The Fem Spot

Privilege, shmivilege

Posted in Feminist Theory, Personal Essays by femspotter on May 12, 2010

May 12, 2010

Over the past two years as I have blogged about my feminist concerns and read those of others, I have become increasingly wary of the word “privilege.” It gets wielded an awful lot in feminist circles, most commonly attached to the word “male.” “Male privilege” is the go-to term when a feminist doesn’t have a fact-based argument to oppose one made by a man, feminist or otherwise. “Oh, there you go inflicting your male privilege on us,” is not uncommon to read in the feminist blogosphere. (Incidentally, for making this observation, I shall now endure scrutiny from other feminists who will call me an “MRA” – Men’s Rights Activist.)

I am not interested in eroding the rights of men; merely enhancing the rights of women.

I was asked to leave one feminist blog and have been blocked from two threads on another. How did this happen? I thought we all wanted the same things. In each case, it seems that two concepts of privilege became wedge issues between me – strange, proactive feminist that I am – and others: male privilege and United States privilege. Let’s define privilege for clarity’s sake:

priv·i·lege

a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most

I find that privilege is something that is often unique to each individual, unless you’re talking about privileges granted a class or faction under the law. For instance: I am privileged to give $20 to this charity, while he is privileged to give only $15 because he makes less money than I do.

In the first case, I accused a blogger of “hating men.” She spammed me. Okay. It wasn’t good for me to stay there anyway. I had just learned I was pregnant and had simultaneously observed some very negative attitudes about motherhood in that arena. Additionally, the group of radical feminists who frequented that blog seemed convinced that transsexuals (male to female) are ruining feminism for ciswomen (born women). I found this hateful and counterproductive to the feminist cause. One particular argument back and forth consisted of a “you have more privilege than I have” war, which is ultimately futile because it’s simply impossible to prove which group (cis or non-cis) has more privilege than the other; it’s subjective. The transsexual women were arguing that to be cis is to be privileged, while the ciswomen were arguing that transsexual women wield leftover male privilege from before surgery. The ciswomen demanded that transwomen stay out of women’s public restrooms because they are a rape threat to women with original vaginas. And they also claimed that being a born woman comes with no privileges in and of itself, hence the constant use of the term male privilege. (I have decided that motherhood is the ultimate privilege of women; and even if one can’t physically give birth, serving as a mother – step-, caregiver, etc. – is a privilege of our sex because it is an endeared and exalted position amongst our class. I never felt more empowered as a woman than the day I took my first pre-natal yoga class with a group of mothers-to-be. We are goddesses!) I think that being a feminist and also hating being a woman cannot coexist in one body. Ergo, you either learn to love your womanhood, or you give up your claim to feminism. This is one reason I welcome transwomen into the fold: hey, you want to be a woman, more power to ya!

All of this warring over privilege read as completely absurd to me and I found myself crying several times because of the lack of tolerance being executed by the so-called radical feminists writing into that blog. Hate, hate, hate… When the moderator sent me an email and asked me to leave, I complied without hesitation, especially considering the contradiction: she had spammed me on a thread for accusing her of misandry, and yet her blog’s sub headline is “a nice cool sip of misandry, on a hot day” and she had confessed in one thread (emphasis supplied):

frankly, i think that if my partner and i ever broke up, that i would probably not be able to be with another man due to my increasingly “radical” feminist beliefs. we have both changed over the years and are still compatible for the most part, and he also hates men which is to his credit! he knows what i mean when i say that men, as a group, suck. he doesnt take it personally. he is also a first-generation american raised in abject poverty so has more compassion and didnt/doesnt have a lot of the privileges normally associated with white men. which works for me, as i dont think i could tolerate most “normal” (entitled) men anymore. but i am pretty much resolved to having him has my last male partner, no matter what happens to him, or to me, or to us as a couple in the future.

I fully respect this statement as something one ruminates about during a voyage of self discovery. I do that here in my space and am entitled to do so as she is in her space. What’s of particular interest to me about this revelation – aside from the fact that it proves I am right about this blogger hating men – is the use of the concept of privilege to justify worth. “Men, as a group, suck,” she claims, but she exempts her partner because he has the least amount of male privilege that men inherently come with because of his lowly economic status, and thus has greater human worth. Because this group believes that cis womanhood contains no privilege over manhood, to them, even a man suffering economically, physically, socially, mentally, etc. still has more inherent privilege than does any woman, even the most economically, physically, socially or mentally elite woman.  And because women lack privilege, they have greater worth than men. It’s an interesting theory, but I reject its practical usage because it is just that: a theory. It makes assumptions about personal goodness based on wealth; and I’m sure we can all agree that poor people aren’t inadvertently good and giving to others without conscious intent just as wealthy people aren’t heartless by default. I believe that theories such as this keep healthy, happy women from helping women who are less fortunate. More than a few times, I witnessed radical feminists on this blog declaring that it is the job of men to fix the world for women because women have no real power/privilege (paraphrase). I don’t know about you, but I’m not about to wait for men to rescue me and other women from any place of abuse or subjugation. Men really don’t have as great an incentive to “rescue” women, as a class, as I do.

That’s the first banning from a feminist forum I endured. I’m intrigued by it and it’s good to vent now, but ultimately, this experience did not damage me. I’m no victim, but I have carried around a lot of anger about my second negative online experience in the feminist blogosphere (as follows), and that isn’t good for me – especially pregnant me.

