Thursday, September 30, 2010

A feminist reading of Achewood, part one: disability and Roast Beef

Ray Smuckles of Achewood by Chris Onstad jumps over a wheelchair with a ball and chain attached, saying "DAAAAAAMN!". He has a martini. From this strip.
I’ve been reading Achewood since late 2006, and it’s one of my favorite distractions - I can spends days in the archives, re-reading my favorite arcs. It’s weird, literate, layered, moving, dark and hilarious. One of its central figures, Roast Beef, experiences depression which often enough to limit his ability. Cartoonist Chris Onstad’s handling of disability and its intersection with poverty is nuanced and funny. But Onstad otherwise ignores or sneers at disability and accessibility, befitting the comic's scoffing tone in matters of social justice.

Roast Beef’s depression is a major theme of his character and the strip. At the outset of his appearance in the Achewood universe, he expresses the wish to commit suicide repeatedly, though he has not mentioned past his first year in the strip. His actions and words (in a distinctive smaller font) are often explicitly steered by his low opinion of himself; depression is a simple fact of him. While sadness is a constant in his his characterization, the portrayal of his disability is far from static: his emotions are fluid, dependent on context, an advantage at time and a palpable pain at others. He is quite competent at computer programming (link to molly heaven) and garage sale management, and uses his depression to great effect in a business venture. It is something he combats and works with regularly. Roast Beef is often, as Dorian might put it, "depressed but otherwise fine."

Punchlines are subjective in Achewood - many things could be funny, innocuous, offensive, or just peculiar to each reader. And Onstad incorporates disability into humor without making Roast Beef in an amorphous punchline. His disability is there, neither definitively tragic or definitively a punchline. Beef's most serious challenges come and go and come; seasonal affective disorder is a source of melancholy when Beef struggles to eat, and, when he finds effective management, comedy and sexuality. (Beef is also just about the only character with a consistently healthy sex life, which is pretty transgressive). There is little shame in Onstad's depiction of Roast Beef, who is in many ways the moral center of the strip. His depression is not a plot device but a facet of his character, present even when not crucial.

Furthermore, Onstad takes care to show how Beef's disability has intersected with his lack of class privilege and history of abuse to amplify his poor opinion of himself. Roast Beef was raised in a low-income household with an abusive mother and grandmother. His background is usually presented in a fairly tragic light - while Achewood makes jokes about most things in life, its treatment of Beef's upbringing is fairly serious, even heavy-handed at times. His lifelong friendship with overprivileged Ray often throws this into sharp relief: Ray's upbringing has led to a lifetime of continuing wealth and overconfidence, whereas Beef has continued to struggle with poverty and feelings of worthlessness. It is clear that Beef's troubles are directly related to a lack of privilege, though I don't think that the connection to systematic oppression is articulated, and Onstad's association between class and happiness is quite problematic. However, the intersection is generally well-thought-out and sensitively handled - especially in comparison with the rest of the strip.

Unfortunately, beyond Beef's disabilities Onstad either ignores or makes a point of mocking disability and accessibility. Physical disability is mostly ignored, except for a few one-off jokes (one which juztaposes disability and dancing as if they never go together). But the most direct depiction of disability besides Beef comes in this horrible little comic, titled "Handicap Access" (transcript here). In the comic, Roast Beef and Ray, wearing tuxes, address the lack of accessibility in the comic. They then jump over wheelchairs and wheelchair ramps, and make fun of braille (which is conflated with Morse code), transcripts, captions, and speech output.*

This comic is intended to offend, satirizing not ableist resistance to accessibility but requests that websites become accessible. There are several points at which disability is presented as a joke: wheelchairs, wheelchair ramps, braille, captions are all presented as ridiculous requests. The wheelchair even has a ball and chain on it. Satire is a staple of Achewood, but it's more often expressed through silliness, e.g. Roomba Cinema. "Handicap Access" is supposed to be satire along the lines of the Fuck You Friday - abrasive and mean. But Fuck You Friday makes fun of the little frustrations of life - things like upselling at fast food joints, not major issues that impact health, mobility, and livelihood. Disability issues are presented as trivial and not worth serious consideration; in this installment, accessibility is a concept considered only long enough to be scoffed at. Achewood is not a political strip, and as I said, it takes many things lightly. But devoting a whole strip directly to mocking the concept's worth is mean-spirited and, well, ableist.**

Achewood is not a strip that is concerned with social justice; it looks at the world with a darkly comic and often flippant eye. The strip's attitude towards issues to social justice is not friendly, as evidenced by "Handicap Access" and the whining, selfish, self-righteous Pat. Onstad has written a multifaceted and worthwhile depiction of disability in the central character of Roast Beef. But his sneering attitude reminds the reader that Achewood is not a strip that gives a shit about equity, social action, or really any points of view that threatens the kyriarchy.

