Thursday, March 31, 2011

Charlie Sheen, Chris Brown, & Violence Against Women


On Tuesday, Feministing posted an article “On Charlie Sheen and Chris Brown”, which I think everyone should read. It's a cogent analysis of the role played by racism in the internet and media response to Charlie Sheen, Chris Brown, and their respective violence against women.

Brown tweeted his frustration at still being asked questions about his violence against Rihanna two years on, pointing out that nobody is taking Sheen to task for his history of violence. Obviously it is not okay for Brown to be “over” it, and we need to keep questioning any public figure who has done such a terrible thing – but, in the second half of his tweet, he kind of has a point.

When I wrote about Charlie Sheen, back at the beginning of all the ugliness that has gone down in his current media blitz, I (somewhat naively) considered him solely from the perspective of his TV role, and I (very naively) concluded that his role on Two and a Half Men makes the snarky denizens of the internet leery because of its uncomfortable resemblance to real life. Obviously, this has proved not to be the case: cyberspace will forgive any sin if it finds something funny. Sheen's twitter account garnered a million followers quicker than anyone had before; he has been fawned over by numerous talk show hosts who are happy to avoid difficult topics as long as he talks about tiger blood and goddesses and winning; and many of the things he has recently said became memes inescapable on the web. For the past month, we have all been talking about Charlie Sheen, but we have not been talking about his abuse of women.

The Feministing article does a good job of tracing the connection between racism and violence against women in the US back to times of slavery, and showing how the image of African-American men as aggressors against (usually white) women still pervades US culture. This is a perfect illustration of the phenomenon of intersectionality. Obviously violence against women is a feminist issue, but in this instance the cultural response is such an inextricable blend of misogyny and racism that we simply cannot divorce the two, and attempts to approach this sorry story as a purely [implied: white] women's issue are dishonest and counterproductive.

An astonishing number of people do not take systemic racism seriously. They deny its continued existence today, or they try to soften it by calling it “subconscious” or “latent”. But ours is a world where a TV executive can refuse to hire people of color for years, and nobody notices until he admits it out loud. How much more overt can it be?

Violence against women is not taken seriously either. We are told that feminism has achieved its aims, in the West at least, and we are “over-sensitive” to perceived instances of misogyny. But in the West a prestigious newspaper can still blame an 11-year-old for being gang-raped by dozens of men. How much more overt can it be?

The Charlie Sheen débâcle of the past month has been characterized by misogyny; with our treatment of Chris Brown for comparison, it's evident that racism also plays a part. A man of color with a history of violence against women appals us. A white man with a history of violence against women entertains and delights us. Everything about this phenomenon is shameful and sickening. We in the media and internet need to start showing a sense of responsibility. We need to start asking the uncomfortable questions and we need to stop perpetuating the same old systems of injustice. Social media and information/communication technology can be a powerful force, and we should be using them to do something worthwhile.

Fortunately, the life cycle of a meme in cyberspace occurs at warp speed. Already it seems the internet has tired of the great Sheenstravaganza of March 2011: tickets for Sheen's forthcoming tour have undersold, and we internauts have turned our derision and glee to newer phenomena. This has more to do with pop culture's infinitesimally short attention span, however, than it has to do with morality. On Newsgrape, my “Charlie Vs. Barney” post has more hits than anything else I've posted there, and I regret not using that pulling power to write something more responsible. Like everyone else who has written about Charlie Sheen without foregrounding his history of violence, I can only say: mea culpa. I'll try to do better next time.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

I'm Not Here For Your Entertainment

The other night I was at a party, where I saw somebody I haven't seen since high school. Let's call him Flobberwobberbobberbobberbobber (+10 if you get the reference, +100 if you can say it out loud without cracking a smile). At some point, the inevitable happened: I made a passing reference to an ex-girlfriend, and Flobberwobberbobberbobberbobber said, “So are you gay now?”

That kind of phrasing sets off all manner of alarm bells, but the simplest answer is “yes”. Of course, this led to a barrage of inane questions, which I really didn't feel like answering. (Mad props to my homies in the house who jumped straight to my defense with the usual inversions: “How long have you been straight?”) Later on, I'm pretty sure he was trash-talking me to a good friend, who also defended me like the absolute brick he is.

It would be nice to say that this is the worst I've ever gotten from a straight dude, that I've never been treated like a performing seal or been called unpleasant names or come close to getting the snot beaten out of me on account of my sexuality. It would be nice, but if I said that I would be a lying liar who lies.

All of this harassment, without exception, has come from men.

