Saturday, March 21, 2009

Disappointing girls and disappointing boys

by Josh Franklin

We've written recently about the unfortunately high degree of support for Chris Brown, and the perpetrators of sexual violence in general, among teenagers. In this New York Times piece, we hear testimony that victim blaming is alive and well at high schools all over. It's upsetting that so many young people feel this way, and since it's important to understand why these attitudes persist in order to change them, it's understandable that commentators tend to break down reactions to the incident along gender lines. However, I think the way it's being done is problematic.

The essence of this widespread treatment of gender is given in this reaction:

Boys who condone Mr. Brown’s behavior disappoint, but don’t shock Marcyliena Morgan, executive director of Harvard’s hip-hop archive. “But it’s the girls!” she said. “Where have we gone wrong here?”

The NYT article goes on to discuss girls' reactions in depth, which is admirable. But it worries me that the sentiment that boys are expected to sympathize with perpetrators of sexual violence is so often expressed. That victim-blaming boys don't shock us (but victim-blaming girls do) entails two problematic ideas. The first is one of normalcy: boys are expected to grow up with sympathetic attitudes towards sexual violence. The second is one of normativity: girls ought to care about relationship violence, whereas boys don't have to, since it's a 'women's issue'.

Granted, there are all kinds of cultural reasons why boys are likely to sympathize with the perpetrators of sexual violence, and so I suppose victim-blaming behavior is somewhat normal. But it's an impermanent kind of normalcy, the kind that we can and ought to change. The casual and unquestioning treatment of gender difference in reactions to relationship violence seems to imply that boys' behavior is disappointing by nature. This is an unfortunate implication, because it stands in the way of real progress against sexual violence, something that matters for everyone.

Is it shaving or gardening? So hard to tell!

I think when Eve Ensler said that the vagina had the "innocence and freshness of a proper English garden," she didn't mean that the bush was there to be pruned. But the nice people at Schick seem to have a different idea. Because obviously, like our gardens and kitchens (and every other lady domain), the vagina needs to be spick and span, with no hair out of place. And maybe you could use the razor to trim the hedges, too!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Happy Friday, it's Sarah Haskins!

Isn't that weird? Crazy murderers are always after me, too! Enjoy the last few days of the break - and the first day of spring!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Quick hit: More on Rihanna

There's a very disturbing article in today's New York Times about teenage girls' reaction to the Rihanna/Chris Brown fiasco. Young women, apparently, are quick to defend Chris Brown, and quick to judge Rihanna, both for supposedly inciting the abuse against her, and then for going back to Brown. The NYT says that this is probably the first time that this generation has been made to think about dating violence (hopefully this isn't true), and the results are distressing.

"In a recent survey of 200 teenagers by the Boston Public Health Commission, 46 percent said Rihanna was responsible for what happened; 52 percent said both bore responsibility, despite knowing that Rihanna’s injuries required hospital treatment," the article reports.

The reactions have prompted Oprah to address the issue on her show, but for me, the most upsetting part was the description at the end of the article of the beginnings of relationship violence among adolescents.

"According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 10 percent of teenagers report being hit or slapped by a boyfriend of girlfriend," the NYT reported. And Dr. Elizabeth Miller, an adolescent pediatrician at the School of Medicine at the University of California, Davis, pointed out: "The numbers of girls who sustain serious injuries, and the sexual violence sustained against girls, is much higher than boys."

We've been discussing Rihanna and Chris Brown for a month, but clearly, this is a bigger issue than one celebrity couple.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Looking up to Dov Charney?

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

I posted on American Apparel last fall, where I talked about my difficulty reconciling the worker-friendly environment at the company and the way that Dov Charney, the founder of American Apparel, exploits women's sexuality to sell his clothes. I didn't end up with a very favorable picture of Charney, whose marketing of women's sex appeal sometimes goes past simple advertising.

Gawker, a blog which seems to have a bit of an obsession with Charney, posted today about a 3rd-grader who wrote to Charney as the person she looked up to - saying that she'd heard about the working conditions in his factories and she hoped she could get a job there when she grew up.

Obviously, this is one child. And the thing is, Charney does have some of the most equitable working conditions around - if you buy a t-shirt from American Apparel, you can be assured that it was made in an air-conditioned factory in Los Angeles, by workers who were being paid a fair wage, instead of a sweatshop somewhere in Mexico or Asia. But just looking at the advertisements - and hearing Charney himself talk about his relationships with his female employees (talking to the lawyer for a woman who was suing Charney for sexual harassment, Charney admitted that he sometimes called his employees "sluts" and added that it could be a term of endearment, "something that you call your lover") - gives me the creeps in the same way that PETA's ads do - even though they're trying, ostensibly, to do something good. So why does respect for women fly out the window as soon as we start working for other causes?

