Saturday, February 19, 2011

Quick Hits: the GOP hates women edition

The following bills have recently been put on the table (and then occasionally shelved, hallelujah) by various state and federal Republican representatives:

  • The proposed GOP budget cuts for fiscal year 2011 mean a drastic decrease in funding for domestic violence prevention programs; this includes the elimination of the Violence Against Women Health Initiative and the Engaging Men and Youth in Prevention programs, as well as a $7 million cut to Family Violence Prevention and Services Act, which funds domestic violence shelters and the national hotline for domestic violence victims. 
  • The "Title X Abortion Provider Prohibition Act", introduced by Representative Mike Pence (R-IN) would amend the Public Health Services act to prevent any organization that provides abortions--except in cases of incest, rape, or when the woman's life is endangered--from receiving family planning grants. Under the existing Act, Title X funds are not used on abortion services, but on family planning and preventative health initiatives. The change to this act would effectively defund Planned Parenthood. The House has voted in favour of the act.
  • H.R.3 and H.R.358 are both on the table in the House. H.R.3, the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act", originally sought to redefine rape (this has since been removed from the bill), and strong arms insurance companies into not covering abortion services, as well as imposing a tax burden on small businesses that purchase plans that cover abortion. H.R.358, the "Protect Life Act", carries a provision that would allow health care providers to deny live-saving abortion care to women with dangerous pregnancies. It also bans insurance coverage of abortion in the new health care system.
  • The Ohio State Legislature recently tabled a "Heartbeat Bill", which would ban abortion after a heartbeat is detected in the fetus. The heart is one of the first organs to develop in a fetus, and heartbeats are detectable between eighteen days and six weeks into the pregnancy. The presence of a heartbeat does not indicate viability. If passed, the bill would likely provide an avenue for a Supreme Court challenge of Roe v. Wade.
  • Meanwhile, the South Dakota Legislature has (thankfully) shelved a bill that would have rendered as "justifiable homicide" those murders in service of protecting an unborn child. In a country that has seen the murder of abortion providers and the bombing of abortion clinics, this is clearly a concern. From the NYTimes article: "Dave Leach, an Iowa anti-abortion activist, praised the bill, saying it could end abortions in South Dakota by scaring away doctors or by establishing grounds for someone to kill those who stay.'There may be something I’m overlooking, but from all appearances, this bill would certainly justify an individual taking the life of an abortionist in order to save human lives,' he said."
  • Melissa McEwan, on the bullshit that is the anti-choice position: "No one can argue, with any honesty or credibility, that they give a fuck about the sanctity of life if they would force a woman to carry to term an unwanted or unviable pregnancy against her will. That is the opposite of a respect for life, if the definition of "life" is to have any meaning at all."

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

On fashion

Yesterday was a strangely fashion-oriented day for me. As a graduate student, it's a rarity that I have the opportunity that I have the time (or, more particularly, the money) to think a lot about clothes. I like clothes -- on long days I'm likely to be found perusing the sale rack at Urban Outfitters or picking through thrift store finds -- but I've never had enough money to buy all of the clothes I'd like. Overwhelmed with a sudden desire look look at summer dresses, I virtually window-shopped at Anthopologie and ModCloth, two stores that are generally far outside my meager pay grade. And they are about to get more so.

Jezebel, among other places, notes that the price of clothes is about to go up. Due to an increase in the price of raw materials, as well as higher wages for workers in Chinese factories (mostly caused by labour shortages, and not, unfortunately, unionization or legal regulations about fair labour practice), the price of clothes is expected to rise by 10% over the next few months, and more by the end of the year. While reading the post, I was struck by the multiple, intersecting problematics that clothing--and fashion more generally--pose for feminism.

The problem with the fashion industry (along with the cosmetics industry, and a host of other beauty-related consumer goods markets) is that it exists squarely at the interstice of vast networks of inequality and oppression. Many, if not most, workers in garment factories are women. They are paid subsistence wages (if that) to make clothes that they will never wear, unless, by chance, they happen to return to the country in the form of used clothing donations, which often devastate local textile industries. And buying "Made in America" doesn't mean too much either; in order to put the label on the clothing, all that is required is that the item undergo its final 'substantial transformation' in the United States. In practice, this has often meant that the clothing is made in sweatshops in US protectorates such as American Samoa or the Northern Mariana Islands, which are exempt from American wage and labour regulations. That the clothing can be offered at the low price we've come to expect in the post-industrial West is, in many ways, predicated upon the exploitation of workers (particularly women workers) in these territories.

