Saturday, May 9, 2009

Why I am not a "skinny bitch"

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

I like to use this blog to procrastinate. And currently, I'm working on a paper about pregnancy advice books that's making me tear my hair out - so I'm taking some time off to express how I feel about these books in non-academic language (oddly, they don't like it when you curse or use sarcasm - yet another reason why I may not go to grad school). Particularly, I'd like to talk for a minute about Skinny Bitch: Bun in the Oven, which is about as subtle, practical and useful as Bristol Palin's latest abstinence tour. I have never gotten past the first page of the original Skinny Bitch book (any book that begins "Healthy = skinny. Unhealthy = fat" is likely to render me either sputtering with anger or sobbing by the end), but for this paper, I read a significant portion of the book, simply because I'm writing about the way pregnancy advice books address nutrition, caffeine, alcohol and medication, and the authors of Skinny Bitch seem mostly interested in using their book to shame women who don't consult the book before they consume so much as a prenatal vitamin.

Not only are the authors personally unpleasant (I have no idea why this book sold so well - I hope no one is enough of a masochist to read to the end), but they manage to say very little that's helpful for pregnant women. Skinny Bitch: Bun in the Oven is actually a vegan manifesto that sees women's health and well-being as an unfortunate casualty.

This is very upsetting for me, because I'm a lifelong vegetarian and I agree with everything they're saying. I cried last semester while I was reading a Michael Pollan article about the beef industry - it really doesn't take much to get me worked up about these issues. But when they choose to couch their message in language like this, I have a lot of trouble getting behind their cause.

"Being a mom means being compassionate and caring. Not just toward your own baby, but in general. Just because you can’t see what’s happening doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Every time you have a craving for meat or dairy, remember what goes on inside every farm, slaughterhouse, and processing plant. You and your baby are what you eat."

Excuse me? I'm not sure what I was expecting from a book called Skinny Bitch, but this certainly defies my expectations - and not in a good way. I read an article in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago about the latest in the Skinny Bitch franchise - Skinny Bastard (apparently men are no longer exempt from the heckling that these authors feel qualified to bestow). I am so, so sick of the PETA approach to animal rights. I fully support their cause, and I don't disapprove of a vegan diet for pregnant women (although I do think that it's unrealistic for many), but these books (and many of PETA's ads) are served with a large dollop of misogyny that I just can't stomach.

Being healthy is not about being a "skinny bitch" (if you're still stuck on the idea that body weight equals health, read this). Yes, it would be better to eat less sugar and drink less soda, but is shaming women by saying that "soda is liquid satan" worth it? Wouldn't it be better if - gasp - women felt good about themselves, and wanted to be healthy, not just because they were nagged by a book or shamed by an ad on TV? What would it be like if pregnant women actually felt that they had control over their bodies, and were competent adults capable of making their own decisions about things like caffeine or alcohol? Unthinkable! If everyone felt good about themselves, how would we sell self-help books?

Friday, May 8, 2009

Quick hit: President Obama cuts funding for abstinence-only sex education

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

This is some great news: President Obama's 2010 federal budget will almost eliminate federal funding for abstinence-only sex education. But that's not all - the budget replaces it with a pair of teen-pregnancy prevention programs that - wait for it - could include discussions of birth control.

Clearly, we're not where we need to be yet. But this is a giant step in the right direction. Again, though, the battle isn't won - the budget still needs to be approved by Congress. This has been a much-discussed issue this week, as Bristol Palin changed her tune about abstinence-only sex education and began a tour promoting it. Gail Collins has a great column about this in the NYT this week. My favorite pair of quotes: “I just want to go out there and promote abstinence and say this is the safest choice,” Bristol said on “Good Morning America.” (“It’s not going to work,” said her ex-boyfriend, Levi Johnston, in a dueling early-morning interview.)

Abstinence-only sex educations have generally been proven to be failures (as Bristol and Levi prove - as Gail Collins puts it, "[they] used condoms - except when they didn't"). The Wall Street Journal reports that "a 2007 federally funded study by Mathematica Policy Research, a nonpartisan group, found that participants in four programs had just as many sexual partners and those who did not participate and had sex at the same median age as non-participants." This sounds like fairly damning evidence for programs which conservatives have touted as the best way to educate children about sex. Sarah Palin claims that abstinence-only is the "only 100% foolproof way to prevent pregnancy" (except when it isn't).