In my ignorance, I didn’t realize that many disabled people don’t like the use of the term “healthy” because they think it is a judgment upon them: they can’t be healthy by certain standards because of their disabilities. So when I commented on a blog post on another site – a heavy traffic site to boot – about what’s wrong with skinny, and suggested that a healthy standard rather than a too skinny standard in Hollywood would benefit the whole of American, and perhaps international, womanhood, I was surprised to find myself accused of ableism. Another commenter and I tried to explain that “healthy” for our purposes simply meant not starving to fit the standard of beauty, but the damage was done. One writer even accused me of personally attacking her because she is very thin and cannot gain weight; and I must have responded at least three times that if she’s not starving herself she’s not perpetuating a negative standard for women. It got very hostile over there even though I had the best of intentions, as did others, I’m sure.

An insult like “you’re an MRA” is easy enough to laugh at. It’s ridiculous. But, considering my professional status as a special needs writer, the accusation that I am ableist hit me pretty hard, especially since I didn’t know if it were true, entirely or in part. There are many schools of thought on this: all able-bodied people are ableist until they become disabled; all people, disabled or otherwise, should try to make healthy choices to maximize health whenever possible (don’t smoke, don’t eat fatty foods in excess, etc.); the idea of “health” is a judgment, and more. Somehow, even with the best of intentions, I had come across as prejudiced against the disabled…and I know that to be untrue even though I am still struggling to understand the various approaches to the concept of health. I did a lot of soul-searching to make sure I was earnest in my commenting. I researched heavily the “healthy” debate and brought my findings to my boss. This experience was one to learn from: not because the accusers were right and I was wrong, but because I was not making my points clearly and instead was causing offense.

I began to get angry in this second feminist space when the thin woman wrote:

I also made the mistake of reading part of your blog. Apparently you also believe women who get raped while drunk are at least partly responsible for getting raped. Quite nice. Not only are women responsible for having eating disorders, but we’re responsible for men committing sexual violence against us.

Alright, that fact that she claimed to have read “part of” my blog should have red flagged for me right there. But I got really angry at being misrepresented yet again by this same poster. I wrote in to defend myself:

You are totally wrong again about me with regard to rape. TOTALLY! And I’ll thank you to STOP misrepresenting me. I do not believe that a woman who gets raped is ever at fault for her rape. EVER. I do believe in telling young women to avoid becoming intoxicated in environments where they are with men they do not know. I do tell the young women I know to protect themselves. This is not equivalent to telling women it’s their fault. Getting drunk in an unsafe environment is a mistake I made many times in college. And I repeat for the last time: women are not to blame for their eating disorders, only for starving by choice to fit the rigid standard of beauty our planet upholds, as I have done (starve) as well. I am not some sanctimonious asshole who sits in front of a computer screen without experience and blames women for all of our woes. I am a real woman with real issues and real ideas. If you misunderstand them because I have been unable to express myself clearly, try asking me questions about them rather than condemning me.

However, this comment was never published. I wrote to the moderators asking them to publish it. I received no response. Again, I question the relevance of the “feminist” label if you are prone to silencing women in feminist forums.

In another thread, “Dear USians on the Internet,” one of the moderators banned me for making a tone argument. I think that means that I dared to infer tone from posted comments. (Shrug.) But this didn’t happen until the U.S. privilege debate began. The post was a complaint from an Australian feminist about how (some) Americans are rude to foreigners online – and “USian” is apparently the politically correct term per this writer because the U.S. has robbed other (North and South) American nations like Mexico and Canada of the “American” designation; personally, I didn’t realize Canadians for instance were desperate to be called American and I had always taken for granted that we call ourselves Americans in the U.S. because the word America actually appears in our country’s name (U.S. of A.). I’m sure some Americans are very rude online. But what shocked me about this, especially juxtaposed next to the skinny thread, was how offended the writer of the post was when comments came in complaining about how closed-minded this post was. Were we possibly just in the middle of a misunderstanding again, jumping to conclusions about people’s beliefs rather than asking them to clarify them?

ME: I just think this kind of negative posting leads to a mob/ganging up commenting spree. We all have valid perspectives. We all have good intentions, don’t we? Sometimes we misunderstand each other. But we shouldn’t be hateful in this forum, which, as I understood it when it was recommended to me, is a safe place to discuss women’s issues and concerns.

THIRD PARTY: Also, it’s amazing how people come out of the woodwork to complain about privileged folks being stereotyped/spoken down to/condescended to/etc. when there is never the same volume of reaction to nonprivileged folks being treated the same. It is an outrage for the privileged person to be given an ounce of the same treatment that they drench nonprivileged people with every single day.

ME: “people come out of the woodwork to complain about privileged folks being stereotyped/spoken down to/condescended to/etc. ” (Third Party), not all Americans are privileged folks and their ignorant declarations on the Internet may result from their lack of financial or educational privilege.

THIRD PARTY: Actually, yes, if you are from the US, you have a privilege. US privilege.

