Archive | Monday Column RSS feed for this section

Are We On the Cusp of a Class War?

19 Sep

Despite what Michelle Bachmann says, the defining issue of our time is not going to be gay marriage.  I think it’s more likely to be terrorism.  But “class warfare” is also going to be a good contender.

For some time now, Sociological Images has been documenting the ever-increasing gap between the very rich and everyone else.  Just a few days ago, Martin Hart-Landsberg wrote that median income has fallen and that poverty rates are rising.

In a speech delivered today, President Obama sided with Warren Buffet and took a firm stance that taxes on the very rich must be raised.  Frank James for NPR posits that:

Along with the jobs bill he introduced last week, the deficit-reduction plan was an opportunity to frame the political debate for the 2012 general election.

Whoever becomes the Republican presidential nominee and Republican congressional candidates will have to explain to voters why the wealthiest Americans shouldn’t pay taxes at rates that are at least as high as those paid by the middle class.

The president is betting he’ll have the better of that argument, especially since polls suggest a substantial majority of Americans agree with him. If 2012 is to be a referendum, he plans to make it not on him but on the rich and their taxes.

This is phenomenal.  For years, liberals have tried and failed to convince voters that U.S. tax policy favors the wealthy, and conservatives have hijacked the dialogue.  Finally, it seems, people understand that the current system is not fair, and that no one is asking the wealthy to pay more than their fair share.

The fact is that Republican proposals to introduce spending cuts without tax increases places the burden largely on the poorest among us – the ones who would be most affected by a reduction in social services like Medicare and Medicaid.  When Republicans tell us we need to tighten our belts, they’re actually just telling poor people that they need to struggle even harder than they already do.

I’m guessing that conservatives already feel that they are losing control of the dialogue.  s.e. smith of This Ain’t Livin’ pointed out over the weekend that Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, a (as far as I’m concerned) seminal sociological work on the working poor in America, has become a challenged book.  Smith says:

Many people in the United States have very set, specific ideas about poverty and what it is like to be poor. This book turns those ideas on their head and forces people to confront some of their own attitudes about poverty. Parents who want their children to believe that people deserve to be poor because they’re lazy and unmotivated, who want their children to believe that anyone can succeed by trying, who want children to believe that those people working in low wage jobs aren’t anybody their children need to worry about, certainly don’t want their kids reading Nickel and Dimed.

While I believe that Nickel and Dimed ought to be required reading for everyone (love that book), I’m going to take the fact that its status as a challenged book is a positive litmus test that tells us that conservatives are scared.  They’re scared that we know what they’ve been playing at.  They’re scared that we’ve all realized that there is a class system in the U.S., and the vast majority of us are not benefiting from it.

Could it possibly be that we’ve finally got the upper hand?

A Magazine Ruined My Sex Life

12 Sep

This post was originally published on yet another blog of mine, which I started as an experiment to try to monetize my work a bit.  I have all of these mega thoughts about the direction my writing has taken, and the direction I would like it to go, but they’re like, boring and stuff.  Just fair warning that I’m probably going to be sharing a lot of content back and forth, and the nature of what I post here might be shifting a bit.

When I was really young, my best friend’s mom worked at the local library, which just happened to be right across the street from school. Since both my friend and I were kind of weird kids and were picked on pretty mercilessly, a couple of times a week we managed to “miss the bus” and went over to the library to wait for a ride home from her mom. And while we were there, we read Seventeen.

Cover of Seventeen magazine

"5 Easy Ways to Suppress Your Sexuality!"

Seventeen didn’t appeal to me after I hit about twelve or so, which makes me believe that despite the title of the publication, its target demographic is not, in fact, seventeen-year-old girls, but rather, girls who are much, much younger – the girls who aspire to be seventeen. When I was young, I didn’t want to grow up to be an astronaut or a marine biologist – I wanted to grow up to be a teenager. I thought that perhaps this was a phenomenon unique to the “Clueless” generation, but at a Purim party a couple of years ago, I asked a girl about her costume, and she told me that she was a teenager – proof, at least in my eyes, that girls are taught to believe that life ends after high school (which is kind of true – fun life ends after high school).

So when I was aspiring to be a teenager, Seventeen was the publication of choice, which upset my mom. She preferred me reading American Girl, which, by the way, I fucking loved, I just didn’t want anyone else to know that. They only saw the side of me that pretended to like boys and loved the shit out of Ace of Base (never mind that I knew all the lyrics to “Psycho Killer” and only managed to half-heartedly hum along to that one song about the traffic signal or whatever).
My weird friend and I mostly read Seventeen for two things – the “most embarrassing moments,” and the advice columns. The “most embarrassing moments” were genius.  They always involved a girl either farting, pooping herself, or unleashing a tidal wave of period blood in public, and they were fucking hilarious.  I remember this one where a girl went and took a crap in the woods, and forever after was known as “Forest Dump!”  Oh my god, I almost had my own “most embarrassing moment” when I read that one!

The advice columns taught me a lot about what puberty was going to be like.  I learned that if I happened to grow up with hairy nipples, that would be normal, and washing my face twelve times a day might keep the acne from eating me alive.

But most importantly, I learned to be horribly, terribly confused about my feelings of attraction toward other women.  You see, a girl wrote into Seventeen, terrified that she was a lesbian because she found herself getting turned on by scantily-clad women in movie sex scenes.  Don’t worry, was Seventeen’s response – you’re probably not actually turned on by the women, it’s the situation (not The Situation) that’s making you horny!

That was something I internalized and greeted with sincere relief.  Even as a young girl, I had doubts about myself and thought that maybe I might be gay.  But Seventeen taught me that it was the fucking that piqued my interest – not the vaginas.

I have to wonder if that advice is true.  I mean, it’s not true for me – I discovered later that it really was the vaginas.  If it was, in fact, terrible, misleading advice for everyone as much as it was for me, then I have to wonder how many girls grew up guiltily hoarding lingerie catalogs beneath their mattresses, and telling themselves, as they furiously masturbated, that it was the situation those half-naked ladies were in, and not the fantasy of scissoring the shit out of them, that was getting them off.

