The Sexist

Women as Gatekeepers of Sex—and Sexism

Many theories have been raised to explain some women's distaste for Olivia Munn: Jealousy. Insecurity. Her tendency to make jokes about rape, fat women, bitches, and the Holocaust. Get ready for another one! I think part of the backlash against Munn—to be clear, I'm speaking specifically of the part that accuses her of "flaunting" her "female sexuality" as an "act" to get "famous and rich" by "pandering" for "male attention"—goes back to the traditional view of women as sexual gatekeepers.

Sure, we want high-profile women to be allies to other women—and it stings extra hard when sexism is perpetuated through their public personas, instead of exclusively by dudes. But behind one Olivia Munn is a producer instructing Munn to "take it off reeeeeeally slow," and a network president "standing on a speaker in the back, leaning over to get pictures," and a team of photographers vying to catch an unauthorized glimpse of Munn's nipple, and a male co-host who insists that he "violate [her] from behind" despite her protestations, and a whole audience full of fanboys screaming at Munn to put her mouth on something. Behind her is an entire industry making sure this happens.

"Olivia Munn is not the one running this show," Sady Doyle writes. "If she weren’t willing to play this role, she wouldn’t have her job; if she didn’t have her job, someone else would. . . . Olivia Munn embodies geek-misogynist expectations and desires for women, in this one specific job she does, but those expectations and desires are what make girls’ lives hard, not the women who are paid to fulfill them."

Another expectation making girls' lives hard? The equally sexist demand that women take full responsibility for these sexist expectations by always refusing to fulfill them. By faulting Munn for "flaunting it"—instead of taking a look at the demand side of the Hot Girl equation—we're not only accusing Munn of being a bad feminist, but also a poor gatekeeper of sexism. An entertainment industry that's built on arousing men by wearing women down until they acquiesce? That, we take for granted. Women, who have little power in this structure, are nevertheless expected to keep the industry's libido under control—just as they're expected to hold off sex, keep a sufficient amount of clothes on so as not to tempt men, and never "put themselves in situations" where sexual assailants may strike.

It's unreasonable, of course, for us to expect any one woman to hold off a whole culture's misogyny. In fact, we expect all women to do it—not just high-profile women like Olivia Munn, but our peers and ourselves. In this world, when a woman is subjected to sexist treatment over and over again—like Munn has been, in magazines and on television—it's not evidence of systemic sexism. It's evidence that we should be "skeptical" of the woman herself who failed to adequately shake it off—and once again turn our attentions away from that big industry behind the girl.

  • Notonlybutalso

    There's another woman on Attack of the Show. Her name is Blair Butler, she has her own segment called Fresh Ink, is the foremost, if not exclusive comic book expert and has her own video podcast as well. Blair is cute, but she doesn't play the sexpot - she largely only reviews comics she likes, but occasionally addresses sexism.

    I knew Butler from her standup days in Chicago where she held her own in the boys club, again not playing to her looks and using material which was often caustic raunchy and included gender criticism. She was also out.

    In this Munn bru-ha-ha it is often implied - or stated - that she was the only woman on ATotS. Even by Sady, who allegedly knows about the show - although she speaks of it in the same tone as a guy forced to watch an alleged "chick flick". Blair is actually kind of a name within female comic books - getting her own cover on one DC book - yet she's erased in this discussion.

    My point being, when people we don't like offer opinions which lack understanding and/or seem to think understanding isn't necessary, it's rightfully criticized.

    With both the pro and con, the number of reductivist views of Munn based on cursory or second hand familiarity bugs me. It's nowhere near as bad as, say, the simplistic version of Karen Finley in the culture wars, but there's a slight echo.

    What if it had been Christopher Hitchens who had been the first to dismiss Munn as too much of a man pleasing bimbo to be taken seriously as a satirist. I wonder what the blogosphere's take on would have been then - both the men and women. Let's be honest some sexists would have decried Munn as unqualified and some non-sexists would discuss how a pinup attitude doesn't make one incapable of critique.

