Friday, September 18, 2009
As for me? I am doing a lot better than last I wrote here. But as you climb up facades, you sometimes find that footholds give and you need to find an alternate route - and that's what I'm doing. My mental health is good, but I'm working a great deal, trying to catch up on bills and keep my head above water.
The break is doing me a great lot of good in terms of perspective and what I can do with this blog. I will definitely be back by the first of October. 50 Books for Problematic Times will also return on that date (I want to wrap it up right and not while I'm on hiatus).
My everlasting gratitude goes out to all of you for your patience. I send each one of you so much love.
This is a guest post from Chally, a scary feminist. Among other things, she’s a non-white, heterosexual, cis, disabled, middle class woman. She lives in Australia and enjoys knitting, Doctor Who and cake. You can find her at Zero at the Bone.
My mother changed her name back to her pre-marital name a few years back now.
She’s the most darling person I know. She seems to have gotten on many charities’ phone lists over the years. When we’re hanging out together and the phone rings, this is what I all too often hear as her side of the conversation:
‘Hi, yes, that’s not my name though… It used to be Mrs Oldname, now it’s Ms Name… I mean you’ve got my details wrong… Actually, I donated some money when you called me before and the operator promised me they’d changed my record then. And this has happened before… My name has changed, can you remove my old name from your system?… I think you do really good work, it’s not that… I just want you to have my name right because this is getting- … I know charities aren’t a part of the do not call scheme, I’m asking-’
You’re asking the woman for money. Don’t deny her identity while doing so.
One organisation with which I was registered required me to yearly fill out a form listing my personal details, including my parents’ names. This was primarily aimed at correcting any out of date information they might have on file. When my mother changed her name and title, I submitted these changes. I did it again and again. In letters, in forms, in everything, the organisation ignored these changes. I made a fuss every time. For years. Eventually I ended up yelling, tearful, in public. Someone nipped off to the registration office and got the records to reflect my mother’s actual name. But she was still listed as a Mrs, not her preferred Ms. She probably still is.
None of this shit happened when she changed her name upon marriage.
How dare this amazing, wonderful being claim her own identity?
Note: I got her to read this through before publishing. An objection: ‘Can a lady say “shit”?’ My response to this sort of thing is always ‘well, I’m a lady, and I [whatever], so yes.’ It’s one of our running jokes.
Note II: Regarding the title, yes, I know it’s a mishmash of quotes. I went to drama school, I can do what I like.
Monday, September 14, 2009
This is a cross post from Recursive Paradox of Genderbitch. RP is a 20 something MtF transsexual who isn't terribly happy with how society wants her to be now that she's transitioned. Cue feminism and rage. Some things she's happy with? Science (she's a biology student). Cats. Writing. Sci Fi. Video games. She's also a geek, hence the geeky name: Recursive Paradox.
Privilege is a nasty thing. It steals perspective, traps us in mindsets and views that make it near impossible to comprehend what a marginalized person is going through. It is, invariably, the worst obstacle facing any ally of any marginalized group.
What I say here is probably applicable to any context of ally and oppressed but I'll stick with the trans angle, as it is what I know the best. Some of this might be lifted straight from my twitter account because I said it well there. Don't feel too offended by the recycling. XD
At its most simple, the concept of an ally is one who is in alliance with you. Alliance is in any context merely a mutually beneficial arrangement to advance common goals and interests. It means that your goals need to align with at least some of the goals of your allied members. And that the arrangement taken must benefit all parties involved. When it comes to marginalization, privilege, bigotry, -isms and alliance, things get a bit more complex. The alliance is only truly beneficial to the marginalized party if privilege is overcome long enough to achieve forward motion in social reform. Basically, lateral moves, a lack of any activity or any action that furthers, enables or ignores the marginalization of the marginalized party is not beneficial to them. Therefore it does not fit the boundaries of an alliance.
Let's say you're playing a real time strategy video game. Your base is under attack. If your ally sits back and watches your little soldiers die and your buildings burn, then that is a violation of the mutualistic nature of alliance. If your ally offers to trade some resources to your enemies, while they are attacking you, then they are in violation of the mutualistic nature of alliance. Generally a privileged person isn't being harmed by helping us. They will always have that privilege for as long as the system exists and works and will likely be spared what we go through as a result, even when supporting us. Our aims (which are basically, honor our bodily rights and respect our needs) do not in any way clash with their aims (unless their aim is to dominate, control, harm or damage us). So generally an alliance with a marginalized party is almost always beneficial to a non marginalized party (in the given context). Especially in this day and age, when we have the Liberal Reputation PointsTM game. So the thing that's the most important when it comes to alliance between marginalized and privileged parties is quite simply, does this actually benefit the marginalized party?
Unfortunately it isn't that common that it does.
Why is this? Because many allies are terrible, awful, incompetent allies. Terrible, awful, incompetent and under the privilege induced delusion that they are actually perfectly good allies, which just makes the problem persist. Part of the problem is certainly privilege, no doubts there. Privilege is the primary obfuscating curtain when it comes to knowing what those you act as an ally for need. But an even bigger part of the problem is actually the Liberal Reputation PointsTM game itself and people's personal reputation.
Let's face it, no one wants to look like a bigot. It doesn't look good and we all firmly associate the word bigotry with being a grade A fuckstupid douchenozzle (or an equivalent horribly insulting phrase in your mind). It gets especially worse when you're in a pretty seriously marginalized group yourself and have to deal with other people being shitty allies. You would feel like complete guilty shit if you suddenly realized that you just fucked over someone in the exact same way you get fucked over regularly. It's why GLB folk and womanists respond so badly to being called on transphobia and cissexism. Because GLB folk have to contend with being betrayed by a mess of the lib community and womanists get regularly fucked over by white feminists and our resoundingly loud White Noise. So realizing that, hey, you've suddenly become a giant raging hypocrite is not a pleasant experience.
I've watched this unfold before. An ally does something not terribly beneficial or slips on something, is called on it and just completely flips out. And then a little bit later, contritely goes, "aw fuck, I'm so sorry, that was horrible of me". Some don't come to the realization of course, and they are pretty much considered dirty self deluding liars when they call themselves an ally. There's a list of things that consistantly are done that reduce the effectiveness of one's alliance to folk and then are done that worsen the blow and add insult to injury. And there are things every ally can do to reduce the impact of their fuckups and to reduce the frequency of said fuckups. Let's take a look shall we?
1: Speaking for the marginalized person:
A lot of allies think they know a whole bunch of shit about what we need and how we need it. Well, they're wrong. You can do all the research in the world and you still won't know exactly what a given trans person will need. Fuck, most of us don't know what the rest of us need half the time. So when you speak over trans folk, or Aspects forbid, tell trans folk to shut up because you know what we need, you are being a shit poor ally. When a marginalized person tells you to relay a message, relay it exactly. Ask them at any chance you can to make sure you are not distorting, embellishing or extending their requests/needs verbally. You will make mistakes obviously, but if you do these things those mistakes will be less likely and have less impact.