What do you think? Should we admire Charney, and forgive his "lapses" toward his female employees? And how does this make you feel about buying American Apparel's clothes?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Jane Austen rolls over in her grave again...

Can't we let poor Elizabeth Bennet stay inside the pages of Pride and Prejudice for just a couple of years, without turning her into a zombie or a comic book heroine? Yes, you heard me - Lizzie will be reincarnated in yet another form of media - the graphic novel. The first of the five-part series will be released in April.

The author, Nancy Butler, admits that she's cashing in on a Jane Austen craze - "At any point and time, there's someone filming a Jane Austen story somewhere," she says. Which is true, and not necessarily bad. The 1996 Pride and Prejudice miniseries by the BBC portrayed Elizabeth Bennet as a young woman who was limited by the social mores of Regency England, but refused to conform to them - much like the heroine of Austen's book. The more recent adaptation with Keira Knightley was more questionable, as Chloe pointed out earlier this year. But as a feminist, I like Elizabeth Bennet, even though the English major in me wishes sometimes that we could give her a rest. After all, there are other proto-feminist role models in Victorian novels - what about George Eliot's Dorothea Brooke or Henry James' Isabel Archer, or even Jane Eyre?

But when asked why the book is so popular, Butler's answer is troubling. "One of the reasons the story is so enduring is because Darcy represents a new type of hero," explained Butler. "He's this shy, kind of awkward man from nobility. He's not out slaying dragons. But he's rescuing Lizzie in other ways, by dealing with Wickham and correcting everything with Bingley. So this isn't a knight in shining armor, but he is doing these very noble things. And he does it anonymously. He rescues her sister and doesn't want anyone to know about it. He's a different kind of hero."

So is she saying...we're not even going to let Lizzie be the heroine of her own comic book? She's going to get rescued? And Darcy's going to be the hero? The cover of the comic book certainly looks more like Cosmo than a beloved piece of literature. Next, Lizzie will be giving her sisters tips on how to please their men. I think I'm going to throw up.

You may be anti-contraception, but let's not blatantly lie

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

There's been a lot of dialogue on this blog over the past couple of weeks about the Catholic Church, what with controversy over washing machines, the seven deadly sins, and abortion, but I'm a little bit flabbergasted by this latest from the head of the Catholic Church. Pope Benedict XVI, on his way to Africa yesterday, repeated the Church's position on condoms and the spread of AIDS - that they don't help. This isn't a surprise (this position was articulated often and clearly by Pope Benedict's predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who said that abstinence, not contraceptives like condoms, were the solution to the problem of AIDS), but the pope's next sentence is certainly shocking. ""You can't resolve [AIDS] with the distribution of condoms," the pope told reporters aboard his plane headed to Africa. "On the contrary, it increases the problem."

According to Pope Benedict, the Catholic Church is at the forefront of the fight against AIDS - but we need a "responsible and moral" outlook to fight it. Rebecca Hodes, of the Treatment Action Center in South Africa, has a bit of a different spin. She said that if the pope is serious about saving the lives of the 22 million people infected with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa, he will focus on contraceptive education and distribution of condoms. "Instead, his opposition to condoms conveys that religious dogma is more important to him than the lives of Africans," said Hodes.

I understand the Church's opposition to contraceptives, even if I don't agree with it. And certainly, they have the right to spend their money as they see fit - if Pope Benedict wants to funnel the Church's millions into a "responsible and moral" cure for AIDS (which I'm suspecting has something to do with abstinence...just a wild guess), that's his prerogative. But it is completely inappropriate for him to suggest that condoms are not an effective method for preventing AIDS, and absolutely untrue that they exacerbate the problem.

Safe sex activists admit that condoms are not 100% effective, but according to the United States Center for Disease Control, studies examining sexually active people at high risk for contracting HIV have found that "even with repeated sexual contact, 98-100% of those people who used latex condoms correctly and consistently did not become infected." If condoms aren't working, it's because people aren't been taught how to use them correctly, or because the condoms have been stored in bad conditions for too long. The United Nations Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS says that "the male latex condom is the most efficient and available technology to reduce the sexual transmission of HIV" (emphasis mine). That sounds pretty certain to me.

The pope is one of the most influential people in the world. And although I can't take issue with the fact that he articulates beliefs that I don't agree with, it is absolutely wrong for him to make statements which he is incapable of backing up. Africa is the fastest-growing region for the Roman Catholic Church, and when the pope says something like this, it's not just a question of dogma. It's about people's lives.