The Rape of Sookie Stackhouse (Redux)

5 Sep

This post was originally published at Orange the Brave.

Trigger warning for descriptions of fictional rape.  Spoiler warning… for spoilers.

A portrait of Anna Paquin; text reads "What will become of me?"

via perezhilton.com

A few days ago, Eld and I had a Tumblr exchange about bad books we feel compelled to finish, even though they’re bad, which was precipitated by my stating that I found the most recent installment in the Sookie Stackhouse series of novels by Charlaine Harris to be unforgivably awful.  The book, Dead Reckoning, had no discernible plot, completely dropped the ball on what should have been a HUGE DEAL, and it just felt like it was unenthusiastic about slogging through yet another formula Southern Vampire book (it would be unfair to call it a mystery – there was little to no sleuthing).  This is how the books work: Sookie cleans her house, Sookie finds out there are even more supernatural creatures that we didn’t know about (seriously, as the books progress, it gets kind of ridiculous – vampires, shapeshifters, werewolves, werepanthers, fairies, demons, maenads, men who are not rapists – just kidding!  all men are rapists in the Sookie Stackhouse novels!), Sookie has violent sex after which she is obligated to ice her pussy, horribly gruesome violence porn in which at least ten minor characters are slaughtered and/or dismembered, the end.

And I can say “the end” because I finished reading it.  I finished reading it, even though it was horrible.  I finished reading all of them, even though they were horrible (though not so horrible as the latest one).  Part of the reason is that I have this sick compulsion to finish reading terrible books, and I am in fact more likely to finish a terrible book than I am to finish one that I’m legitimately enjoying (I mean, I finish the vast majority of books I read, but I can think of a few occasions where I put a good book down and just never picked it up again, and zero occasions in which I’ve put a bad book down).  And another reason that I’m hooked on these books is that I just cannot believe some of the horseshit that goes down in them.

A while ago, I had this other blog that kind of stalled out and was eventually deleted, but one of my projects there was to recap and analyze each of the Sookie Stackhouse books.  So I’m going to try to condense all of that down into one blog post about how rape-y these books are.  Because they’re super rape-y.

Unlike some feminist critics out there, I don’t have a problem with portrayals of rape.  I don’t necessarily believe that if an author writes about rape, ze is necessarily condoning it.  Vladimir Nabokov wrote about a pedophile – in the first person, no less! – and I really, really don’t think anyone would dare argue that Lolita gives child molestation the thumbs-up.  But the Sookie Stackhouse novels are not like that – not at all.  While I wouldn’t argue that they condone rape, they certainly engage in some pretty heinous rape apologism – and that’s what we’re going to delve into.

The first thing you need to know about the Sookie Stackhouse books is that the vampires are scary, and they have fangs (unlike some other vampire fiction we know).  They are ruthless, untrustworthy, passionate, and they fuck.  In fact, it’s observed many times throughout the course of the novels that blood and sex are deeply intertwined, and that for vampires, one rarely comes without the other.

The second thing you need to know… is a brief plot synopsis.  In the world of the Southern Vampire Mysteries, vampires have “come out of the coffin” after the invention of synthetic blood – which obviously means that they don’t need to prey on humans to sustain “life” (they don’t need to, which doesn’t mean that they don’t).  The first novel,Dead Until Dark, is set in the fictional Bon Temps, Louisiana, two years after vampires have made their existence known to the world.  This is where we meet Sookie Stackhouse, a waitress and telepath, who gets all gooey in the groin over the first vampire she meets.  His name is Bill Compton, and he just happens to live in the house across the cemetery.  AND THIS IS WHERE ALL OF THE TROUBLE BEGINS.

Right out of the gate it’s established that in these books, rape and sexual assault are the weapons of choice.  Whether she’s forced to watch sex acts against her will (on page 57, we’re introduced to a group of vampires considerably more frightening than Bill, and the way that threat is established is through a lot of heavy petting and one of them receiving fellatio while Sookie, too frightened to run away, watches), or the local detective is trying to bait her telepathy by imagining her fucking her brother (Dead Until Dark, 104), it seems that the best way to scare Sookie is to put her into extremely uncomfortable sexual situations.

And because it wouldn’t be good, trashy genre fiction without it, “forced seduction” and the threat thereof plays a large role in the steamy scenes as well.  Take, for example, this scene which occurs on page 101 in Dead Until Dark:

Oh boy, could he kiss.  We might have problems communicating on some levels, but this wasn’t one of them.  We had a great time for maybe five minutes.  I felt all the right things moving through my body in waves.  Despite the awkwardness of being in the front seat of a car, I managed to be comfortable, mostly because he was so strong and considerate.  I nipped his skin with my teeth.  He made a sound like a growl.

“Sookie!”  His voice was ragged.

I moved away from him, maybe half an inch.

“If you do that anymore, I’ll have you whether you want to be had or not,” he said, and I could tell he meant it.

“You don’t want to,” I said finally, trying not to make it a question.

Okay, here is where we have to draw some lines between real life, and the conventions of fiction.  In real life, if someone told me that they’d “have” me, whether I wanted it or not, I really, really doubt I’d find it sexy (unless it was something my partner and I had previously negotiated, of course) – in fact, I’d probably be scared shitless.  In this book, and in other literature – especially romances – we don’t read this situation as a rape threat because it’s been previously established that Sookie is game, and we know she is game because she is narrating, and we know what she is thinking.  We also know that Bill and Sookie would have been humping a long time ago were it not for some strategically placed barriers, like social taboos and miscommunications (because it’s not romantic if two people meet, decide they want to fuck, and then fuck – no, no, there has to be anobstacle).  There’s been a considerable amount of research and speculation as to why we’re okay with rape in genre fiction (here is one that I like in particular, and here’s another).

