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Jenna Marbles, Victim Blaming, And The Problem With The Word “Slut”

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For those of you who aren’t aware, popular vlogger Jenna Mourey (aka Jenna Marbles) posted a video this week where she talked about a particular brand of woman she doesn’t understand, “The Slut.” She defines a slut (though she admits that she can’t perfectly pinpoint its exact meaning) as “someone who has a lot of casual sex.” Now, Jenna is no stranger to discussing gender — a huge amount of her videos have consisted of talking in a Men-Mars-Women-Venus way about everything from driving to sex to surfing the internet. Men do things one way, women another. Yet despite the general overtone of gender stereotypes that a lot of her work is comprised of (and her foray into blackface for her Nicki Minaj video), she has flown relatively under the radar when it comes to feminist critique.

But this week, with her “Slut” video, a conversation has been started around the internet about what she has said, and the cultural ideas and norms which support it. (I should take a moment here to say that both Chescaleigh and Laci Green have, among many other great vloggers, made really thoughtful responses that are definitely worth a watch.) And I am generally pleased to see that the response to Jenna’s video has been one of reflection and serious conversation, with even the video responses including a disclaimer that they are not attempting to start a witch hunt on Jenna herself. The focus seems to be on the idea that the comments coming from Jenna herself are one that society has told her she is right in thinking, and one that needs to be dealt with on a cultural level, through education, instead of more shaming.

When I saw the video personally, I was deeply saddened. I was sad because I have seen many of Jenna’s videos, and felt that this one took a turn for the negative and judgmental that I’d never really seen in her before. Sure, her gender tropes schtick can get tiresome after a while, but it always seemed to have a lighthearted, self-mocking tone that the “slut” video lacks completely. And I was particularly disappointed to see her speak this way because I have been her, almost to a tee. For a long time, I thought exactly as she thinks, and made a similar choice to publicly state those ideas.

The thing is, we are raised to fear the sexuality of other women, and to judge it harshly. We are raised to see the sexual premium of female chastity as a collective thing, something another woman could “damage” by not taking it seriously enough. If a woman embraces her sexuality in a way that is different than we do, we are taught to ostracize her and shame her into believing it is wrong. These things are instilled in us so deeply that women who are otherwise intelligent, otherwise compassionate, and otherwise supportive of other woman can think that there is something wrong or inherently immoral about a woman who enjoys casual sex, without a trace of cognitive dissonance. The sexuality of a woman, for all intents and purposes, is never fully her own. We are expected, as a society, to keep tabs on it and make sure that it doesn’t get too out of control. And embracing these ideas through adulthood is all too easy, as they are reinforced almost everywhere we look.

In fact, the ideas of slut shaming and victim blaming are so embedded in women and how they think, they can easily manifest in a sort of cultural self-flagellation. My own feelings on how women should behave if they want to be safe and respected extended to every woman, including myself. Even when I dated a man who treated me terribly — who said things that, in retrospect, were unforgivable, who even went so far as to physically hurt me, I felt that to put the blame on him was out of the question. My first response was to think of what I could be doing to make him treat me better, like me more, have more respect for me. And on one occasion, when I told a friend that he had put a hand on me, I was immediately asked what I did to upset him. To this day, I find myself, on occasion, secretly wishing that I had his approval and respect, even if I haven’t seen him in years. Because to let go of this notion that we, as women, have a specific behavioral line to toe in order to be treated as human beings deserving of respect and agency is to reject everything you have ever been told about what a “lady” is.

And beyond that, if you are someone who has internalized these Madonna/Whore complexes and this rhetoric of victim blaming, seeing someone who is owning their sexuality or refusing to be silent in the face of mistreatment can be extremely upsetting. We are taught to respond to this by shaming them back into our position of self-regulation and limiting our behavior so as not to “deserve” any kind of abuse. It is ugly, and it is terribly detrimental to women as a whole, but it is what we are taught. It is what many of us still believe makes us a “good woman,” a “lady” deserving of respect and honor. In reality, “lady” has no more of a real meaning than the word “slut.” They are simply terms that can and will be applied to different women at different times, depending on circumstance, to support an agenda of getting her to fall in line. Most women have likely been called “slut” in their lives (whether or not they are aware), and there is no amount of sex one can have that suddenly makes the label accurate or meaningful.

I don’t think Jenna Mourey is a bad person, and I believe she believes herself a supporter of women, just as I did. I can even pick out things in her video which I agree with, such as the idea that we should help a friend if we see that they are inebriated past the point of making clear decisions, and stop them from being taken home by someone who is looking to take advantage of their state. Yes, in a perfect world, we wouldn’t be getting blackout drunk, as even alone in one’s own home that state can be dangerous to be in. But the idea is that even when someone is that drunk, we should still be focusing the discourse on “not taking advantage of someone who cannot decide for themselves what they actually are comfortable with.” And Jenna, like so many others, lends a voice to the idea that we are living with a constant checklist of “what could have been done to prevent” anything from domestic violence to harassment to rape, instead of addressing the foundations of these problems.

I hope to see a video response from Jenna where she addresses some of her critics, and thinks more clearly about the things she said and why she thinks them. I wish that, when I felt the same way she did, I had more knowledge about myself and the world around me — that I wasn’t living in the kind of ignorance that fosters these ideas and allows them to take root. But I am glad to see that so many women — women much more eloquent than I — are taking the time to talk to her, and other people who may feel the same way as she does, and remind them that this line of thinking only hurts all of us. We are all deserving of respect and compassion, and we owe it to ourselves to remember that. TC mark

 

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