Traditional culture

by Thomas Dollar

“You may ask, ‘How did this tradition get started?’ I’ll tell you: I don’t know. But, it’s a tradition.”
—Tevye the Milkman

Last week in Monrovia, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf held an International Women’s Forum, inviting political leaders from around the world. Johnson Sirleaf is the first elected female head-of-state of any African country (Queen Elizabeth was once a ceremonial head-of-state in a number of them), and has used her status to improve her country’s image abroad. (Liberia’s image of late has largely been defined by the warlord Charles Taylor, who ran for president on the platform of reigniting the country’s civil war if he wasn’t re-elected. It worked: he won. Then he started killing people anyway.)

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s election was quite remarkable—amazing, really—because West African countries are very patriarchal. (I’d actually argue that she was only able to win because male leadership in Liberia had gotten so horrific that people were ready for something different—see “Pray the Devil Back to Hell”.) “Patriarchy” is a word that gets tossed around a lot—so much so that no one knows exactly what it means, except that it’s bad. (Similarly, “freedom” has been reduced to a synonym for “things we like”—so that now “Camp Freedom” can be the name of a detention center.) I’m told that patriarchy is alive and well in contemporary America. (Some people even blame it.) I believe in this patriarchy in the same way that I believe in Communists in the State Department in 1950—it’s really there, but its scope and power are greatly exaggerated.

But 2009 West Africa is not 2009 America—it’s not even the 1950 State Department—and patriarchy here is far more than a codeword for things that suck. From here on, though, I’m not going to use the word “patriarchy” for a couple of reasons: the term presumes that women play no role in transmitting sex-specific cultural memes (they do—see FGM), or the women who make fun of me for doing dishes), and it also presumes that men do not suffer because of these memes (and they do—a lot!—as men and boys are always the most likely to be killed by war, civil violence and disease). Instead of “patriarchy,” then, I’m going to talk about “traditional culture.”

In Sierra Leone’s traditional culture, women’s life is oriented around the home, the crops, and the family. One of the biggest obstacles to women’s social advancement is the tradition of male-only inheritance and property rights, a concern that simply doesn’t exist in the context of an urban-industrial culture. (My sisters and I are not in a zero-sum battle over who gets to inherit our dad’s row of dogwoods or mom’s basil garden. Our futures don’t depend on that.) In Sierra Leone, though, land is wealth. When daughters are systematically excluded from inheriting their fathers’ land, and widows’ claims to their husbands’ property are contested by distant male relatives, women lose the ability to accumulate wealth. And without an independent source of wealth, women must turn to men for support.

Traditional marriage in Sierra Leone consists of four classes: civil, Christian, Muslim, and customary. These holy unions consist of one man and one woman in the former two cases, one man and up to four women in the Muslim case, and one man and an unspecified number of women in the last case. Customary marriages, as the name suggests, were not registered or even well defined—they basically consisted of a man (usually rural) claiming a number of females as his wives. Since the 2007 Gender Acts were passed, though, customary marriages and divorces have had to be publicly registered. The law is a marvelous thing, but it’s a meaningless piece of paper unless it can be accepted and enforced. In a largely rural country, with terrible infrastructure, this is no small feat. Propaganda and outreach campaigns have been used to publicize the new law, with some success.

A 2007 survey asked people if they agreed or disagreed with the following two statements: 1) “A married man has a right to beat his wife if she misbehaves; and 2) “Women can be good politicians and should be encouraged to stand in elections.” 26% of those surveyed (and this includes men and women) agreed with Statement 1, and 78% with Statement 2. When the survey was limited only to members of Local Governance Councils, only 7% agreed with Statement 1 and a full 99% with Statement 2. This shouldn’t be surprising, as men and women serve together on Councils, and both sexes can see each other in a non-traditional setting. A peaceful, equitable Africa needs more Ellen Johnson Sirleafs—and a lot fewer Charles Taylors! In my next post, I’ll discuss how traditional cultures can become egalitarian ones.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Life isn't all sunshine pool parties with boyfriends and waterfalls?

To brighten your day (it's really cloudy & cold where I am): Sarah Haskins! And she's talking about the woman we all want to be, in honor of that woman's 50th birthday. Sarah also wrote a fantastic op-ed in the Washington Post last week about Barbie's 50th anniversary if you didn't catch it. I was also one of the children who had Barbie-unfriendly parents (and yes, I had at least one birthday party at a museum...I was really, really popular as a child, clearly) but I think if you had a Barbie, or access to a Barbie through your friends (and oh yes, when I went to my friends' houses it was all Barbies and Wishbone), you probably treated her the same way Sarah did - chopping off her hair, leaving her pantsless in the middle of the floor. Why can't even children respect Barbie? Was it, as Sarah writes, because we sensed our mothers' disapproval, "or did we cotton to the stereotype and just assume that the pretty girl with the ample curves was dumb?"