2: Arguing a privilege call:
Face it, you do have privilege. This is a given. If you did something and someone calls privilege on you for it, don't argue it. Because chances are, you are wrong and if you argued it, you're making it just that much harder to get through to you to someone who goes through a helluva lot of shit normally and doesn't need it from allies too.
There are rare cases where people will pull a privilege call out of their asses. This does happen and I would be a moron to claim otherwise. But it is extraordinarily rare. It is also generally fairly obvious to other folk that are part of the marginalized group when someone is bullshitting a privilege call. Instead of arguing, ask how what you did was privilege induced. Ask nicely, ask politely. You have the burden as the privileged one, to operate beneficially to us. After all, life gives you a massive leg up and fucks us over. It isn't a huge deal to swallow your pride a little and politely ask what you did wrong. If the claim is bullshit, the person won't be able to describe what you did wrong in terms of privilege and other folk of that group will probably call them on it too.
But chances are, they aren't wrong and you fucked up.
This is never acceptable. Enabling others in engaging in silencing, engaging in silencing tactics yourself and not addressing others use of silencing are all unacceptable actions by an ally. Silencing tactics are fairly simple. They are methods used to quash dissent. To dismiss or disable the voices of dissent against the privilege induced majority speak. They can include trolling someone, threatening someone, making offensive jokes, using slurs, acting violent or intimidating, demanding or even criticizing anger from a marginalized person, demanding that a marginalized person change their methods for addressing privilege and a host of other things that are design to control the means of communication and discourse. Technically 1 often classifies as silencing, but as it doesn't always fit silencing, I separated them.
4: Prioritizing your reputation or being right over being a good ally:
Intellectuals hate being wrong. I know this, I'm the same way. Many folks will get defensive when called out as wrong or biased. This defensiveness is simply a defense of their reputation for accuracy or in general. But in the end, one's reputation for being right a lot is never as important as the life, well being and safety of the marginalized people that person is an ally for. When you prioritize these unimportant things over our bodies, lives, well beings and safety, you fail in being an ally. Such an action is pretty heinous because of how dehumanizing it is to be prioritized below something as emphemeral, largely unimportant and dynamic as reputation.
5: Engaging in actions known by the marginalized group to be marginalizing: This one is simple. Don't do the shit to us that we ask everyone to avoid doing to us, with your support as an ally. Seriously, this one is the one that really requires stupidity or asinine levels of apathy about us. If you're fighting other people doing something to us, DON'T DO IT TOO.
1: Ask Questions:
Ask what's up often. You are at a loss when it comes to what we need maybe 80% of the time, if you're lucky. The more often you ask before or as you do something, the more likely you can catch yourself before you truly fuck up as an ally. When I write something about a group I am not a part of, I ask people to smack me with a correction if I'm being privileged or inaccurate. Requesting this shows good faith. You're trying and even if you make a mistake, the door is open to address it without fear of silencing. You are admitting your lack and your burden and this is always good.
2: Address things everywhere:
Even if we're not there to see you do it, fight oppression everywhere you can. Take the things we've requested of you and fight for them even when we aren't there. It shows that you actually give a shit about real change and not just about looking good for the Liberal Reputation PointsTM game. And for every person you change the mind of, that's another person who doesn't do something shitty to one of us. Real massive effects.
3: Self Analyze:
Privilege is, like I said above, nasty. It is sneaky, it is quiet, it is powerful. You will have a hard as hell time seeing past that stained glass window to the horrible shit beyond. I know I do. You have a burden due to that privilege, to do everything you can to see past it. The best way to do this (besides listening) is self analysis. Look at the things in your life that you have and compare that to the things marginalized groups have. Try to think in depth on it. Analyze and extend what we've taught you and try to find the points at which your privilege has truly given you immense advantages. And do these exercises in a way that will remind you. Publically, on paper, on a blog, in a journal, somewhere. If it's just up in your head, you may forget or not accept it. But if you read what you just wrote, it will drive it home. And nothing seems to convince privileged folk better that they have privilege than another privileged person pointing it out. Which is an element of privilege in and of itself. XD
4: Keep your priorities ordered well:
Don't play the Liberal Reputation PointsTM game. Just don't. Don't elevate your reputation or your sense of rightness. Don't elevate your hurt feelings that I spoke to you with anger above the people who are suffering because of people with your privilege. In the end, as an ally, your priority is our well being. The only thing that comes above that is your own well being (and as I said, you don't cost yourself a whole lot if anything by helping us). A few feelings being bruised cuz someone told you to fuck off is a whole lot less than being triggered by a rape joke. Know that we're more important than how you look, or how funny you think your jokes are, or whether or not you really liked that book, no matter how racist. And in the end, your first amendment rights are important but fuck are you a bad ally if you champion your right to use slurs about us in common conversation over helping us protect ourselves from being triggered and verbally abused by those same slurs.
5: Trust Us:
In the end, some of the things we say are gonna seem outlandish. Your privilege makes it tough to see the truth of the matter. It's like the matrix. You can't see past it but if you ever get that skill it is mind blowing and hard to believe. You need to learn to trust us to report our experiences and not question everything given to you. Because we get that enough from the non allies. We need you to make it easy for once.
So that is the list. Do's and Don'ts. There's more things, most likely, that I forgot or didn't add. But these are the big ones. Applicable to every single marginalized group and their allies. There are no exceptions to this list. You fail at being an ally if you are not doing these things. So if you are failing, stand up, dust off and do the right thing. Because we need you. It isn't just a pixilated base on a video game we're losing.
It's our lives.
Like this? Read her previous Deeply Problematic guest-post on cis privilege.
Friday, September 11, 2009
Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldua: a review by Plain(s) Feminist [50BPT]
Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldua
"Anzaldua, a Chicana native of Texas, explores in prose and poetry the murky, precarious existence of those living on the frontier between cultures and languages. Writing in a lyrical mixture of Spanish and English that is her unique heritage, she meditates on the condition of Chicanos in Anglo culture, women in Hispanic culture, and lesbians in the straight world. Her essays and poems range over broad territory, moving from the plight of undocumented migrant workers to memories of her grandmother, from Aztec religion to the agony of writing. Venting her anger on all oppressors of people who are culturally or sexually different, the author has produced a powerful document that belongs in all collections with emphasis on Hispanic American or feminist issues." (Library Journal)--
50 Books for Problematic Times is still accepting submissions!
Thursday, September 10, 2009
This is a guest post from meloukhia, who writes on this ain't livin'. You can also read her 50 Books for Problematic Times entry for The Sparrow and her deconstruction of the television show Dollhouse from last week. Thanks meloukhia!
“Privilege is something you don't really understand,” they say, “until it's taken away from you.” Yet, as a social justice advocate, I am constantly trying to imagine myself in the shoes of others, to see how privilege affects them and to learn more about my own complicity within the framework of privilege. It's funny how the strangest things can turn into opportunities for learning.
