2009-11-02 09:06 pm
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The Danger of the Single Story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This is a brilliant and beautiful talk on what she calls the Danger of the Single Story, about stereotypes. Watch it - it's worth every second.

Stuff White People Do wrote a summary (starts in the middle of the post) but the build-up of details and the nuance in the whole talk (naturally) got a bit lost.

2009-11-01 03:18 pm
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The Privilege of Intelligence

We all know that racism and sexism and that ilk can be practiced both overtly or subtly. Generally, I think in our culture the discourse is focused on the overt practice: firing someone for being a woman, for example, or arresting someone for being black. But there's also the subtle pressure of racism and sexism that many of us encounter every day. These are the comments that people dismiss by saying "I was only joking", or when they say things like "...for a girl". There's no firm, overt barrier to your choices, but instead there is a social pressure being brought to bear on you.

Against this sort of sexism and racism, the privilege of intelligence has protected me, and allowed me to remain fairly oblivious. Some time ago, if you had asked me whether I had experienced racism in my life, I would have shrugged and said "No". But now thinking back on my childhood I remembered that in elementary school there were several kids who would often run after me on the playground, pulling the corners of their eyes up with their hands and shouting "Look at me, I'm Chinese!" I remembered that in fourth grade our cafeteria cashiers would, for an entire year, confuse me with the only other Chinese (Taiwanese?) girl in my school, despite the fact that she had long hair and glasses while I had short hair and no glasses. They joked about it with us, saying "I can never tell you two apart!"

But back then, and even until recently, I just chalked it up to the fact that other people were stupid. It was easy for me to do that: since second grade I had been tracked into Gifted and Talented programs, achieving scores at the top of my grade. Despite the fact that I was taunted for my race, I never thought the harassment was racially motivated, and could easily brush it off by claiming the superiority of my intelligence - something that was backed up by the authority of the school system and my teachers. I read a book recently (which my mother lent to me) called Yell-oh Girls, a collection of essays by Asian-American girls about their experiences relating to race and sex. Quite a few of these essays speak of how they wished they looked white; how they wanted to be blond and fair like princesses were portrayed. My mother asked me whether I had ever felt that way. The answer is no, because I placed my own self-worth in my mind and intelligence, where I was wildly successful, rather than popularity or looks, where I was fairly unsuccessful. The difference between those girls and me is that I chose to abandon that field of battle for another one where I could win; not all girls had that advantage or could decide to take it. There are super-intelligent women who were not allowed to ignore the stings of racism, and there are average-intelligence women who are able to call on other things to allow themselves to ignore the biases and insults. The point isn't that intelligence *always* protects you against racism - the point is that I *could* use that as an escape hatch, and that I *did*.

A year ago I would have told you that I haven't experienced sexism either, but that's equally wrong. In high school a friend of mine was convinced I was only admitted to a prestigious university because I was female (affirmative action, you see). My freshman year of college, a misogynistic and racist group of students published and widely circulated a mailing which claimed that the minorities at the college were not as intelligent or deserving of their admittance as the white males enrolled. Not only that, but many men who I was friends with told me that they felt the mailing had a point, while many of the women I knew were devastated by the accusation and felt even less like they belonged there. The mailing was insidious and effective, largely because it capitalized on an environment which already conspired to make women and minorities feel unwelcome. How did I avoid a similar crisis of self-doubt? In precisely the same way I did in elementary school: I continued to be very successful in my academics, and could rely on that certainty to buttress my conviction that those misogynists were "stupid". It was more difficult than it had been in elementary school to dismiss them and their supporters, but I still could. I tried to convince female friends of mine to brush off the accusations, but my words could only go so far when there was already so many factors working together to convince them that they didn't belong.

I was and am extremely lucky. Every step of the way from when I first entered mainstream (and non-so-mainstream) culture, I have been told by every teacher and adult and other student that I am extremely smart and talented. Very few people are afforded this privilege. I knew I was good enough to succeed, whether or not I was a female minority; my consistent stream of A's proved that over and over again in writing. That was a shield against the sexism and racism I encountered, and that was a shield which allowed me the privilege of ignoring their existence for much of my life.