Check back soon for more Pat-esque analysis of gender and race in Achewood.

*Ironically, Achewood is actually more accessible than the much friendlier Questionable Content - every single script has been transcribed.
**A qualifier: This was back in 2005, when strips were posted several times a week and have a lot less weight than they do now. I am probably being a little hyperbolic about the weight of this strip in determining Onstad's attitude.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Rejecting normalacy and objectivity in feminist writing

Objectivity is a keystone of journalism that extends to institutions like Wikipedia; the idea that we can somehow remove our selves from the things we think about and the contexts we exist is a bizarre USian fantasy akin to the classist racist American dream. It has its unpragmatic value: it hopes that just the facts will be enough, and that those recording those facts will report them without considering themselves, focusing on only the subject at hand.

But for my writing, commenting, and reporting? Objectivity and neutrality are not constructive mantras. I am a feminist writer, and I am not here to give my readers the party line: I am not here to give them the objective and irredeemably kyriarchal point of view. Instead, I focus on giving people basic facts and then making it clear what I think about it. I try to make my perspective, my biases, my point of view crystal clear - not obscured.

Objectivity is functionally a way to reflect and uphold and insist upon what is normal and okay and what is excluded: what is not normal and not okay. There are too many facts about any given situation to be able to divine a clear and central set of descriptions and explanations in any depth. And even then, seemingly small things like pronouns can betray a supposedly objective point of view.

Worship of objectivity shores up our idealization of what is normal, for normalcy often represents antifeminist points of view. When navigating the combustible waters of social justice, normal is a term tainted beyond any utility. In a world where some bodies are less and other bodies more, where bodies can be wrong and right, normal implies an objective standard that all other bodies must live up to.


Normal is perhaps not a necessarily oppressive rhetorical term. In non-political, humorous, or other less than explosive genres of writing, it's neutral by nature: all it means is regular. Standard. Unthreatening.

Normal as a concept is one that I put to great use in negotiating my own body. Having an idea of what is normal, what is usual for me helps me create peace and calm with myself and my body. The weight at which I feel most comfortable, at which I feel normal, is not normal according to BMI standards. My periods, too, have become normal in their inconsistency. Whereas most menstruating folks have fairly regular cycles that last about 28 days, all I know about my cycle is that it will usually but not at all always be longer than 35 days and completely irregular. Though this departure from the normal period was a little disconcerting in my first few years of bleeding and anxious after I got regularly sexually active, once I got to know my cycle my own norms became apparent, and comfortable.

But in most cases, normal is used to reinforce what we are taught by the kyriarchy: that we are somehow not measuring up, that we are mediocre, that we are too much, that we deserved it. Normal creates false ideals: points that if we can just manage to hit, we'll get it right, we'll get all the benefits of kyriarchy and win the whole damn game. But it's a rigged system; hitting those preordained marks comes at a great personal cost because few people are made or allowed access to the tools to comfortably hit all those marks.

Normalization is a form of oppression that reaches into just about every branch I experience: age (when should I get married? am I too young? when will I get mine and start earning significantly above the poverty level) fatness (how fat is too fat, am I the right kind of fat, why aren't my boobs bigger, why do I have these rolls) sex (I should have had sex earlier, am I not a feminist if I like this kind of sex), presentation (this skirt is too short this skirt is too short). Normalacy is the creator of wants inside us that declare too much! or too little! It is the concept that makes us feel less than adequate, or too adequate, or just plain not quite right. It creates internalization by making us believe that we too will grow up to live up to these arbitrary measures (and if we don't, we're failures, too).

Our experience and education, kyriarchal or otherwise, seeps into and colors our every adjective, pronoun, article. These oversights in the name of avoiding bias, in the name of being neutral and objective, of not hurting anyone, of being ...appropriate, are the doers of evil. Truth is individually experienced; relying on such subjective measures as "normal" reinforces hierarchies of bodies. As a writer, I try to look directly at that which misinforms me rather than continuing to ignore it.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Trans student not homecoming king because of Mona Shores High School cissexism

High schools have long been a bastion of gender policing, most recently punishing Constance McMillan* and Alexis Lusk for their sexuality and gender. And now, at Mona Shores High School, the cissexist administration is using homecoming as an excuse to champion the gender binary. Oak Reed was voted homecoming king recently by his classmates and friends. Since he is trans, school officials decided that that simply wouldn't do.
Assistant Superintendent Todd Geerlings said the issue is simple: The ballots gave two choices -- vote for a boy for king and a girl for queen...And, in school records, he said, Oakleigh is still listed as a female..."They told me that they took me off because they had to invalidate all of my votes because I'm enrolled at Mona Shores as a female," Oakleigh said.
Oak and his friends are understandably upset. He was surprised because school administrators and teachers had already given him the basic respect of treating him as his actual gender. "They let me wear a male tux for band uniform, and they're going to let me wear the male robe and cap for graduation...[Teachers] call me Oak, and they say, he, him, his."

