Friday, July 10, 2009

Palin and the press: the love/hate affair we all hope is over

by Jordan Kisner

In a political move that surely set Jon Stewart a-jigging, Sarah Palin resigned from her governorship last week during a press conference that was even more panicky and incoherent than usual. While I hesitate to devote any additional attention to a celebrity politician who perhaps never belonged in the national spotlight at all, the flurry of media coverage following her resignation is a spectacle worth reflecting on.

The primary reason Palin gave for stepping down was her intention not to seek reelection and her conviction that a lame duck governor was “not best for Alaska”— a reason which next to no one believed, based on the amount of time media outlets subsequently spent speculating about her real reasons. Two prevailing theories have emerged. The first is that Palin resigned so that she could prepare herself as a viable candidate for the next presidential election, a prospect that seems distinctly less likely after the way her resignation speech went. The second, far more sympathetic theory is that she and her family could no longer take the criticism from national press. Palin herself confessed to feeling the strain of having every element of her political and personal life derided or mocked: “Let’s go back real quick to a comfortable analogy for me: sports. Basketball!” she chirped brightly between gasps of air, “And I use this because you are naïve if you don’t see a full court press from the national level picking away right now a good point guard.”

She also, in an unparalleled spasm of self-centered arrogance, referred to the wave of criticism she’s undergone since last August as “the real climate change.”

The apparent role of the media’s criticism of her and her family in her sudden decision to quit her job has started some interesting conversations –in those same media outlets—about the way public contempt for Palin were a reflection of her gender and class. Ross Douthat’s op-ed in the New York Times on Sunday argued that the criticism Palin endured “had everything to do with [her] gender and her social class.” Indeed, he speculates that any aspiring female politician who is not part of the social or political elite can expect the response Palin received:

Male commentators will attack you for parading your children. Female commentators will attack you for not staying home with them. You’ll be sneered at for how you talk and how many colleges you attended. You’ll endure gibes about your “slutty” looks and your “white trash concupiscence,” while a prominent female academic declares that your “greatest hypocrisy” is the “pretense” that you’re a woman.

While I appreciate Douthat’s attempt to defend women from sexism in the media –I wish more writers were committed to that cause!—I think he misses the point.

The assertion that Palin’s unpopularity can be explained by demographics and that any woman from a similar background will meet with similar opposition blames a kind of sexism that is not the problem here and overlooks the kind that is. Palin is not criticized and mocked in the press because she is a woman from Hometown, U.S.A. attempting to run for high office. Sarah Palin is the most frequently attacked politician of the last ten months because of her inability to speak in coherent sentences, her encouragement of America’s political polarization along lines of education and class, and –most of all—her arrogant belief that her own lack of preparation or qualification to be a heavy hitter in American politics is irrelevant so long as she continues to act cute and spew empty rhetoric. Palin is quite plainly one of the most offensive, least substantial political figures in recent memory; this is the reason the media loathes her. If a female politician came along who had Palin’s background as well as qualifications and intelligence, you can bet she’d fare better on the national stage.

The important question here is not whether Palin’s gender was the reason behind her evisceration by the press, but why her gender was regarded as such a handy tool in that process. There was plenty to go on without attacking her abilities as a mother or entertaining any discussion of her good looks. Why was she (and Hilary Clinton, for that matter) a target for the kinds of insults that male politicians never worry about? Why did Palin have to suffer through criticism for being “slutty” on one end and accusations that her identity as a woman is nothing but hypocritical pretense? When will public frustration at female leaders stop short of sexism?

Sarah Palin is an idiot, a lame excuse for a real political leader, and a pretty good indicator of what has gone wrong with the Republican party; when will that be insult enough?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Chris Brown's "art" excuses abuse? No way!

by Molly Borowitz

In a completely unsurprising development, it turns out that the judge's ruling on the Chris Brown/Rihanna abuse case has only served to spark more controversy around Brown's behavior, his reputation, and the entertainment industry's reactions to both the aforementioned. New York Magazine reports that Jay-Z apparently threatened not to appear at the June 28th BET Awards if the network permitted Chris Brown to perform as scheduled. In response, BET cancelled Brown's Michael Jackson tribute and asked Ne-Yo and Jamie Foxx to play a few extra songs to fill the time.