Ignorance doesn't mean these isms disappear, however. From the moment I picked up "Feminist Mystique", and from the point three-ish years ago where I started voraciously reading feminist blogs and blogs on racism, I have been encountering successive "lightbulb moments" where I suddenly can put a name to themes that have run through all of my life, where I can explain the why and the how and realize what I do to compensate. I cannot overestimate how much of a sea change this has been - where before I was muddling about in the dark, feeling the tide pull me in various directions, now I can see where the motion is coming from, and explain why I feel the way I do. This is why feminist theory, gender theory, and race theory are important: because while the personal may not always be the political, the political reverberates its way down to every detail in my life, and my world, and I cannot understand the whole of myself until I understand where those echoes are coming from.
2009-11-01 01:05 pm
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Transactional Sex and Women As Vending Machines

I recently read this article on how video games perpetuate the "commodity model" of sex[*]. The article talks about how many games seem to treat women like vending machines: give the right input, and the reward is sex. This is sex as a commodity in its purest form. Now, really, most games are pretty simplistic in this precise way: Do X, and you are rewarded. When X = kill monsters, or solve logic puzzles, or roll up flowers, and the reward is "winning" or "experience", it doesn't really bother me because these are actions which aren't really very loaded in the real world. When X = "Buy her jewelry" and the "reward" is "sex", that bothers me because it starts implying some pretty loaded things about sexual dynamics, simply because the dominant paradigm in the real world is of sex as a commodity, and of women as confusing, mysterious creatures who semi-arbitrarily dispense this commodity based on whether the man is "worthy" [**]. (Not to mention, the implication that men are always seeking sex and thus sex is a "reward".)

I found the article very interesting, of course, being that I'm a gamer. If I think back to the games that I've played, though, none of them show the trend that the author is talking about. (I may be misremembering.) Some games I have played (not comprehensive at all): Scribblenauts, God of War 1 & 2, Braid, Beyond Good and Evil, World of Warcraft, Diablo 2, Torchlight, Devil May Cry, Final Fantasy 7 & 9, Warcraft, Neverwinter Nights.... Final Fantasy 7 has this sequence where if you choose the conversational responses correctly, you will go on a date with one of the other characters. One possibility is even Barret, another man (though the actual sequence is more played as a buddies thing than the other sequences). Many of these games don't put in sex (or women) at all.

I entirely believe that the games cited by the article (and many other games) have these problematic depictions of women, but I simply haven't played them. I got about 1 mission into Grand Theft Auto before my lack of motor coordination failed me. In general I'm not really a fan of first person shooters, and perhaps that's the sub-genre where women-as-vending-machines tend to show up. Mass Effect and Alpha Protocol are the two games cited by name in the article, and neither of them are games I'm likely to pick up.

Of course, just because the games I have played don't treat women as vending machines for sex doesn't mean that they're free from misogyny. Far from it. God of War may be the most misogynistic game I've ever played, hands down, but the one sexual interlude (in God of War II) involved you pushing the right buttons *during* sex (with a prostitute, I believe) to gain experience. So no, I can't really say that that's treating women as vending machines for *obtaining* sex, but maybe that's letting the game off on a technicality. And many of the RPGs suffer from the "fan service" problem, where the womens' armor are unbelievably scanty while the men wear more believable outfits. Because of this, enjoying video games for me often comes at the cost of working to ignore things that are severely problematic. Sometimes I just roll with a male avatar, so I can simply be a character and not just walking sexual energy. Other times it's easier to just ignore the sexism and focus on other aspects of the game.

When I play games which don't have this issue it's quite a relief. Beyond Good and Evil is one that stands out in my mind. The main character is a woman, but she is written to be a person first - a character who happens to be a woman as well as a journalist, fighter, etc. etc. Portal is another game which I could enjoy freely. It's a first-person perspective game, but the avatar is female (and you can see that if you set up the portals right). The enemy has a female voice (though computers don't really have genders, do they?). It's always refreshing when I can honestly be a female avatar without wincing.

So, have you played any games in which women are written as vending machines for sex? Do you find this a common trend in gaming? And secondly, are there other good games out there which does do a decent job in their portrayal of women?

[*] The "commodity model" of sex, which is the dominant paradigm in American culture today, views sex as a commodity which women have, and men are constantly trying to get. I first encountered this description in an essay by Thomas Millar in the book Yes means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape. He writes:

Women may give it away or may trade it for something valuable, but either way it's a transaction. This puts women in the position of seller, but also guardian or gatekeeper … Women are guardians of the tickets, men apply for access to them. This model pervades casual conversation about sex: Women "give it up." men "get some."

[**] I think Figleaf talks about the "worthiness trap" and the "no-sex class" very nicely and clearly, so go there if you are curious to read more.
2009-10-10 01:10 pm
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Under-representation is Not An Excuse

When the new Star Trek film came out, there was a small storm of controversy over the objectification of women in the movie (at least, among the blogs I read). Being a woman into science fiction in general and Star Trek in particular, it was only a matter of time before the subject came up at a party. One of the people at the party said that even if objectification of women was a problem, well, it only made sense for the movie industry to objectify women. Since science fiction geeks were male adolescents, it is perfectly reasonable for companies to market to this demographic by producing things that objectify women.