What I make of this privilege argument is the same as what I make of the other: all men of all levels in the socioeconomic structure in which they live have more inherent privilege than all women, and likewise all Americans of all levels in the American socioeconomic structure have more inherent privilege than all or most other countries on Earth. This reeks of ignorance and prejudice in both cases. While I can somewhat wrap my mind around and even agree with the male vs. female assessment of privilege because it is universal and historically true that men have ruled the world – even though, as I’ve written, I think this argument is problematic and useless beyond academia; I need to make a very important distinction between classifying men and women as distinct collectives versus classifying Americans as a collective: there is way too much diversity involved amongst designated “USians” to simply blanket us with possessing a U.S. privilege. For starters, the statistic that 25 – 40,000 people die in the U.S. every year simply from lack of health insurance, which was thrown about during the healthcare reform debates of 2009, already divides us into strikingly different levels of privilege: the insured (read: privileged to receive medical care as needed and desired) and the uninsured (read: not privileged to receive medical care as needed). So when we’re talking about health and the right to live one’s life, already we’ve come to a point where we can clearly state that not all Americans possess “U.S. privilege.” Another example: if you’re a fisherman working in the Gulf of Mexico, your livelihood has just been wiped out for perhaps years by the recent oil spill. Where’s your U.S. privilege now? (Probably, in the same place as that of the Katrina victims still residing in Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers: up the asses of our wealthiest one percent!)

Speaking of healthcare, you might be surprised to know that American expectant mothers such as myself also find themselves disadvantaged below other countries when it comes to our motherhood privilege. According to Save the Children, the U.S. ranks as only the 28th best place on Earth in which to be a mother:

Why doesn’t the United States do better in the rankings?
The United States ranked 28th this year based on several factors:
•• One of the key indicators used to calculate well-being for mothers is lifetime risk of maternal death. The United States’ rate for maternal mortality is 1 in 4,800 – one of the highest in the developed world. Thirty-five out of 43 developed countries performed better than the United States on this indicator, including all the Western, Northern and Southern European countries (except Estonia and Albania) as well as Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, Czech Republic, Hungary, Japan, New Zealand, Poland, Slovakia, and Ukraine. A woman in the Unites States is more than five times as likely as a woman in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece or Italy to die from pregnancy-related causes in her lifetime and her risk of maternal death is nearly 10-fold that of a woman in Ireland.
•• Similarly, the United States does not do as well as many other countries with regard to under-5 mortality. The U.S. under-5 mortality rate is 8 per 1,000 births. This is on par with rates in Slovakia and Montenegro. Thirty-eight countries performed better than the U.S. on this indicator. At this rate, a child in the U.S. is more than twice as likely as a child in Finland, Iceland, Sweden or Singapore to die before his or her fifth birthday.
•• Only 61 percent of children in the United States are enrolled in preschool – making it the seventh lowest country in the developed world on this indicator.
•• The United States has the least generous maternity leave policy – both in terms of duration and percent of wages paid – of any wealthy nation.
•• The United States is also lagging behind with regard to the political status of women. Only 17 percent of seats in the House of Representatives are held by women, compared to 46 percent of seats in Sweden and 43 percent in Iceland.

Now, I’ll admit that perhaps the only reason Save the Children bothered to explain why the U.S. came in as low as it did is because we have a great public relations machine at work: the U.S. and yes! certain “USians” claim that the U.S. is a superpower, militarily, socioeconomically, etc. This is a bit of a fraud: image conquering truth for all the world to witness. As an American mother-to-be, I confess that I am hiring birthing help (a doula) outside of the health insurance network (to the tune of $1,400) to help avoid many of the surgical impositions placed on women during childbirth automatically by the Western medical establishment; I am not receiving any maternity leave pay during my “disability” leave from work, though I am entitled to collect disability insurance for up to six weeks; and my job is not protected by federal law, which means that my company can choose to downsize me during my absence, putting me in the position of having to find a new job and raise a newborn baby simultaneously.

Now, before you send me hate mail about what a big, whiny baby I am – a white “USian” with truckloads of socioeconomic privilege, know this: I know I’m privileged. I don’t claim to be less privileged than Afghan or African women, etc. I don’t spend much time making the comparison because I think it’s a useless comparison to make. I had a great education – apart from an appalling lack of herstory, always enough food and a roof over my head, loving support from family and friends, opportunities to work and earn my living as well as give some of it away to charities I am compassionate toward, and access to medical care at every stage of my life. I’m not complaining about labels of privilege being forced upon me; I am complaining that some people would try and force the assumption of my privilege onto others. Just because I am a privileged American doesn’t mean that ALL Americans are privileged. I am perhaps one of the last of a dying breed: the American middle class. So, when Save the Children, decides that Norway is the best place on Earth to be a mother, I don’t immediately assume that all Norwegian mothers have Norway privilege… I just strongly consider moving there. (Hey, I’m no patriot! I too think the U.S. at large is full of itself.) That doesn’t mean, however, that hating the U.S. or any of its ill-mannered online representatives is what should pass for feminism in the blogosphere.

It is undeniably safe to use the term privilege when you are speaking about yourself; but beyond that you run the risk of making a lot of assumptions and those assumptions can often lead to prejudicial treatment of others. I wonder if you’ll agree with me that the greatest privilege that a person can ever experience is knowing the value of him- or herself to be equal to that of others. And the real value of feminism is that it can ensure that every woman knows her worth and her right to a happy life – that she is entitled to human egalitarian privilege, which is greater than the rights known by other forms of life; not by begrudgingly taking away the rights of others – of men and transsexuals or members of other races or dwellers of other countries, etc. – but by raising up the wonderful aspects of her self and her femaleness, those aspects that make her a valuable member of collective society: her motherhood, her sisterhood and her ability to love and care for others.