Some of these men were bullies; some of them were merely ignorant but well-intentioned; they are all products of a culture that tells men they can belittle women's sexuality with impunity. That tells men all valid sex revolves around men's sexuality. That tells men gay women are putting it on to titillate men. That teaches men to question a gay woman's very existence, because it doesn't make any sense that women can have desires and attractions that don't involve men in some way, so any woman claiming to do so is at best a divertissement for men's amusement and at worst a pervert (yes, I've been called that – for holding hands with my girlfriend in public).

What does it feel like to be told, implicitly or explicitly, that your existence is invalid?

It feels like shit.

The only time a woman has made me feel this bad was when a conservative Christian friend lent me a charming book called Blame it on the Brain, which purports to offer solutions to problems like depression, alcoholism, and homosexuality through a cobbled-together mess of dubious neuroscience and Scripture. How much it hurts when people use my faith, the God whom I love and trust with everything I am, to invalidate me is a whole other story. In the secular world, though, women don't doubt other women's sexuality, because we know from our lived experience that, contrary to the teachings of the kyriarchy, women are sexual beings just as much as men are. Some women, of course, are asexual, as are some men; but among those of us who are sexual, some of us are gay. Yes, really.

We're not doing it to get your attention. We're not doing it to play hard to get. We're not doing it because we feel a feminist's obligation to reject men even though we secretly want them. We're doing it because it's who we are.

When you are part of a marginalized group, your oppressors put you in a neat little damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't snare. When a member of the oppressing majority asks a question that displays eir astonishing, breath-taking ignorance, like “how long have you been gay?”, ey's putting the onus on you to educate em. You can refuse, knowing that ey will probably not bother with the five minutes of googling needed to self-educate, and so you are leaving em in ignorance; or you can oblige, and feel as though you are there purely for the convenience of the oppressor: you're the Magical Minority!

What I want from my oppressors is simple. I don't want to have to justify myself to you. I don't want to hear you say you've “turned” lesbians, or to put up with your sexual advances after I've made it clear that I am not interested. I don't want to feel like I have to educate you, and I don't want to have to be defended by my straight friends. I definitely don't want to have to run away so I can keep my face the way it is. When you do this stuff to me, you make me feel as if I am less of a person than you.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Happiest Monday Of My Life

In the mail this morning, I received my letter of acceptance onto a master's degree program at a certain institute of higher learning in a certain ex-hippie enclave of liberalism and diversity in ~California~. Not only does this open the door for me to move back to the great and baffling land of the USA, but it paves the way for me to formally study systematic and philosophical theology in a progressive environment. Basically, I want to dance on the rooftops.

Also, I saw Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams today, and it's really f'in good.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Backlash: 20 Years On

I read Feministing. I read Feministe. I read Womanist Musings and The F Word and a host of other women's rights websites. I am on top of the jargon and acronyms common in feminist/womanist writings (TW! IBTP!), and I have a decent understanding of what is broadly meant by the terms first-, second-, and third-wave feminism.

Despite all this, I haven't actually read many classic feminist texts. My main reason for this is that a lot of second-wave feminists at best ignored and at worst actively worked against the causes of women of color, trans* people, women in developing countries, and basically anyone who wasn't a white, highly-educated, upper- or middle-class cis woman in the developed world. See this excellent Bitch post for more information. Being a white, highly-educated, upper- or middle-class cis woman in the developed world myself, I am extremely conscious of my potential to stomp all over most of humankind, and of my duty to be an outspoken ally of all the people who don't share my many thousand metric tons of privilege. Given that Jezebel hacked me off to the point of quitting it completely a number of months ago, the thought of reading pages and pages of self-described feminists failing intersection forever is profoundly unappealing.

However, I recognize the importance of knowing the history of any movement with which I align myself. And so, leaving the Steinem and the Greer and the Wolf for a day when my defenses are higher, I decided to dip into the slightly less problematic end of the classic-feminist-text pool, starting with Susan Faludi's 1992 award-winner Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women.

Faludi's thesis is that every period of major gains for women's equality is followed by a political and media backlash blaming feminism for every problem women still face, when in fact the problems exist because feminism has not gone far enough. Her primary focus is the 1980s, but she devotes an early chapter to showing how contemporary anti-feminist rhetoric restates ideas from earlier backlash periods: the late nineteenth century, the 1930s, the post-war period.