As a veteran of the "health" program in a school system in central Virginia, I can attest to the significant failure of these initiatives. There were always several pregnant girls in my high school, but I don't remember the word "condom" being uttered during 9th-grade sex education (although my teacher did misspell "clitoris"). This is a case where you should really write to your congressional representatives and let them know how important these issues are to you. Every teenager has the right to safe and accurate sex education.

Welcome to the pun show

In other internet ridiculousness, if you haven't already seen this, enjoy: a blog supposedly written by Michelle Obama's arms.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Wesleyan feminist activist shot and killed

Yesterday, Wesleyan student Johanna Justin-Jinich was shot, by an assailant who may have been stalking her and threatening the Wesleyan Jewish community. The suspect, Stephen Morgan, has not yet been apprehended, and apparently wrote threats toward Wesleyan and its Jewish students in his personal journal; he was not a Wesleyan student, but participated in a six-week summer program at NYU with Justin-Jinich in 2007. Toward the end of the program, Justin-Jinich had filed a complaint with NYU Public Safety, saying that Morgan had been sending her harassing emails and phone calls.

Justin-Jinich had lined up a summer internship in Washington, D.C. with a women's rights organization and was a volunteer for Planned Parenthood; her passions included writing and work in public health and women's issues. This is an incredibly tragic event, and I hope that everyone is holding the Wesleyan community, and Justin-Jinich's family and friends, in their thoughts.

Let's make the conversation about more than manicures

The creators of the parody "Manicure for the Cure" posters have teamed up with the event's organizers to hold a public forum about "femininity in the modern world." If you had any thoughts about this poster campaign, you should attend - I'm sure that it will turn into a conversation about feminism today that is far more important than any bickering that happened over the posters.

Friday, 4 pm, the Center for Jewish Life. Be there.

Thoughts from Anna Rose, Part 7

This is the seventh in a series of posts about my experiences with a sexual pain disorder, and my journey toward a cure.*

I want to start this post with the disclaimer that my father, my grandfather, and all my uncles are doctors. I love and respect them. Good doctors have seen me through incredibly rough realities, and have healed me.

But the medical field is full of whack-jobs. For proof, please see the record below of my first gynecological examination:

It’s been six weeks, and my period won’t stop. Mom makes a gynecologist appointment for me. We spend two hours in the waiting room.

“So,” says the doctor in the most condescending, high-pitched, baby voice ever, “What college are you going to?”

“The University of Rochester,” I tell her. I just read a study they did in her field. She ignores me.

“Okay, let’s do the breast exam!”
There is no call for this kind of excitement. Her gentle hands search my breasts for imperfections, and finding none, she exclaims, “Okay, we’re done! Yaaaaay!” Her voice is squeaky. It blows my mind. It would insult a three-year-old.

On her instruction, I lay back on the table, put my feet in the stirrups, and scoot my butt down to the edge. All the inner parts of my vulva feel cold, and completely exposed.

“So,” she says, as if she’s about to ask what preschool I go to, “are you sexually active?”


“Okay, we’ll have to use a pediatric pap smear. Let’s get the peedee!”

Let’s write a song about it. And Raffi will perform our song.

The completion of the disrespectful procedure invites another exclamation of, “Okay, we’re done! Yaaaaay!”

When the results of the tests come, she tells me there’s nothing actually wrong with me. I should just go on birth control. But I’m about to go to college, and don’t want to gain the weight or be medicated.

“You’re like,” she suggests dreamily, still in high octaves, “a starving Ethiopian person, who doesn’t know a good meal when they see one. There’s a better world out there!”

I mean, what the fuck is that? What the fuck? This woman was charged with the care of my vagina, and she was an alien. She had to be. There's no other explanation.