At the same time, there are expectations of what is appropriate for women in Western culture to wear. Part of being a successful professional woman in North America is looking the part -- having the right suit, the right shoes, the right hair, and the right jewelery. On top of this, women's social locations are often, in part, constructed and represented through the clothes they wear. This is evident even in elementary school, where brand-consciousness is displayed by children of kindergarten age. Here class, race, and gender intersect to place demands on women to spend obscene amounts of money on beauty and fashion. In 2009, Newsweek published a graphic showing women's spending on beauty treatments (not including clothes) over the course of a lifetime. The projected amount spent? Almost half a million dollars. For those women who don't have the financial wherewithal to shop at high end stores, or even at mid-range popular shops like Anthropologie or J. Crew, the 'fast fashion' of Forever 21 and H&M is the difference between keeping on-trend or abandoning fashion to the dustbin of desires. Thrifting, often touted as the fashion maven's solution to high prices, is only possible if you have quality thrift stores within an accessible distance -- certainly not a guarantee anywhere but a big city -- and the time to pour over racks of items that may not have anything on them that fits, or only clothing that needs to be significantly altered before wearing. All of this adds to the price of fashion, and to the burden of women who shop.

To which many might say "so what?" Isn't fashion shallow and a ridiculous thing to be spending money on anyways? Wouldn't it be better if we all shopped at Goodwill and stopped caring about trends? Well, yes and no. In different social contexts, ignoring or pooh-poohing fashion is almost a trend in an of itself; the number of academics who walk around in muumuus and mom jeans is a testament to that fact. But the notion that fashion is unimportant, frivolous, or somehow inappropriate as a serious topic of conversation is evidence only of a discourse that systematically renders women's interests and activities as trivial. Thinking seriously about fashion means being able to confront the difficulties of clothing production, but also the bind of clothing consumption. Being fashionable, like having the right car, the right house, the right electronics, the right cell phone, and even the right taste in music, is a cultural marker. Its meaning is socially constructed, but that doesn't make it any less real for the women who are facing the social consequences of not looking 'right'. Owning clothes that look 'right', like owning a home, is part of our construction of what a successful life looks like. Fast fashion, while not of the same quality as higher-end clothing, allows women to participate in the exchanges of meaning that form the milieux of contemporary Western social life.

By choosing to work towards a PhD in the social sciences, I've had the opportunity to extricate myself in some ways from this tangle. As previously noted, academics aren't known for their fashion sense, and if called on my poor masquerade as an academichic fashionista, I can always fall back on a Marxist feminist critique of the beauty industry. The thing is, I don't want to. I like fashion. I like nice clothes and pretty things. I enjoy the process of shopping and putting together outfits (whether or not I'm good at it is a different question altogether). And I'm lucky enough to have a lifestyle where I can do all of those things, and yet still have the option to abandon it entirely should my finances take a turn for the worse. But my situation is unique; there are not a large number of careers where opting out of fashion entirely is an option. Even in those situations where it is a possibility, we all go home at night, and out with friends and lovers on the weekends. To be unable to participate in the cultural narrative of the fashionable woman is to be ill-equipped to move in and out of various social fields. This is true not only of mainstream consumption cultures, but also subcultural groups where clothing and adornment practices play a central role in allowing an individual to be recognized as a peer.