I found it intensely ironic that the audience of this comment consisted of two women, both of us serious science fiction geeks and long-time Star Trek fans.

Ten years ago, I found arguments like his compelling, even though the conclusions were disturbing. Since then I have realized a serious fallacy in the argument. Simply put, it's an argument for catering to the desires of a majority, even at the cost of a minority. This argument says that because woman are a minority of science fiction fans, it's okay to produce things that are insulting to women. But being part of a minority does not mean it's okay to do things or say things that are offensive or degrading to that minority.

A second problem I have with this sort of argument and attitude is that it takes that majority/minority skew for granted. I don't have a problem with specifically pointing out a skew in an audience - in fact, that's the sort of thing that can be extremely useful and necessary. I do have a problem when the existence of a skew is used as a justification for actions which will worsen it. If science fiction is predominantly male, perhaps that's in part because women are discouraged from scientific, mathematical, and nerdy pursuits from a very young age. If science fiction is predominantly male, perhaps that's an outgrowth of the objectification of women and sexism that's pervasive in the stories told in this genre. Using the gender skew as a justification for doing things that will drive yet more women away makes no sense. An existing majority/minority imbalance is no excuse for perpetuating it.

And finally, I don't like how the argument assumes objectification is something that all adolescent boys want. It validates that as a "normal" desire for adolescent boys. Why should it be? Why should it be normal and acceptable for adolescent boys to want women to be treated as objects in their movies? That's the underlying assumption behind the casual acceptance of objectification in movies. This desire for the objectification of women could also be yet another self-perpetuating cycle, where boys are told that it's normal to objectify women, and encouraged to do so, precisely by arguments like these. Would this desire be there if we as a culture didn't continue to so strongly reinforce it? I have no idea, but damn would I love to find out.
2009-10-03 08:22 pm
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Marriage: Romantic or Legal?

So marriage in America is formalized as a legal contract, which the state and federal government both have several laws and procedures to deal with.

Yet the overwhelming focus on marriage in society is as a romantic act, about the love and commitment between the two people and the building of their life together as a new family unit. To pretty much the exclusion of any discussion about the legal aspects - at least until the gay marriage controversy burst onto the scene and forced us to talk at least some about the legal rights and responsibilities which come with marriage. (And even so, the focus is on two people who love each other and want to make the "ultimate" commitment.)

It doesn't bother me that we talk so extensively about the romance of marriage(*), but it's really bizarre to me that here we have this legal contract "marriage" and we rarely talk about exactly what that entails. The laws are also different from state to state, which confuses the matter even more. If you're entering into a contract with someone else, wouldn't you want to know what that contract explicitly and legally means, according to the state and federal laws?

Well, I think so. I went looking for a class on how marriage will legally affect me if I choose to get married, and what options I had for changing what marriage legally meant, but I couldn't find anything. The Cambridge Center for Adult Education had two classes on weddings, however.

I'm not surprised. In America we focus on weddings to the exclusion of everything else that goes into a marriage. We have whole magazines devoted to weddings or brides. Whole magazines devoted to one day in your life (well, these days, more likely 2 or 3 days). Weddings are the culmination of the cultural script of romance, the "happily ever after", and all the symbols involved in weddings are hyped up to a ridiculous extent. All of the wedding fervor centers the discussion of marriage firmly in the realm of romance, and removes it from the realm of law and contracts, despite the fact that a marriage occupies both realms. Last I checked, pre-nuptials were viewed with suspicion - you weren't supposed to hedge your bets when you think you've found "The One"(**), because that shows a lack of trust or faith in the Love Of Your Life.

When the gay marriage debate was raging(***), I encountered many people who wanted to circumvent opining on gay marriage by simply declaring that they think the government should get out of legislating marriage entirely. Well, maybe it should, or maybe it shouldn't, but I think at the very least we should be talking about exactly what our government is legislating.

After some googling, I finally found a website, FindLaw, that seems to have a good summary of the legal aspects of marriage. Are there other books, websites, classes out there on this? If you know of any, or find any, please send them my way!

(*) Ok, maybe it does, but that's another post.
(**) No, not Keanu Reaves.
(***) Since I live in MA I can say that in the past tense.
2009-09-30 10:19 pm
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The Biological Clock: Why I don't need to care

I'm currently 30 years of age. According to most news, magazines, etc. etc., in the next five years my ability to bear (healthy) children will significantly decline. Another ten years from then, and I probably will lose all ability to give birth.

