So Self-Righteous

September 13, 2009

I always find it ironic when someone accuses activists of being self-righteous and judgmental. Because, hey, person criticizing and passing judgement on another person’s behavior? By criticizing someone for being self-righteous and judgmental, dontcha think you’re being a little self-righteous? And judgmental?

Despite the fun irony, I do have to recognize there are some serious implications to accusations that people who oppose the status quo are self-righteous. That trope prevents a lot of people from doing social justice work, or calling other people out for their misogyny, racism, heterosexism, etc. They don’t want to be uncool and no fun, so they shut up. They focus on not-self-righteous things, like watching football, or wearing the right American Apparel leg warmers, or reading the New Yorker, or whatever it is not-self-righteous people do.

You know what? Activists are self-righteous. Damn straight. We believe in our personal system of ethics and values, and we try to live up to those values. We take them seriously. I don’t think this is a problem. Because, when you come down to it, anyone who has a meaningful sense of lived morality does the same thing. They really believe what they believe. They think other people should too. There’s nothing wrong with that.

People who don’t have a sense of morality of some kind are generally quite mentally ill, and while they may not be self-righteous, they have other issues that make them a difficult golf buddy.

The only difference between those who oppose the status quo and those who support it is that those who support it are rarely put in a position where they must either accept behavior they feel is unethical or speak out against it. Their values are upheld by all of the institutions and structures around them. They rarely see violations of their ethical code, because their ethical code is dominant. When they do see violations, they can usually be sure that most people will agree with them, and violators will be punished by existing systems.

For instance, most people believe that serial murder is wrong. No one is considered “self-righteous” for saying that serial killers should not do what they’re doing. In fact, a judge at sentencing could give a long-winded, harshly worded speech about why a murderer should not have killed people, and most of us would consider that judge to be giving the murderer the talking to he deserves.

However, most people do not believe that war is wrong. So a pacifist saying that we shouldn’t go to war and kill people will not receive the same social approval as the judge. The pacifist will often be labeled self-righteous, although they really have not done anything different from your average murder denouncer. Even if they’re gentle and respectful and try to express their beliefs in the most loving way possible, people are likely to view them as a little bit sanctimonious. Just ‘cuz they’re challenging the Way Things Are and Always Will Be, and no one is supposed to do that.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to convince other people that your ethical code is worth following. In fact, I think it’s silencing and stifling, and even dangerous, to try to force people to keep their ideas about right and wrong private. We need people to challenge the status quo, and we need to have public conversations about ethics. The more we tell anyone questioning The Way Things Are to shut up because they’re being self-righteous, the less likely we are, as a society, to get ourselves checked when we go off the rails. When we start torturing people, or destroying civil liberties… You see where this is going? We need people who are willing to stand up for what they believe in.

When people get called out on stuff or have their privilege questioned, they get defensive. So they respond with a counterattack, claiming that whoever called them out has some kind of problem that devalues their observation. And anyone who won’t just let it lie when they see harm being done gets labelled “self-righteous,” “judgmental,” and “preachy.”

You know what? Martin Luther King was so preachy he was a damn preacher. There are worse things to be.


Before the Iraq War started, I was at a protest, and a man on the street started yelling at us, totally enraged. I walked up to him and asked, “Why are you so angry?” He was a little shocked that I would approach him calmly instead of yelling back, but he answered that he had been in New York when 9/11 went down. I told him that I was in the city on 9/11 too, and he was even more taken aback. He paused for a second, and then, gently now, told me that I was naive. I was too young to understand. I needed to be “realistic.” There would always be war.

It’s an argument I’ve heard all my life, from all kinds of people, whenever I express disagreement with the status quo. It seems that according to many people, making no effort to reduce the suffering in the world is what constitutes “realism.”

And it’s such a load of bullshit.

The claim that people trying to change something are lacking a sense of “realism” is nothing more than an attempt to shut them down without substantively engaging their arguments, or the changes they are suggesting.

The world changes. People change it. Slavery isn’t legal anymore. There is such a thing as a weekend. I can own property and vote. People fought and bled and died for these things, and it is spitting on the graves of our ancestors and spitting in the faces of our elders to claim that nothing ever changes.