Like other common experiences primarily gendered female, struggling to think through the rock and the hard place of clothing production and consumption is an opportunity to observe the intersectionality of privilege and power in everyday life. By purchasing fast fashion, we engage with the exploitation of women's labour worldwide. By spending huge amounts of money on something as transient as trendy clothes and makeup, we participate in a culture that encourages the collection of assets by men, and the collection of debt by women. By suggesting that people simply "save up" to buy better quality (and 'exploitation-free') garments, we whitewash the elements of class and privilege that are deeply embedded into the world of women's consumption. And by disengaging from the discourse and practice of fashion entirely, we close off avenues of power, respect, and recognition that would otherwise be open to us, on top of displacing routes of fulfillment and happiness (feeling pretty is one of life's pleasures) that we should not have to reject in order to be 'properly' feminist or political. Ultimately, the uptick in clothing prices points us toward the intersections of privilege and inequality that characterize womanhood in a globalized society, without providing any easy answers for those of us who are just trying to get through the day and feel okay about how we look while doing it.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Pepsi thinks women are morons

Good news ladies! Diet Pepsi will soon be available in a "taller, sassier new Skinny Can" that the company says is a "celebration of beautiful, confident women".

The six inch tall new can debuts at New York fashion week, and, according to the chief marketing officer at Pepsi, is "the perfect complement to today's most stylish looks". Well thank god that Pepsi is stepping out into the forefront of tailoring soft drink packaging to women's fashion. I know I certainly won't be picking up a can of Coke anymore, not with it's gawdy red-and-white, disgusting stubby form. Why drink soda in a fat can when you can drink soda in a skinny one? Am I right ladies?

The press release goes on: "Diet Pepsi has a long history of celebrating women through iconic fashion imagery seen in our infamous and historical campaigns, and we're proud to continue that tradition". I'm so glad that Pepsi is confronting the major issues of that women face today. That my diet soda be sassy and a celebration of my skinny, fashionable femininity is certainly high on my list of priorities. It's right up there with reproductive rights and equal pay. So here's a hearty thank you to Pepsi, for reminding women that if you're drinking soda, it should be diet, and that beauty and confidence come hand-in-hand with being fashionable and skinny. Three cheers for Pepsi: they've managed to catch up to the marketing strategies of the late 1960s. You've come a long way, baby.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Assholes threaten rape on the Internet

(Trigger warning for abhorrent threats of rape and sexual violence; also for terrible language on my part)

Dear Internet men,

I think it's time we had a chat. You know I love all y'all to pieces -- where would I be without the glory of 4chan generated Xzibit memes, epic co-op games of Diablo II, and yes, even off-color Penny Arcade comics. But this recent re-tread of the whole "dickwolves" debacle has forced me to do the thing that I least like doing in the world: reading internet comments that call for "feminist bitches" to be raped for their supposed lack of a sense of humor.

I know you think it's the epitome of fucking hilarious to call for the rape of "dyke cunts" or to debate amongst yourselves (in public) whether or not "fat whores" can truly be raped in light of their eternal unattractiveness. The thing is, though, it's not funny. It's not clever. It certainly isn't new. And here are some reasons why:

Fugitivus: A woman walks into a rape, uh, bar:
For those of you who wonder why rape victims get all super sensitive about rape jokes ‘n shit, well, this is why. Before you’re raped, rape jokes might be uncomfortable, or they might be funny, or they might be any given thing. But after you’re raped, they are a trigger. They make you remember what was done to you. And if the joke was about something that wasn’t done to you, not in quite that way, you can really easily imagine how it would feel, because you know how something exactly like that felt. Rape jokes stop being about a thing that happens out there, somewhere, to people who don’t really exist, and if they do they probably deserved it, and they start being about you. Rape jokes are about you. Jokes about women liking it or deserving it are about how much you liked it and deserved it. And they are also jokes about how, in all likelihood, it’s going to happen to you again.
Melissa McEwan: Rape Culture 101:
Rape culture is rape jokes. Rape culture is rape jokes on t-shirts, rape jokes in college newspapers, rape jokes in soldiers' home videos, rape jokes on the radio, rape jokes on news broadcasts, rape jokes in magazines, rape jokes in viral videos, rape jokes in promotions for children's movies, rape jokes on Page Six (and again!), rape jokes on the funny pages, rape jokes on TV shows, rape jokes on the campaign trail, rape jokes on Halloween, rape jokes in online content by famouspeople, rape jokes in online content by non-famous people, rape jokes in headlines, rape jokes onstage at clubs, rape jokes in politics, rape jokes in one-woman shows, rape jokes in print campaigns, rape jokes in movies, rape jokes in cartoons, rape jokes in nightclubs, rape jokes on MTV, rape jokes on late-night chat shows, rape jokes in tattoos, rape jokes in stand-up comedy, rape jokes on websites, rape jokes at awards shows, rape jokes in online contests, rape jokes in movie trailers, rape jokes on the sides of buses, rape jokes on cultural institutions… 
Rape culture is people objecting to the detritus of the rape culture being called oversensitive, rather than people who perpetuate the rape culture being regarded as not sensitive enough.
From Melissa McEwan again: Off-Limits Humor:
But here’s the main reason I object to the use of “politically incorrect” humor at this blog: There’s awhole fucking world out there where women and gay men and trans wo/men and racial minorities and the disabled and the overweight and people who are intrinsically and inescapably “different” for any reason are made fun of, marginalized, turned into punchlines. There’s a whole fucking world out there which expects us all to be perfect according to some arbitrary definition and seeks to punish us if we’re not. There’s a whole fucking world out there where people who don’t conform to that standard are not only ridiculed and made to feel not good enough, but can also find themselves at real risk of physical harm. Where they’re denied rights, job opportunities, friendships, votes, equality. If you want to use “politically incorrect” humor that targets those people, you have the entire rest of the bloody world to do it, but you can’t do it here.
And again: Survivors are So Sensitive:
Quite honestly, my objection to rape jokes is not even because I particularly find the jokes personally triggering anymore; I generally just find them pathetic and inexplicable. And while I'm bothered by the fact that the jokes normalize and effectively minimize the severity of rape and thus perpetuate the rape culture, I'm more bothered by the thought of a woman who's recently been raped, who's just experienced what may be the worst thing that will ever happen to her, and goes to the site of her favorite webcomic, or turns on the telly, or goes to the cinema, or a comedy club, to have a much-needed laugh—only to see that horrible, life-changing thing used as the butt of a joke.
Here's the thing. I have a stupid, dark sense of humor. I actually enjoyed the original Penny Arcade comic. But if someone told me that I said something shitty that made them relive a terrible episode in their life? I'd shut the fuck up and apologize, and probably re-examine why I thought that thing was funny in the first place.

What I absolutely would not do is troll their blogs (and enlist my friends to do the same) to threaten them with one of the most heinous acts that can be committed by one person upon another. The idea of doing that is absolutely disgusting to contemplate, and the idea of receiving such comments is an absolutely terrifying prospect. And yet, it's not a "few bad apples" who do this online. It happens. All. The. Fucking. Time.

In case you're wondering what comments look like on feminist blogs, by the way, Melissa also has a few examples:
Comment on Rape is Hilarious: The only tragedy is that a bullet didn’t rip through your brainstem after you were used for your one and only purpose in this world. You should consider yourself lucky that some man finds a hideous troll like yourself rape-able.
Three comments down on the same post: These fat whores would be lucky to even get raped by someone. I hope you whiny cunts find your way on top of a pinball machine in the near future.
Feministe holds a Next Top Troll competition that's been going on for several "seasons" now. Exemplars of the commenters up for the award:
What man would want to date an egotistical, finger-wagging bitch like you, other than to fuck you and then leave right afterward because you’re an insufferable nag. 
You “ladies” have obviously had too many “dickbags” in your lives. You all should just relax, shut up, get on your knees, and do the only thing you are good for.
Or just check out to get your fix of how retrofucks treat women on the Internet.

See, the thing is, I don't think most Internet men make comments like this. But a hell of a lot of them do. And they very rarely get told that it's not acceptable, and very often get told that it's hilarious. And part of the purpose of the link-frenzy above is to say you know what? This happens. It happens a fucking lot.

So this is my plea to dudes on the Internet. Go forth. Engage. Get angry. Be assholes, if you absolutely must. But stop fucking threatening women with rape. It's abhorrent. It's disgusting. It's borderline (if not over the line) criminal. But most of all, it's terrifying. And if what you want is for women (and feminist girl geeks in particular) to stop thinking that geek circles are full of anti-feminist, retrofuck, juvenile, misogynist dickbags, the first step is to stop being one.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Critical interventions in Children of Men

As a long time admirer of Alfonso Cuaron (his 1995 adaptation of A Little Princess stole my movie-going heart at an early age, and it's held up magnificently over the years), and a passionate advocate of the intellectual virtues of an exquisitely rendered post-apocalypse, it seems almost as though Children of Men was made specifically for me. However, after popping in the DVD and perusing the extras over the course of a 36-hour train trip this weekend, I've become entirely convinced that this is, in fact, the DVD I was meant to own.

I'm not usually the type of film-goer who is interested in the technical details of the movie-making process. Because of this, the bonus features disc of most films I own often lies unused in its case until I'm truly bored enough to think that re-watching the whole movie with the director's (usually pseudo-) philosophical pontificating overlaying it is a good idea. I have exceptions to this rule, of course; there are directors I think are smart and interesting, special effects that I'm curious about, and historic and narrative details I'd like to know. But overall, I'm usually content with the film as a complete piece of art on it's own.

Children of Men made me rethink that position. Accompanying the film is the 20-minute documentary The Possibility of Hope, also directed by Cuaron. Featuring such eminent thinkers as Slavoj Zizek,  sociologist Saskia Sassen, literary critic Tzvetan Todorov, and political philosopher John Gray, The Possibility of Hope provides a critical framework though which we can better understand the thematic centres of Children of Men. While almost none of the interviewees discuss the film specifically (Zizek is the exception, and his examination of Cuaron's cinematic vision is offered as a separate bonus feature), they all engage in an exploration of the pressing social issues that form the backdrop of Children of Men's strange realism. Globalization, climate change, migration and mobility, membership and identity are all taken up as issues worthy of discussion -- not by the actors or Cuaron himself, but by leading figures in the field:

One of the things I like best about Children of Men is that it is not, in the end, a film about Theo (Clive Owen) and the emotional journey he takes. Theo's internal struggles are intentionally left out of frame--this is particularly evident when we see the scenes Cuaron decided to leave out of the final cut of the film--leaving the viewer free to be overwhelmed by the oppressive vision of a post-apocalyptic world that looks strangely like our own. With the inclusion of the documentary bonus features, Cuaron continues on this trajectory; again the individual and idiosyncratic interpretations and experiences of the actors and filmmakers are sidelined in favour of a broader critical intervention that links Children of Men's disturbing vision with the burgeoning risks of contemporary life. I should be so lucky if all films that I enjoyed came with such stimulating commentary. In lieu of that, I am happy that a filmmaker whose work I admire has turned his camera away from himself and onto voices that are not regularly heard by the general movie-going public.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Quick Hits

  • Phillip Pullman (author of the His Dark Materials trilogy) defends public libraries in the face of funding cuts in the UK: "No-one else can get in the way, no-one else can invade it, no-one else even knows what’s going on in that wonderful space that opens up between the reader and the book. That open democratic space full of thrills, full of excitement and fear, full of astonishment, where your own emotions and ideas are given back to you clarified, magnified, purified, valued. You’re a citizen of that great democratic space that opens up between you and the book. And the body that gave it to you is the public library. Can I possibly convey the magnitude of that gift?"
  • Turns out Vladimir Nabokov wasn't just one of the most beautiful writers of the the past century. He was also a self-taught lepidopterist, and his theories about butterfly evolution were recently confirmed by Harvard scientists.
  • An excellent post on the historical intersections between slavery and abortion, and a wonderful response to the right-wing rhetoric that equates a woman's right to choose with the institutionalized subjugation of Black Americans.
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates hosts Brendan Koerner's essay on the future of reading. In the same vein, John McPhee in the Paris review on the future of writing.
  • Margaret Atwood has an upcoming book on science fiction and the human imagination. Must. Have. Although it's unclear if this means she's backing off her eternal distinction between SF and speculative fiction.
  • From the BBC, an interesting interview with Ursula LeGuin. She discusses how social anthropology has influenced her writing, among other things.
  • And finally, check out this 1994 Today Show clip (and Katie Couric's magnificently terrible hairstyle) as we ask that age-old question: What IS the Internet? The future is now guys!