While that's probably the most bizarre of my experiences, I've had others equally unsettling. I recently moved, and then got a yeast infection, and had to go to a new doctor. Someone recommended a guy who specializes in pain disorders, the type I have. So I went to him, and told him that I have pelvic floor dysfunction, and was there to get a diagnosis of my infection. He said that I probably had vulvar vestibulitis, which was what my original run-of-the-mill old man gyno diagnosed me with. It turns out that it's basically a catch-all for "I don't know the whole story." I told him I used to think that, and it turned out that it was PFD, but really I was just there because of the infection. He then performed the exam that is the most violating experience of my entire life, and then diagnosed me with...vulvar vestibulitis. This was, of course, his way of saying he was of the old white man ruling class, he'd been in this field for decades, and if he hadn't heard of a disorder, it didn't exist. And of course, he hadn't heard of pelvic floor dysfunction, and wouldn't say it. Go figure.

I had another such doctor tell me that taking a half-second (this is not hyperbole) glance at my arms counted as surveying my whole body to get a holistic view of the problem. Of course, this was the same guy whose answer to my every question was to nod knowingly and not say anything.

I had a doctor try to diagnose me with my clothes on. I had another ask if I'd ever had a biopsy--had a piece of me cut off--while he was poking my vagina and I was crying. Who the fuck does that?

Possibly worst, one guy gave me six injections in my inner labia because my yeast glands might be enlarged, without actually looking at my yeast glands.

Luckily, my father has often reminded me of the person-ness of doctors, and has taught me that you can't just comply with their wishes (unless it's him of course) if you think it's not what's best for you. The longer a person has been a doctor, the higher the grand-stand they may think they're on, and sometimes a patient has to knock them back down. According to him, a doctor knows a patient for an average of 18 seconds before diagnosing them.

There's a scene at the end of Knocked Up where the woman's doctor is out of town the day she delivers, and his replacement is disrespectful of her wishes. When she protests, he tells her boyfriend that she's "completely anal," when all she's doing is defending the way she'd planned to give birth. Her boyfriend tells the doctor that he has no right to take that from her, and it's his job just to get the baby out safely. He does so. The film got a lot of feminist criticism for being another movie in which a smart, gorgeous, capable woman falls for a fat lowlife, and it is, but it has some merits.

The point is, you can't afford to be complacent with your own body--especially when you're a young woman with old man doctors. Because there's one similarity to all of the above situations: While I was going through them, my instinct said, "This is wrong." I knew that doctor should have looked at my yeast glands before deciding they were enlarged, but I let him inject me anyway, and I paid for that complacency nonstop for three weeks. When I felt that my old man doctor wasn't listening to a word I said, which he wasn't, I shouldn't have let him continue the exam, but I did. I thought I had no choice.

But there's always a choice. All along, this body that they poked and prodded, this body they assumed to know, was mine. And conversations with doctors time and again have proven that I know my body pretty well. Despite its freakishness, despite that I feel it's betrayed me, or that it's holding me back, it's mine to look out for. When a doctor screws up and I leave the office, they move on, but I'm still in this body, and I have to answer to it.

So even though I've written on this before, it's worth repeating the only advice I'll give: Be your own advocate. Don't let doctors hurt you, they're only human. If a treatment doesn't feel right, it probably isn't. There are other doctors out there who will translate your body better, and if you don't move on, you won't find them. We women with pain disorders are bruised and battered enough. If no one else will take proper care of our bodies, the job falls to us.

Anna Rose

*If you have chronic pain during intercourse and you know you have no history of sexual violence, you may have a pain disorder, and you should see a doctor. Get opinions from several different kinds of doctors, especially non-conventional if possible.

To read the whole story, take a look at the whole "Thoughts from Anna Rose" series:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A response from Josh and Amelia

Earlier this month, Josh and I sent an open letter to Princeton professors Robert George and John Londregan, responding to their March 17 article in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, titled "Princeton and the hookup culture." We had questions and concerns which we wished to air in the spirit of academic discussion, particularly with regard to the creation of a "Love and Fidelity Center." We posted our letter on this blog, which can be read here. We also posted their first response, which can be read here. This is the second response from Josh and me. Please comment and participate - this is your discussion too. Our response, in full, is below.

Dear Professors George and Londregan,

Thank you for your thoughtful response to our letter. We are glad that we can engage productively on what we clearly both see to be a matter of great concern to the Princeton University community. In the interest of moving quickly to a productive response, we will immediately address the points in your letter where we disagree.