I had an experience recently which showed me what a dangerous place the world can be for people without privilege. A simple household need turned into a illustration of intersecting privileges: economic class, cis privilege, able privilege, and a stark reminder of how a simple thing which doesn't possibly seem like it could be loaded with complexity can become seriously threatening.
It involved a plumber, and it happened like this:
One day, I woke up and realized that the already very slow drainage in my shower and sink (I've lived here two years and it has always been pretty bad) had slowed to pretty much a standstill. I thought about snaking it myself, but I was sick, so I called the landlord, and the landlord called a plumber, and the plumber came, and it was snaked, and it was good.
In the course of the snaking, the plumber found what he delicately referred to as a “feminine hygiene item,” and it was this offending item which had caused the blockage. I was treated to a lengthy lecture about how it's not ok to flush these things, even after stating that it wasn't mine.
I realized that he didn't believe me when I stated that I wasn't responsible. He assumed that because I look like a woman I must bleed like a woman, so clearly I was embarrassed, and didn't want to admit it. (This despite the fact that the bathroom he was working in contained other personal items in ready view, suggesting that I'm not very prudish about bodily functions.) He concluded the patronizing lecture with a wink and a “I won't tell the landlord if you won't.” And I realized that the plumber thought the offending item was mine, and that therefore, the clog was my responsibility, so if he told the landlord, the landlord would expect me to pay for the plumber's visit. In fact, the plumber thought he was doing me a favor by keeping things hush-hush. Just between us friends. You know.
Being a fan of full disclosure, when I called the landlords to thank them for sending out the plumber and told them that the situation had been resolved, I mentioned what had caused the blockage, and said it wasn't mine, and that was pretty much the end of the affair. They seemed to believe me; I guess I've established myself as a trustworthy tenant.
But, the situation made me realize how, for someone in a situation different from mine, the entire scene could have turned very ugly. The landlord could have forced the issue to determine who was responsible for the plumbing bill, and in the process, a huge violation of privacy, and potentially of safety, could have occurred.
There are any number of reasons for a woman in her twenties not to menstruate, and none of them are anyone's business but her own. She might be a cis woman who has survived a gynecological cancer, or is pregnant, or is controlling her menstrual cycle with hormones. She might be a trans woman.
And, of course, a cis woman who does menstruate might have known perfectly well that the offending item wasn't hers because she uses a menstrual cup, or pads and not tampons, in which case she would be forced to disclose explicit personal details about her life. This might not be particularly threatening, but it could be upsetting.
All of these things are private, and a woman shouldn't have to disclose them to a plumber or her landlord just to avoid paying for something she didn't do, or so that a landlord can determine who bears responsibility for something which happened with a property.
When issues like this get forced, it creates a problematic situation for the renter. In the interests of privacy or concerns about personal safety, should a renter accept the blame and pay the bill? Even if this means that the renter now also has a black mark against her name in the landlord's book, for being the kind of person who flushes tampons down the toilet? Or should she present the evidence to back up her claim that the object isn't hers, thereby exposing herself (and possibly her medical situation) to scrutiny?
For a low-income renter, taking the rap for someone else's actions to maintain privacy simply wouldn't be an option; you would have to disclose why the offending object wasn't yours, thanks to the coupling of menstruation and young female identity. A trans woman of menstruating age and low income might face being outed because she needs to prove that she's not responsible for the bill. Being forcibly outed can be a threat to personal safety in addition to an exposure to transmisogyny and discrimination. A pregnant cis woman of menstruating age might be forced to disclose an early pregnancy to demonstrate that she couldn't have flushed a tampon, thereby exposing herself to discrimination on the basis of family status; something which isn't legal, but happens anyway. Likewise, a cis woman of menstruating age with an underlying medical condition which has caused her periods to stop could face discrimination on the basis of her medical condition, in addition to a violation of privacy, by demonstrating that the object wasn't hers.
It was a strange moment for me. All I wanted was to have a properly draining shower and sink, which I got, but I also got a sobering reminder of the fact that you never know when a seemingly routine action could endanger you. Should women now fear calling the plumber in case the plumber finds something personal in the pipes, thereby forcing a woman to air the details of her personal life to clear her name?
I'm in a fortunate position: I could have paid the bill to avoid disclosing personal details about my life if the situation had come down to that. Other women aren't that privileged, and the experience of imagining myself in their position was decidedly unsettling.
Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, by Toni Morrison: a review by Cole [50BPT]
Cole will graduate this year from Kenyon College with a degree in English/Creative Writing and Women's and Gender Studies. She focuses her energy towards issues of gender and race in rural and agricultural areas, especially in the American South.
Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison is known to excel at approaching issues of race and gender in her prose-poetic fiction, but her works of literary criticism are equally important (and somewhat less of an emotional roller coaster). Morrison, along with Cornel West, Ruth Frankenburg, and others, have helped shape what is now known as Critical Whiteness Studies. This field, and Morrison's book, advocates that social progress cannot be achieved only by empowering disenfranchised groups; it must also turn the tables--the critical lens, if you will-- on those in power. In other words, WWASP's have got to learn that they are just as weird and problematic as the rest of us.
Anyone who claims to love reading or writing fiction must read this book. The project is best described in her own words: "My project is an effort to avert the critical gaze from the racial object to the racial subject; from the described and imagined to the describers and imaginers; from the serving to the served." Morrison opens with her own story (her attraction and commitment to American literature), but finally asks how it is that we have not questioned our "colorist" language-- i.e. why do we describe sin, sex, and fear using words like "black" and "dark"? Why is Moby Dick a white whale? In my favorite chapter, she examines a scene from Hemingway's To Have and Have Not: "Eddy is white, and we know he is because nobody says so." Morrison's theory is that White America's racial history, its tensions and fears, are embedded in the language of its literature-- and frankly, she's damn convincing.
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
Elaine Benes set a fine example for women in the 90s – she was funny, confident, professional (well, once she stopped picking out socks for Mr. Pitt), proud to be single without feeling the need to get married and have children (and mocked her friends that did), and made no excuse about wanting (or having!) a fulfilling sex life (let’s not forget her stocking up on all the sponges in New York City, or rolling her eyes at the older woman in her office who feared that her many partners made her “germy”). I recently Netflixed the entire Seinfeld series (because what good is any writer without having studied that fine comedic art), and while I enjoyed the model that Elaine portrayed for modern women, there were a few blips on my feminist radar that caught my attention. Gender stereotypes on America’s most-beloved show, you ask? Get out!
The first instance was on the matter of “faking.” Elaine prided herself at being so good that no man could tell she didn’t orgasm, which ultimately left Jerry and George feeling inadequate about their own ability to satisfy a woman. But in faking, Elaine is only doing herself a disservice, and a disservice to women everywhere; not only is she left unsatisfied, but the man she’s with thinks that his tactics worked, and may be dumbfounded when a more outspoken woman tells him the truth, wondering what’s wrong with this woman, since all the others before had no problem. A similar idea is the subject of a Sex and the City episode (of course) where Miranda gets into the habit of faking. Upon learning the truth, her partner eagerly tries to learn what works; so too does Jerry beg Elaine for “just half an hour” to get it right. See ladies, if you ask, you shall receive. No need to put on a show.