Fem’s “Top Ten” (English language narrative feature films of 2009)

Posted in Film and Television by femspotter on January 3, 2010

January 3, 2010

Last year, 2009, was a great year for women’s issues in English language cinema. Though mainstream critics may have missed the boat on most of them, I hereby take it upon myself to rate 10 films on two scales: 1. relevance to contemporary feminism and 2. cinematic achievement. Each scale allows me to designate films 1 – 10 and then add the two numbers together for a final total, which determines placement on the list. With this system in play, I present a “Top Ten” ranking that includes fair to outstanding movies that American audiences witnessed in 2009. An asterisk (*) denotes a film that would appear on a “Top Ten” list based solely on criterion 2.  I’d like to point out that I am not a real film critic – as in, even though I’ve studied film, nobody pays me to see and write about movies, for shame! – so I’ve seen movies on my budget. If I’ve missed any that you think belong here, let me know and I’ll look for them on DVD or consider amending the list.

Keep an open mind and enjoy!

10.  The Proposal (1:5, 2:2 = 7)

Crazy am I? I did not thoroughly enjoy this silly film when I sat through it with two new girlfriends last spring; however, I did stop and think about something the moment the film’s protagonist (Sandra Bullock) admits to crying in the bathroom after a messy, public argument with a subordinate colleague. That sounded to me like something I might have done. To avoid showing any signs of weakness, I would have hightailed it to the ladies’ room where I’d be free to be…well, a lady. Let’s face it: sometimes women do need a good cry. Crying relieves tension and stress and helps to clear emotions from our minds so that we can be more like…well, men. Bullock’s character is no exception. She’s a woman trying to adapt to a “male model of careerism,” the model that predates the Second Wave of Feminism. But the question that I pondered during the latter half of this movie, chuckling here or there, I admit: why are women adapting to male careerism rather than working to make the workplace adapt to us?

This isn’t always the case, at least not in the United States. We have achieved maternity leave and pay. In some if not most cases, we’ve worked toward equality of treatment and pay on the job. But that still leaves the crying: every working girl knows that she can’t cry at work either because she once did (guilty!) and then found herself subsequently ostracized for it, or because she’s seen it happen to somebody else.

The bathroom is for doing things we hide from public view and crying is something that we believe belongs out of sight and out of mind. But if you’re used to work bathrooms with rusty sinks, musty smells and nowhere but the toilet to relax, why should your temporary moment of emotional relief be sequestered to a 3 by 5-foot area that faces a sign reading “If you sprinkle when you tinkle…”? Some offices now have nap rooms. Perhaps they should also have cry rooms.

9.  Observe and Report (1:6, 2:2 = 8)

Moderately humorous at times, but overall a painful examination of naked male insecurity, I point to this film solely for the “date rape” dilemma that ensued following its release into theaters. (For clarity, I don’t think this instance counts as a date rape – which is an ambiguity intended by the filmmakers, I suppose – because the man involved is clearly not able to distinguish that the woman is under the influence of drugs and alcohol and not consenting to their sex for two reasons: 1. he’s deranged and 2. she yells, “Why are you stopping, motherfucker?!” in the middle of it all. It’s a disgusting scene nonetheless and certainly NOT funny.) Here’s the setup: a woman agrees to go on a date with a man she barely knows and while having dinner consumes much alcohol and some of his prescription anxiety medication, of her own volition. She subsequently vomits and he, reacting to this ugly display, affectionately kisses her and tells her he accepts her just as she is. Cut to: he’s humping her while she’s passed out, he pauses when there’s no reaction, she awakens and insists he keep going and…the scene ends. Yuck!

Do I detesteth too much? I think not. While this scene would be more compelling as a date rape admonition with one of two additional factors – he’s cognisant that she’s in no condition to give consent or she tries to fight him off – it still serves to warn viewers against the dangers of abusing drugs and alcohol at all, let alone in close proximity to somebody you don’t know well enough to trust with your safety. Take heed, ladies. Avoid this scenario at all costs. We have to try and protect ourselves from idiotic men and would-be rapists. We owe ourselves that much and more.

On the one hand, I recommend women see this film/scene for its sobering ugliness; but on the other hand, I think these filmmakers should be forced to clean toilets with toothbrushes for trivializing an issue that IS a serious problem in the U.S. AND EVERYWHERE ELSE!

8. Away We Go (1:5, 2:5 = 10)

Maya Rudolph, John Krasinski and Maggie Gyllenhaal in Away We Go

This is a film about parenthood and more specifically, motherhood. It is primarily a woman’s story and one that involves the searching for home and identity before the birth of one’s child. As seen through the eyes of its unconventional lead (Saturday Night Live alum Maya Rudolph – charming!), existing mothers are either disinterested in their children, detached from reality, obsessive-compulsive or long-suffering. She doesn’t want to be any of these mothers and searches for a way to balance self and motherhood. This is a must-see for any woman grappling with the idea of who we women become as we become mothers and what are the most important things we take with us as components of our identities as we travel through life.