His classmates, the ones who elected him in the first place, have intensified their support of their king. One student, Nick Schrier, started a Facebook group called "Oak Is My King" protesting the school's decision (click on the link to join!). The group suggests writing letters to the local paper and wearing shirts proclaiming their support of Oak on the day of the game. "It's the senior class that votes for their representative," Reed said. "What they did was taking away the voice of the senior class."

The article profiling this incident is at first benign, but actually another example of cissexism masquerading as objectivity. The reporter avoids referring to Oak's very clearly stated gender through pronouns; Oak is constantly referred to either by his first name or as "the teen". Alone, this would be troublesome. But especially in conjunction with pained references to Oak's prior name and surgery plans, it betrays a cissexist denial of Oak's gender as truly his on the part of the reporter.

An arbitrary popularity contest is far from the biggest struggle facing trans people today. But this is an excellent example of how cissupremacy and the kyriarchy are regularly perpetuated: by making sure that the genders of trans people are seen as less legitimate and less real than the genders of trans people.

Also see Monica at TransGriot's coverage.
*Originally mis-identified as Candace.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Woman brutally beaten for being trans; San Antonio media and police dismiss it

Trigger warning for description of violence against trans women .

A woman was brutally beaten this week for being trans. Media coverage has been scant, and little information has been released by the police, but here is what has been released: an unnanmed 24-year-old woman went on a date with a man with whom she had some kind of "arrangement". When he found out that she was trans, he thoroughly beat her around the face and left her at an apartment complex. She had to knock on a stranger's door begging for help to get medical and police attention.

The San Antonio police department are investigating this crime not as the hate crime it pretty clearly is, but as aggravated assault. This could have something to do with the fact that the Texas hate crime law excludes trans people (but of course, protects sexual orientation). But as John Wright of the Dallas Voice points out, "the new federal hate crimes law passed last year does protect transgender people and presumably could be used in this case. If the man beat the victim because she is transgender and not cisgender, then yeah, we’d say that’s a hate crime."

This act of cissexism in the face of horrific violence is part of a pattern of transmisogyny in the San Antonio police department. In February, officer Steve Nash raped a trans woman, and a similar incident happened in 2005 in the same department. Monica of TransGriot described the assault:
In San Antonio, one of the four cities profiled in the September 2005 report, veteran police officer Dave Gutierrez was convicted and sentenced on January 19 to 24 years and four months in prison for raping and assaulting then 21 year old transwoman Starlight Bernal during a June 10, 2005 traffic stop.
The most major coverage of the assault on this 24-year-old was also heavily flavored by cissexism. The title refers to her not as a woman or trans woman, but as a "woman who used to be a man". Furthermore, the man didn't "assault" or "beat" his victim; he "snap[ped]". Snapping at someone infers an overreaction to provocation. There was no provocation - she was just who she is. This was not an overreaction - he's a bigot who committed an act of hateful violence.

Furthermore, the first line of the report is about the man "was in for quite a surprise" - it does not mention the violence he committed. A surprise is a funny misunderstanding. He reacted to a human being's existence as a woman with severe violence - not, "oh my goodness, what a misunderstanding!" These linguistic choices shift the focus from the violent act to the woman's trans status and minimize her attacker's abhorrent actions.

To KENS 5, it's not about violence being perpetrated on an innocent woman - it's about how to make it relateable, and even funny. They're using the harmful trope of trans women as deceivers. Their language does not intent to inform their viewers of a vicious act of violence, but to satisfy their own sense of her as an other, and to comfort cis viewers that yeah, she's weird and icky. Even though a woman was beaten, that's not the focal point, that's not the shocking thing. As always with media coverage of trans women, the most important thing is what's in her pants, and how weird their trans status is, and how sorry they should feel for her poor attacker who was just pushed too far after his big surprise.


Update: Cara covered this in a little more depth at The Curvature.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Hundreds of children with disabilities die in Bulgarian state facilities

Massive trigger warning for description of neglect and abuse.