We advocated for a campus culture of openness about sexuality. You responded that although you were not personally interested in this open discussion, you "would enthusiastically support discussions of sexual morality in which people of differing beliefs shared their reasons and arguments, and engaged in civil discussion and debate with a view to getting at the truth of things..." While we do not want to turn this into a philosophical discussion about the abstract possibility of moral truth, we are skeptical about the way that you have deployed reason in the service of a perspective that is so highly politicized. Is it really appropriate to suggest "debating" about a sexual ethic? Does this not assume that students are entering the discussion with fully formed arguments and opinions about a subject which is fraught with political significance? A "debate" about the "truth" of a sexual ethic would exclude all students who are still struggling to form their sexual identity; those students, we would argue, comprise the majority of the Princeton community.

The essence of our disagreement lies with your assertion that "...we are not dealing with mutually exclusive options," and "the establishment of a Love and Fidelity Center would in no way hinder such discussions [of sexuality]." While we respect both the values that you defend and the logic with which you have structured your proposal, we find it disappointing that you give so little concern to the possibility of unintended consequences of the establishment of such a politically charged University institution. While we accept as legitimate the needs of the students for whom you are advocating, we believe that your solution would have damaging ramifications for the University community as a whole.

The current state of affairs is that student discussions about sex largely take place in informal contexts; the way we speak about sexuality is really little more than gossip. In this dishonest discourse, the hookup culture is a myth that is created and perpetuated by students looking to impress their peers. As we have discussed, the state of our dialogue about sex is damaging to the vast majority of students, who don't wish to engage in the mythologized hookup culture, but see no viable alternatives. Students are forced to choose between two extremes: the hookup culture, and the traditional sexual ethic proposed by the students who would support a Love and Fidelity Center. If a Love and Fidelity Center were established at Princeton, it would simply legitimize this binary and thus marginalize a significant proportion of the student population. This would silence, rather than enhance, discourse about a sexual ethic other than the hookup culture, because of the perceived extremity of the Love and Fidelity Center.

This all depends, of course, on the form that the Love and Fidelity Center takes. As we have seen, we agree strongly in our support for a change in campus culture that addresses the hookup culture, which we perceive to be damaging. However, and we apologize if we have misunderstood your proposal, a center that supports students living lives according to a narrow set of moral principles, which hold that sex is ethical only in the context of (heterosexual) marriage, is indeed exclusionary. The fact that you suggest that this center would be a space for "students who are struggling to lead lives of integrity" is problematic, for it suggests that the many students who do not hold the very specific set of beliefs that you seem to accept are not living with integrity. Integrity is a core value of the University community, and it is unfair to claim the exclusive privilege to define it for a wide range of students with different backgrounds. We would wholeheartedly accept a space for people looking to live sexual lives of integrity, but although we deeply respect those who choose to live according to the traditional sexual ethic that you defend, we cannot accept the possibility of the University institutionalizing a particular definition of integrity that is as narrow as the one that you seem to advocate. It is certainly true that such an institution would provide real services to the students with these values. However, the great number of students who are deeply committed to a high standard of integrity are at risk of being silenced.

Joshua and Amelia

Marriage momentum

by Laura Smith-Gary

Today the governor of Maine, John Baldacci, signed a same-sex marriage bill into law. He doesn't personally believe in gay marriage, he says, but he does believe in equal protection under the Constitution. I'll take it. I like that he didn't take the easy way out and just let it sit on his desk for 10 days, then become law without his signature. Furthermore, he acknowledged that it really was an equal protection issue, and that whatever his personal opinions he couldn't "allow discrimination to stand" when the bill hit his desk. So well done, Governor Baldacci. The law won't go into effect until late June, and opponents are trying to get a petition with 55,000 signatures, which would suspend the law pending a referendum. That's not an unlikely scenario, but like the governor I have faith in the "good and just" people of Maine.

Yesterday, the Washington D.C. city council voted 12-1 to recognize same-sex marriages performed in states where they are legal. For those keeping score in the "decisions by judges" vs. "decisions by elected officials" race, that's another check on the "elected officials" side. The White House and Congress are being very, very quiet about this. President Obama's spokespeople are merely saying -- quietly mumbling, really -- that he supports civil unions and that marriage is between a man and a woman. At this point the silence from Congress is actually more relevant -- they can choose to review the bill within the next 30 days, or just let it go to the mayor, a Democrat who will presumably sign it into law. This would seem to be a golden opportunity for the Republicans to wreak havoc in the ranks of the Democrats, but at least on the first of the 30 available days they haven't seized on this issue. Because I'm feeling sunny and optimistic about humanity today, I'm going to hope that this is because they realize that it's not their place to dictate to the duly elected city council. I also hope, on many levels, that recognizing marriages legally performed in other states would not prove to be a havoc-wreaking wedge issue.