7. Sunshine Cleaning (1:7, 2:5 = 12)

For this touching odyssey of two underachieving sisters going into business for themselves, filmmakers interviewed two real-life women business owners about the realities of crime scene cleanup…and those women confirm that Sunshine Cleaning got it just right. The biggest battle women face in life is perhaps the one we face when looking at ourselves, honestly, and accounting for our choices or lack thereof. Does the former cheerleader turned single mom and maid (Amy Adams) want to rely on the approval of a married man, her lover, as the sole support for her fragile ego? Does her pothead, deadbeat sister (Emily Blunt) want to always cower in the shadow of their dead mother? No and no. And the way out is to stand up tall, dig their heals in and make lemonade from some very sour lemons.

True, crime scene cleanup is not the most glamorous profession – in fact, it may be the least glamorous profession there is. But this film reminds us feminists that good business practices and a strong work ethic can help us distinguish ourselves as conquerors of our American Capitalist economy. Remember to support women owned and operated businesses whenever possible to help empower the women in your immediate locale.

6.  *Inglourious Basterds (1:5, 2:8  = 13)

Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to create an epic poem of a movie about Nazi Germany. I loved nearly every moment of this witty, at times intentionally campy and spirited tribute to…well, itself: epic cinema! While female director Kathryn Bigelow turned out a more conventional war narrative in 2009 that has people talking “Best Director” Oscar for the first woman ever (The Hurt Locker),  it is the unconventional spirit of this war narrative that forces me to think about the way our culture glorifies and skews violence. And speaking of unconventionality, get a load of the women in Inglourious Basterds: they are forces to be reckoned with! At once full of sly vengeance and a commitment to ending violence, these women in disguise (adeptly portrayed by Melanie Laurent and Diane Kruger) are essential players in a cruel and gratuitous game, in much the same way their warrior predecessors like Boudica and Joan of Arc were before them. In short: never underestimate a woman’s ability to fight for a (noble) cause.

Melanie Laurent in Inglourious Basterds

5.  *Avatar (1:6, 2:8 = 14)

Also on the subject of women and the war/peace effort, this bold and visually hypnotic fairytale focuses on a fictional alien goddess-worshiping, spiritually matriarchal culture where men and women fight, hunt, harvest and pray together as equals. It’s beautiful! And as for the human world that Director James Cameron presents: women may not be calling all the shots there, but they do harness their own moral agency in science and diplomacy.

This trend of exploring female agency is not new for Cameron, who brought us the adventurous heroics of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor in The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s Lindsey Brigman in The Abyss (1989), and Jamie Lee Curis’ Helen Tasker in True Lies (1994). In fact, when I think of these movies, I don’t think of Arnold Schwarzenegger saying “I’ll be back;” in fact, I don’t think of men at all. I think of Hamilton doing pull-ups, Mastrantonio volunteering to drown in an aquatic vessel filling with freezing water, and Curtis doing a wacky strip tease thinking she’s a spy. These are fantasies I enjoy participating in: I’d love to save the world, save the man I love or at least spend 24 hours thinking I’m clever enough to master international espionage. And in real life, I take this fantasy, this agency, and apply it to the things I can change: the lives of the people I know and love. Kudos to Cameron for injecting feminism into the action film genre that’s generally devoid of interesting women.

As for female agency in Avatar, let us not forget that Sigourney Weaver’s Dr. Grace Augustine and Michelle Rodriguez’s Trudy Chacon say “No” to the carnage of this alien culture and fight to preserve it. And on the side of the Na ‘vi, Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri adopts a foreign soldier and teaches him to respect life rather than destroy it. And he, in turn, respects her life and her choices. She tells him he can choose a woman as a lifelong mate, and he responds, “But she must also choose me.” If only this were the way all men looked at women’s choices…

4. *Bright Star (1:6 2:9 = 15)

Edie Martin and Abbie Cornish in Bright Star

Of course, not every film can be a landmark feminist achievement like Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993). But Campion has done again and again what so few filmmakers can: understand and visualize the female condition. Bright Star is no exception. Rather than telling a straightforward narrative of revered poet John Keats, Campion tells the story – or rather maps the emotional landscape – of Keats’ great love, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish in a breathtaking performance). This isn’t your typical love story; this is instead a flight of fancy wherein a passionate girl designs and wears elaborate fashions that depict her sense of self, and secludes butterflies in her bedroom, where she daydreams and cries and pines the days away. What teenage girl didn’t endure this experience…or what felt like this experience? And Keats almost becomes irrelevant…he might as well be David Bowie (to me) or Justin Timberlake (to somebody else), etc. At once, Bright Star is a romance AND an exclusive journey into the soul of a prurient teenage girl. Nobody visualizes female sexuality like Campion!

3. *Julie & Julia (1:10, 2:7 = 17)

Further proof that he needs to retire, Roger Ebert chastised the characterizations of the husbands of Jule Powell and Julia Child in his review of this film.  “Both husbands are, frankly, a little boring,” he wrote. “They’ve been assigned their supporting roles in their marriages and are reluctant to question the singlemindedness of their wives…if the men had been portrayed as more high-spirited, (the film) might have taken on intriguing dimensions.”