Another blatant stereotype comes in the episode where Jerry buys his father a Cadillac. Elaine is surprised to learn that Jerry is doing so well financially, and suddenly there are invitations to dinner, to drive him to the airport…it’s too obvious it’s sickening. Elaine is making money of her own, and doing well for herself (more so than George and Kramer, for sure). Plus, the two had already dated, had hooked up since then a couple of times, and know that a romantic relationship in any capacity just doesn’t work between them. While this fawning-over-a-man’s-money action is stereotypical, it also seems downright unrealistic for her situation. But I guess comedy has its price.
Finally, there is the stretch of time where Elaine puts herself in charge of the Peterman company. Though she fails mostly because of personal flaws – inadequate sense of the industry (remember the “Urban Sombrero”?), charging expensive personal items to the corporate account (though if this recession has taught us anything, we know this isn’t gender-proof) – I still can’t help but think there is a (unintended) subtext about women CEOs. “See?” the plotline almost seems to say, “A woman can’t be in charge of a major company.” I do give Elaine credit for taking the lead in the first place, but as we are learning, it’s not THAT she is a woman leader, but that she must have the proper credentials (I’m looking at you, Sarah Palin). There are plenty of qualified women around; now it is our job to help them get to where they can make the most impact. Even ten years after Seinfeld went off the air, qualified female candidates still experience the inevitable glass ceiling: a 2008 study revealed that only 15.7% of corporate officers are women. I mean, what’s the deal with that??
Today's entry is a cross-post from Fiercely Independent. Charles Dickey was born near Columbus, Ohio in 1976. He has lived in Ohio, South Carolina, Georgia, and Washington State, and has worked as a bookseller, crisis phone worker, and environmental restoration technician. He is currently living and working in Virginia, where he reads, writes, sells books, and needs a jobby-job to provide steady income.
Ceremony, by Leslie Marmon Silko
Ceremony is a story of violence and violation; of borders, the space between borders, and transitions; it is a story of recovery and healing; and it is a story that breaks down cultural forms, norms, and containers.
It is the story of Tayo, a mixed-blood veteran of World War II, as he struggles to realign himself in a healthy relationship with the rest of the world. Tayo’s experience of post-traumatic stress disorder is skillfully evoked by Silko in passages in which the reader witnesses the fuzzy bleeding and blending of time and space to which Tayo is subjected as mundane events in his post-war life trigger his traumatic experiences in war and as a a prisoner of war at the hands of Japanese soldiers. Through these evocative passages and her subtle, atmospheric use of language, scenes of singular literary beauty blend and build a story which, if hazy at first, coalesces by the end of the book into what is a wonderful illustration of how trauma, suffering, and isolation can be overcome through meaningful participation in the world.
As Tayo progresses, taking two steps forward and one step back, then tentatively hunkering down in safe places where he may withdraw or attempt to integrate his experiences, his story spills over into oral histories of some of his ancestors. The story folds in on itself, reiterates and builds on itself in recursive and novel ways.
A pivotal point in the text occurs when Tayo visits an eccentric medicine man who lives alone on a ridge. From his modest home, this man involves himself in the complications of a hybridized world by storing and working with power objects that include not only the stereotypical Indian artifacts of ancestors, but also hundreds of pieces of modern detritus: stacks of newspapers and glass Coca-Cola bottles. All of these are arranged into a pattern, woven together in an arrangement evoking the dissonance and totality found in the post-colonial world. This holism of sacred and profane becomes the backdrop of Tayo’s quest for wholeness and healing; the integration of and healthy blending of these two polarities could arguably be stated as the goal of Tayo’s healing.
The book itself has been described as “a ceremony” by a reviewer at the Boston Globe and has been called “one of the greatest novels of any time and place” by Sherman Alexie. Certainly there is a ceremonial, an experiential, dimension to the reading of this exceptional narrative. A far cry from the clearly scripted and plotted fiction that many Americans prefer to consume, this book is slow and meandering. At the risk of sounding problematic, it is a book that exists in and moves on Indian time. Yet it is more: it is a book about transitions and transgressions, and it touches and transcends much of the violence of Western culture. Far from offering easy solutions, what Ceremony offers is much more profound and useful: it is a great work of literature, a storytelling which is an act and a movement towards an understanding of the human condition in a hybridized and fragmented world which is not easily articulated. And exceptionally, the book moves beyond articulation into the realm of suggestion: it ventures to offer one example of forward movement–not of progress, necessarily, for progress is a problematic word itself; instead, Ceremony shows us how we might return, or at least tells a story of return and healing. Its offering is more than enough: a rare work of incredible meaning and purpose, intent on synthesizing opposites, yet never losing sight of a moral purpose and holistic understanding of relations that has eluded Western culture throughout history.
Saturday, September 5, 2009
This is a cross-post from Chally. Chally is a scary feminist. Among other things, she’s a non-white, heterosexual, cis, disabled, middle class woman. She lives in Australia and enjoys knitting, Doctor Who and cake. You can find her at Zero at the Bone. Thanks Chally!
The Women Men Don’t See, by James Tiptree, Jr.
In honour of the 94th anniversary of Alice Sheldon’s birth, which was a few days ago, here is a review/analysis of the classic science fiction story “The Women Men Don’t See” (1972). Published under her pseudonym (and maybe written by her persona) of James Tiptree, Jr., this is arguably her most iconic story. You can read it here.
Let me start by saying that this is an unbelievably good piece of writing. Tiptree articulated so many means of oppression I could never quite lock down before. I could hardly bear to read it. When I first read this story I took weeks to finish because it kept touching a nerve. I had to keep stopping because I was constantly overwhelmed. Tip was deftly throwing all these experiential truths about women I had innately known but had never heard anyone express, the habits of movement, thought and relating you adopt to live as a woman. When I finished this story, I knew that I had to claim feminism for myself.
It runs thusly. Our hero is an American government agent of some sort, Don Fenton, on a fishing holiday in Mexico. The small plane in which he is travelling crashes, leaving him stranded with Estéban the pilot, a Mrs Ruth Parsons and her daughter, Althea. The way science fiction stories generally have gone after this is that the white man saves the day. It’s obvious that Don thinks this is how things are going to go, too. He grows frustrated when the women neither panic nor respond to his attempts to save them. (‘The women are shaky, but not hysterical.’) Reading, you become aware that the situation is well out of Don’s hands. And then, of course, the aliens arrive. The women end up saving themselves, but you’ll have to read the story to find out how.