Each chapter explores the backlash in a different sphere: the media, movies, TV, fashion, beauty, politics, popular psychology, careers, and reproductive rights. The book is primarily about these things in the US, though it does contain briefer references to the situations in Britain, Australia, and New Zealand throughout. Obviously this self-imposed limitation – a necessary one, since it already runs to 500+ pages – means that a number of intersections fall outside the book's scope, such as women in non-Anglophone or developing countries, trans* women, disabled women, etc.; but Faludi engages often with class issues and sometimes with issues specifically facing women of color (though I would have liked a whole chapter on WOC). It is worth mentioning that Faludi occasionally uses ableist language, notably referring to failing systems as “crippled”.

Faludi does not write with the crackling fury and vitriol that makes some other feminist writing such fun but also so easy to dismiss as hyperbolic. Even when pointing out stomach-turning hypocrisy and injustice (the chapter on reproductive rights made me cry with rage), her writing is measured and calm, calling on an impressive and frankly irrefutable array of statistics. However, some parts of the book would have benefited from even more facts and figures: the chapter on movies would make a more effective point if it explored feminist and anti-feminist content in, say, the 100 highest-earning films at the box office in the 1980s, rather than concentrating on a handful of cherry-picked movies. The chapter full of ad hominems on leading figures of 1980s anti-feminism, while very funny, would have felt less petty if it had contextualized its chosen targets better and given more of a sense of their respective degrees of influence and popularity to those of us too young to remember the eighties.

The best chapter by far is the one on reproductive rights. It balances a broad overview with agonizing individual stories, and it hits especially hard in our current context, where Republicans in the US are launching ever more jaw-dropping attacks on women's health and reproductive rights.

Twenty years on, are we in another backlash period? I'm no sociologist, but the truth is that, while the figures might be different, the backlash attitudes described in the book will be painfully familiar to anyone who engages with Western culture with a feminist eye. It's 2011, and articles like this and this are still being published in major media outlets. It's 2011, and Faludi's 20-year-old words could have been written yesterday on any of the blogs I linked in my opening paragraph: “Feminism's agenda is basic: […] It asks that women be free to define themselves – instead of having their identity defined for them, time and again, by their culture and their men.”

Backlash is not a perfect book, but it has the dual value of all great texts: as a historical document of the specific time and place where it was written, and as a timeless statement of truths that hold today. If you are despairing of ever achieving justice and equality, if you feel crushed by the weight of everything we have to fight against, read Faludi's closing words of sorrow and hope:

[W]omen's hour on the stage is long, long overdue. Because, whatever new obstacles are mounted against the future march toward equality, whatever new myths invented, penalties levied, opportunities rescinded or degradations imposed, no one can ever take from women the justness of their cause.”

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Cheesy Songs, Strong Emotions


“I'll really miss ur talks about Pink Floyd, The Who and other stupid rock bands that don't affect my life in any way,” wrote Gloria in my goodbye journal. (Not the only double-edged comment – Susie's hilariously deadpan entry kind of makes me want to track her down on Facebook: “Good luck, not like you'll need it. Remember me when you're famous and I'll miss your intelligent jokes. Not.” In Nairobi, the nineties evidently didn't end until after 2002.)

Stupid it may have been, but my childhood love of dad-rock – not to mention my obnoxious habit, attested in Katy's goodbye note, of responding to the question “how's it going?” with “33rpm” has gained me a decent amount of cred over the years, as my coevals cringe at the memory of Backstreet Boys CDs past, and wish their pre-teen selves had liked bands as unembarrassing as The Who. I, however, rather wish I could participate in the collective cultural nostalgia for the nineties. Being a twenty-something who only knows three Spice Girls songs, two of them from school choir performances (TRUE FACT), can be lonely.

It's easy to like good music when you're unhappy. Nobody liked the Spice Girls in isolation. You liked them with your friends – ideally your posse of five, so that each of you could pick a Spice Girl to “Wannabe”*. If you didn't have friends, why would you listen to the Spice Girls?

*Ho ho! See what I did there?

I'm certainly not immune to the inverse correlation between amount of serotonin flowing and quality of music enjoyed. When I've been happy, and especially when I've been in a new relationship, I've imprinted emotionally on some awful dreck.

Exhibit A: LMNT's “Juliet”. I basically love this song. To my ears, it is a perfect slice of bubblegum cheesecake. I love that it apparently predates texting (“I've tried to page you twice”); I love that it completely misinterprets Romeo & Juliet as a totally awesome love story that should be emulated (though admittedly that misconception is so pervasive in popular culture as to be hardly worth remarking on); and I LOVE the utterly ridiculous gear change after the middle eight. Really, it is an unexceptional, justly-forgotten four minutes of turn-of-the-century boy-band silliness; but in my need for a little piece of aural happiness, something to express the regressing-to-adolescence giddiness of falling in love (“Every time I see you pass in my homeroom class makes my heart beat fast”), I happened on this particular nonsense, and now it is forever entwined with that period of my life and all the related emotions.