Well, Mr. Ebert, I (respectfully) disagree with you on several points. The husbands aren’t boring; they’re just NOT in a movie ABOUT THEM. Quelle suprise! This is a movie, as the title clearly states, about Julie and Julia. This is a movie about women finding their identities from what you so patronizingly refer to as their “singlemindedness.” And yet, to Director Nora Ephron’s credit, I do know what each husband does for a living and what he is passionate about. She didn’t even have to give us that. We female film audiences have sat through many a good movie with poorly (under)written female characters. We’re entitled to a movie about real women now and again, don’t you agree?

And you can’t ask for a better, more sensitive, more nuanced portrayal of a supportive husband than that given by the great Stanley Tucci as Diplomat Paul Child! I hope he gets the Oscar. So there: the Oscar winner I’d like to see come out of this movie is one of your “boring” husbands!

Julie & Julia is about two women who discover their strengths and generate feelings of self-worth, ironically, in the kitchen. Julia Child can’t have children – that is her great sadness – but she leaves her mark on us in other ways. We love her joy, her bliss: her loves of food, wine and sex! And Julie Powell’s sadness comes from feeling like she’s a 30-year-old failure. “Will I be a writer?” she asks herself. “You are a writer.”

Just because nobody pays me for this blog, doesn’t mean I’m not a writer. I am a writer. This is the identity I create for myself.

2.  *Precious (1:10, 2:8 = 18)

The very fact that Director Lee Daniels had to go outside of traditional casting methods to find the right actress (Gabby Sidibe, a bright, shining beacon of realism) to portray a morbidly obese black teenager, pregnant with her own father’s second child, goes to show you that Hollywood has it all backwards when it comes to women. Not only could I not get enough of peering into Sidibe’s stunning yet stoic face, but I left the theater wishing there was another movie playing that could move me in the same way: force me to look at real women squarely in the eyes and accept us. For that’s what Clareece ‘Precious’ Jones does: she goes from looking in a mirror and seeing a white, skinny, conventionally beautiful teenager (her fantasy self) to looking in the mirror and seeing a strong, black, finally literate teenager (her real self). This film took my breath away!

The film also demonstrates how misogyny and racism often work hand in hand to hurt women. There are truths about the black, Harlem culture revealed in this story and the way the women therein are taught to (de)value themselves (i.e. the number of children you have denotes self-worth, there’s no possibility for survival/advancement beyond the welfare office, etc.) that form the backbone for a formidable thesis: illiteracy, poverty and self-hatred form a cultural cycle that is nearly impossible to break. Just look at the shocking, albeit beautiful, posters for the film:

The first image shows how the sexual identity of Precious has fallen prey to a violent man, her own father – as well as her own jealous mother. The second image invokes thoughts of pre-Civil War southern (U.S.) black domesticity. And finally, the third image sets us, the viewers, free. Precious will grow; she will change; she will fly. And we get to go on this journey with her. (Note: Precious is the film adaptation of the novel Push by Sapphire, which may be worth reading for additional thematic material not found in the film.)

1.  *Coraline (1:10, 2:9 = 19)

When I was a girl, I was sometimes unhappy. I was not unlike Coraline, but it wasn’t just my name that people misunderstood: it was my frustration at being born with a perception that didn’t match those in my immediate locale. That’s why, when I went to see Coraline in theaters last February, I wept like a baby when a little girl, not unlike me, crossed into a (dream) world where women are as beautiful as they imagine themselves to be and parents seem interested in the life of their child, only to find out that in order to stay in this fantasy place, she has to sew buttons over her eyes. In other words, she has to blind herself to the fantasy in order to live it. There’s nothing like showing somebody a wonderful world of options and then taking all options away except one! That’s cruel and unusual punishment.

Coraline is adapted from a novella for youth by Neil Gaiman, but much of the visual artistry is the brain child of the filmmakers who rendered stop-motion animation flawlessly to create a female-identified real world and a female-identified, even vaginal, alternate universe. In the former, Coraline and her parents rent an apartment in a grand, pink Victorian house. There’s a black cat (a pussycat) always watching her, two old ladies, hard of hearing, living in the basement, a talkative boy whom Coraline detests, and a circus performer with a collection of mice living in the attic.  These creatures are present in the alternate world but, like Coraline’s father, the men are rendered dumb, even absent, while the women reach their former glory as vivacious Vaudevillian starlets and the mother, “the Belle Dame,” rules with an iron fist.

You're a long way from home, Coraline Jones.

You're a long way from home, Coraline Jones.

At first Coraline is tempted to travel the vaginal tunnel to eat the tasty food prepared by her “other mother,” to wander the ovarian gardens with her “other father” who gives her the time of day… But once the buttons come out, she knows something is wrong and she decides that disinterested parents and gray clothes are better than a fate of self-induced blindness, when one can’t see the things one wishes were true when they ARE true and right before one’s eyes.

This story hit me like a ton of bricks. What we women want are choices. What we NEED are choices. Coraline represents what girls have historically suffered: knowing there’s more to life than what they’re offered, but feeling powerless to achieve the more. Coraline is the reason we founded feminism and she’s the reason why feminist empowerment, the agency to find and seize our choices, is the most important thing that we can inspire in our daughters and the women we know who aren’t already empowered to choose the things they want in life.

Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

So what kind of feminist are you anyway?