But see, that isn’t the big problem.  The big problem occurs in book three, when I guess someone decided that all of those rape threats were no good unless they were actually carried out.  At the end of book three, which is called Club Dead (I know), Sookie ends up rescuing a half-starved Bill from where he’s being held captive by the vampire king of Mississippi (I KNOW), and then some bitch locks her in a trunk with him, where he rapes her.

I mean, he really rapes her.  I KNOW!!!

Thankfully, Sookie terminates the relationship after that point (though they were honestly on the rocks before that), but remains reluctant to really place any blame on Bill for what happened.  It’s argued first that Bill, starving as he was, couldn’t help it or wasn’t aware that he was even doing it.  It’s then argued that the blame lies with the woman who pushed Sookie into the trunk, and this isn’t just Sookie trying to rationalize what happened – other characters also say it’s the woman’s fault (her name is Debbie Pelt, FWIW).  It isn’t even until book five or six that Sookie even calls what happened in the trunk a “rape.”  Bill is never held accountable for his actions (except that he loses Sookie as his girlfriend), and Sookie even becomes friendly with him again after a little time has passed.

Where Harris really fails is that she puts forth a situation – Sookie’s rape – and then refuses to really deal with it.  I’d never argue that an author can’t allow hir main character to be sexually assaulted – but if you’re going to have that happen, you must treat it with the gravity it deserves.  For example, don’t have another one of your characters say this to the woman who was raped a few hours after it happened:

“Had it occurred to you,” he said, after we’d rolled out of the city’s center, “that you tend to walk away when things between you and Bill become rocky?  Not that I mind, necessarily, since I would be glad for you two to sever your association.  But if this is a pattern you follow in your romantic attachments, I want to know now.” (Club Dead, 215)

Hey Sookie – this dude just raped you, and I feel like I should probably shame you a little bit for not sticking around to work it out with him, and I also want to know if it’s your wont to run away from your rapist, in case you and I get into a relationship with one another and I rape you.  I mean, running away from your rapist – is that a pattern?

And this is typical of the way this rape is treated moving forward in the series – and it’s something I was never able to forgive Harris for.  It’s one of the reasons, I imagine, that True Blood changed this scene up so that Bill simply drank from Sookie – almost to the point of killing her – and did not rape her.  Because when you allow one of your characters to get raped, you have to deal with it – you can’t treat it like he farted in bed or forgot to bring milk home, or even like he cheated.

It’s a real shame.  While these books are certainly not masterpieces, they are fairly progressive in their cavalier attitude toward homosexuality, bisexuality, and gender expression.  It’s just too bad that all of that got ruined when Harris refused to acknowledge that she allowed one of her characters to get raped.  I guess I’ve never forgiven her for it.

And yet… I’ll be reading the next one when it comes out – you can be sure of it.  And I’ll hate it all the way through.

_________________

PRINT SOURCES

Harris, Charlaine.  Dead Until Dark.  New York: Penguin, 2001.

Harris, Charlaine.  Club Dead.  New York: Penguin, 2003.

#nymwars and Your Freedom Online

16 Aug

A day late, and about $500 short!  This column was originally posted at Orange the Brave.

Have you gotten your invite for Google+ yet?  It’s the new thing in social networking!  It’s like, almost exactly like Facebook!  But it has Angry Birds, and it doesn’t have stinky Farmville, and I personally find it more visually pleasing than Facebook!  Plus CIRCLES!!!  And awesome little flash animations when you delete circles!  And awesome integration with many of the Google services I already use!  HOLY SHIT GOOGLE+ IS AMAZING!!!!!

I have all of these invites, but I’m not going to offer them to you, dear readers, even though Google+ would be a fantastic tool for me to do that whole self-promotion thing that I’m so bad at.  I’m not going to offer you invites, because Megan E. King is not my real name, and I, like many people on the internet – or, like many authors of this very blog! – do my meat-life things with my “wallet name,” and my internet life things with this name, and Google says that I cannot use Google+ with this name.  You see, Google is a jerk and has this “real name policy” (or “common name” – but they really mean the name that’s on your driver’s license) that it enforced by mass-suspending thousands of Google+ users a few short weeks ago.  Everything I’m reading is now is indicating that policies have changed so that users are notified and given a grace period before their accounts are suspended, but according to opponents of the policy, that doesn’t go far enough.

And so, #nymwars began, thanks, in large part, to Skud.  You see, Skud’s G+ account was suspended because Skud is not the name that appears on her driver’s license.  It was recently reinstated, and since then, she has been using the platform to talk about why this real names policy is bullshit.

Now, I’m not going to pretend that I’ve been intimately connected to what’s been happening with #nymwars.  I haven’t.  Truth be told, I’ve been kind of away from the internet for a couple of days.  But #nymwars is important, and it ought to be important to you, even if you do use your “wallet name” online.  The fact is that pseudonyms protect people – and you like protecting people, don’t you?  I THOUGHT SO!

It’s entirely possible that my mom was just an over-protective helicopter mommy, but do you remember all of the media scares about young girls being abducted by internet predators about ten years ago?  Have you ever seen those “To Catch a Predator” specials on Dateline?  My family was pretty broke when I was young, so the first time I had real access to the internet (besides the limited access I had through the school library) was in 2000, when my dad bought me a computer for my birthday.  And I remember that my mother was scared shitless.

I am certainly not advocating that we should all be scared of the internet, but what’s wrong with a little caution if we want to exercise it?  What about the woman who is being stalked online by an ex?  What about the woman who fears that her job would be in jeopardy if the conservative organization she worked for got wind of her super-liberal, super-queer activities on the internet?  Oh wait, that’s me.

What about people who don’t like their legal names?  What about Madonna (is my age showing?) or Lady Gaga?  What about people who have had a presence online way back when nobody used their real names (like, ten years ago – that was meant to be snarky, by the way), and people looked at you funny if you used your actual name in your email address?  I remember that, and I wasn’t even online until 2000, folks.