My only real criterion for a meaningful love song is that it be fresh. Obviously, the classic love songs of my childhood still speak to me, but they'll always be more about me than about anyone I fall in love with. For a song to have that especial one-time-only resonance, it must be free of all prior emotional weight for me. Something I wouldn't normally like is ideal for this purpose, because the sad and bitter end of the relationship will actually be a relief to the part of me that has musical taste and discernment.

We're about to go to quite a dark place with this. Bear with me.

This is something I haven't admitted to anyone before (except a neat girl I met at a house party last year in Haringey. If you're out there, get in touch! You worried you'd offended me by saying Willow/Oz is better than Willow/Tara. You're wrong, but we can still be friends!), but during my last relationship I used to listen to, well, certainly one of the five worst songs ever written.

Brace yourself.

Exhibit B: Blessid Union of Souls, “Hey Leonardo”.

Everything about that is just exquisitely awful, like an exact replica of Michelangelo's David sculpted from crap. Musically, of course, it's drivel, but it's the lyrics that really drive the song to Horrorville. They are lazy: the rhymes are half-hearted at best, and at one point the singer sighs rather than finish a line. And, oh God, they are so painfully dated! “She's phat like Cindy Crawford” is an actual line in an actual recorded song. I'll cop to a soft spot for anything that namedrops Fargo, though isn't it weird that one of the five worst songs ever written mentions one of the five best movies ever made?

However, there are two specific moments that instantaneously elevate this song to the peak of the highest mountain in the Himalayas of Suck.

  1. The couplet:
    “Not because I sing like Pavarotti
    Or because I'm such a hottie”
    Truly, Shakespeare missed a trick, leaving that one out of “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I”.

  2. The wacky sound effect following the mention of DVDs. 'Cause DVDs are futuristic, yo!

The really awful thing about this song, though, is that it reminds me of a particular person and the barrel of associated emotions. And I know exactly what will happen: one day I will be at a party, and I will have drunk a little too much, and some joker will put this song on. The room will fill with shouts of derision, and at first I will join in, but by the time the song attempts to rhyme “Tyson Beckford” with “Robert Redford” I will be in floods of tears.

Even knowing all the lyrics to Dark Side of the Moon before the age of twelve won't restore my cred after that.

Friday, March 18, 2011

It's A White, White, White, White World

Sure, she's pretty, but could she be any whiter?

Dear Hollywood:

I think it's time we had a little chat.

Specifically, I think it's time you listened to me. I listen to your infantile blitherings all the time. I pay attention to your news. I dutifully amp up my excitement over each new titbit of casting info and each new teaser, however disappointed I've been in the past.

I see a movie on average once a week, and, while I do try to support independent and foreign films, a lot of them are of necessity produced by Hollywood. And I put up with a lot of crap. Of the fifty or so movies I saw at the cinema in 2010, do you know how many had a female protagonist? Six. Do you know how many had a protagonist of color? Three. Gay protagonist? Two. Protagonist with a disability? One.

So I get it, Hollywood. I get that you are only interested in telling the stories of straight, white, cisgendered, non-disabled men. I get that you have spun yourself a self-fulfilling prophecy that only straight, white, cis, non-disabled men go to the movies, that they want to see only characters just like them, and that any successful movie with a different kind of protagonist is a fluke. It depresses, disheartens, and sickens me that you perpetuate the concept of straight-white-cis-able-man as “default” and anything else as “other”, and claim that you are following society's trends rather than helping to shape them; but I get it.

Frankly, though, I've had enough. I don't know how much longer we can continue in this relationship. I give you my (minority woman's) money, to the tune of hundreds of dollars a year, hoping only for two hours of entertainment that won't offend me; you trot out the same few tired stereotypes of women and minorities, when you bother to include us at all, and then use my and all the other women's and minority folks' money to make more movies that continue the cycle.

And when you get a chance to do something different – when you're adapting an excellent book, written by a woman, with a strong and complex female protagonist – you cock it up at the very first hurdle.

Don't get me wrong: I love Jennifer Lawrence. She is an extremely talented actress, and much the best thing about the underwhelming Winter's Bone; but, for God's sake, did you learn nothing from the race-bending scandal around last year's best comedy, The Last Airbender? Or the whitewashing of Prince of Persia?

Who am I kidding? Of course you learned nothing. All you care about is money, and your heinous misconception that only white people have it. You don't care one whit what people of color or anti-racist allies think. It's not about social responsibility or artistic integrity: it's all about the almighty dollar.