This is the basis of the widespread metaphor of a biological clock for womens' bodies. Hurry! Or else it will be too late to have a family!

I'm not immune to it. I'm very aware that there is at most 15 years between me and an irrevocable choice. I don't particularly want children now. Nor did I want children 10 years ago, when I was 20. Although in fifteen years, a lot can change, I'm facing the question of whether it will. I know that I should not have children unless I want them, but I worry. What if I don't want children until it's too late? What if suddenly when I'm 50 years old I decide that I want to start a family? If I wait too long, the choice will have been made for me, by my body.

Almost all my role models growing up were women with families. I knew a few couples without children, but the assumption was always that they were not childless by choice. What does a childless life look like, at age 60? At age 70? At age 80? What does a life without grandchildren, or children, look like? If you don't have children, will there be people to take care of you when you get old? Can you provide for yourself after you retire, after you have health problems? How do you live without a family that spans generations? I only know of a family life which involves children, grand-children, aunts and uncles - and I very much appreciate the bonds of family. Without children, how do I have a family? When my parents' generation has all passed away, who will I spend Thanksgiving or Christmas with?

I don't want children, but my only model of aging involves children. There's a big great unknown there for me, and while I'm more willing to explore that than I am to explore what it's like to have children you don't want, I'm still scared. In a lot of ways it would simply be easier if I wanted children. Sometimes I wish I did, but something in me rebels at the thought of having children. I'm just not interested.

I don't particularly dislike children, but I also don't particularly want to take care of one 24/7 either. I've toyed with the idea of being an aunt. Taking on some childcare responsibilities without having the full responsibility of having a child. Or maybe baby-sitting for my friends. I've also often thought that I would be better suited to the "traditional" father role, than a mother role. If I could be responsible for supporting a family, going off to work and coming home to have dinner & spend time with my family in the evening, instead of being responsible for day care schedules or setting boundaries all day, I'd be a lot happier.

Part of the problem is that I'm scared off by the cultural messages which places the mother, and only the mother, as the ultimate and sole caretaker of the child. Sure, fathers are supposed to share in the childcare, but ultimately it's the mother who many people look to when assigning praise - and especially blame. Boston.com has a "Moms" section - not a "Dads" section or a "Parents" section. Discussion of raising children focuses on the responsibilities of the mother, in large part. And sure, my own child-raising and my own family doesn't have to look like that - but that pressure of society is there, and it does scare me. The pressures around "being a good mother" are extremely loud and judgemental, and arguably more so than anything else I've had to deal with so far.(*)

The popular biological clock metaphor tells me that I must make a decision by a certain age, or else I am doomed to live childless forever. It places before me an ultimatum. While it's true that childbirth gets progressively harder, the ultimatum is pretty much a fallacy. Who says I must physically give birth in order to raise a family? There are many solutions here, the simplest being adoption. Yet these solutions are never mentioned in scare articles about losing the chance to have children.

Our culture in general places a huge importance on blood ties. A common fear (or maybe fantasy) for small children is that they were adopted - and thus do not actually belong with their parents or are less loved than naturally born children. Yet I don't think that children who are adopted are necessarily any less wanted, nor any less part of the family than children who were born. I don't think that a family requires blood ties.

I've also heard that people who do adopt tend to prefer younger children (babies). I think we have this belief that if we get to them young enough, it will be easier to shape their beliefs, thoughts, and personalities. It's true that parents have an extremely large influence on children, but my belief is that that influence is very difficult to control. In crude ways we can instill our own beliefs and worldview on our children, but they will be sensitive to things we never even notice, and develop in ways we never intended. In actuality we can control very little about what a child grows up to become. In actuality, as children grow, we are meeting them, and making friends with them, and learning who they are alongside them. We like to think that there could be a foolproof recipe for churning out perfectly well-adjusted adult humans, but in reality it's far more a game of chance than science(**). Our one saving feature is that humans are resilient.

In all the conversation about biological clocks, I find it strange that adoption is never mentioned as an perfectly reasonable option for starting a family. Until I met someone who adopted children, it never occurred to me that this was a good solution to the dilemma of the biological clock. I still don't want children, but now I realize that when my biological clock runs down, I still have other options for starting a family. I don't have to make a decision now, or in five years, or in ten years. I can wait until I'm ready, whenever that is.

And if I'm never ready? I guess then I will be discovering what aging without children is like.