Posted in Feminist Theory, Personal Essays, Politics, queer theory by femspotter on May 22, 2008

May 22, 2008 (revised September 16. 2009)

Someone asked me that in an English graduate seminar. He was rather caustic about the whole thing. I think it bothered him that he couldn’t put me in a category.

In my ignorance, I thought you could either be a feminist or not be a feminist. The question had me stumped.

I’m not like…say…oh…we’ll call her “Kara.” She’s a militant Marxist, or socialist, feminist who hates men, specifically the kind who marry…or rather she hates the institution of marriage and thinks it shackles females.

I’m also not a conservative feminist who would criticize women who adopt a “male model” of careerism and public achievement. That’s far too restrictive.

I’m not a liberal feminist. While I do support the notion that all humans are deserving of equal treatment under the law, I do not support the idea that all women can assert themselves and achieve without altering the social constructs we live in.

In much the same way, I am not a post-feminist. I don’t deny the existence of oppression. I do think there is need for change.

It would seem that there is one extreme left: radical feminism. I do not believe that female oppression is rampant – at least not in the United States – nor do I believe that all, or most, men are out to stifle us in order to boost their fragile egos. Misogyny is a big problem – globally, but I believe it can be combated by the elimination of gender stereotyping. In other words, out with “masculine” and “feminine” labels! These are social constructs that fluctuate. To be feminine in 1950 meant to be submissive and quaint: ask no questions and challenge no authority. Today, femininity is part and parcel with a certain predatory quality that signals an interest in sexuality, rather than an indifference to it. If we stop expecting women to be feminine and men to be masculine; if we accept public displays of emotion from men and the lack thereof from women; if we celebrate the institution of stay-at-home paternity in addition to its counterpart, etc. then we begin to raise the status of all women without hindering the status of men.

The man at the seminar scratched his head when I couldn’t entirely identify with one faction or the other. He wasn’t quite sure what use I was to the blanket feminist agenda: equality.

I think we saw this same reaction in politics as Hillary Clinton strove to win the Democratic nomination for President in 2008, even with very little hope left. Let’s humorously examine what all these different feminists might have been saying about Clinton’s tenacity.

Socialist: She should be running under her maiden name. It’s archaic to adopt a man’s last name when marrying. It’s really too bad she married at all. And while she’s at it, why doesn’t she give her millions to starving children in China instead of to her hopeless campaign?

Conservative: Those pantsuits are very unbecoming. She should adopt a softer tone. Instead of talking about the gas tax, she should be sharing baking tips.

Liberal: Barack Obama and Clinton are equal, damn it. They have the same levels of intelligence, experience and likeability. Also, their policies are very similar. Wait…now I can’t figure out which one to vote for.

Post-feminist: As naive as it sounds, I’m voting for a candidate who thinks he can change the way Washington does politics. That’s a man. Sue me!

Radical: The media consists of misogynist freaks who always say negative things about Clinton, even when there are perfectly nice things to say. It’s all a big conspiracy. I think an Obama sympathizer masqueraded as Clinton that day “she” talked about being under sniper fire. Think about it. It all makes perfect sense.

I don’t agree completely with any of these positions on the Clinton candidacy, but they each contain interesting points, which I hope will fuel discussion at many levels, from water cooler conversation to university discourse, for many years to come.

I wouldn’t tell Clinton what to do with her money – I’m a capitalist – but I myself made the conscious decision to keep my maiden name, at least in so far as my career is concerned. (I don’t get mad when people call me Mrs. M*****.)

And while I would never say that Clinton should behave in a way that is unnatural or uncomfortable for her, I do think that she should remember that she is a female and can be “feminine” if she likes. I embrace the differences between myself and my husband. But, hey…if I don’t want to bake, I DON’T BAKE!

I think that it’s important to talk about the candidates’ inequalities, and thus make informed decisions when voting for political figures. While I don’t feel qualified to judge intelligence, I do feel empowered to say that Clinton has always struck me as the more concise, realistic and decisive candidate. In these aspects of character, Obama and Clinton are not equal.

Finally, I think it is necessary to examine the role the media played during this primary season. CNN, for instance, had been declaring a victory for Clinton impossible since March, 2008, demonstrating that Obama is its favorite. On the other hand, Fox News headlines read more like news bites, showing less favoritism and more feigned indifference. That’s probably a function of how far left or right each network leans.

But it could be misogyny.

Misogyny can be difficult to prove, however. I think the largest problem for Clinton has been much like the problem I’m faced with when trying to declare my allegiance with one or the other types of feminism: I don’t fit many of the established “rules.”

There are some who look at Clinton and see a woman defying femininity, and others who look at the role she’s in and think she’s too feminine – they think that only a masculine man will do. Does she appease the first half with a show of tears? Does she cater to the others and refuse to weaken, not apologizing for her Iraq war vote in 2002, or drop out of presidential politics altogether? Either way, she’ll do it as a woman. But everybody seems to want to pinpoint what kind of woman she is.

Perhaps former vice-presidential and presidential candidate John Edwards said it best in his Obama endorsement speech: “There is one man who knows and understands that this is a time for bold leadership. There is one man that knows how to create the change, the lasting change that you have to build from the ground up. There is one man who knows in his heart there is time to create one America, not two… and that man is Barack Obama.”

He could have said “one person” or “one candidate,” but he said “one man” and thereby left the window ajar for mighty Clinton to throw open. The quote means to me that, while Obama might know these things, there may be a woman out there who knows them too. The question has always been a definitive one: will the U. S. elect a woman to our highest office?