I'm sure the Hunger Games movie will make you lots of money. I'm sure you'll say that the success of a movie with a female protagonist is a one-off. And I'm sure you'll say that casting a white and delightsome woman in the lead role was a market-driven decision for which you cannot be held politically responsible. Just like the total lack of people of color among the nominees for last month's Academy Awards. Just like the race-bending of Prince of Persia and The Last Airbender. Just like the continued absence of anyone who's not white and straight and able-bodied and cis from the multiplex screens.

Well, as I said, I don't know how much longer I can take this. You can keep insulting me, but eventually I – and my $500 a year – will walk away.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Slow Down Your Neighbors: Universalism, Semiotics, and Rob Bell

The semiotics of sitcoms - there's a blog post there.

This one pastor chappie, Rob Bell, has been causing a ruckus in the Christian blogosphere with his new book, Love Wins. In it, I'm told, he argues that there is no such thing as eternal damnation, but after death non-Christians will still have the opportunity to repent, and, faced with direct and immediate evidence of eternal life in ever-loving God, they all will. It's a position known as universalism: everyone gets saved. And it's a position excoriated by conservative evangelicals, among whose numbers Rob Bell has been pleased to rank for the duration of his career.

Now the evangelicals are not happy with Mr. Bell. In this 10,000-word takedown, one such Christian calls the book inaccurate, indefensible, naive, muddled, blasphemous, and – horror of horrors! - liberal. In many mainstream Christian circles, it seems, there is no greater insult than the l-word. (No, the other one.) (No, the other one.) (No, the other other one.) Dearly beloved leader of the free peoples of Shorelandia John Shore has written several articles in response to readers asking questions like “Is the Devil Making Me Believe in a 'Liberal' God Who Isn't the True God?”, “Does the Holy Spirit Vote Republican?”, and, in 2008, “Will God Forgive Me if I Don't Vote for McCain?”.

The assumption that Christianity and conservatism go together like Charlie Sheen and incoherent bragging has always baffled me. To me it's self-evident that, in the words of another dearly beloved leader of the free peoples, Stephen Colbert, “reality has a well-known liberal bias”. And maybe my third-world upbringing gave me too much of an affinity with Liberation Theology, the Latin American Christian movement of the 1970s that condemned oppression and gave a theological voice to the poor, but it's equally self-evident that God has a liberal bias.

I could proof-text this. I could point to Old Testament passages that demand welfare provision for poor and vulnerable groups in society; to the Psalms' many strong words about God's hatred of injustice and concern for the oppressed; to the way Jesus hung out with people on the lowest social rung, and told people to pay their taxes and keep church and state separate; even to the passage in Acts where the early Christians practiced – yes, they did – communism. But proof-texting is a peculiarly evangelical tactic, and so, having availed myself of a rhetorical device of which Cicero would be proud, I will move on.

The problem with proof-texting – the problem with conservative and evangelical Christianity as a whole, really – is that it privileges one's own reading of the text, to the exclusion of all others. To return to that gargantuan panning of Love Wins, you'll notice a severe insistence that “[b]oth sides [of the universalism debate] cannot be right”, and a constant appeal to both traditional Christian orthodoxy and what the Bible “clearly” says. If you can't understand why “it's tradition, so it must be right” is a specious argument, you're clearly not cut out for critical thinking; but it's the appeal to Biblical authority that bothers me more.

I know that I have been steeped in semiotics for some months now, and that it is a difficult and obscure field, but I really think more conservatives need to engage with it on a fundamental level. I've talked before about my uncertainty as to whether any text, the Bible included, has meaning independent of what we read into it; in fact, I'm rather hoping to make this the topic of my prospective post-graduate studies; and I believe that all interpretive truth-claims need to be approached with a healthy barrel of skepticism. A poem doesn't 'mean' one single thing; its meaning lies in the tension and harmony of all the different interpretations that can possibly be laid on it by its readers. The same is true of all writing. Even something most people would consider should be unambiguous, such as a legal document, bears this multitude of meaning – that's what lawyers do all day. When I consider the interpretive ambiguity of a sign that reads



it seems completely absurd to claim any single “correct” interpretation of a text as dense, complex, even perhaps self-contradictory as the Bible.

Whether that leaves us in a chaotic, Crowleyesque free-for-all of wanton eisegesis, I'm neither sufficiently advanced in my hermeneutic studies nor intellectually arrogant enough to judge. However, in the absence of external referents, I maintain my skepticism toward interpretive absolutism; and I ask, along with arguably the world's first semiotician, “What is truth?”