(*) What's been really reassuring on this front has been seeing many of my female friends having children - and still being able to maintain the lives they want.

(**) We also like to blame the parents (particularly the mother) when things go wrong, but that's a whole other post.
2009-09-27 10:40 am
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Breast Cancer is not about breasts or sex

There's a new ad out by Canada's Rethink Breast Cancer charity. It's called "Save the Boobs", and I'm extremely disturbed by it. So are other people.

There are two things going on here. Breast cancer is not about sex, so it's not okay to call breasts "boobs", a highly sexualized term. Breast cancer is also not about breasts, so calling it "Save the Breasts" does not help. Breast cancer is about saving lives - mostly womens' lives, but also mens' lives too. (Because yes, men can get breast cancer though it's much less common.)

I'm disturbed by this conflation of breast cancer with breasts, and the presentation of breast cancer as a *sexual* issue. It reinforces the idea that womens' lives are less important than our sexuality and our breasts. Generally the very first step in treatment of breast cancer is to remove the breast. How do you think breast cancer survivors feel in a culture which conflates sexiness with breasts, and which sends the message that breasts are the reason we do breast cancer research? If we finally succeed and can cure 100% of all cases of breast cancer through a treatment that involves removing the breast, I would say we were wildly successful. Because even though we have not "saved the boobs", we have saved their lives, and that's by far more important.

I read about this yesterday, but didn't blog about it then because it seems well-covered by other blogs. Today I read about something much closer to home: it's a livejournal community started by people local to me called "treats for tits". I know that fundraising for breast cancer takes a lot of energy, and it's great that these people are putting themselves out there doing this. But do they have to conflate breast cancer with sex, or reduce womens' lives to womens' breasts, in order to do so? I'm divided about whether I want to write them a letter about this, because while I do support their intent and don't want to divert their energies from fundraising, I also think it's extremely important to stop conflating breast cancer with sex, and to stop contributing to the culture where womens' lives are less important than our breasts.
2009-09-26 11:00 am
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Growing up in a culture of rape

The other day I ordered the book Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape. Two years ago I was puzzled and highly skeptical whenever I heard the phrase "rape culture". Today I am a firm believer.

Things I was taught as a young girl about rape:

  • Rape is the worst thing that can happen to me.

  • Rape happens if you aren't careful enough, like if you are in a room alone with a boy, or if you wore clothing that was too revealing, or if you walked alone down a dark street at night.

  • I won't be able to prevent rape, but I can avoid it. If someone wants to rape me, they will almost certainly succeed whether or not I fight.

  • Rape is an crime of violence and is not sexual. But you can reduce your risk of rape by reducing how sexy you appear, and increase your risk of rape by being more sexual.

  • Rapists are strangers who attack you out of nowhere.

  • If you are raped, you are ruined forever and you will never recover.

  • Suicide is a reasonable response to being raped.

  • If someone wants to rape you, you shouldn't fight. You should just give in, because otherwise you might lose your life and being raped is preferable to being killed.

I learned these lessons from health class and teachers, but also from movies, music, the news, and the attitudes of children and adults around me. As a young teen I decided that I would fight as hard as I could if I was raped, but then kill myself if I didn't succeed (and I didn't expect to succeed). I couldn't imagine recovering from rape; I read too many narratives which dwelled on the awfulness of the experience, and saw too many stories where women killed themselves after being raped.

I was taught over and over the strategies I should use to avoid rape, under the guise of teaching myself how to "protect myself" from rape. Strategies like not wearing revealing clothing, avoiding unlit areas at night, walking around in groups, or being alone with a man I didn't know well. These were not strategies to protect myself from rape. These were strategies for attempting to avoid rape. Real strategies to protect myself from rape would have included things like how to win a fight against someone bigger and stronger than me, or how to recognize when someone doesn't respect my boundaries and how to enforce them anyway, and how to deal with sexual harassment, and ....

In truth, I don't even know what real strategies to protect myself from rape would look like, because the only culture I've lived in so strongly believes that it's a woman's responsibility to manage mens' desires that I have trouble imagining a world where it isn't. You might think that telling me that I can control whether I am raped or not should be empowering, but it's only empowering if it's true. It's not. And because it's not, it tells us instead that it's our fault if we get raped, rather than the rapists' faults. There's a list circulating around, called "Sexual Assault Tips Guaranteed To Work". I think it highlights exactly what I mean when I say that our culture places the focus of rape on actions of the victim, rather than the actions of the rapist.

Perhaps the book I ordered will help me figure out what a less misogynistic cultural narrative of rape could look like.