So between these two victories, I have faith and hope -- and there are thousands of same-sex couples just waiting to provide the (legally recognized) love. Love which has, at this point, been patient enough.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Appearance doesn't matter for male Supreme Court justices

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

I've been under a rock for the past day finishing a paper, and so I'm a little late with this. But I am really pissed - maybe it's the sleep deprivation, or too much coffee - or wait, maybe this is just totally screwed up! We all heard that David Souter is resigning from the Supreme Court, and immediately people began speculating about a female replacement. I was excited - until I remembered that I always get optimistic and forget that we have a little test for female candidates for anything in this country, and I'll tell you right now, you don't need a pencil to take it. The Daily Beast reports that the two women widely considered to be frontrunners for the position, former Harvard Law School dean and current Solicitor General Elena Kagan, and federal appellate judge Sonia Sotomayor, might be too fat for the position.

Because I know that I'm in a bit of a grouchy mood, I'm not going to start discussing the attractiveness of the male justices of the Supreme Court bench (that would not end prettily). Some people have attempted to justify this absurdity by saying that we don't just want the youngest justice (who will presumably live the longest), we need the healthiest justice - and that excludes Kagan and Sotomayor, who don't seem to spend as much time at aerobics class as another possible choice, Kim McLane Wardlaw (who was, as a side note, described by legal gossip site Underneath Their Robes as "Heather Locklear in a black robe").

Paul Campos, the author of the Daily Beast article, hits the problem right on the nose. "For some men," he writes, "the only thing more intolerable than the sight of a powerful woman is the sight of a powerful woman they don’t want to sleep with." I can't believe that these nominations are already turning into such a shitstorm, or that people are already saying such bigoted, idiotic things about these very qualified women. But then again, it's also easy to forget that we've only had 2 female Supreme Court justices, which is a rant I'll save for another day. Let me just say though - there were far more serious issues with the last nominee, Samuel Alito, who during his time at Princeton was a member of a group which sought to limit the number of women who were admitted (and opposed affirmative action, as a pleasant side note). Nobody commented on whether Alito was sufficiently attractive for the job - perhaps because there were actual reasons to doubt his qualifications.

When compassion and manners are overrated

by Sarah Smith*

When I was a kid, the first lesson my parents drilled into my head was “Never, ever talk to strangers”. But as I grew older, other lessons replaced that much-repeated phrase: “Be polite to your elders," or “Have empathy for your fellow human beings." It was not until late one Friday night I realized how vulnerable these values have made me.

I was riding the train from New York to Connecticut. It was late, and I was eager to get home. I was also alone but had taken this train many times. Mistake one: Assuming familiar territory is safe.

The train was semi-empty and as I was boarding an older man followed me. He was dressed in a suit, carrying a Blackberry and a briefcase, and about 55 or 60. In other words, he resembled every other businessman that commutes to and from New York. Mistake two: Assuming a “regular-looking” guy was harmless.

He sat across from me, in one of those booth seats. He said hello to me and I responded politely. He asked me where I was going I said, vaguely “Connecticut” and he nodded. He told me he was from India, but worked in New York. In many ways his mannerisms were not unlike those of my grandfather or father, who both like to engage strangers in conversation to meet new people. Unfortunately he soon veered off any normal conversation pattern. He looked upset and suddenly declared “My family was killed in a tsunami in India, that’s why I had to switch companies, because my original employer only gave me 10 days to find them”. I was completely blindsided, unsure of how to respond and incredibly uncomfortable. Something seemed off, the fact that he was expressing these thoughts to me, a young woman on a train at night seemed wrong, but he was older, he was potentially in pain and he seemed to need to talk, so I listened. Mistake three: Being a good girl and ignoring my instincts rather than being rude and leaving.

And so began a rambling history interspaced with questions directed at me about my major, my interests, my school etc. I was holding a book; a remnant from a time earlier in the evening when I had thought this would be a quiet ride. Now I felt glued to the seat, unable to leave yet growing more and more uncomfortable by the second. Suddenly he switched topics from telling me the importance of family to inviting me into New York to see a show and have dinner together. I said I did not travel into the city often and was not sure that would be a good idea. He changed topics again, referring back to my major of biology and conservation. He told me of a friend in Kenya, a friend who ran a preserve and told me I could obtain an internship there if I liked. He suggested we travel there together. He was repeating himself, like my older grandparents do sometimes but now it seemed less forgetful and much more frightening. He had already told me I should go see “Gorillas in the Mist” four separate times and it seemed like each time he did not remember that he had already told me. I was horrified, frustrated, and unsure of myself. How had something so innocent transformed into a nightmare? I had tried to call someone earlier but my phone was not working, the train must be interfering with it. Mistake four: Forcing myself to remain polite and worrying about hurting his feelings when it was becoming more and more clear my safety might be at stake.

By now he was suggesting that he get off with me at my stop. I told him my parents were picking me up (a lie) and that was not a good idea. He insisted on giving me his personal information, but his hand shaking so hard he could barely hold the pen. I was pretty sure he was on something, but I was not sure what. He got off at his stop, wishing me well and telling me to call him. I thought “No way in hell” and shoved the piece of paper in my bag, near tears and overwhelmed. An older couple came up to me, they had been watching (and probably eavesdropping) and told me they were worried about me and were watching out for my safety since he had seemed to them to be “a rapist.” They told me to keep his information just in case. Some of my confidence in strangers was restored but I was still shaking for two hours afterward.

I thought it would end there, an upsetting but remote encounter. Again I was so wrong. A day later I received an e-mail from him. He had looked up my name on the Princeton website and wanted to meet up. I cursed my stupidity, my natural trust, and all my false assumptions. Now I lock my door, because if he has my e-mail he also knows my address. I won’t respond to the e-mail but I am going to buy some mace. Mistake on Princeton’s part: The fact that our personal information is listed for anyone to see.

It was not until later that I realized how well I had been played. He used my compassion and my natural politeness to hold me hostage with nothing more than words. I thought I was savvy but I have come out feeling naïve. While I know this not my fault, that there is not excuse for forcing contact with someone and potentially stalking them, I wish more than anything that I had made just one less mistake. Being polite and kind is wonderful but it also makes one susceptible to manipulation. From now on, I am sticking to that original rule: Don’t talk to strangers.

*The name attached to this piece is a pseudonym. Because of the nature of the article, the author has asked to remain anonymous.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Sex education via cellphone?

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

All of our readers are going to have to forgive us for the next week or so; it's reading period here at Princeton, and most of us (especially me) are up to our ears in papers. But I do want to try to stay somewhat updated, and this article from yesterday's New York Times was too good not to share. Are you a teenager? Got questions about sex? Well now you can text them, anonymously, to the Birds and Bees Text Line, which opened on February 1. Your questions will be answered in a "cautious, nonjudgmental" way by adult at the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign of North Carolina, within 24 hours.

I think this is a fantastic use of texting, because it completely reduces embarrassment. Teenagers often feel that their questions about sex are silly, or that they shouldn't be talking about sex at all - and the anonymity of the cellphone means that the other person doesn't even have to hear their voice. Professor Sheana Bull, an expert on sexually transmitted disease infection and technology at the University of Colorado School of Public Health put it beautifully when she said, “The technology can be used to connect young people to trusted, competent adults who have competent information.” All of the adults who answer the text line have graduate degrees in public health or social work, or years of experience with teenagers.

The NYT reports that "girls and boys alike ask about anal intercourse: Will it prevent pregnancy? Let a girl remain a virgin? 'If ur partner has aids,' one teenager asks, 'and u have sex without a condom do u get aids the first time or not?'"

Advocates of abstinence-only sex education say that this kind of engagement with teenagers circumvents the sex education they receive in schools. But look at the questions that teens are asking - and think about what happens if they can't get straight answers.