A recent report revealed that 238 children with mental and intellectual disabilities were killed by neglect.while in the care of government institutions in Bulgaria over the last ten years. This epidemic of death and abuse is evidence of how the kyriarchy devalues of young and disabled lives through ableism and ageism, both in Bulgaria and the rest of the world.

These 238 now-dead child humans suffered horrific abuse and neglect through a terrible variety of instruments. 23 of Bulgaria's 26 state-run homes (currently housing 1,350 children) were implicated. Thousands other certainly suffered abuse untold, but some gruesome reports have been recorded.

134 children were starved.
31 children out of those 134 children died.
17 children were not allowed to move; their caregivers tied to them wheelchairs and beds.
90 children were not allowed to move through chemical restraints and tranquillizing drugs.
81 children died of unspecified neglect.
6 children died of freezing and drowning.
36 children died of pneumonia.
13 children died from poor hygiene.
84 children died of exhaustion.
11 children died because they were taken to the hospital, but too late.
149 children died because they were not taken to the hospital at all.
27 children were raped.
2 children died because of direct physical violence.
15 children died for no immediately apparent reason.

And these are only the recorded cases of abuse, the recorded rapes, the recorded deaths. There are surely many more children dead and wounded by these institutions who were just not noticed.

This inspection was conducted by the Bulgaria Helsinki Commission, a non-governmental human rights watchdog organization. “These children don’t die because of their disabilities - they die of things that no one should die of,” said Margarita Ilieva, head of BHC's legal department. "What we are aiming at is not retribution. We need prevention."


There's never a whole lot to say about these cases.

My list organization above seems overly grim, but this is the grimmest thing I've read in some time. Bulgaria has targeted people marginalized by age and disability, decimating the children in its care. The individual caretakers, the directors of these institutions, and the government as a whole are responsible for horrible abuse. And they are very far from unique, very far from alone in the international community. My own government is responsible for permitting acts of abuse, rape, violence, and death not unlike what I detail above.

Ableism and ageism are lethal forces enforced by government institutions. I have no theory to back up or expand on that except that hundreds of children are dead because they had disabilities.

sources: 1 2 3 4 5

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Paperwork & homework, anxiety & ADD: institutionalized and internalized ableism

The world has a tendency to view things as valid only if they are backed up by papers and documentation. This is true of history - documents in Latin and Greek are much preferred to oral histories - and to real people. Social security cards and birth certificates confirm we exist. Grades and diplomas confirm we're smart. Medical histories and proper insurance confirm that our bodies are worth care. And though I'm a writer, I've consistently failed to get official elements of myself on paper has always been a challenge I fail. Whether it's homework or paperwork, my ADD and anxiety make filling out the forms that determine my worth as a human a daunting, stressful task at best and avoided until near-disaster at worst.

When I was a teenager, I never ever did my homework. Ever. My parents encouraged, bribed, punished, diagnosed, medicated, but throughout junior high and high school, my grades never rose above a C. More than anything, I really wanted to get stuff right, and get good grades, but I couldn't. And much the way I hated myself for being too large and not sexy enough, I also hated myself for being too lazy and not smart enough .

Ignoring homework until I was about to fail was not a sign of poor work ethic - it was a sigh of a disability and internalizing ableism. I did very well in college and I work basically all the time now - I really like work, a lot, these days. I'm not lazy, though I constantly berated myself for laziness, even after I was diagnosed with ADD.*

Now past the days of homework, I'm over hating myself. But I'm not over my disabilities, and the paperwork at every junction of adult life is a challenge that often feel insurmountable. I cannot sustain my attention to finish up more than one page of paperwork at a time, so, I do it immediately or put it off. If I don't get it done immediately, my anxiety explodes and keeps me from looking at, thinking about, or working on it.

While I finally force myself to fill out my name, social security number, and other apparently relevant details,, I'm constantly berating myself: why didn't you get this done earlier how do you know that's right what if you make a mistake what if you lie what if you get in trouble what if what if what if. Filling out forms for anything - taxes, student loans, health insurance - becomes almost unbearable, something to be procrastinated as long as humanly possible no matter how crucial it is.

Adult life with official forms papers and documentation is not accessible or accommodating to my disabled self. I have little recourse, respite, or understanding. As with the homework I didn't do, my problems with paperwork are read not ad a societal fixation on over-documentation, but as a problem with me. Completing forms in a timely fashion is framed as a virtue, so difficulty completing such work is framed as a flaw. Paperwork's not too frustrating, encumbering, confusing: I'm too lazy, worthless, careless.