I promise there is a point to this post.  Bear with me.

On her newly reinstated G+ profile, Skud said in a recent post:

Google Plus is Google’s attempted answer to Facebook. They are shit-scared of Facebook’s increasing dominance of the Internet and people’s pageviews and attention and information, and want to claw back as much of that as they can.

In order for G+ to threaten Facebook, it needs to get widespread mainstream acceptance. Not just among the Internet nerds who were excited by GMail and Wave and stuff like that, but by the sort of people who type “facebook.com” into the Google search bar because they don’t know how their browser works.

Vic and his team believe that those people (shorthand: “the mainstream”) are scared off by Internet culture, pseudonyms, and the wild and wonderful diversity most of us love. When they talk about “dress codes” what they mean is “we don’t want to scare off the mainstream people”.

Skud goes on to tell us that we fix this not by quitting Google+ – we fix this by reaching the mainstream and communicating to them how important pseudonyms are.

So that’s why I’m here – signal boosting.  And that’s what you ought to be doing, too.  People ought to have a right to their anonymity or pseudonymity, if they choose to exercise that right.  So the best thing that you can do is to talk to people.  Talk to people who don’t move in geek circles and aren’t involved in #nymwars.  Talk to your friends and family about why it’s so important to be able to protect yourself online.

And because many other people have written about this much better than I have, go and read what they’ve written:

s.e. smith for Tiger Beatdown >> The Google+ Nymwars: Where Identity and Capitalism Collide

What this is really about, of course, is capitalism, which some people advocating for legal names will admit, in a sort of roundabout, weird argument. They say ‘it’s not about safety, of course, the service wants real names because then it can sell the data,’ like this somehow ends the argument and the discussion can stop now. This is actually the core of the argument, and it’s the thing that everyone should be talking about, because it has extremely serious implications for online identity, and for the way people use the Internet.

Tim Carmody for Wired.com >> Google+ Punts on Kafkaesque Name Policy

I’m a sucker for literary references, and also for concise, pithy rundowns of online phenomena.  He’s also got a suggestion that I really like:

Google+ is already something of a nerd magnet, so many people on Google+ have ideas (including full schema) on how Google should handle names. I’ve endorsed an approach I call “polynymy,” letting each user choose a range of names, nicknames, alternative names or handles that they can use within different circles.

This way, I could totally offer you all Google+ invites, and still protect my pseudonymity!

Also check out My Name Is Me, a photo and text project meant to support the continued use of pseudonyms online.

Essentially, this is not a couple of internet dorks whining because they can’t use their screen names on Google+.  This isn’t even about protecting the people who are afraid they’re going to be stalked or harassed online.  This is really about your freedom online.  This is about you being the one in charge of how much or how little information you share about yourself.  If you like personal freedom, you like pseudonymity!

Do you have other links?  Share them in the comments!

Good Dog: Thoughts on Firefly

8 Aug

The sad news is that, while I am technically sticking to my posting schedule, I do not have a big, well-researched piece for you today.  This is because I was introduced to Firefly over the weekend.  And I mean I watched all fourteen episodes plus the movie in a matter of about… two days.  I regret nothing.

When I tell you I’m not much of a television person, I don’t mean it in the way that some people mean it, where it’s like, some sort of badge of honor in not owning a TV.  Growing up, I had to fight to watch television, because my mom was worried that it would rot my brain and/or distract me from my schoolwork (I’m not sure about the former, but the latter is definitely true).  I never had my own television, and when I went off to school, I didn’t have one to bring with me… and then I remained sans-television for roughly six years, simply because I could afford to have one.  I’m guessing in those six years, I forgot how to watch it.  Or I became addicted to the internet.  One of the two.  Or both.

On top of all of that, I do not have a head for television or movies.  I have a hard time remembering details, or character names.  I just don’t tend to absorb information well when I’m watching something.

So, it should come as no surprise to you that prior to Firefly, I had limited experience with Joss Whedon.  I had heard of Buffy (though I’m not sure if I knew enough about it to be able to connect Whedon’s name to it until recently), I’d seen Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,  and I’d listened to that live episode of This American Life where he sang.  It was terrible, but also adorable.

No, the thing that really made me take interest in Joss Whedon was when he first appeared (and then became a recurring character) as a puppy in the web comic, Riot Nrrd.  Actually, the very first panel of the very first installment of Riot Nrrd reads, “Joss.  Fucking.  Whedon.”

Now, that might not sound like much of a commendation, but within context (you’ll just have to read it), it kind of is.  I mean, Joss Whedon may just be a puppy – ahem, creator of television series, excuse me – among puppies creators of television series, but the fact that a web comic about fat/disabled/lesbian/queer/biracial/POC/transgender lady and genderqueer dorks saw fit to even have a conversation about him?  And a conversation that, in context, reflects the notion that marginalized people would even bother putting enough faith in him to be disappointed?  That’s actually a pretty high commendation.

So I was stoked when a friend decided I needed to be educated about Firefly.  I was prepared to be pretty impressed.

Now, I don’t want to give a rundown of the entire series.  If we’re going to keep with the puppy analogy here, Firefly makes Joss Whedon look like a St. Bernard who not only shits in the toilet, but also reads Tolstoy and makes his own olive oil.  I mean, is the main protagonist a cis, het, white male?  Well, yeah – we’re still talking puppies here.  But there is so. much. good. shit. going on.  Like, there’s a sex worker who is not a victim, and an inter-racial marriage that, while it conforms to that idea that black women are more masculine than white men, is not a source of anxiety (i.e. the man is perfectly comfortable with the fact that his wife kicks more ass than he does – and in the episode where he’s not okay with it, it’s not because she kicks ass, but rather because she has stories about it).  Three out of the four main female characters are extremely capable and self-sufficient (and the one who isn’t is still never the “damsel in distress”).  And the most wonderful thing about all of this is that you barely even notice it.  It feels effortless, which, in my opinion, is a major triumph in writing diverse characters.