Crucial to “The Women Men Don’t See” is the turning of science fiction’s alien convention to feminist use. Women are presented as aliens. Don can only relate to women through preconceived ideas: setting up camp is ‘playing house in a mud puddle’. Surely Ruth must be the ‘Mother Hen protecting only chick from male predators’. Even on the plane before the crash, he thinks ‘The Bonanza jinks, and I look back with a vague notion of reassuring the women. They are calmly intent on what can be seen of Yucatán. Well, they were offered the copilot’s view, but they turned it down. Too shy?’ He can’t see that the women are not what he thinks, and it frustrates him that they can operate outside of a context in which he has power. (Most disturbingly: ‘The woman doesn’t mean one thing to me, but the obtrusive recessiveness of her, the defiance of her little rump eight inches from my fly—for two pesos I’d have those shorts down and introduce myself. If I were twenty years younger. If I wasn’t so bushed’.) Indeed, there are many little references that turn the reader towards this idea of alienation – ‘End of communication. Mrs. Ruth Parsons isn’t even living in the same world with me’ – but of course the crowning moment is when aliens of the outer space variety turn up. Don draws his gun and yells at Ruth to get behind him. When she doesn’t, he slips on an injured leg and shoots her by mistake, reinforcing her difference. Don proves his thought that ‘she’s as alien as they, there in the twilight’ perfectly true.
That’s not the only construction of the other in “The Women Men Don’t See”. When Don and Ruth go off to fetch water, he develops a notion that Ruth is fantasising about Althea and Estéban having sex back at camp. Mother Hen’s little quirks, as he puts it, are really his; it’s for the reader to pick up that Don is projecting his racist, sexist, powerless imaginings. His fantasy is rife with racialised language, the usual meme of the young white woman being taken by the macho brown man. ‘Oh, for mahogany gonads.’ (There’s more to be said about race in this story, but I think I’ll need some co-readers to really pick it apart.)
But it’s the positioning of the audience that makes “The Women Men Don’t See” exceptionally clever and Tiptree’s signature piece. It is only by adopting a feminist reading position that the story clicks. That is, Tiptree asks you to accept women’s accounts of their own experience. You have to realise that Don isn’t the protagonist at all: Ruth is. It’s only then that the structure, the progress of the story falls into place. It’s not that we’re to see Don as bad, or that his experience is invalid. I think Don is there to observe, to tell the story because Ruth has no means of doing so. I think Don’s a shining example of how we can easily, horribly, miss the whole point and merrily shore up oppression. I like what Julie Phillips, Sheldon’s biographer, has to say: ‘… maybe it is about what it says it’s about: the writer’s difficulty in speaking of, or even seeing, women’s experience – including her own.’ But then, as much as being Tiptree allowed Sheldon to say things she couldn’t say as a woman, the persona was horribly limiting as well. She once wrote that ‘I’m getting fairly tired of being a man; so much one can’t say.’
How you read this story depends on how and where you see the author. If you’re relating to Tiptree as he was known at the time of writing – a tough, mysterious man, sympathetic to feminism, if in an odd fashion – it reads like an insightful piece that never quite reaches its zenith. If you’re reading Tiptree as a woman – bright, confused, going ever onward – you can see it as a beautiful, layered game. And then, where is Tiptree in the piece? Perhaps you see him in Don, with his background in intelligence work, love of fishing and stumbling attempts to understand. Then there’s Ruth, the quiet and persistent voice moving around the edges. (I think of Ruth’s voice like one on a badly tuned radio, rarely clear, going to extremes.) I lean towards both, because Alice Sheldon had many ways of relating to herself, and I think this piece must represent her internal dialogue as well as a societal one. There’s just one scene in which we get to hear Ruth’s voice loud and clear, and what she says seems to be a representation of one of Alice’s attitudes – oh, just one, hers was a complex feminism – towards women and our chances. And it’s not pleasant. But if ever there was a classic line, it’s ‘What women do is survive. We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine.’
While Tiptree cannot envision the end of the patriarchy, she sees escape as a possibility. You see this appear again and again in her writing. In “With Delicate Mad Hands” (1981) the heroine, CP, can only escape patriarchal society by crossing the universe. But, as with many of Tiptree’s stories, love and self-realisation mean CP’s death. “The Women Men Don’t See” is a little different. While we know that Ruth and Althea go on, live their lives, perhaps continue their family, we never get to see what this experience of freedom looks like. And that’s fine and good for the purposes of this story, because its arc belongs as it is. But nowhere in Tiptree have I yet found a beautiful future. Even the utopia in the classic “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” (1974) turns out to be anything but. (But then, I’ve never read an all-woman utopia that actually was. I find Joanna Russ’ Whileaway very discomforting.) This is terribly sad. Tiptree, you and I are stuck here on Earth, in the chinks of the world-machine. There’s no escape for us but what we make of what we have, even if we don’t know what that will look like.
Friday, September 4, 2009
Americans look at Thomas Jefferson and see the one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence, a statesman, a former president and one of the founding fathers,’ however; when I look at him, I see the face of a rapist. When Jefferson first met Sally Hemings, his slave through inheritance, she would have been no more than 15 or 16 years old. It is rumoured that when she returned from France with him, that she was already pregnant with his child.
It was widely suggested within his own life time that he kept a light skinned negro concubine. You see, Sally was 3/4 white and was described as a handsome light skinned woman with long dark hair in one of the few known descriptions of her. Jefferson’s children through his wife Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, denied the relationship, however; Jefferson himself did not publicly answer the rumours. The only slaves that Jefferson freed were the children of Hemings and he petitioned the government for two of her sons to stay in Virginia after emancipation. At the time, a slave had to leave the state within one year of manumission.
There are those that to this day vehemently deny that Jefferson fathered Sally’s six children despite the DNA evidence. It is my belief that such denial is not based in the simple fact that it would prove that he was a lecher but that he chose a woman of color.
On the other side of the coin are those that believe the oral, written, and DNA evidence. They often refer to the relationship as an illicit love affair, citing that Sally had the opportunity to stay in France where slavery was outlawed, rather than returning to the United States with Jefferson. Assuming that Sally had chosen to stay in Paris, what would an uneducated 1/4 negresss do with no money to support herself and her unborn child? She chose to return because Jefferson gave his word that he would free her children and offer her a life of comfort relative to the other slaves at Monticello.
Jefferson may have felt love for Sally but how can we possibly term this relationship a love affair? Once they returned to the US, he had the power to have her flogged, or even put to death. At anytime he could have sold her children away from her. For a relationship based in love to exist, both parties must be equal and due to the power differential between Jefferson and Hemings what occurred cannot be described as anything other than rape. Some have even had the nerve to refer to Hemings as the first Black first lady of the United States as a way of further legitimizing the relationship between the two, however; to sanitize it and call it anything other than rape, is to once again violate her spirit.
Jefferson was not the first or last White man to sneak into the slave cabins. One of the reasons White women argued so vehemently for the abolition of slavery, was to save the poor overwhelmed White man from the negro temptress. It was not uncommon to see near white or light skinned children resembling the master working on the plantation. The Black woman was and still is blamed for her own rape. Victim blaming began with women of color and continues to this day.