Anyway, happy birthday, Barbie (a little late). And enjoy the dated Barbie commercials!

RAD course: Free. Empowerment: Priceless.

by Christina DiGasbarro

Knowing that you can defend yourself effectively, even against someone twice your size, is a pretty nice feeling of empowerment.

I recently gained this feeling by taking an RAD (Rape Aggression Defense) course on campus. It was taught by four awesome members of our Public Safety department. The course was for women only, although RAD, which is a nation-wide program, does have classes for men and for learning advanced defensive skills too.

The point of this RAD course is, obviously, to teach women how to defend themselves in case, heaven forbid, they are ever attacked. The great thing about RAD, though, is that the instructors don’t tell you that you have to do x, y, and z—instead, they teach you many different skills and techniques so that you know what your options for fighting back are and you know how to employ them effectively (without injuring yourself at the same time). They don’t even tell you that you have to fight back, though by the time you finish the course, you’re more than capable of doing so. Most of the class-time is spent learning defensive moves, and the class culminates in simulations of attacks. Or, I should say, simulations of attempted attacks, because by that point, each and every person in the class is able to fight off the attackers, using her own preferred set of moves, and get away to safety.

While it’s a rather sad statement on society and/or human nature that there’s a need for these classes in the first place, every woman should know how to defend herself. It won’t end sexual violence—we’ve got a long, long way to go before that happens—but it will help reduce the number of victims in the meantime. And it honestly provides a huge sense of confidence and empowerment.

If any of you girls are interested in RAD, they’re offering another course in April for three hours a night on Mondays. The instructors are great, the class is fun, and it is absolutely worth the 12 hours of your life to develop these skills. And it’s free—the University pays for it. Furthermore, once you’ve taken the course once, you can go again to any RAD course in the country to dust off and practice your skills for free. If you’re interested, check out the fliers around campus or the info on Point, or e-mail to sign up. (But don’t wait too long, or else the class might already be full!)

Dollhouse... male fantasy?

by Josh Franklin

A while back, Amelia wrote about the new Joss Whedon series Dollhouse. With some extra time on my hands this week, I was curious; 4 hours later, after watching the first 5 episodes of the show, I have to disagree somewhat with the NYT review's assessment, which obsesses with the idea of television serving male fantasy.

Dollhouse is the story of Echo, a woman who (for mysterious reasons merely alluded to in the first episode) agrees to allow a mysterious organization brainwash her, imprint her with a new personality, and send her on various assignments for mysterious, rich clients. Echo's assignments include at least a couple of 'romantic weekends,' and it seems that business as usual for Echo and the other dolls in the Dollhouse is glossy, high-tech prostitution; maybe this is what lit up the gender-identity lightbulb for NYT reviewer Alessandra Stanley. However, after watching the show, I think that watching Dollhouse in terms of male fantasy might not be seeing the whole story.

I'm not going to try to deny that "the permanent, untraceable roofie" represents a pervasive male fantasy. But I don't think the show is trying to sell that fantasy. First of all, the Dollhouse--a gorgeous prelapsarian spa--is populated by both male and female dolls; the show merely focuses on the story of Echo. Maybe the standard feminist analysis here is that Dollhouse is typical of entertainment that focuses on a female protagonist; Echo is portrayed in a 'female' way, without agency, highlighted merely for her role as the object of male sexual fantasy.

This is reasonable, but I don't think that the idea of a woman who can be brainwashed and reprogrammed to do anything is presented here in this way. The idea of a life without a history, purpose, or real human essence is unsettling and scary, not sexy. What's interesting in this show is how Echo, the brainwashed woman, is juxtaposed to readily visible female archetypes. In the third episode, "Stage Fright," Echo is assigned to be the bodyguard of a pop singer. There is an ironic confrontation where the singer tells Echo, "you weren't born in a factory, but I was." Rather than sexualizing a woman who is infinitely malleable to the whims of an awkward computer nerd, I think that Dollhouse is trying to see our lives as dolls, without agency or memory.

Alright, maybe that's an overstatement; Dollhouse isn't actually that wonderful. The first 5 episodes are so drenched in vague 'mystery' that it's hard to maintain a strong interest. And, predictably, every feminist moment is matched by one of subtle sexism that trickles in unchallenged from patriarchal culture. I don't want to champion Dollhouse as a shining beacon of feminism. Rather, I'm a bit uncomfortable with the way Stanley wrote about the show, musing for paragraphs about male fantasy, wish fulfillment, and The Feminist Mystique. Though it's certainly true that mainstream entertainment has a fondness for viewing women through a lens of male sexuality, I think it's counterproductive to assume that of everything we watch.