The tyranny of forms is not, of course, limited to this particular axis of disability: paperwork also works on behalf of cissexism and race and many other axes. It's a force of the kyriarchy in more than one way. Nor am I the first to point out the disabling effects of ADD/ADHD; this writing is particularly inspired by a couple of posts:
Whether or not you have a diagnosis, most neurotypicals will assume that your symptoms are a moral failure – that things don’t get done because you don’t care enough to get them done. That you forget things because you don’t care to remember them. That you get distracted from doing something because you don’t care to apply yourself to it. But these are all far from the truth. ADHDers do care, but wishing won’t change neurology. We can develop coping skills, but those only work so far. - Lisa Harney, ADHD Isn't Trivia
I never intend for things to get this way. I ignore something for one day, and pretty soon it's eighteen days later and I still haven't done it. Then my responsibilities become wrapped up in so much guilt and helplessness that I have to ignore them because I'd rather feel good about myself. -Allie Brosh, Procrastinator
Also check out Kinsey and Isabel on the topic.


Paperwork is a form of institutionalized ableism. Paperwork keeps folks who have issues with anxiety, ADD, and likely other disorders from living, from working, from getting the care we need to treat that which disables us. It makes paperwork a daunting, insurmountable task - and its incompletion perpetuates guilt and sends it further away from actually getting done.

Paperwork is to a certain extent necessary, and to advocate its end is not helpful. Society is, as always, very concerned with its own existence, and how to best document it. And so, I can't advocate for its ends - I can only explain how I experience it as problematic. Furthermore I must admit that I don't know how to accommodate this problem beyond simple suggestions - less complexity, more available and non-shaming assistance with forms.

I don't exactly know what to do. I just think that functioning should be less contingent on how well we fill in forms; I think our basic rights to exist and live and be healthy should be less dependent on whether we have our papers in order.

*Not ADHD - I've never had hyperactivity.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Katie Gilliam verbally attacked with racial slurs; Destin, FL police couldn't care less

At the end of the work week, Katie Gilliam wanted to relax. She went to the Wal-Mart she frequents three to four times a week to unwind with a manicure and pedicure. But her tension skyrocketed when she returned to her car, parked in a disabled spot. Under her windshield, she found an admonition to obey the speed limits accompanied by a racial slur.

Feeling shocked, frightened, and threatened, she locked herself in a car and called the police. “I was scared. I remember telling the dispatcher that ‘I was going to do whatever I had to do to protect myself.’ ”

Upon arrival, the police found some pretty solid clues as to who was stalking and harassing Ms. Gilliam. Security tapes showed "a white male in a white Ford Explorer pull up next to her vehicle and place something on the windshield." The note was left on paper that had a State Farm policy number. Both of these are clear indications that this man was not too careful about not being caught, and, with a couple of hours of police work, could easily be apprehended.

But what did the police decide to do in light of this clear threat against Ms. Gilliam?


They told her that if she wanted to find her stalker, she could do it herself:
When The Log contacted the Sheriff’s Office Tuesday, public information officer Michele Nicholson said the complaint was originally filed under criminal mischief, but since no damage had actually occurred to Gilliam’s vehicle, the incident would be treated “more like a harassment issue.”

“There are currently no leads, since the video footage from Wal-Mart didn’t provide a good shot of the person and they could not be identified,” she said.
Gilliam didn’t buy that answer.

“There was a State Farm policy number on the envelope,” she said. “They can start by calling them. I am not going to do the sheriff’s job for them; I am a taxpayer.”

After she was informed of the envelope of the identification number, Nicholson said there was no reason to contact the company and proceed because the “case was not criminal.”

“Because of the way the statues read, there is nothing for us to pursue,” she said, adding that Gilliam was free to pursue civil action against the perpetrator if she could identify him.
Gilliam is not overdoing it when she calls this act terrorism later in the article. The writer of the note has stalked her enough to know things about her; how she drives, her race. He is targeting her: he is making her to feel uncomfortable, terrified, and unsafe because of her status as a woman of color with disabilities.

Gilliam is not imagining things; her recipient of racial harassment grew out of a social and individual need to terrify and stalk women at marginalized intersections. Her harasser's note was not benign, not an isolated incident: it implied that she was being watched, that if she didn't play nice, didn't drive the right speed, she would be subject to further harassment, and possibly violence. It violated a space that she clearly regarded as safe and turned it into a space fraught with terror, with no protection.

The police's blase response is a reflection of institutionalized racism on more than one level. The officers on the police force are not willing to take a taxpayer's fear and discomfort seriously because of her marginalized status; they completely erase the potential danger she may face by pursuing the person who is threatening her with vile slurs. The law makers they hide behind have declined to write laws protecting citizens from attacks based on race or disability from criminal law. Furthermore, they apparently don't have very strong laws against stalking or harassment, a crime that disproportionately affects women.