While Clinton kept forging ahead in the primary campaign, speaking forcefully into microphone after microphone, other women on the trail did something different: Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain, wives of Obama and Republican presidential nominee John McCain respectively, posed for the camera. They appeared in issues of Vogue magazine. (Where’s Bill Clinton’s fashion spread, I wonder?)

Clinton is loud; she’s tough. Often, she comes across as a bit abrasive. But that’s probably because up against these other two, the one’s who’ve embraced the supportive, eye-candy wife archetype – as she once did, or at least tried to do – she can’t help but appear to be rough around the edges. Mrs. Obama is wearing pearls; Mrs. McCain’s golden locks are blowing in the breeze. Clinton, meanwhile, has thick legs and a cropped coif. However will she compete with this idealized version of femininity?

I guess I’m the kind of feminist who would say that she shouldn’t have to compete. I would say, “No rules!” I support the personal choice to be a housewife, househusband, female president or whatever-we-call-the-husband-of-the-female-president.

And who am I or Clinton to tell Obama or McCain that they shouldn’t model for magazines? I just hope that it makes them happy.

That school acquaintance of mine didn’t like it when I said there shouldn’t be any rules. He threw up his arms in protest saying, “Well, if women can do whatever they want…”

I’m glad he didn’t finish that sentence. I would have had to ask him, “Why can’t women do whatever they want?” And I don’t know how to win an argument with a feminist who has rules for women just like everybody who isn’t a feminist has rules for women.

THAT kind of feminism – the feminism with all the rules – just doesn’t sit well with me.

That girl runs like a boy

Posted in Feminist Theory, Politics by femspotter on May 16, 2008

May 16, 2008

There’s much in the news these days about presidential politics, specifically about a race between a black man and a white woman. The media has exhausted television air time with discussions of race, less so of sex and gender.

It’s fitting to start my feminist blog  in a time when it appears as though the woman’s movement is hibernating – at least, I hope it’s asleep and not dead. The post-feminists are having their day, I guess.

So let’s not talk politics then. Let’s talk about horseracing.

“Whoa!” “Wait a minute,” you say. “Horseracing IS political.”

True, true. I do not dispute. Whenever there is at stake a modicum of power, money or sex, politics come into play. Somebody is in charge, making the rules, and others who are not want the power to change those rules.

Even the person who bids $2 on a horse to place third falls victim to the political machinations that go on behind the scenes.

The horses themselves have been politically manipulated, victims of unscrupulous breeders who forget the laws of physics that would foresee the collapse of 1200 pounds on four skinny legs. The trainers race them too young, some say. Other critics of thoroughbred racing question the appropriateness of dirt track surfaces. (Apparently, synthetic tracks are softer.)

Whatever the cause, on May 3 at the Kentucky Derby, three-year-old filly Eight Belles fell to the ground having fractured both of her front ankles at the conclusion of the race. She was euthanized on the track.

Note the pronoun: “she.” All the while, her creators and sponsors schemed to use the horse for profit, another factor presented itself: she was a girl in a boy’s world.

Analysts say it’s rare to see a girl run in the boy races. Their femininity (i.e. “passivity” or “physical weakness” or whatever else is the en vogue gender debasement) often makes them unsuitable for tough racing.

But after listening to all of the political commentary on the (horse)race, it’s refreshing to hear what an average Joe thinks of this brave girl: “She was one of the best fillies around,” said James Clemons, 58, a machine operator, according to Joe Drape and his May 4 article in The New York Times. “She showed she could run with the boys.”

The machinist choked up. The idea was just too tragic to believe: 1200 pounds of beautiful horse, lying by the trackside, dead…never to run again.

“She went out in glory,” said her trainer Larry Jones of her second place victory, according to the same article. “She went out a champion to us.”

Take a lesson from the life of a lowly female racehorse: she could run with the boys and she could beat ‘em.

Now we turn from politics in sports back to the Democratic politics of the moment. It’s almost time to have a vote in the final five remaining states – or 10 percent – between frontrunner Barack Obama and prematurely eulogized Hillary Clinton. The finish line is close but the race is not over.

Still, political analysts question the validity of Clinton’s campaign. If she can’t win, then why is she running?

Though the glimmer of hope for a win is fading, it has not expired, and the political racehorse keeps running. With a recent slaughter in West Virginia and an overall close number both in votes and delegates, Clinton will finish a champion – like Eight Belles – whether she is the Democratic nominee or not. It’s old-fashioned to keep a promise to fight when the odds are against you. And afterall, Obama is winning on a political platform of “change.”

Her campaign has fallen and picked itself up many times. Even while struggling to raise funds and win undecided voters, she can still pull a win in a state where, like everywhere else, people do watch television. With critics dismissing Clinton and calling her chances slim to none, voters still came out and cast their ballots for the person they think should be President.

Obama, on the other hand, looks worn and tired. His rallies have lost a bit of their fanatical spark. Will he be strong enough to carry the Democratic Party over the White House threshold in November?

He will if he can muster the stamina that Clinton has shown. He will if he can tough it out with, dare I say “feminine,” strength and tenacity.

The question to be answered has thus become: can Barack Obama run like a girl?

%d bloggers like this: