September 6, 2012

The Public Slut Shaming Of Kristen Stewart = Not OK

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What is the issue?

For the most part, I don’t really care about the Robert Pattinson-Kristen Stewart breakup, because I don’t know them, I don’t like the Twilight movies and after suffering through David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, I’m very upset with Robert Pattinson. I don’t care if Kristen Stewart and Rupert Sanders did it in a car, in a bar, in a house or with a mouse; I don’t care if the entire relationship was staged for publicity (as many, including Angelina Jolie, are now alleging) or if Robsten were this generation’s Cheng and Eng, severed by the knife of infidelity. This is because it’s not my relationship to care about, and whatever does or does not stay in Robsten’s bedroom is none of my beeswax, and it’s none of America’s either. If the news people need a story to cover, what about the millions of Americans living in poverty or the real violence that happens in our streets every day, the Chicago neighborhoods so dangerous they have been compared to Iraq? They say that if it bleeds it leads, but there’s no blood in the Robsten breakup — just two young people doing the very thing that makes them young: making bad decisions.

Yet Stewart’s infidelity continues to be constant news, nearly a month after the split.

Part of the reason that Robsten doesn’t matter to me, however, is that I am not a young woman today, and I’m glad that I’m not. For any girl growing up who pays attention to the media, it’s a terrifying time to understand what it means to be a girl in society. From Rush Limbaugh, they’ve learned that they are prostitutes and “sluts” for wanting birth control and healthy reproductive options for women. From Todd Akin, they’ve learned that their bodies can magically judo chop any unwanted side effects of rape and that women somehow can be “illegitimately” raped. From Paul Ryan, they’ve learned that rape is just “another method of conception,” which should be news to the makers of the Kama Sutra. And then Rape Culture Super-Defender Mike Huckabee chimed in by saying that “rape can create extraordinary people,” because young women everywhere desperately needed his opinion on this issue. Thanks, Huck.

Although young girls might not be paying attention to the “War on Women” rampant in the media this year, as women’s bodies and reproductive rights continue to be a wedge campaign issue, the Robsten breakup has been everywhere and certainly on their radars and will remain so with the final Twilight installment due this fall. Since it first premiered in 2008, the Twilight film series has been a massively popular global phenomenon, and the movies have taken in over a billion dollars in the United States alone. Until she was usurped by Scarlett Johansson’s hefty paycheck for The Avengers 2, these films and Snow White and the Huntsman made Kristen Stewart the highest-paid actress in Hollywood.

Because of this, Stewart and Bella Swan (the vacuous damsel in emotional distress she portrays in Twilight) have come to be symbols of young women today, whether we like it or not. (I’m not personally jazzed about Bella Swan being a symbol for anything.) Stewart’s every single red carpet pout, frowny face, lip bite and eye roll has been obsessively overanalyzed by the media, in the same way that women’s bodies are in general so open to scrutiny, ridicule and debate in today’s society. The media beatings that Sarah Jessica Parker and Hilary Swank take for not fitting the norm of Hollywood glamor highlight the restrictive expectations we have for women today. We are shocked when women don’t fit into that narrative, and the scrutiny is especially harsh when every blogger in the world is ready to tear you apart. Like the camera, the media adds 10 pounds.

Such is the case with Stewart. Because Stewart has been acting since she was nine and appearing in major Hollywood films since she was 12, there’s a sense of fatigue and discomfort with the system about Kristen Stewart, in many ways the Jodie Foster of her generation. Like Foster (who recently came out in support of K-Stew), Stewart’s always been too private and too smart for the media attention surrounding her. Although Megan Fox and Katherine Heigl are widely unpopular for being outspoken, what made the ubiquitously awkward Stewart even more of a public piñata was her attachment to Robert Pattinson, the erstwhile James Dean of today, the object of every other tween girl’s affections. Her ever-tabloided relationship made her an object of vicarious wish fulfillment, jealousy and scorn. If Kristen Stewart has the “perfect boyfriend” and the “perfect life,” why can’t she just look happy? Why doesn’t she seem more gracious? Why can’t she just smile for the cameras like she’s supposed to?

Because Stewart’s clear dislike of the charade of celebrity breaks the fourth wall of what we expect of women today, it’s hardly surprising that the public dogpiled on her in wake of the Robsten breakup. Fans took to Twitter and the blogosphere to voice their disbelief, call her a “whore” and a “homewrecking slut,” inform her that she’ll never do better than Robert Pattinson and make threats on her life, supposedly on behalf of all women torn apart by the break up. One female fan even filmed a reaction video on YouTube to publicize her devastation, a segment similar in tone to Chris Crocker’s now infamous “Leave Britney Alone!” video.

In response, Will Ferrell satirized the public outcry on Conan in a fake emotional meltdown he had on the show, one in which he referred to Kristen Stewart as a “trampire.” It’s brilliant.

But America, too oblivious to realize it was being made fun of, latched instead onto that single word: trampire. A Google search of “Kristen Stewart” and “trampire” now pulls up over a million hits, including for a website t-shirt retailer now profiting off of Stewart’s breakup by selling “Kristen Stewart is a trampire” tees. They come in three colors: blue, white and orange, for those who want to dress like a traffic cone while slut shaming someone. (Apparently, misogyny is the hot look for this Halloween season.) For those who feel truly invested in the breakup and have some spare cash, Skreened also made you “Kristen Stewart F-ing Sucks” and “Robert Pattinson Can Do Better” shirts.

In response to this public bullying, Kristen Stewart was dropped from the sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman, and rumors are that the follow-up will instead feature Chris Hemsworth in the lead. They’re calling it The Huntsman. You know things have gotten bad when the studio doesn’t just fire you from a film; they’re so afraid of being associated with your scandal that they’re firing your entire character.

As Jodie Foster argued in her op-ed for The Daily Beast on the K-Stew scandal, “this too shall pass,” and Kristen Stewart is intelligent and well-possessed enough to survive this public media lynching. She’s young and she made a mistake. It’s hardly the first time that a 22-year-old has had an affair, and I’m not concerned for Kristen Stewart. She’ll be fine, and this scandal will die down soon enough. The worst is already over.

But for young women, the culture of slut shaming that the Kristen Stewart scandal represents won’t go away. I might not be concerned for K-Stew, but I am concerned for all the young women today who are tuned into this scandal, ones who are learning that it’s not okay to screw up, ever. Chris Brown can publicly beat the hell out of his girlfriend but still be played on the radio and win Grammys. However, if you ever cheat on your boyfriend, your life is over and no one will ever want to be associated with you. Almost no one will blame the much-older guy you cheated with, and it might actually make him more famous and help his career. Few will care that he was your boss and in a position of authority or that he may have have taken advantage of your youth and relative inexperience. Everything is your fault, and your life will be threatened over it. If you are a trampire, you will be publicly staked for it, even though cheater Ashton Kutcher recently emerged relatively unscathed by the media. No one asked for him to be fired from Two and a Half Men.

I might not be concerned for K-Stew, but I am concerned for my younger stepsister who has pictures of Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson on her walls, who idolizes and worships them, and who might grow up to hate Kristen Stewart for reasons she doesn’t understand. I’m worried she will be taught that it’s not okay to mess up, learn from it and apologize, because no one wants your apology, just your suffering on camera. I’m worried that she’ll think its okay to harass and threaten women for their indiscretions, even if men get off scot-free. I’m worried she will think this culture of bullying, slut-shaming and rhetorical violence against women is the norm, because you get a t-shirt for it. I’m worried she will learn to internalize the shame brought on far too many women today, for having sexualities, for not being perfect, for not fitting into a box. I’m worried she’ll believe men like Todd Akin, Paul Ryan and Mike Huckabee are right.

Because even if she doesn’t know who Akin, Ryan and Huckabee are, even if she doesn’t pay attention to politics or the radical right-wing GOP, she does pay attention to Twilight and Robsten. And if we want to empower her to be a strong, independently minded woman who knows that her body, sexuality and safety are legitimate and can stand up for her rights, we need to pay attention, too. This might seem ridiculous to us, and most people I know can’t wait to stop talking about it. But for her, having this conversation makes a difference. Although no young woman shouldn’t think it’s okay to cheat, what we are teaching them right now is so much worse. TC Mark

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