No matter how many times Black women have angrily contested the use of the term love affair between Hemings and Jefferson, it continues to be the most common descriptor by those who believe the DNA evidence. This assumes that Hemings actually had the power to deny Jefferson sexual access, or that Jefferson had a right to Sally’s body for the purposes of sexual gratification. Both suppositions are erroneous. Due to the patriarchal nature of gender relations, many men believe that they exist with the right to access women's bodies and that is specifically grounded in the power imbalance between the genders. If we can acknowledge in a modern context that a power imbalance exists between men and women, how much more likely is it that this same imbalance existed between Jefferson and Hemings?
Some may look back at Jefferson and simply claim that he was a man of his time and that he should not be judged outside of historical context, however; in my mind a rapist is a rapist. What he did at the time may not have been considered a violation due to current race and gender relations, however; today we can correctly name his actions. Sally did not have the power to consent to his advances even if she was so inclined; this simple fact must be affirmed not only to honour the memory of Hemings but to change the social understanding that Black women's bodies are unrapeable. We are not naturally licentious whores who exist to fulfill the sexual fantasies of depraved racist men. We are women that must be accorded the right to control over our bodies without punishment for any decisions we make in that regard.
The Hemingses of Monticello, by Annette Gordon-Reed
The winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for history, “The Hemingses of Monticello” by Annette Gordon-Reed, is a powerful and compelling depiction of the full and rich lives of slaves and the ways in which they formed our country as fully as those who owned them during the founding years of this country. It focuses on the family history of Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s companion for almost four decades and the mother of four of his children, beginning with her mother Elizabeth.
Gordon-Reed works with scant evidence on the topic of the actual lives and actions of the Hemingses. There are very few letters of or directly about the Hemingses, particularly after the beginning of TJ’s thirty-year relationship with Sally Hemings in the late 1780s, even though their life together was well-known at the time. Most evidence directly concerning Sally Hemings and her families (especially her brothers James and Robert, Jefferson’s eventually freed manservants) comes from Jefferson’s expense accounts and “Farm Book”.
Gordon-Reed meticulously and delicately constructs the evidence of the intelligent and attractive Hemingses in the context of slave life in the latter half of the eighteenth century. She often uses the hard evidence of TJ’s letters to create an extremely compelling narrative for the reader, showing the fullness of lives lived in bondage alongside the tragedy of slavery even in privileged circumstances. The history of slaves and their family histories are often erased while the histories of those who kept them in slavery are glorified, a trope this book counters.
When I was 12 or so, I read “Gone with the Wind” for class, powering through it in less than a week. Reading “The Hemingses of Monticello” was like that week, except without privilege blinders on. Though one is the product of nostalgic ignorance of reality and the other an attempt to educate and eradicate that ignorance, they have many similar qualities: strong central female figures, war, slavery, the South, questionable and complicated romances. Like Mitchell, Gordon-Reed’s epic was addictive and spell-binding; unlike Mitchell, Gordon-Reed’s work reflects a reality untold.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s rare to find such a wonderfully written and engaging book that will educate you and inform your knowledge of how this country was founded: not only by heroic documents on our commitment to liberty, but by the bondage of men and women: bright and attractive persons dehumanized by our founding documents and erased by history.
50 Books for Problematic Times is still accepting submissions!
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
This is a cross post from Phira. Phira is a recent college graduate with a degree in Biology and Women's Studies. She currently works at a research institute in Boston and intends to eventually earn a medical or public health degree. The feminist issues she feels most strongly about are sexual/intimate violence prevention, health and reproductive health/rights, and living progressively as a constant learning experience. She lives outside of Boston with her adorable parakeet, who tends to get a lot of air-time on Phira's blog, ThinkWeirdThoughts.blogspot.
The language we use every day can be highly problematic. Some words have highly negative and hurtful connotations, and many of those words we are discouraged from using, or perhaps we use them in order to protest. Sometimes, I favor the use of these words. For example, like many of my peers, I feel comfortable in reclaiming the term "queer" as an adjective to describe non-(conservatively described)-traditional sexuality (and "gender queer" for the same with regard to gender). "Queer" is still often used as an insult, in which case it's certainly not appropriate or acceptable. But it's being reclaimed.
However, there are two words that I've recently noticed too many of my friends and peers using. These two words are ones that I've used incredibly frequently in the past. However, though a lot of hard work, I've been eliminating them both from my vocabulary.
It's not easy. I slip up. But it's gotta happen. Otherwise, the door is open for discriminatory language of all times.
These two words are "retarded" and "lame."
The word "retarded," as far as I know, means slowed or delayed. I'm mostly used to seeing it in a musical context (ritard/ando). But when it's used to describe a person who is developmentally delayed or challenged, it takes on an extremely negative meaning, much in the same way that the word "gay" still (unfortunately) can.
Argue all you want that the word "retarded" is medical, or that it's not meant in a bad way. That's all I heard it used as these days. "Oh man, that sucks! That's so retarded!" Or "Ugh, I'm such a retard/'tard." Maybe it would bother me less if people actually DID use it appropriately, instead of as an insult or slur. I've only seen it used as the latter lately.
It never occurred to me that "lame" was offensive until I began frequenting Shakesville. Even then, I think it's the most frequently uttered mistake word in the comments section (I've slipped, and someone today did, too). But once it was explained to me, which took about a second, it made perfect sense. It probably already makes sense if you think about it, even without an explanation.
"Lame" is ableist language. Ableism is one of those weird disciminations, one that no one seems to notice unless 1) they experience it and are perceptive, or 2) they're made aware of it while studying other forms of discriminations, or 3) something else, since categories are flawed. But it's real, as weird as it sounds (weird if, again, you've never thought about it). It's when people are discriminated against because they have some sort of illness or disability or SOMETHING that makes it difficult sometimes/all the time to do things that are expected of what are commonly thought of as "normal people."
There's an intersection and crosswalk near work that's ableist (or the designers are). There isn't enough time to cross the 4 lanes of traffice and two islands during the walk signal. I'm not kidding; I'm able to walk/run just fine, and I have to start crossing before the walk signal and practically run across in order to be halfway across the final lane before the light IN that lane turns green.
Can you imagine what it would be like if I were in a wheelchair? Or on crutches? Or if I had an injury that made it nearly impossible to walk quickly? It would take 2-3 walk signals to get across.
I'm not lame in the sense that my limbs are in fine working order (for now). But I have a chronic illness (in remission right now, yay!). It's been disabling in the past. And that's what the word is referring to: not "normal"-abled people. So when you say something is "lame" when you mean, say, "lousy," you're essentially saying that people who are not "normal"-abled are lousy.
"But Stephanie! I'm just so used to these words! And you know me; I'm a good person who doesn't discriminate against people with mental physical disability. You know I don't mean those words in a bad way against them, right?"
You don't have to use those words anymore; it'll just take a conscious effort to stop. And if you just can't think of words to replace those ones, you're just being lazy and not very creative.