The police of Destin, Florida are sending a clear message by dismissing and minimizing Ms. Gilliam's complaint. They are clearly stating that the lives, safety, and comfort of people of color, people with disabilities, and women are not valuable, not worth police time; they are giving stalkers and harassers who target people on the margins carte blanche to do as they please without repercussion.

Related reading: Domino's Pizza delivered with racial attack on Carla Robinson


Sunday, September 5, 2010

Faye's history of lady instrumentalists [part six: Gretta Cohn, Stefanie Drootin, Azure Ray/Maria Taylor/Orenda Fink, Jenny Conlee, Petra Haden]

Hello, dear readers! I apologize: this one is going up late - but never fear, your weekly supply of female instrumentalists is here in the nick of time.

Think you might be in need of some more real heroes in your life? Check out the series archive: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.

Gretta Cohn is (in the music world) best known as the cellist for the band Cursive, performing with them from 2001-2005. Cohn contributed significantly to Cursive's sound at the time. She also collaborated prolifically with other indie rock bands at this time, guesting with The Faint, The Good Life, Rilo Kiley, Thursday, Tilly and the Wall and Maria Taylor among others. After she left the band she moved to New York, where she continued to focus on collaboration with other artists as well as pursuing other interests. She is currently a radio producer and her website is largely a radio documentary blog.

Neat Trivia: She was a playable character in the online arcade game Emogame 2 (fun to play, and witty wrt music and sometimes politics, but also contains a lot of misogynist, pointless humor, just fyi).

Lyrics Excerpt: Cut it out!| Your self-inflicted pain | is getting too routine | the crowds are catching on | to the self-inflicted song| Well, here we go again | The art of acting weak| Fall in love to fail | to boost your CD sales

It's Saddle Creek day on Deeply Problematic! Stefanie Drootin is the bassist for The Good Life, which was formed as a side project to support songs that didn't fit into Cursive's repertoire; they are a well known band within that scene. Before and during this endeavor, she also played with other Saddle Creek or Team Love bands (Bright Eyes, Azure Ray [and Orenda Fink and Maria Taylor separately] and McCarthy Trenching), as well as She and Him. Most recently she and a friend, Chris Senseney, under the name Tin Kite, recorded an album together. In a quote she says, “I had my eight-month-old baby strapped to my body during the entire recording. We recorded most of it live and didn’t stop takes if he cried or if a truck drove by.” AWESOME. Listen to some of that on her Myspace page (linked with her name, above) - or, check her out with The Good Life below.

Lyrics Excerpt: You've got a new friend. | You've got a new friend. | Likes to go to movies. | Likes to drink red wine. | Sounds familiar, better hold on tight: | a film school drunk can be so hard to find.

Maria Taylor and Orenda Fink met at the age of 15 while both attending the Alabama School for Fine Arts, and fronted a band called Little Red Rocket, which released two albums in the late 90's and draw comparisons to Veruca Salt. Fink plays guitar; Taylor plays guitar, piano and drums. Both are better known for their dreampop two-piece band, Azure Ray, which began in Georgia and relocated to Omaha, NE to work with the music scene there. Azure Ray was active from 2001-2004, when they broke up to work on solo projects and side project Now It's Overhead. (However, the band reformed temporarily for "5 or 6 shows" in 2008 and are now releasing another record.)

Now It's Overhead, out of Athens, GA, features both women, as well as Andy LeMaster and Clay Leverett, and was originally a studio project to produce some of LeMaster's old work and grew into a full-fledged band. The band has toured as support for REM and Idlewild during respective US and UK tours.

Orenda Fink has released three solo albums, as well as albums with bands O+S and Art in Manila; Maria Taylor has put out four solo albums; both collaborate with other artists including Moby, Joshua Radin, and Bright Eyes.

Lyrics Excerpt: I'll be alone but maybe more carefree | Like a kite that floats so effortlessly | I was afraid to be alone | Now I'm scared thats how I'd like to be

Stepping away from the tangled webs of Nebraska indie music for a moment!

Jenny Conlee
, notably of the Decemberists plays almost any instrument you've ever thought of (hammond organ, accordion, melodica, glockenspiel, piano and keyboards just according to Wikipedia - and also sometime backup singer). There isn't a ton about her, but she's also collaborated with a number of other bands in the Portland area, and before she was in the Decemberists she played piano for Calobo. She also currently plays keyboards, glockenspiel and accordion for Casey Neill and the Norway Rats, and is in the acoustic band Black Prairie.