Quick hit: Marilyn French, novelist and radical feminist, has died

How can you not love a woman who said of her work, "My goal in life is to change the entire social and economic structure of Western civilization, to make it a feminist world"? Marilyn French, sadly, died on Saturday at the age of 79. French was the author of The Woman's Room, the story of a submissive housewife's self-discovery in the 1950s, which sold more than 20 million copies and was translated into 20 languages. Gloria Steinem compared the book's impact to that of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, saying "[The book] expressed the experience of a huge number of women and let them know that they were not alone and not crazy."

French was notoriously considered anti-male, because of the strong anti-rape rhetoric in her work (although this is understandable, as she was helping her daughter, a rape victim, recover). But she was also one of the most important faces of second-wave feminism, and I respect her equal willingness to point out the gains that have been made since the publication of her seminal novel, and the deficiencies that still remain.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

I forgot to post this week's Sarah Haskins video!

It's good to know that other women suffer from bear head too.

Should we be offended by "Manicure for the Cure"?

by Nick Cox

In Josh's post on the recent "Save Second Base" scandal, he calls for "a way of speaking about gender and sexuality and oppression with more subtlety" and "more compassion," a feminist discourse that would be complex enough to denounce an offensive joke from an ethical standpoint while at the same time acknowledging the undeniable fact that the joke is still funny despite, or perhaps even because of, its offensiveness. I absolutely agree with him, and I'm interested in exploring what such a way of thinking could be.

One possible answer could lie in Josh's assertion that the "Save Second Base" ads "ought to be offensive," regardless of whether or not they actually are. "As feminists," he writes, "we strive towards a common moral sense that is offended by the objectification of women." It is this assumption that we must question if we want to see gender, as Josh hopes, in more subtle ways. Moreover, I think it's high time we did some serious reflection on "offensiveness," a bit of jargon that has been a ubiquitous part of American bourgeois culture for a while now.

We genteel Ivy League liberal types are constantly getting offended. We wander campus like warriors, constantly on the lookout for enemies. It is worth emphasizing that "offense" is a word that denotes violence; to be offended is to be attacked, to be made the recipient of violence. And with this violence comes the urge to issue a counterattack—not in self-defense, because the damage is already done, but in retaliation.

The sense of being offended, as Josh points out, is a powerful source of solidarity among feminists and other advocates for the rights of the oppressed. But one need only think about the appalling abuse of lawsuits in America today to realize how potentially problematic this feeling of being wronged can be. We feminists might as well admit that assuming the role of the wronged party undeniably brings with it a burst of self-righteous pleasure, the same sort of perverse pleasure you got as a child from telling on someone.

If we want to create for ourselves the mode of discourse that Josh has called for, we must always be wary of succumbing to the temptation of this pleasure. The reason is that, when a feminist denounces something as "offensive," her denunciation is by its very nature reifying the gender dynamic it seeks to denounce. Her rhetoric implies that the misogynistic slogan has somehow damaged her, and she retaliates by saying how offended and objectified it made her feel. This narrative takes the form of the classic "damsel in distress" myth, one of the central documents of the patriarchy.

The posture of the offended feminist, as I've mentioned, is prefigured in the image of the raped woman. The feminist who gets offended by the misogynies that she sees everywhere is putting herself in the position of the victim, and expecting those in power to take pity on her. In that moment she throws away all she has been working for. The next generation of feminists may find it makes the most sense to cultivate not indignation but indifference. If something offends you, it has already succeeded in hurting you. But if, by being indifferent to it, you do not allow it to offend you, its power over you is broken.

I, for one, thought the "Save Second Base" slogan was very funny. It was a clever way to illustrate the tangible effects of a disease that sometimes tends to ossify into a stock phrase whose utterance brings to mind little more than a folded pink ribbon. I did not find it the least bit offensive, and I really don't think the shitstorm it generated was at all merited. I don't agree with Josh that it "ought" to have been offensive. I think that, on the contrary, we should strive to not let things offend us.

A new feminist discourse should be self-critical enough to know the extent to which it is fundamentally made in the image of the very patriarchy from which it is trying to extricate itself. It should be aware of when it is slipping into patterns of thought that perpetuate the status quo on a subterranean level. It must also, I believe, be much more patient in withholding value judgments. It will be our business not to counter overt "offensiveness" with another salvo of slogans, but to explore the hidden ways in which male domination expresses itself, especially in our own attempts to free ourselves from male domination.