, the growth of
this ironic sexism parallels philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s (1989) more recent insights
on ideology, where he observes that although it is now common for people to adopt
a cynical distance from ideology while appearing to formulate a critique against it,
this cynical disposition is actually constitutive of ideology. In other words, the most
effective ideologies are those that claim to be above the folly of ideological thinking; by extension, one might say that ironic sexism is an ideological claim that
pretends to be unencumbered by the harmful ideologies that promote sexism.
Unlike the sexism of old, creators of ironically sexist media can claim their critics lack a sense of humor and that the true offenders are the unapologetic sexists
who openly claim women to be subordinate to men and men to be innately more
powerful, smart, and strong. But in the ﬁnal analysis, ironically sexist media exists
in a zone of indistinction, where it is difﬁcult to disentangle mockery from the celebration of sexism. Yet, upon careful examination, the so-called irony tends to be
superﬁcial, for in the current media environment, the sexist tropes no longer defy
expectations. Such ironically sexist media merely offers a wink and a nod, positioning itself as a close, knowing friend, but never explains what it presumably knows.
Take, for example, a popular Tide detergent commercial from 2011 (Tide 2011).
The ad features a comically anxious mother sitting on her living room couch as her
daughter plays contently on the ﬂoor in front of her. Speaking directly to the camera, the mother attempts to stiﬂe her discomfort as she describes her daughter’s
aversion to pink and preference for wearing hoodies, cargo shorts, and building car
garages for her dinosaurs. The comic tone of the ad is accentuated through the
visual juxtaposition of the mother’s and daughter’s respective gender presentations.
While the daughter appears to reject traditional markers of femininity, the mother’s
adherence to femininity is communicated through her home and presentation of
self: her living room is decorated with pink accents and ﬂoral designs, and she is
wearing a pink cardigan, her legs modestly crossed at the ankles (Andrist 2011).