Re: the video - I believe the violinist on this is their sometime member Petra Haden - an extremely accomplished musician in her own right. She's been a member of several bands and has collaborated with dozens of bands from indie to poppunk to death metal.

Lyrics Excerpt: We are two mariners | Our ship's sole survivors | In this belly of a whale | Its ribs are ceiling beams | Its guts are carpeting | I guess we have some time to kill

And that, my friends, brings us to the end of our adventures in lady instrumentalists. Did I miss something? Was it terrible that I didn't include _____? Should I do another one? Enjoy this series? Hate it? Leave your thoughts!

I know I'm going to miss writing it!

Also, if you feel inclined to support Deeply Problematic, it's always much appreciated!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Wikipedia's main page mentions nine men for every one woman

The logo of Wikipedia, a globe featuring glyphs from many different writing systems. A registered trademark of the Wikimedia Foundation.
I just love Wikipedia. I think it's one of the greatest things to happen because of the Internet. It's a source of information that's free to all, that's relatively reliable and in-depth, that's fairly transparent in its editing and resources. Most of the pictures I use in my posts are from Wikimedia Commons. While I often warn students I tutor against using it, it's a great place to get general information on a topic, start research, or just productively procrastinate by learning new things.

The main page, the face that Wikipedia puts out to the world, is a good starting place for browsing and procrastination. I went to that main page at 1 am on Tuesday the 24th of August to look for a female name for some fiction I've been working on.

But to my dismay, I didn't find a single lady on the entire front page. Not one.

Wikipedia, our Library of Alexandria, considered the accomplishments of women so insignificant that they did not merit any mention. Not in the Featured Article, or In the News, or On This Day (profiling history), or Did You Know (highlighting new articles). To look at Wikipedia's main page on August 24, 2010, you would think that men made and did everything, and women had nothing to do with anything.

Was this lack of representation of the ladies a one-time thing, I wondered? Or is this a pattern, a reflection of institutionalized systematic oppression of women known as the patriarchy and more broadly, the kyriarchy?

To answer this question, I looked at ten Wikipedia main pages from the past year, and counted the number of women and men who were mentioned by name.* I used's Wayback Machine for eight of these pages (one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.) For the final two, I used the August 24 main page that kicked this project off, and today's page. After studying these ten pages, I found:
  • 15 women appeared total, an average of 1.5 women per page. There were no women for the May 20 and October 27 page, and no more than three women on any other day.
  •  130 men appeared total, an average of 13 men per page.
  • That's a proportion of almost 9 men to every 1 woman.
Nine men to every one woman on a portal that represents the greatest easily accessible store of knowledge is outrageously disproportionate and unacceptable. Wikipedia's under-representation is prime representation of the fact that women are still to this day oppressed, ignored, erased, and marginalized.

From a systematic point of view, it's not totally Wikipedia's fault: the world has been dominated by men, and that's reflected in the records we keep and the people we commemorate. Men still dominate every aspect of society from culture to news to sports to politics and everything in between, and they have since time immemorial. And that's a big part of why Wikipedia, an organization devoted to preserving records and making information accessible, focuses so heavily on men.

But it's not completely about history. Women make up only 13% of Wikipedians (Wikipedia editors, the people who research, write, edit, and maintain these pages - and full disclosure, I was an editor for a few years) - a proportion strikingly similar to the number of women represented on its main page. Men focus on men - upon promoting and constructing articles about people like them. Thus, the main page editors have less women-focused articles to promote to the main page.

But it's not just about the proportion of male to female volunteers. Wikipedia's main page editors could find more pages about women, could promote more woman-focused articles as in need of construction in their editor portal. They could highlight news about women, and new articles about women.

But they don't. Because they don't care about the representation of women. Because they don't care if they're replicating existing power structures, structures which likely favor them. Because they focus on being objective - and as so often happens, objectivity just means a perpetuation the dominant, male, kyriarchal point of view.