    It's great Sady is confident enough in her argument tha she can admit some reactions do reflect things like insecurity. I think it would help if this aspect was addressed a bit more honestly. There are vaild points about the comedic boys club, but it has also lead Rebecca Traister to use the word "traitorous".

    Meanwhile Jezebel had a guest male editor this Monday who "ironically" spewed dude stuff then praised the readers for not being humorless feminazis, echoing the Good Sport dynamic criticized in Attack of The Show, yet noted by almost no other bloggers.

    One frustrating thing about studies types is their refusal to admit to any of the bad faith in their arguments. It's frustrating that in this discussion so few are able to cop to the few parts which are flawed and perhaps a bit of double standard.

  • Emily H.

    I love jokes about rape & the Holocaust, for real. & all this hate on Olivia Munn because "her public image is too sexual" or whatever is just making me want to like her, although I'm not at all sure yet whether she's particularly talented.

    There is nothing wrong with a woman showing off her body, with images being produced specifically to arouse men, or with an entertainer's appearance being factored into her overall success. The problem is that there's far too much of these things, and far too little room for alternative versions of what a female entertainer can be/how a woman can act in public. So, one particular woman engaging in mainstream sexy behaviors isn't the problem. (As earlier commenters have pointed out, what if it was a fat and not-conventionally-attractive woman proudly posing in a bikini? If that's okay, then why's it wrong for Munn to do it?) What we need is more creative and visionary people in the entertainment industry who are willing to seek out less "conventionally sexy" female talent, & nurture it until it finds an audience.

  • kza

    I thought Daulerio was funny at Jezabel...

  • Lindsay Beyerstein

    The issue isn't whether Munn "used" her looks or her sexuality to get famous. That's a total strawman argument. In this day and age, posing for Maxim or Playboy is standard for an ambitious young female entertainer.

    What irks a lot of feminists is that her entire brand and persona is built on being the girl who abases herself for male approval and publicly beefs with feminists because her male base gets off on that. Consider the highlight reel of Munn's career: The French maid pie dive, the ceiling wiener, the various balloon-popping violations, the iPhone tongue bath, the Complex magazine interview where she said she aspired to do a fashion shoot with cum in her eye.

    What's even more annoying is that women dare to question her qualifications she dismisses them as fat jealous bitches, in so many words. She gets heaps of abuse from male critics online, but she doesn't have the guts to take any of them on.

    Ann Coulter, the queen of the hairy-legged feminist putdown, is working from a similar playbook in the punditry game.

    Maybe Munn has a great body of work that nobody knows about (in addition to a great body that everyone knows about), maybe she has hidden talents. The fact remains that she has somehow been catapulted onto the one of the most prestigious and demanding comedy shows in the English-speaking world but she isn't even a comedian or really even a comic actress. A reasonable person might ask: WTF is up with the Daily Show's priorities? She's a performer. If she's getting a plum performing job, you'd expect ample evidence in the public record that she's somehow exceptional. Yet, I'm not aware of any.

  • Lindsay Beyerstein

    It's not Munn's fault if she got some undeserved perks for being pretty and sexy. That's the system, as Amanda, Sady and others have pointed out.

    On the other hand, she's building up her brand not only by abasing herself but also by trying to silence feminists by slandering us. That's a choice for which she should be held responsible.

  • Valkyrie607

    Munn did a pretty good job with her segment on the Arizona State Rep. So I'm pleased about that. Happy to see that she can do her job and wasn't chosen exclusively for her looks.

    Also, kza, non sequitar much? Daulerio at Jezebel was kinda like Rand Paul at A whole lot of hubbub, surely amusing to some, but really--what a jerk.

  • Lindsay Beyerstein

    I agree with Valkyrie607, Munn did a good job on the Arizona immigration segment. I blogged about her performance here.