But I don’t really want to talk about that.  I want to talk about a specific episode.   And I want to talk specifically about one scene.  In “Objects in Space,” a sadistic bounty hunter boards Serenity, and he is scary. as. fuck.  And in this one scene, he very matter-of-factly threatens to rape one of the female crew members.

I’m sure there are plenty of “bad puppy” arguments one could make, because a person interested in critical theory and deconstruction can’t really ignore the fact that this is a black man threatening to rape a white woman.  If you’ve ever paid attention to anything EVER, there should be all kinds of sirens going off in your head regarding this dynamic.  And if you don’t have sirens going off, maybe you should reread To Kill a Mockingbird.

The above paragraph just made every browncoat on the internet hate me – just you watch.

Anyway, I want to ignore that dynamic for just a moment, and point to the gravity of that scene, and how fucking terrifying it really is.  As my friend and I discussed, rape is common on television.  It happens a lot.  It happens pretty much weekly on Law and Order: SVU, in fact.  I’m one of those people for whom SVU is addictive.  It’s not like I even watch it, really, or absorb what is happening.  All of these violent rapes?  They don’t mean anything to me.  I’m numb to it.

But in this episode, it’s the threat that is terrifying.  There is no actual violence, and it’s still more frightening and meaningful than the actual (okay, not actual, but you know what I mean) rapes that happen weekly on SVU.

I’m sure we can all point to the reasons why – the threat is leveled against a character that we have come to love over the course of the series.  That’s the real difference, isn’t it?  In SVU, the victims are people that the audience doesn’t know.  That doesn’t make it less horrific, but it’s easier to not feel it, to not register what has actually occurred.  It probably doesn’t help that most of the time on SVU, we learn about rapes after they have happened, or the actresses being raped aren’t very good, and the rapists aren’t either.  Additionally, the show is so freaking formulaic that we always know what’s coming, and what’s coming is rape.

But the fact that this scene is so freaking scary is a major point in Whedon’s favor.  I’ve mentioned before that I do not object to using rape to make a point.  The point that was being made in “Objects in Space” was that this bounty hunter was a scary, sadistic fuck.  It’s also a testament to some seriously good writing that a verbal threat of rape can carry so much weight on a television show that exists in a culture where rape is often a punchline, or doesn’t mean anything at all.

So I was not disappointed by Firefly.  My expectations were not dashed.  Joss Whedon didn’t really descend into puppydom in my estimation, though from what I’ve heard, I ought to skip Dollhouse.  That’s really no problem for me.  After all, I’m not much of a television person.

[Image Source]

They’ll Use Violence to Sell You Ideologies, Too

1 Aug

So here I am, happily reading the Ms. Magazine Blog like a good feminist, when I come across this article called “Balancing the Budget on the Backs of Women” by Susan F. Feiner, and it’s got this fantastic picture of John Boehner up at the top, and I’m like, yeah Washington – what the hell is wrong with you guys?

Until I read this:

Watch out, women.  Lock the doors and pull the shades.  Congress, using the debt ceiling crisis manufactured by Tea Party radicals, has declared war on American women.

And I’m like… huh.  That’s kind of weird.  And then it gets weirder:

The looming possibility of the first-ever U.S. government default – a “crisis” that was deliberately created by the Republicans – has morphed into a bipartisan carte blanche to commit gender violence.

Look, I know that it’s common practice for activists to appropriate violent rhetoric to impress upon the public how serious their respective issues are.  This is not a new phenomenon.  However, it’s somewhat of a different story when we’re talking about “an assault on the environment” (for example), because that’s figurative – that statement personifies “the environment” and makes it something capable of being assaulted.  When you’re talking about figurative “gender violence” – well, that’s something that really happens.  This is a much, much different dynamic.

Furthermore, the fear-mongering tactic used in the first quote I pulled is the same advertising ploy used to get women to buy home security systems, as demonstrated (hilariously) by Sarah Haskins on Current TV’s Target Women:

Fear is an effective advertising tactic, but it’s especially effective – and insidious – when used against women.  Consider the following LifeAlert ad from 1988:

Is it any coincidence that the seniors in the commercial are women?  Of course not.  According to G. Sakeld, et al (2000) in their study examining quality of life and hip injuries in older Americans, “[O]lder women place a very high marginal value on their health. […] The single most important factor (threat) seems to be the loss of independence, dignity, and possessions that accompanies the move from living in their own homes to living in a nursing home.”  Not only is that LifeAlert commercial tapping into older women’s fear of falling and breaking a hip, but also into the fear of losing their independence.  And because LifeAlert wants to continue to sell those little remotes, it continues to use women in its advertisements.

So why is Feiner employing this violent rhetoric to make her point?  If it’s meant to be parody, it falls kind of flat for me.  More likely, Ms. Feiner is using violent rhetoric to frighten and intimidate women into caring about the U.S. credit crisis.  But like, that actually happens.  In real life and stuff.  The National Organization for Women states that “women experience about 4.8 million intimate partner-related physical assaults and rapes every year.”

This is more than a rhetorical flourish – this is the intentional utilization of legitimate fears that women have been taught to internalize over years of socialization to trick them into buying into an ideology.  It is little different from what Broadview Security and LifeAlert do.

I think you can do better, Ms.

Let’s Talk About Rape Jokes

28 Jul

This blog is fairly young yet, but you’ll learn quickly that my ass is still quite sore over what I generally refer to as “The Dickwolves Debacle.”  If you missed it, you’re lucky, but I’ll summarize it thusly: everyone acted like a butthole.  Everyone acted like a dirty, smelly butthole.  Basically, the guys over at “Penny Arcade” drew this comic, which was meant to be a comment on how morally uncomfortable it is in an MMORPG like World of Warcraft to be sent on a mission to rescue five slaves… except, because you’re in the same universe as like, a gajillion other players who might be on the same quest you’re on, those slaves will keep respawning so that other players have something to rescue, meaning that you’re inevitably going to be leaving slaves behind.  And in the course of making this point, the “sixth slave” says, “Every night we are raped to sleep by the dickwolves.”