Just as saying that human nature is all evil and dark gives people a handy excuse to act like assholes, saying that change is impossible lets people who are actually being lazy and uncaring pretend that their motivation for apathy is a noble understanding of the “real” truth.

No. If you are not doing something to make the world better, it is not because you’re smarter and more perceptive than all of us poor deluded souls trying to make a difference. It’s because you have chosen not to, despite the fact that things do change. You are responsible for your choice. Do not disown it.

I’ve heard many a hipster tell me that they don’t get involved in anything other than self-indulgent performance art (or building robots, or kickball, or whatever) because signing a petition isn’t going to solve the problem with the environment anyway. And it’s not like anything they do is going to end racism in our lifetimes, anyway. And voting doesn’t matter, anyway.

In other words, if they can’t find one activity that will instantly and completely rid the world of every single bad thing ever, it makes much more sense to spend all of their time on self-involved bullshit.

This lovely little bit of illogic is what writer Paul Loeb has dubbed the “perfect standard,” a common cause of paralysis for people who would otherwise try to improve things in some way. The perfect standard dictates that unless social action is determined to be both lacking in any flaws and perfectly effective in solving the world’s problems, it isn’t worth doing.

So, for example, ANY ATTEMPT TO CHANGE ANYTHING, EVER, is a total waste of time.

The perfect standard’s apathy has a counterpart in an unwillingness to limit activities that harm others, for example by recycling or boycotting businesses known to be socially irresponsible. People will argue that they shouldn’t bother with those things, since harming others is inevitable. I call this the “we might as well eat some babies” approach to life. In other words, if we can’t live without doing ANY harm, we should cause MAXIMUM harm.

Christ on a cracker. Think about the implications of that approach to ethics for two seconds. It makes no more sense than eating delicious babies.

I’m not saying that it’s wrong to have fun. Have fun! Fun is good! And I do understand that trying to make our little corner of the world better can be exhausting and heartbreaking, and it’s scary to take the risk and believe that you have the power to change things. Because then if you try and you fail… Well, that sucks. But thinking that you have to succeed totally and immediately is just the perfect standard doing its work. The kind of changes progressive people believe in are not going to happen all at once, and they often require a lot of “failed” attempts, which teach the next wave of activists what not to do. You do your best. You let it go. Sometimes the victory is won years after your death. You may never see the results of what you do. But someone, someday is going to be very grateful that you did that work.

And that’s just realistic.


August 21, 2009

The etymology of the word “hysteria” can tell you quite a bit.

Originally a term used by the Greeks, hysteria (from the root “hyster,” meaning “womb”) was thought to be a condition especially likely to affect women who were independent of male control, like nuns and widows—though it could potentially strike any woman. According to the Greeks, Hysteria was caused when a woman’s uterus wandered through her body, pushing on her other organs and causing irrational behavior. The cure was pregnancy, which would weigh the uterus down and keep it in its place.


The term resurfaced as a diagnosis in Victorian times, again as an affliction affecting only women. In this case, its cause was considered to be sexual deprivation.

Freud other early psychoanalytic theorists later reclassified hysteria as neurosis, again impacting women, again often having a lot to do with their sexual behavior.


These days, it’s not uncommon to hear the word hysteria used to describe someone who is being irrational and unreasonable. You may have noticed that it is more commonly used to describe a woman or women.

In particular, it is often used to describe people, usually women people, who are concerned about sexual violence.


It is very common for anti-feminist people to call feminists hysterical. Other favored terms include: “irrational,” “unreasonable,” and “oversensitive.”

Would you like to know why I think this is the case?

Here’s why: there is a longstanding cultural tradition of separating  “reason” from “emotion,” and contending that they are vastly different and entirely separable.  The tradition goes on to value reason over emotion.  This tradition contends that emotion makes one unable to consider issues “rationally,” but that some very special individuals are capable of considering issues “objectively” and without emotion.  These individuals are “rational.” Other individuals, who are influenced by their emotions, do not have thoughts worthy of consideration.  They are “emotional,” and not as good.  One cannot be “emotional” and “rational” at the same time, you see.

What’s kind of interesting about this whole fallacy wherein an objective viewpoint supposedly exists and individuals cannot be emotional and rational at the same time is that there are also some long-standing cultural stereotypes about which types of people are most able to be rational.  As it turns out, straight white men are very rational types.  Men of color aren’t as rational, because they tend to be very angry for no good reason.  Queer men aren’t as rational, because they’re kind of like ladies.  Women are the least rational of all, because their uteri are floating around making them crazy.  Science!

So you see, people who really buy into this tend to think that they themselves are rational.  They also tend to think that bad people who disagree with them are emotional and not rational.  And that ladypeople are inevitably emotional and therefore irrational.  So ladypeople who disagree with these upstanding rational individuals are the most emotional of all, so emotional, in fact, that they have crossed over into hysteria.

It’s a very rational argument, if you can think about it objectively.

My Seething Rage

August 20, 2009

My mother used to worry a lot that I’d get pushed around by other kids when I was in grade school, because I’ve always been sort of a gentle soul. When my parents tried to get me to play little league, I picked flowers in the outfield. My high school boyfriend used to affably joke that I would grow up to “save all the puppies and kittens.” I help caterpillars across the street so they don’t get run over.

In short, I’m a huge wuss.

I honestly don’t spend a lot of time being angry. While I have sympathy for activists who think differently about anger, I tend to side with Gandhi on the whole “getting angry at your oppressor only destroys you” thing. When it comes to social justice issues, it’s basically my softie nature, not my anger, that keeps me going. I really love people a lot, and I want them to be happy. That’s why I do this feminism thing.

In fact, feminism has made me a lot less angry at men than many nonfeminist women I know, because it offers an explanation for hurtful patriarchal behaviors that doesn’t assume that men are just acting that way because they’re biologically programmed to be nasty and inconsiderate (and in fact, it has been shown that feminists are less hostile to men than nonfeminists).

Like most feminists, however, I have definitely been accused of being a feminist because I’m “angry.”

I have a few problems with this.

First, it’s an ad hominem attack. Even if I were absolutely full of anger, it would not invalidate my views. Dismissing what I have to say by claiming that I’m experiencing an emotion simply does not follow, logically.

Second, it is perfectly reasonable to be angry about things like sexual assault, partner violence, forced sterilization, forced birth, the wage gap, a lack of decent childcare, hateful media representations of women, getting thrown out of restaurants for breastfeeding, street harassment, the way guys always interrupt women but not other men, and the existence of the bromance as a film genre. There is no reason not to be angry about these things. In fact, many activists feel that anger is a positive motivating force for them, and there once was a very famous feminist who outlined exactly why we should be angry about injustice. I think maybe she had a point!

Finally, the claim that a woman is angry, stated as if it is an accusation, is sexist on its face. It’s a way of attempting to silence her by stating that she is not living up to patriarchal standards of behavior for women in this culture. Studies have documented that women are punished harshly for showing anger. From a very young age, we are expected to be smiley lovey dovey nurturing sugar and spice. NOT angry. Angry women are scary!

This, not incidentally, is one way the culture makes sure women put up with a lot more shit than they should. The word “angry” is thrown around any time a woman simply stands up for herself, as a way of shutting her down.

Ani DiFranco, a musician who was the Bob Dylan of my generation in terms of her lyrical skill, but never got anywhere near the kind of recognition he did for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on but certainly has nothing to do with the fact that she’s a ladyperson, once wrote the following lines—probably very familiar to feminist readers:

I am not an angry girl
But it seems like I’ve got everyone fooled
Every time I say something they find hard to hear
They chalk it up to my anger and never to their own fear
Imagine you’re a girl
Just trying to finally come clean
Knowing full well they’d prefer you were dirty
And smiling

What Ms. DiFranco is pointing to is the reasonableness of a woman being unhappy that she is treated as subordinate to men in our culture, the fact that women who point out this injustice are often dismissed as unreasonable when it’s really those who hold misogynistic views who should be questioned, and the fact that rejecting patriarchy (angrily or not) is actually a more psychologically healthy response than sucking it up and going along.

Ugh. She is just so angry!

I’m not the funniest person in the world. I’m a little too reserved to be truly hilarious. But I have my moments. I have, at times, been known to successfully engage others in humorous banter. I also smile and laugh quite a bit, compared to your average person. I’d say that I find a lot of things pretty funny. I laugh at most jokes, and I laugh at life.

Why, then, is it so commonly the case that I am accused of having no sense of humor?

Perhaps we can find a clue in the context. You see, it is usually in a very specific context that I am accused of this particular character flaw.

It is when I don’t find something funny because I think it is sexist.

What, exactly, is going on when people accuse feminists of having no sense of humor? It’s a claim that’s clearly factually incorrect. A visit to one of the big feminist blogs on any given day will usually pop up quite a few jokes. And my feminist friends and I joke around all the time. I have this one friend who does the most fantastic white-dude-with-gravely-voice-singing-about-how-hard-life-is impression. You should see it!

Of course, these jokes might not be funny to someone who is not feminist, but…

Wait! I think I’ve hit on something!

It would seem that perhaps an individual’s worldview and culture has an impact on what that person finds funny! Almost as if our sense of humor is an extension of our perspective on things like how we think people should act, what behaviors we find surprising and incongruous (funny), and who is worthy of ridicule.

For instance, have you ever noticed how some people find it funny to ridicule the willful behavior of people who are in positions of power, while others prefer to ridicule the intrinsic nature of people who are in positions of subordination? I’m sure such preferences have little meaning and should be ignored, but I can’t help feeling that the way advocates for the disempowered are so often accused of lacking a sense of humor may have something to do with this fact.

See, I have this wacky, half-baked idea that humor is, as much as anything, an expression of our political views and identities. For example, if someone doesn’t think rape is a big deal, they will probably find rape jokes quite funny. If someone thinks rape is a horrific and all-too-common experience, the mere thought of which sends shivers down their spine and makes them feel vaguely nauseous, they will be less likely to find rape jokes funny.

My wacky theory extends even further: I believe that humor is an extraordinarily common method of maintaining oppressive structures. What could possibly be more effective at silencing someone, at making them an outsider, at establishing them as inferior, than ridicule? Think of a few of the times in your life when you felt most embarrassed and ashamed. How many of them included people laughing at you? Most? All?

We all want to fit in and be respected. There are many situations where ridicule controls people far more effectively than an overt threat of violence ever could.

My theory, which is in no way related to actual experience, also postulates that humor can be amazingly effective at begging the question* of whether oppressive structures/beliefs make sense. For example, let’s consider this enjoyable piece by Bill Maher, a man who I’ve lovingly come to consider the most pathologically misogynist dude in all of comedy, and maybe all the world:

Is it actually true that women talk more than men? Is it bad to talk? Is it good to want everyone to “shut the hell up?” Is it true that women ask their male partners to check in more than men ask their female partners to do so? Is it true that a relationship where people check in with each other regularly is problematic? Does the phrase “pussywhipped” represent an actual undesirable condition, or is it a way of shaming men who respect their female partners into ignoring the desires of their partner and doing what other men want them to do instead? Bill Maher doesn’t care! Men are good! Women are annoying! Yay, comedy!

According to the logic of my wild-eyed speculation, it seems that actually, resisting dominant ideas about what is considered funny and creating a counternarrative about such things would be an extremely important aspect of building effective liberation movements for oppressed groups.

It would also seem that silencing this counternarrative would be an essential task for those invested in maintaining existing structures of domination.

Oh, there I go again. Taking everything so seriously!

*A very boring point: I know a lot of people misuse the phrase “begging a question.” This may lead some readers to be confused when they read this sentence. Here’s an explanation of the correct usage.

Adventures in Advertising

August 5, 2009

If there’s one cultural force that has the strongest effect on our ideas of what is normal and acceptable, I’d say that advertising is pretty much it. The lovely and talented Jean Kilborne has been talking about this for many years now:

She is so smart.

So, what with advertising being one of the major ways our culture is created and replicated, it would seem that some analysis of common messages in advertising makes sense, if, you know, we want to have some understanding of the world around us.

Somehow, though, many people seem steadfastly against any sort of media analysis, and argue in particular against analysis of advertising. Most commonly, they will argue one of four points:

1) Advertising does not affect behavior, or its impact is trivial.

2) There is no particular power structure being created or reinforced by advertising—it is simply a value neutral attempt to sell products by any means necessary.

3) Social context is irrelevant to understanding the meaning and impact of a given advertisement.

4) Any objection an oppressed individual has to an advertisement on the grounds that it reinforces their oppression is evidence of a psychological or psychiatric problem on the part of that individual.

Of course, these objections are not expressed in precisely these words. They’ll sound more like this:

1) “I don’t pay attention to advertising.” See, also: “Are you saying that advertisements cause [social problem x]? That’s ridiculous!”

2) “What do you expect? Sex sells.” See, also: “White people/straight people buy more stuff, so advertising is naturally aimed at them.”

3) “You’re making a big deal out of nothing. It’s just a commercial.”

4) “You’re just jealous because that model is prettier than you.” See, also: “You see oppression everywhere. Why are you so [insert character flaw here]?”

Alright then. Let’s knock ’em down one at a time.

1) Advertising does not affect behavior.

I hear this argument, and the extreme force required to maintain such a state of denial—which pulsates from any individual who can make this statement with a straight face—threatens to make my brain ooze out of my ears.

Are. you. fucking. kidding?

Really? REALLY?

Advertising does not affect attitudes and behavior?

Let us contemplate this sentiment.

The idea that advertising, a medium specifically designed to affect attitudes and behavior, and which continues to exist only because it effectively affects attitudes and behavior, is irrelevant to our, uh… attitudes and behavior, is not just naive and ridiculous. It’s fuckin’ dangerous. If we have no analysis of how we are being manipulated by advertising, we are all the more easily manipulated… Into buying jeans or carbonated sugar water, maybe, but also buying elected officials, government policies, jingoism, wars…

A population with no ability to know propaganda when they see it is a population just waiting for a beloved daddy dictator to sweep away their worries.

Advertising affects how we think and what we do. It does this even if we are the most socially aware, thoughtful people in the world. I can pull all kinds of critical theory out of my butt when I look at an American Apparel ad, and on a conscious level, I can tear it apart. But I’ve been socialized into this culture, with all its fucked up beauty standards and its reinforcement of the worthlessness of women who are not appealing to the male gaze. So when I look at an American Apparel ad, on a visceral level I will be reminded that I am not good enough. Will never be good enough. I am completely conscious of the fact that this manipulation is happening, but that doesn’t mean the manipulation doesn’t work. Because I’m conscious of what is happening, I won’t buy American Apparel products. But what I will buy, however much I wish I could avoid it, is a little bit of the sense of worthlessness they are selling. Worthlessness is always the first thing an advertisement based on oppression sells you. Then they tell you that you need to buy the product to fix the worthlessness. You can decolonize your mind to the point where you see the manipulation for what it is and reject it, but there is no escaping the fact that some manipulation will occur, because that is what an advertisement is designed to do.

2) There is no particular power structure being created or reinforced by advertising.

Okay, first? There is always a power structure being created and reinforced. Humans are social animals. Social animals create power structures to allow them to cooperate. The power structures may be democratic or authoritarian, cooperative or coercive, just or unjust, but they have to be there. Otherwise, we would be completely unable to interact with each other. I am deeply suspicious of anyone who attempts to obscure the workings of power in any aspect of life. Power is there in our private relationships, in the workplace, in political life… you name it. Those who try to hide that fact, or who avoid addressing it, are usually the people who are unfairly benefiting from the current power structure, and they’re usually trying to screw someone else over. Creating transparent, fair power structures takes lots of very conscious work. It’s not something that happens by itself, and it definitely doesn’t happen by ignoring the fact that power exists.

Second, advertising absolutely works to create and reinforce white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Take, for example, the very common depiction of women of color as sexy sexy animals:


What does an image like this inspire in us? First, I would say it asks us to look at Ciara. The fact that she is not looking back at us tells us, through visual language, that it is okay to look at and judge her. I’d go further and say that, through the vulnerable, presentational visual language of her pose, the ad asks us to look at her as a desirable sexual object. So essentially, the ad tells us to look at Ciara through the eyes of a man who wants to have sex with Ciara, regardless of our actual identity. Her pose emphasizes her availability for penetration, which makes clear that we, as the viewer, should identify with a male gaze, not a homosexual female gaze. The fact that she doesn’t look back at us inspires us to think only of our own judgment of and reaction to her, and asks us to avoid thinking of, for example, Ciara’s own desires. Or hopes, fears, likes, dislikes… In short, her humanity.

The image also plays into a very, very old storyline in our culture: that of people of color (and women) as animals. This was the justification for slavery and Jim Crow laws. Eugenicists tried to prove white superiority by claiming that people of color were closer to monkeys than white people.

Just ask me what I think of the Broadway version of the Lion King. I have things to say, I tell you.

The concept of women of color as animalistic “exotic beauties,” rather than “regular” (read: white) women, which is what such representations play to, implies that women of color are not just normal people. Instead, their racial and ethnic identity is primary, while any of that pesky individual humanity of theirs is secondary or irrelevant. It also implies that their beauty is a special treat, not the real ideal. Not the kind of beauty we usually value. Not the kind of beauty we really value. White beauty.

It’s worth noting that in a culture where whether a woman is valued by others is completely tied up in how attractive she is considered by conventional standards, being labeled less attractive has important consequences for women. For their personal lives. For how they are treated, in everything from school to employment to interpersonal relationships. For their sense of self-worth.

And, most painfully: for whether they find love, which I’d say is about as important as consequences get.

So the ad eroticizes female vulnerability and male domination, encourages us to identify with a straight white male view of the world as the “objective” and “normal” way of seeing, plays into racist ideas of women of color as incomplete humans, reinforces unrealistic and racist beauty standards, and, it must be said, has Ciara in a cage.

I would say that such an ad reinforces white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

Now, to address objection #3 (Social context is irrelevant to understanding the meaning and impact of a given advertisement), that wouldn’t matter so much if this was the only ad of its kind. But if we get the same messages over and over again, we might start to believe them. We might even absorb them so deeply that we wouldn’t notice them. Like fish with water. That sort of thing.




Enough said.

4) Any objection an oppressed individual has to an advertisement on the grounds that it reinforces their oppression is evidence of a psychological or psychiatric problem on the part of that individual.

The technique of silencing someone’s opinions by stating that they come out of some sort of character flaw or lack on the part of that individual is, above all, a completely shady rhetorical trick. No matter what you’re disagreeing about, ad hominem attacks should not fly. They don’t address the issue being raised, they reflect an unwillingness to engage in honest debate, and beyond that, they’re just plain mean-spirited.

Besides, oppression pretty much relies on the ability and willingness of those in positions of privilege to deny the value of oppressed people. In oppressive systems, there will always be culturally sanctioned ways of doing this. For example, the belief that women should not hold positions of power is often justified with the claim that we are “too emotional” and “irrational.” So what will the ready-made claim be when some of us start saying that maybe men don’t actually deserve to hold every position of power in the world, and that maybe we should be allowed to have some power too?

Why, we’re being irrational, of course!

I’ve been around the feminist block a few times, and I’ve been called a lot of names for challenging people’s misogyny. I’ve been told that I’m dogmatic, self-righteous, judgmental, irrational, hysterical, narcissistic, humorless, too young to understand, too angry, too idealistic, too pessimistic, just struggling with my own insecurity… Blah fucking blah.

Sometimes, I’m all of those things. So what? That doesn’t make anything I have to say untrue or irrelevant. Show me evidence that advertising does not create and reinforce oppression and I’ll listen. Give me a load of psychobabble about what’s wrong with me and I see no reason to engage in discussion.

I’ll leave you with a Diesel Ad that I’m sure will have no impact of any sort, on anyone, via Racialicious:

Diesel Ad

I think we’re done here.

“Haven’t Seen It”

July 17, 2009

I have a fun little game I play when I get stuck watching a movie that bores me: I switch the genders of the characters in my head. It almost inevitably makes a bad movie more interesting, and usually teaches me something about how gender oppression works.*

Try it yourself (don’t forget the announcer or the music):

Just threw that last one in because The Wicker Man is the best movie ever made.


Anyway, sometimes the ways that movies enforce and perform gender roles are subtle (the way that sympathetic male characters engage in far more physical comedy than female characters, whose bodies are usually only used for laughs to inspire audience disgust, for example, only becomes clear after you’ve watched multiple films through this lens). Some are screamingly overt (can you imagine a helpless adult man pleading for his “mommy” to save him?). But it’s always there.

One of the things that becomes most clear if you do this enough is the prevalence of the “Smurfette syndrome,” in which a movie presents many different male characters with different characteristics, but only one female character, whose primary role is to be sexually appealing to the male protagonist, with a secondary purpose of observing him as he lives out his story arc and providing him with approval and validation.

The Smurfette syndrome is one of the primary reasons I don’t watch many movies. As much as I can identify with male characters as fellow humans, I can’t help but feel alienated when nearly every character, in every movie, is a (white, straight) guy.

It’s well documented that there are many more male characters in film than female characters, by a margin of about 3 to 1. Most movies fail the Bechdel Test. It’s also worth noting that by far the majority of producers, screenwriters and directors are men (over 90%). It’s very rare to see women presented as complex characters, and even rarer to see female characters imagined by women.

This makes a lot of movies kinda boring to me, and beyond the more subtle Smurfette syndrome/Bechdel Test failure issues, the outright sexism? (as in: entire movies about how the masculine men jockey for dominance and blow jobs from that one lady in the mob/corporation/army/navy/marines/imaginary outer space military division/sporting event/police department/law firm, entire movies about how women are annoying mommy figures who just bring the man children down, entire movies about how it’s fun to see ladies with boobies get stabbed and tortured, rape-as-plot-device-to-further-male-character-arc, fat/old/slutty/not slutty ladies are useless jokes, etc. etc. etc. for ever. and ever.) These things make me annoyed. Which is not a feeling I seek out for entertainment.

But there’s always the inevitable moment when someone asks me if I’ve seen the latest bromance or action flick. It kind of leaves me stuck. On the one hand, I don’t usually want to go into a monologue about gender representation in film, especially since most people haven’t really thought much about it and are pretty attached to their favorite movies, which sets the stage for defensiveness. On the other, that puts me in the uncomfortable position of having to hide my thoughts and feelings in order to get along. So I usually say something about how I don’t watch many movies, and try to change the subject. It’s one of those lonely with other people moments that get more and more common the more you question why things are the way they are in this world. Turns out all those platitudes about the road less traveled leave out the part where that road is often covered in horse shit.

Unfortunately, I don’t see much chance that this will change any time soon. I guess, for now, at least there’s Joss Whedon. (He starts speaking at 2:06)

*You can do the same thing with other forms of identity oppression, though mostly what you’ll notice is a complete absence of various oppressed groups… interesting in its own way. Quentin Tarantino movies are a hot and fascinating mess, if you want to examine how race and ethnicity are presented when people of color are included in a story.

Because Oprah Kicks Ass

July 11, 2009

I often end up stuck in conversations where I feel compelled to defend my choices in literature. Case in point: I once had a conversation with a hipster dude (H.D.) who got very upset when I said I didn’t really dig J.D. Salinger. H.D. asked me which of Salinger’s books I had read, no doubt expecting me to say I’d read the Catcher in the Rye, and all excited to school me on Franny and Zooey. When I said I had read all of Salinger’s work, I think his ego was a little bruised. Not only was I unimpressed by the author who represented everything H.D. identified himself with, I actually knew what I was talking about. So H.D. counterattacked. He asked me who my favorite novelists were. I told him I like Morrison, Kingsolver, and Winterson. He smirked and said, “All women. And all part of Oprah’s book of the month club. What do you think about that?”

Mostly I thought I wanted to tell him to take Nine Stories and shove it up his ass. But I decided to take the bait, and talked to H.D. a little bit about how female authors are routinely undervalued, and how I prefer to read books where female characters are treated with seriousness and respect. I love me some John Steinbeck or Ernest Hemingway, but lets be honest: the women in their stories are mothers or whores, they’re completely one-dimensional, they’re usually evil, and they’re completely boring. Toni Morrison’s heartbreakingly complex Sethe in Beloved is just so much more interesting and realistic than any female character I’ve seen in a book written by a man. Though I know Don DeLillo tries really hard.

I like to read about people I can identify with. I think this is a fairly common human trait. In fact, I find it very strange that H.D. and many other men out there refuse to acknowledge that they prefer novels by and about men, and instead pretend that their preferences are solely based on the rational, objective “merit” of the books, and their “universal” human messages (This just in!!! Art is subjective!!! Also: turns out men are not the default setting for humanity!!!).

I also defended Oprah. I love Oprah. Oprah is a woman who has survived some serious shit. And man, she has it together. She devotes her life to helping others the best way she knows how. The other day, I heard Oprah say that she has spent her life “talking to women, and any men who would listen, about how to live their best life.”

I thought that was so profound. Here is a person who wants nothing except to help people… She’s got all the money and fame and power she could want. Unlike pretty much everyone else on TV, all Oprah wants to do at this point in her life is make people’s lives better, and most men refuse to listen to what she has to say. In fact, most men ridicule her. So she talks to women. And men don’t learn about self-care, despite the fact that they probably need it more than women. I find that sad.

I also think it’s way fucked up that Oprah, who is quite obviously brilliant, is routinely dismissed as a lightweight who should not be taken seriously. I wonder if this is because she’s a black woman who discusses emotions and relationships in a culture that devalues black people, women, emotions and relationships… Actually, I don’t wonder. It’s completely obvious. I just said “I wonder” as a rhetorical device.

But I digress. Where was I? Oh yeah. Books.

There are obviously many female authors who buy into patriarchal narratives (In fact, I’m farting in Candice Bushnell’s general direction as I write this). But if I’m going to find novelists interested in presenting a non-patriarchal counternarrative, it is likely that most of those novelists will be women, since men in a patriarchy are conditioned to believe that they’re benefiting from women’s subjugation (they aren’t, but that’s a post for another day). I know it’s weird and probably a sign of hysteria of some sort, but I have this strange preference for art that does not present people like me as inherently lacking and inferior, or at best irrelevant. Which means that, given our cultural context, I tend to prefer books by women.

So yeah, I like a lot of the same books Oprah does. And? Anyone who has a problem with that can kiss my best life living ass.

Music Choices

June 20, 2009

I’ve talked to a lot of people about it, and I think by now I’ve heard just about every possible justification for not listening to music by female artists, individually and as a whole. Ani DiFranco is so angry, Cyndi Lauper is just silly, and Meshell Ndegeowho?

True story: I once had a guy tell me that he doesn’t like female singers because he “doesn’t like whiny music.”

His favorite artist? Neil Young.

Now, I love Neil Young, but can I just say:

Moving on.

Here’s the thing. One of the most important elements of power in human society is the ability to make your thoughts heard. That means that access to that ability will be one of the most tightly controlled parts of culture, and that media of all kinds, but especially popular media like music, will be one of the elements of culture most likely to reflect any power imbalances that exist. The institutional structures that create and distribute media will tend to be very difficult for marginalized groups to access. When people who are not members of the dominant group are given access to a mic, it will generally be because they present themselves in a way that affirms their oppression.

So, for example, I would argue there’s something pretty deep going on when white people make up 70% of hip-hop consumers, and what they want to buy is music by artists like 50 Cent and TI—guys who play into just about every stereotype of the violent, sexually uncontrollable man of color that you could think of.

And Britney Spears? Well.

The people who decide which music gets mass marketed are usually straight, white, rich men who are thoroughly invested in the system the lovely and talented bell hooks calls “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”. To state what should be obvious, they have a stake in presenting us with messages that fit into this worldview.

As individual consumers of media, we also make choices about which voices we want to hear. In a capitalist economy, our consumption of certain messages means that they get recreated again and again, according to demand. Our music consumption is, of course, influenced by our ideas about who is worth listening to… Ideas that are shaped by our socialization through family, peers, and media. The replication of culture and its hierarchies is a big ol’ feedback loop.

To quote Michel Foucault, it kind of sucks goat balls.

So who did you learn to listen to growing up? When you turned on the radio, did they play an equal number of male and female artists? Did the friends you admired introduce you to an equal number of male and female artists?

Now that you’re old enough to make your own music choices instead of having them forced on you by mass marketing and peer pressure, what does it mean if the only musicians you take seriously are men? What does it mean if you rarely listen to the voices of female artists? What if you never seek out female voices when the words they’re singing are actually their own?

I can’t answer for you. What I can say is that pretty much every time someone who doesn’t identify as politically radical looks at my music collection (which is made up of approximately 50% female artists, though most people perceive it as being almost entirely dominated by women), they respond with contempt. There is a pattern here, and the pattern has meaning.

I’ll leave you with some of that whiny, angry music I like.