    The big difference between this bit and her previous appearances is that the writers wrote her smart and let sexist guests assume she's stupid at their peril. The state senator she interviewed fell right into her trap. It was beautiful.

    It seems like TDS writers are trying to decide whether to write Munn as the dumb sexy reporter or the smart reporter that everyone assumes must be dumb because she's so prettier. The latter take is way funnier.

  • stopthemadness

    I think it's a bit of a stretch to liken her to Ann Coulter. Ann routinely expresses disdain for women and women's issues. I don't think it's fair to lob that accusation at Munn.

    I also think it's disingenuous for certain feminist blogs which criticized her in fairly harsh terms to continue to pile on to her. Perhaps the writers themselves aren't, but their commenters sure are. (Moreover, Carmon's first piece on her was harsh, in my view.)

    Also, as for the jumping into the pie bit, I've read elsewhere (haven't watched the reel) that the male host was also wearing a french maid outfit and jumped into the pie. Also her "cum in the eye" comments was a reference to There's Something About Mary.

    I thought Sady's letter was unfunny and patronizing. Her second post on it, I found to be a good explanation of her opinion about the "Munn hate."

    And while Munn's "walk it off bitch" response was certainly not the best way to address her critics, I can say that I've lashed out and said things that I regret and I can say that I would likely have reacted in the same way. And the statement that she doesn't have the guts to take on male critics seems to be an assumption (but then again, I don't know whether she has).

    As for the criticism of the Daily Show with respect to hiring her, one might ask the same of all of the other correspondents they've hired. I'd never heard of them before either. (Although that could be because I just don't know stuff.)

    And finally, in all the criticism being lobbed at TDS, why does no one seem to be mentioning the fact that she's the first Asian correspondent on the show? (One blog dismissed it as a diversity twofer.) Her first appearance riffed on that, with Asif Mandvi claiming that her was the Asian correspondent, and Munn disagreeing because he's Indian and then saying that's Asian-ish. (Which is a totally valid claim given the cultural differences between Asian and South Asian people of which she is certainly aware since she is Asian.)

    I thought that bit was hilarious.

    Sure, TDS could hire more women correspondents. But they just made a big step in the right direction by hiring not only a woman, but an Asian woman.

    I guess I don't understand where all the outrage is coming from and I thought Jezebel's original piece on her was harsh, and that the piece on the Daily Show's "woman problem" was poorly researched. And now the general atmosphere seems to be to continue to pile on to Munn and to lambast a comedy show for releasing a funny letter about the dispute. I don't view the article, which was a hit piece, as warranting a serious response from TDS.

  • Stewart

    How many black people work for the Daily Show? I'm sure it's not a high number. Why not protest that too?

  • Just Facts and Stuff

    @Stewart Wyatt Cynac, and Larry Wilmore as correspondents. That's two to Sam B. and now O. Munn. Even steven. The difference is black people make up a fairly small minority of our country while women are HALF of the HUMAN RACE.

    No shouting, just emphasizing.

    Also, I have no problem with Munn being sexy, and although AOTS sounds very disturbing, I would be all "good for her" for getting out of it, if she didn't dismiss all criticisms of her as fat ugly bitches.
    Also, she is only beautiful by our cultures standards. And those standards change. Meanwhile, EVERYONE finds different things beautiful. Some men like more ass, some men like boobs, some men like men, some men like, skinny, etc. Some women like muscular men, or muscular women, or skinny guys, or fat guys...
    And some people like a little more curves. I know one boy I had a huge crush on who had our societies idea of a perfect body who is madly in love with a girl who is completely our societies idea of fat and ugly.
    So her looks might help her now, but more importantly, a woman who disdains the opinions of other women may get ahead, but she'll come up with alot of problems in life she may not expect. She'll realize that if she continues to play only to the male factor.

  • Pingback: Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders Decry Sexism to Columbia Journo Students « The Girl On Top