And then online feminism exploded.  It happened first at Shakesville, which is like, the fuse or something – the fuse on the bomb which is online feminism.  Do you see how consistent I am being about my metaphors?  Also, do you know how awesome explosions are?  This is why this is a fantastic analogy.

Anyway, “Penny Arcade” broke the feminist internet, because it’s not okay to use rape as a punchline!  And you know, I agree with that (for the most part).  Problem is that rape was not the punchline in that “Penny Arcade” comic.  That comic was about all of the things I just said it was a few paragraphs ago.  And I guess Gabe and Tycho felt the same way I do, because they responded to the feminist internet… and acted like big butt-munchers about it.  Not cool.

So, either there is a sector of the feminist internet that doesn’t understand the anatomy of a joke, or there is a sector of the feminist internet that says that is it never okay to talk about rape unless it’s in the literal, scary sense.  I’m guessing it’s the latter, because when I used to read Shakesville on a regular basis, I frequently found myself snorting into my coffee.

You want my personal opinion on the dickwolves?  I liked the comic.  I thought it made its point nicely, and I didn’t find it triggering or offensive.  That’s not to say that my reaction is the right one, and it’s not to say that rape jokes don’t exist in a larger culture.  Denis Farr, writing for The Border House, said this of the comic:

Personally, among the reasons I find rape jokes much more problematic than murder jokes (and I don’t necessarily let off the hook the latter), is that this is the response to rape in the real world. Murder, unless sanctioned by a government, is quite often condemned. Rape is often more murky, even if we theoretically believe it wrong.

Yes, rape jokes exist in a larger culture that systematically trivializes rape, and perhaps reading “The Sixth Slave” might have been triggering for some people… but it wasn’t really a rape joke.

This is a rape joke.

This is the final panel in today’s installment of “Truth Serum,” a comic I read weekly on The Rumpus.  So why is this a rape joke, when it doesn’t even reference literal rape?  Let’s break it down, shall we?

This two-part strip has Malory Watkins approaching Flying Man, and asking him to autograph her breasts.  Flying Man doesn’t want to do it there, in public, because there are kids around, and he might get into trouble.  And in this final panel, Malory Watkins says to him, “Do it or I’ll blow my rape whistle and then you’ll really get into trouble.”

The difference between this strip and “The Sixth Slave” is that here, rape actually is the punchline.  Or rather, not even rape – the idea that a woman would use the threat of a rape accusation to get a man to do what she wants him to do.  I mean, that’s nasty.  That relies on all kinds of stereotypes about how women are manipulative, and it pushes the (false) cultural meme that tells us that men accused of rape are actually the victims.

Okay, I recognize that all of this is kind of a matter of opinion, and it all depends on what you’re willing to put up with.  You know, I’m going to continue reading “Truth Serum,” because I think it’s funny most of the time.  I would, however, like to point out that this particular strip relies heavily on harmful cultural memes that directly trivialize rape.

So!  There’s my opinion.  You should leave yours in the comments!

[Image 1 Source] [Image 2 Source]

The Obligatory Post About Rape Culture

12 Jul

I’ll guess we’ll mark this one down on the long list of lady things that dudes hate, right after menstrual blood and paper doilies.  Rape culture is one of the things I hear a lot of pushback against as I’m tottering through my feminist life – and the resistance I hear isn’t necessarily coming from anti-feminists.  In fact, it never is, because I’m lucky enough to have a core group of supportive friends who are excellent allies.

But the rape culture thing – well, it has a hard time gelling, and I think part of that is related to the fact that there are some misconceptions about what rape culture actually is.  I rather like Wikipedia’s definition, which states that rape culture:

… is a term which originated in women’s studies and feminist theory, describing a culture in which rape and sexual violence against women are common and in which prevalent attitudes, norms, practices, and media condone, normalize, excuse, or tolerate sexual violence against women.

Taken alone, I doubt anyone would take much issue with this definition, especially given the fact that rape has kind of been all over the news in the past few months, what with legislators pushing abortion bills with no exceptions for rape, the Julian Assange media frenzy, and now the Strauss-Kahn debacle, and in past months there have been a couple of gruesome assault cases in Texas that especially highlight the problem our culture has with victim-blaming.

One of these instances sparked an uproar in March, when the New York Times reported on the gang rape of an 11-year-old girl by 18 men and boys in Cleveland, Texas.  From the article:

The case has rocked this East Texas community to its core and left many residents in the working-class neighborhood where the attack took place with unanswered questions. Among them is, if the allegations are proved, how could their young men have been drawn into such an act?

“It’s just destroyed our community,” said Sheila Harrison, 48, a hospital worker who says she knows several of the defendants. “These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives.”

Notice the framing of the issue here.  If it’s not blaming the victim, it is certainly suggesting that those who perpetrated the act were not responsible for what they did.  The article asks how they were “drawn into” raping that child, implying that the rapists were, in fact, the ones being victimized.  Furthermore, Sheila Harrison as quoted expresses her concern for the welfare of the 18 men – EIGHTEEN! – and completely ignores the fact that a child was abducted and brutally raped over and over again.

Later in the article:

Residents in the neighborhood where the abandoned trailer stands — known as the Quarters — said the victim had been visiting various friends there for months. They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said.

“Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?” said Ms. Harrison, one of a handful of neighbors who would speak on the record. “How can you have an 11-year-old child missing down in the Quarters?”

Here is a prime example of victim-blaming behavior.  The mere mention that this child was hanging out in a dangerous place, was dressing older than her age, and was fraternizing with teenage boys suggests that by engaging in these behaviors, this girl was at least somewhat responsible for what happened to her – and as a reminder, this was an 11-year-old child who was gang raped by 18 men.  Harrison, the same woman quoted above, also suggests that the girl’s mother might be to blame.