But what should Wikipedia do to remedy its chronic, sexist under-representation?
  • First, this isn't a problem that starts with the main page. If Wikipedia wants to make its content less focused on men, it should promote and foster the growth and comfort of female editors like Lise Broer (who contributed several of the featured pictures in my review) .
  • Second, they should make sure that there is always a woman on the main page of Wikipedia. Not including any women on any given day is an act of erasure, pure and simple.
  • Third, they should focus on promoting articles about women for development and construction in their editor's portal, consistently asking editors to spend their time on articles about women. More good articles about women will make more articles about women suited to the high quality expected for pages on Wikipedia's main page.
  • Finally, they should attempt to slowly bring up the proportional representation of women until at least 40% of all the named individuals on the main page on any given day are women.
Facts, information, history and current events were and are not made solely by men, but you wouldn't know that by looking at Wikipedia's main page. Kyriarchy is invested in seeing itself duplicated and perpetuated, and where better to perpetuate the idea that men are the really important people in society than in one of its most authoritative and accessible sources of widely disseminated information? The world is subjective, and Wikipedia's main page editor is choosing to represent a view of the world that is disproportionately focused on men; their reluctance to highlight women is sexist and patriarchal, not objective.

Further reading:
Wikipedia's Gender Gap
Is Wikipedia A Victim of its Own Success?

*Focusing on just men and women is more than a little bit reductive - and since I'm looking at the main page in English, it's US-centric and Western-centric. Men oppressing women is far from the only form of oppression. But I've got time constraints, so I focused on the under-representation that I first noticed. If this post proves popular, I'll return for another look on other axes. 

Enjoy this? Support Deeply Problematic! Why? 10 good reasons to give $10.  

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Why I use that word that I use: Problematic

A cartoon speech bubble with a question mark in quotation marks inside it.

Unlike the previous entries in this series, problematic is not an unfamiliar term for most feminists - in fact, it's a cliche. I named this blog after a professor who overused the phrase "deeply problematic". My intent with my title was humorous, but these days I use it earnestly, frequently. and without irony. Problematic is not a specific word, but it's an excellent way to briefly and broadly note the universal fact of imperfection.

Problematic is an adjective that admits plural flaws. It is applied to nouns that are not perfect to point out that they are not perfect. Problematic suggests a series or pattern of problems - it states that there are more issues with whatever it's appended to than can or will be immediately recognized.

Problematic is a diagnostic, general term - a term for introductions. A term to point out a fact that is true of all - that it's not perfect, that it has problems. Problematic sets a critical tone when used broadly, indicating that all is not well and that some of what is not well will be identified and articulated in the following paragraphs.

Problematic can be a qualifier. It acknowledges that something is not perfect without going in depth. In praise of media, individuals, or actions for their social values, noting that they're problematic denies blanket endorsement to the less virtuous acts of the subject of praise. Simply noting that X is problematic allows for legitimate dissent to praise of X. It reminds the reader that even the things we like are created in a kyriarchy, and thus even those things we like will reflect some of the oppressions we fight.

Use of problematic as a qualifier can be a cop-out - a way to avoid critique rather than a thoughtful acknowledgement of legitimate concerns. But a well-placed link or short elaboration can remedy this without breaking word count limits. (Example: "Though Glee has problematic elements, particularly on the axis of disability, I find the relationship between Kurt and his father to be anti-homophobic.")

Some folks have described problematic as "lazy" or obfuscating. It is neither, when used correctly. Any term can be used in a thoughtless or confusing way. Problematic is just not a word for specifics.

Problematic is a universal term - it is simple, and applies to literally everything. Pointing out that something is problematic is value neutral. Perfection is a cruel farce; everything has problems,even if we personally cannot see or articulate them. Describing something as problematic is just explaining that it is imperfect, of nature. And sometimes that is as a radical as saying that marginalized groups are human, too - it's a clear fact and commonality, but it's sometimes forgotten.

Problematic is a broad word and one that can be applied to everything. Problematic is a part of this blog's name because it opens up the subject matter to critique of unlimited sources - from news to media to language and everything else, since everything is problematic. For my purposes, it's an admission of guilt - that this space, too, is deeply problematic.


Feminist sociologist Dorothy Smith utilized this term globally in her book, "The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology". I have not read the book, but I found this description of her work and use of the term to be helpful:
Problematic is a term used by ethnomethodology and put to effective use by Dorothy Smith to describe as a problem of interest that which is normally not seen as a problem because it is taken for granted. Smith argues that, “the everyday world is problematic”. She argues that the everyday world is neither transparent nor obvious. That social relations are organized from “elsewhere”.
By bracketing one's own membership in the world a researcher makes the commonsense and taken-for-granted world problematic.By making the everyday and ordinary problematic a researcher is able to uncover the structure and dynamic of the everyday.
Did you like this post? Want to see more simple, straightforward definitions of social justice lingo like problematic, kyriarchy, and cis? Donate to Deeply Problematic! Here's 10 reasons to give $10 today.

This and other "Why I use that word that I use" posts are a 101 space - if there's something that you're not getting, you have greater room than usual to ask basic questions.
Blog Widget by LinkWithin