"But what if I mess up?"
I mess up all the time. But that doesn't mean that I give up and I have to keep using this language. It just means I have to try harder. For example, I used "lame" much more frequently than I did "retarded," so it was harder to stop using. So, if I find myself beginning to say it, I just change it to "lousy." It's easy; since they have the same first letter, I've got time to quickly change words (employed very much at Zeldathon, by the way).
Here's the thing: I can't force anyone to stop using these words. But I will ask that you stop using them in conversation with me.
- I put "normal" in quotation marks when talking about disability because normal is subjectively defined. Additionally, someone who is currently "normal" might not be tomorrow. And depending on the activity in question, different people might be able or disabled.
- I don't HATE anyone, by the way, for using these words. You all are my friends. I'm not trying to make you feel guilty; I'm trying to decrease discriminatory language. Don't think I'm angry with anyone.
Miranda was kind enough to offer today's cross-post from Women's Glib. She previously contributed to 50 Books for Problematic Times. Miranda blogs at Women's Glib . She will be a senior in high school in September.
NARAL Pro-Choice New York is hands-down one of my favorite progressive nonprofits. They’re on the political, legislative, and community fronts working to secure safe and legal abortions for all women who want them. They also publish key resources like a pro-choice voter guide (here’s the one for September’s primaries); the Book of Choices, a comprehensive state-wide list of options for women facing unplanned pregnancies (in English and Spanish); a city-wide resource guide for free and low-cost reproductive health care; and a list of open-minded, pro-choice doctors who specialize in adolescent health (again, in English and Spanish).
That’s why I’m thrilled that they are seeking new members aplenty for their Activist Leadership Circle, a group of volunteers that Shira and I have been a part of since January.
We’ve written quite a bit about our work with NARAL, which has included calling voters directly during group phonebanks, distributing condoms and information about emergency contraception, rallying support for the Reproductive Health Act, and getting pissed when our efforts were essentially derailed by the childish behavior rampant in the New York state senate. We’ve also covered their fabulous Choices event series (though I’m sad to say I couldn’t make it to any of those three lectures).
Please consider donating your skills and pro-choice passion to this incredible organization. Here’s what’s involved in joining the Activist Leadership Circle…
Wednesday, 9/9/09, 6:00-8:30 pm: Welcome & NARAL Pro-Choice New York 101
Saturday, 9/12/09, time and location TBD: Pro-Choice Election Day of Action
Wednesday, 9/16/09, 6:00-8:00 pm: How to Talk About the Issues and Take Action
Wednesday, 9/23/09, 6:00-8:00 pm: Graduation and Welcome Party
All events (except the day of action) will take place at the NARAL Offices, 470 Park Avenue South, 7th Floor (you’ll need ID!).
And here’s what to expect when you join…
The Circle has three Action Groups that allow members to get involved in the work that is most exciting to them.
After attending our four-part series of new member trainings, you’ll be able to join one of three Action Groups:
Outreach Action Group: The Outreach Action Group is responsible for getting more people involved in NARAL Pro-Choice New York’s activist efforts and disseminating life-saving resources and information through tabling at events, street canvassing, and on-line event posting.
Political and Legislative Action Group: The Political and Legislative Action Group participates in efforts to elect pro-choice candidates such as election phone banks, disseminating voter guides, and representing NARAL Pro-Choice New York in campaign offices. Members will also help pass pro-active, pro-choice legislation by participating in legislation phone banks, petitioning, and lobbying efforts.
Reproductive Health Education Group: The Reproductive Health Education Group’s current project is researching the issue of Crisis Pregnancy Centers in New York State in order to develop a strategic advocacy plan. The Reproductive Health Education Group will also be a space to discuss emerging reproductive health issues and develop new initiatives to address them.
If you are interested in joining the Activist Leadership Circle, contact NARAL’s community organizer Lalena Howard at firstname.lastname@example.org or 646-520-3506. Feel free to email me at email@example.com if you have any questions about the structure or current projects of the circle.
Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, by Susan Faludi: a review by Plain(s) Feminist [50BPT]
Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, by Susan Faludi
"Far from being "liberated," American women in the 1980s were victims of a powerful backlash against the handful of small, hard-won victories the feminist movement had achieved, says Wall Street Journal reporter Faludi, who won a Pulitzer this year. Buttressing her argument with facts and statistics, she states that the alleged "man shortage" endangering women's chances of marrying (posited by a Harvard-Yale study) and the "infertility epidemic" said to strike professional women who postpone childbearing are largely media inventions. She finds evidence of antifeminist backlash in Hollywood movies, in TV's thirtysomething , in 1980s fashion ads featuring battered models and in the New Right's attack on women's rights. She directs withering commentary at Robert Bly's all-male workshops, Allan Bloom's "prolonged rant" against women and Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer's revisionism. This eloquent, brilliantly argued book should be read by everyone concerned about gender equality." (Publishers Weekly)
50 Books for Problematic Times is still accepting submissions!
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
Okay, get ready: I've got quite a few belated links from today and yesterday:
Via Laura and Pieces of String, I arrived at this deconstruction of "[Straight Cis Woman A] is married to/engaged to/in a relationship with/it's complicated with [Straight Cis Woman B]."
A woman was disallowed from pumping - and (some) feminists gave it the thumbs up.
Raising My Boychick has some great thoughts on the downsides of her husband going back to work.
Renegade Evolution defends anal.
Another privilege I just hadn't realized I have - binary privilege.
Why it's important to talk about "the parts."
Rumer Willis isn't ugly.
The Female Impersonator talks about burning out. (I understand!) Angry Black Bitch also talks about getting tired.
The Bechdel test - for POC: The Johnson Test
Identifying trans folks by the right gender - so radical, it's recommended by the AP Stylebook!
meloukhia wonders why her big boobs are practically public property.
Renee covers the story of a gay youth kicked out for wearing a dress.
HEY LADIES! DID YOU KNOW THAT MEN LIKE SPORTS? YOU SHOULD KNOW HOW TO TALK ABOUT THEM BECAUSE OF THIS SOLID FACT! [Side note: I love sports and know a HELL of a lot more about them than my Southern fella, who hates football and only barely tolerates baseball, my family industry.]
I am ashamed to be a Kansan sometimes.
This made me smile and miss my mom.
I want to give a short explanation as to why original content on my part has taken such a swift downward turn. I am in the process of some major transitions: I'm going back to work to new jobs after three months of underemployment and unemployment, and my mental health has taken a turn for the worse. Since my mental stability has proven to be fragile and I don't have health insurance, I have to prioritize repairing my brain's functioning when it shows wear.
This doesn't have anything to do with readers on this blog, or comments, or anything beyond the pressures I'm putting on myself. I want to be as productive as I was in the first two weeks of August, but I can't do that with everything else in my life. I'll be continuing to read, and comment, and tweet. But I've got to take a second and shore up my mental resources before I sound my voice again. I need time to process what I've learned, so I'm staying mostly quiet until I feel confident about what I say to an audience, and how often I can speak up.