This is an argument used all the time – and I’m really not sure if people really and truly understand how fucked up it is.  So many of us might look at a situation like that and think, this is something that could have been prevented.  If only she’d been more careful; if only her mother had been paying more attention.  I’ve seen the analogy made that if a guy doesn’t want his wallet stolen, he shouldn’t walk through a shitty neighborhood fanning himself with his cash.  This does not change the fact that mugging someone is illegal – it’s just as illegal if someone steals your cash while you’re waving it around as it would be if you were clutching it for dear life.  Rape is rape, regardless of where the victim is hanging out, what zie is wearing, and with whom zie associates.

Let’s reiterate what we just read, shall we?  This was an article from the New York Times reporting on the gang rape of an 11-year-old child.  It is suggested by the author of the piece – not by the woman quoted – that the perpetrators were “drawn into” raping this girl, and that the victim was behaving in a way that essentially tells us that she was asking for it – or at least that we shouldn’t be surprised or horrified that something like this happened.  This was not a simple case of a reporter telling it like it is – if this were truly an unbiased article, these sentiments would have come with an attribution.  So either this was a case of seriously sloppy reporting, or a journalist – who is supposed to be unbiased – inserted his own insidious opinion that, somehow, this child brought what happened to her upon herself.

And the sad thing about that is that I doubt he even realized what he was doing.

In another case (highlighted today on Sociological Images), a cheerleader raped by football player in Silsbee, Texas had her entire town turning against her, even though the evidence couldn’t have been more clear that she was raped.  And yet, she was ostracized, and kicked off her cheerleading squad when she refused to cheer for her rapist.  The article on Sociological Images highlights another example of biased media coverage of rape cases:

The local paper, The Silsbee Bee, favorably covered the accused, even publishing an article titled, “Sexual Assault Prosecutions Cost County Nearly $20,000.” It was hard to miss the implication that this was money ill spent.

To anyone who doubts the rape culture, this is what it is.  It’s not some militant feminist theory that seeks to turn men into second-class citizens.  It’s the real, documented culture in which we don’t even think twice about making excuses for rapists, or blaming a victim for what happened to hir, or coming up with any excuse whatsoever to not hold a rapist accountable for hir crime.

[Image Source]

More 60s Nostalgia Planned for Fall Network Lineup

6 Jul
I stopped reading the New York Times online when they implemented their subscription policy (another story for another day), so it’s no wonder that I missed this article, which claims that the networks are striving for “fresh” this coming fall.  What really caught my attention when I was reading was just a brief mention of “Pan Am,” a show planned for ABC’s fall lineup about, what else?–Pan Am airlines.

From the accompanying graphic featuring stewardesses in white gloves and pillbox hats, it should be obvious that the creators of “Pan Am” have observed the success of AMC’s “Mad Men” and are seeking to capitalize on the 60s nostalgia that made the show about the golden age of advertising a hit.

I’m not much of a television person, and I don’t watch “Mad Men” (though I have been informed that I ought to make a point of doing so – we’ll put it on my to do list).  However, I am vaguely aware of the fact that the show deals intimately with high-power “boys’ clubs,” smoking, highball glasses, fantastic costuming and hairstyles, and pretty people.  Sounds like a good time to me, and to the like, thirty or forty people who watch it.

Even though I don’t watch “Mad Men,” I can imagine that it makes for interesting television.  The early 1960s were a pretty fascinating time in American history, if one is interested in social trends.  After ten years of “I like Ike” and the nation’s “return to normalcy” following World War II, the early 60s existed in a state of tension and identity crisis.  It was sandwiched right between the idyllic 50s (or seemingly idyllic) and the protest culture of the late 60s and early 70s.  With social upheaval hovering threateningly on the horizon, anything set in the early 60s is going to be dripping with dramatic irony.  The audience knows, though the characters don’t, that their worlds are going to change, even as the privileged classes cling so desperately to their rigid gender roles and their cigarettes.  If only they could have seen what was coming…

It’s because of this dynamic that I think a show like “Pan Am” has some serious potential.  Not only that, but the American sentiment for commercial airlines has been steadily decreasing for years, and I’d argue even more dramatically in the past ten.  Increased security measures, new charges for checked (and carry-on) luggage, the Kevin Smith vs. Southwest debacle, the “enhanced patdown” – I’d imagine that any show about an airline would capture our attention, especially one that would obviously be steeped in nostalgia about when flying was an event, not an agonizing, and sometimes traumatic, chore.

The promotional image featuring the snappily-dressed stewardesses indicates to me, at least, that this show is going to deal with gender.  Now, I’m all about smart television that deals with issues (and in fact, the aforementioned article also highlights another 60s nostalgia show about the Playboy empire in Chicago, which no doubt, will also deal intimately with gender and boys’ clubs), but I have to wonder if these nostalgia shows don’t allow us to make excuses?  What I mean is, I wonder if by highlighting sexism or racism in a television series that takes place 50 years ago, we feel justified in patting ourselves on the backs and saying, “Wow, they were all so sexist/racist/whatever back then!  Isn’t it great that we’re not like that now?”  In the Stuff White People Like entry on “Mad Men,” Christian Lander humorously gives the following advice to any Person of Color hosting a “Mad Men” party:

The party should essentially run itself, however, you can severely curtail the amount of fun by saying: “I’m glad this isn’t really 1960 or else I’d be serving all of you.”

White people often find truth to be very depressing at theme parties.

If, indeed, “Pan Am” intends to delve into the social issues surrounding 1960s air travel (as it seems only logical that it will do), I wonder if it will spawn a “Pan Am” theme party trend, and I wonder if any women will show up dressed as pilots?  Because it was so silly back then, that only sexy young women could be flight attendants, and that whole pilot boys’ club was ridiculous!  Aren’t you glad it’s not like that anymore?

I’m sure you know where I’m going with this (definitely NSFW).