And, let's not forget, it's privilege that's allowing me to take a short step back. Because of my many privileges, I'm able to take a break from actively confronting the kyriarchy: folks with bodies less valued by society have no such luck.
I should be back writing both lengthy analysis and more topical work by next week and may even post something later this week. 50 Books for Problematic Times will continue to be posted daily. Regular features (Tasty Thursday, Success Sunday, roundups) should continue as normal. I've just got to get the hang of this "pre-write posts" bit so I'm not posting lengthy analysis on the fly.
Here's where you come in: if you want a forum, or want to spread something you've written, now is the time. Any guest or cross posts are deeply, deeply appreciated at this point in time. It doesn't have to be feminist, as long as it is critical of oppression. If you have one, leave a link in the comments, or email me.
Readers, thank you so much for reading. I hope you will be around when I'm back in full force.
When the last episode of Angel aired in 2004, television viewers had no idea that they'd be waiting five years to see the creative genius of Joss Whedon on the small screen again.
Joss Whedon is often described as a feminist, not least because he has called himself one. He's been an outspoken advocate on behalf of women all over the world, he's engaged with feminist issues in his shows, on interviews, and with his fans, and his groundbreaking series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) made leaps and bounds for women on television when it aired. However, he's also been criticized by the feminist community for his failure to include people of colour on his shows, for the lack of size diversity seen in his productions, and for his sometimes troubling approach to sex work, among many other things.
Thus it was with some trepidation that feminists awaited Dollhouse, which debuted on the rather inauspicious date of Friday, 13 February 2009. The premise of the show: a shady company has developed technology which can be used to strip people's personalities and memories from their bodies, and the same technology can be used to imprint a new personality. The company has amassed a stable of powerful, high-paying, very elite clients, providing people, made to order, in the form of Actives who can be programmed by the company to be anyone a client desires. The Actives are uniformly beautiful, examples of sleek physical perfection, and they can be imprinted to suit any whim.
Viewers learn that people can sign up for a term of service in the Dollhouse as an Active, living in a neutral state in a posh facility dripping with Chinoiserie until called for, at which point they are imprinted and sent out on engagements under the protection of a handler. Birth coach one day, hostage negotiator on another, perfect girlfriend the next. When they return, they are wiped again, and allowed to wander the halls of the Dollhouse, receiving massages, taking tai chi classes, and learning bonsai.
On the surface, Dollhouse can be read as just another science fiction adventure show. The same actors play different characters every week, often wearing revealing and impractical costumes*, and viewers can be entertained by a side plot featuring a rogue FBI agent on a quest to bring the Dollhouse down. But Whedon's shows aren't meant to be read on the surface. Dollhouse is a story about personhood and agency, and as the series unfold, we watch one of the Actives, Echo, reaching a state of self awareness. And we learn more about the workings of the organization behind the Dollhouse.
Critics have argued that Dollhouse blatantly depicts rape culture, and to some extent, Whedon agrees. He openly admits that the operations of the Dollhouse are misogynistic (source) and is not trying to shy away from the ugliness that the show depicts. Yet, some viewers have apparently missed this, which is raising some interesting questions about Dollhouse.
Numerous feminists have discussed the fact that what is happening on Dollhouse is rape (1, 2). When Actives are sent out on engagements which involve sexual activity, that activity is, by nature, not consensual. Whedon openly admits this, and says “I'm not saying that nonconsensual sex is ever OK.” It sounds like this is one place in which Whedon and his critics are in agreement: the show is depicting the rape and exploitation of people, with a focus on women.
Speaking in defense of the show, many people have brushed this point aside, saying that critics (and apparently Whedon himself, since he agrees with these criticisms) “don't understand subtlety” or are “missing the point.” It's a classic silencing technique used to marginalize feminist discourse: by ignoring it, the respondent believes that the criticism is invalidated.
Dollhouse is definitely a subtle show. There's a reason for that: Fox told Whedon to make it more subtle, because they were uncomfortable with the themes being explored. Being subtle isn't necessarily a bad thing; as The Angry Black Woman pointed out, we feminists are capable of comprehending subtlety, and of appreciating it. A show can be subtle, and be making good points, and still be problematic, and this is what much of the debate which surrounds Dollhouse seems to be swirling around.
The question is not “did Whedon realize he was making a show about human trafficking, rape, and the exploitation of women?” Obviously, he did. He's said so on numerous occasions. The question is “are viewers of Dollhouse actually engaging with these issues as a result of seeing them depicted on the show?” And the answer, by and large, seems to be “no,” judging from the routine silencing of viewers who are engaging with these issues and would like to talk about them.
People who defend the show by arguing that it doesn't depict rape are actually doing Dollhouse a grave disservice, because they don't seem to understand that television can depict deeply problematic things which are Not OK, and still be good television. Indeed, some of the greatest television ever made deals with very difficult issues, and the creators of great television don't feel the need to slap warning labels on their shows to let viewers know that they aren't condoning or promoting the activities depicted, because viewers should understand this without needing guidance.
Feminist critiques of Dollhouse, even from Whedon fans, seem to be taken by a subset of Whedon's fan community as an attack on Whedon himself, or on the show. In their hurry to retaliate, they aren't engaging with the criticisms, and they are (dare I say it) missing the point. The argument isn't “Dollhouse isn't good,” although some critics certainly do feel that way, the argument is “hey, this show is depicting some awful stuff! Let's talk about it!”
In a way, and I suspect that some people will disagree with me quite vehemently, I think that Dollhouse is a highly feminist television show, and that it may in fact be more feminist than other Whedon shows, thanks to the unflinching depiction of issues like exploitation and disempowerment, for all of the problems with the show. Depicting rape and exploitation doesn't make it inherently antifeminist, even when the framing is sometimes highly problematic, and I am enjoying the exploration of complex moral issues in the show and the conversation that it is sparking. This is a show which requires work from the viewer, something several critics have taken issue with, but the outcome of that work can be highly beneficial.
*Costuming on Dollhouse could probably consume an entirely separate post, but I do want to briefly address the issue, since the costumes on the show are often used as a glaring example that the show is exploitative and misogynistic. It's important to note that, yes, the costumes are often highly impractical and inappropriate, but the costuming on the show is not Whedon's fault. While Whedon does have a great deal of creative control, he can't be everywhere at once, and he doesn't micromanage his creative team. Fox has very clear ideas about how they want the show framed and presented, which means that on certain issues, Whedon actually has no control. Fox says they want the Actives sexed up on engagements, the costume department delivers. I'm happy to lay blame where blame is due, but we can't be attacking the poor man for things he's not responsible for.
When I Forgot by Elina Hirvonen
When I Forgot combines deeply personal stories of family, mental illness, and love with the broader background of war and anti-war movements. The characters may not be models for how to live you life, but they do go on just as we strive to do.
50 Books for Problematic Times is still accepting submissions!