The boys’ club is alive and well in the airline industry.  Only 6% of commercial airline pilots are women [H/T].  Do you suppose that by the time “Pan Am” premieres this fall, we will have all forgotten about this?  Will it affect the way we view the show, knowing that there is no possible way anyone could grin and say, “Thank goodness it’s not like that anymore?”  Because clearly, it’s still like that.  It’s still very much like that.

[Image Source]

Writing Female Characters: Damned If You Do

13 Jun

I have not been writing much, clearly.  I think the reason is that I’ve become a little bit fed up with feminism these days.  It happens from time to time, but this time, it’s been a bit harder to shake.  Am I still a feminist?  Absolutely.  But sometimes, I get a little weary with the in-fighting and the nit-picking.  Even the most well-intentioned parts of the internet have the tendency to devolve into… well, this.

But during my absence from online feminism, I’ve been watching HBO’s series Game of Thrones with a friend of mine, and I’m sure he won’t mind me saying that we had a bit of a spirited discussion regarding female characters in the show.  My complaint was that most of the female characters only exist in relation to their husbands – while the men sit around talking politics, the women sit around talking about their men.  My friend brought up the character Arya – a classic tomboy – to counter my argument, which then got me thinking about the way a character like Arya’s might be deconstructed from a feminist perspective.

It seems that, when writing female characters, you’re often damned if you try anything at all.  At first glance, Arya truly bucks the social norms established in the show.  She wears trousers, she fights, she’s good with a bow and arrow, she’s loud and willful, and she kicks ass.  However, I can predict that many critics would argue that she’s not feminist at all.  There is a school of thought that says that female characters who conform to the gender expectations of men rather than women only serve to reinforce a culture in which “girl things” suck, and “boy things” rule.  Conversely, female characters who conform to female gender norms don’t tend to wow anyone, either.

So how on earth do you please the feminists, ye writers of fiction who want to give the ladies a fair shake?  If the girls do girl things, they’re pissed.  If the girls don’t do girl things, they’re pissed.  What’s a writer to do?  Luckily, I’ve put together a list of handy-dandy tips that I’m sure no one will reference ever.  Aren’t we all fortunate?

1.  You can’t please everyone, so stop trying.

The thing about criticism is that I think the vast majority of people don’t understand what its purpose is, and that includes the people who receive it as well as those who dole it out.  When we subject television shows or books or movies to feminist criticism, what we’re really doing is analyzing it from a feminist perspective.  Some seem to think that if a piece of media doesn’t meet their feminist standards that there’s something wrong with it.  That’s not true – it just doesn’t meet their feminist standards.  Perhaps if feminism wasn’t such a passionate world view for so many people, we wouldn’t get so confused.  I’ve done a lot of criticism from a Freudian or psychoanalytic perspective, and I’d guess that you’d be hard-pressed to argue that if something doesn’t conform to Freud’s psychosexual stages of development, it’s just shit.

This is not to say that one shouldn’t try to write good female characters.  My point is that getting bogged down in what’s going to pass the “feminist test” (as if there was one!) is just likely to drive you up the wall.

2.  Play the gender bender game.

I am a fan of writing exercises.  Anyone who has ever taken a creative writing course has probably been challenged to write a scene, and then rewrite it from someone else’s perspective.  Often, changing perspective allows writers to gain insight into their characters, and often, they’ll find that they’ve been focusing on the wrong character.  Similarly, I’d challenge you to write a scene, and then change one or more of your male characters to female characters.  How does it affect the story?  Maybe you’ll notice that some of your “action characters” – which are typically male – can work just as well if they’re women.  A huge problem in media is that male characters are the ones who typically drive the action of a story.  I might be idealistic, but I’m of the opinion that most of the time, writers don’t do this intentionally.  We, like anyone else, are affected by societal norms, and sometimes we write males as “action characters” simply because it feels right.  Playing the gender game and switching gender up while you’re in your workshopping stage might lead you somewhere unexpected.

3.  Subject your work to the Bechdel test.

Let’s make this clear – the Bechdel test is highly unscientific.  It doesn’t tell us anything substantial about a work, but it can be useful to use as a critical tool to diagnose the strength of female characters.  The Bechdel test originally appeared in a comic by Alison Bechdel, in which a character asserts that she only sees movies that meet the following criteria: 1.) there must be two female characters, 2.) who talk to each other, 3.) for longer than a minute, 4.) about anything other than a man.  Clearly, this is not a scientific test, but it is pretty funny to consider how many films don’t meet this criteria.  Passing the Bechdel test does not mean that a movie gets an automatic feminist stamp of approval, but it’s pretty telling, especially when we consider how many movies there are in which two men have a minute-long conversation about something other than a woman.

I’d advise writers to subject their work to a modified version of the Bechdel test.  Again, if your work has good reason not to pass, your work has good reason not to pass – and even if it does pass, two female characters having a long drool-fest about shoes is not likely to win you any favor with feminists.  The underlying idea, however, is that a good female character is not a token (therefore, there’s probably more than one woman), and she does not exist solely in relation to male characters (hence, she would have conversations about something other than the male characters).

4.  Read awesome female characters.

Reading is good advice for any writer.  The more you read, the better you write.  It stands to reason that the more awesome female characters you read about, the more awesome your female characters are going to be.  Off the top of my head, Lyra from the His Dark Materials series is complex, drives the action of the story, and isn’t easily stereotyped (in fact, the villain in those books, Mrs. Coulter, is a pretty interesting female character, too).  Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates both write fantastic female characters.  If you’re into alternative fiction, Tom Robbins writes mostly female protagonists.  And of course, I’m open to any and all suggestions in the comments section.

Overall, ye writers of fiction, write female characters not because you want to avoid the wrath of internet feminists, but write them because they are interesting.  Write them because women’s stories are different from men’s stories, and nothing is better in fiction than telling new stories.  Write them because half of your potential audience are women.  Write them even if it feels like you’re damned if you do.