Jay-Z's refusal to perform alongside Brown has met with extremely mixed reviews from the larger community, if the comments on's coverage of the event are any indication. In fact, I rather hope they aren't, because Brown's fan base comes off as loyal to the point of...well, insanity. One of the comments posted in response to the Jay-Z article reads as follows:

"I've been seeing all this bad press about Chris Brown and Rihanna,and basically everybody needs to calm the f**k down. I mean sure he made a foolish mistake but not only is a talented star, he also bleeds red just like everybody else does. People please wake up, domestic violence has been goin on since who knows when, so let it go and focus on what he's done as an artist."

I hope that my readers will also find that last sentence an exercise in a very disturbing irony, and will agree with me that there is no amount of talent that can excuse the "foolish mistake" of domestic abuse. That being said, this particular fan reminds us that Chris Brown is just a person like other people -- which is something worth remembering. No, he shouldn't be excused...but perhaps he can be rehabilitated. Some of us hoped that Rihanna, as a victim of abuse, would take up the mantle against domestic violence, but - in spite of my earlier skepticism - I think Chris has a unique and powerful perspective that could drastically improve the way we talk about domestic violence in this country. His situation presents an opportunity for former abusers to come forward and share their stories, to open a dialogue and to present a complete picture of domestic violence. What if Chris asked for help, for guidance from people who have been in his place and have succeeded in changing their behaviors? People, please wake up: domestic violence has been going on since who knows when, so please don't let it go.

Thanks to Beverly N. for the tip!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Where DOES beautiful hair come from?

Not from joking around! And I am not joking around when I say that I'm so sorry that I've been lax about putting up Sarah Haskins' videos over the past couple of weeks - I'll be better, I swear! And enjoy her latest. Here are some links to her last couple of videos:

Target Women: Charm School
Target Women: Lady Friends

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Vietnam Women's Museum in Hanoi

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

Everyone who is here with me in Vietnam is completely sick of my tendency to connect everything back to gender, so it's a little embarrassing that it's taken me a month to visit the Vietnam Women's Museum, which I dog-eared in my guidebook before I got on the airplane. But I'm actually glad that I postponed my visit, because when I finally made the trek over to the French Quarter, where the museum is located, I had much better context for what would otherwise have been a confusing and frustrating visit. Well, I take that back - it was still confusing and frustrating. But it was also fascinating and worthwhile.

The museum is under construction, so there were only three rooms open - one permanent exhibit, and two very limited temporary exhibits, one on women in war propaganda, and one telling the stories of female street vendors. The permanent exhibit is a medium-sized room ostensibly dedicated to the history of women in the 20th-century Vietnam wars against the French and Americans, but with a bizarre mixed message. The displays begin with glass cases full of weapons used by female soldiers (shockingly primitive - I am always amazed when I see the weapons that the Vietnamese used, particularly to defeat the French in the 1940s), and the captions extol the female soldiers with the same hyper-patriotic language that we've seen in other museums ("with this knife, female patriot X killed 200 American invaders"). But the Ho Chi Minh quote that adorns the exhibit's entrance sends quite another message about women's involvement in war - women, Ho tells us, should be extolled because they are responsible for raising new generations of heroes. And the second wall of glass cases told yet another story, of women who kept the home fires burning and faithfully wrote letters to husbands, fathers and brothers who could easily be among the millions of Vietnamese soldiers killed.

I've started entering Vietnamese museums with a certain amount of skepticism about the story that they're trying to tell (a skepticism which I hope I'll bring back to American museums as well), and this one was no exception. It was clear, also, who the museum was for - I was one of a handful of Western women, dressed in a very specific way, who perused the rooms with guidebooks in hand. The museum gave almost no solid facts about the numbers of women who fought, the numbers who were killed, the stories of women on the home front, the tragedies of the women who were widowed or lost children or siblings or fathers - rather, it presented individual stories cleverly tailored to present a seemingly whole picture. There were love letters, sent from a woman in the north to her lover who was fighting on the Cambodian border, next to the knitting needles used by a woman who was imprisoned in the south in the 1970s, next to photos of women rationing their rice so that the soldiers could have enough to eat.

The effect was almost smug - leaving the museum, one was left with the impression that the Vietnamese had managed to incorporate women into the war with perfect grace, allowing some to fight and die for their country while preserving the traditional war story of the women who propped up the economy and waited for their men to return home. As I walked through the museum, I thought of Bao Ninh's The Sorrow of War, which tells quite a different story - women who fought for their country and were raped by Americans, other women who were raped by their own countrymen and were irrevocably changed. These were the women who were "ruined", the prostitutes in the north and south who fed the sexual appetites of soldiers on all sides - and the women who maintained their "respectability" but lost their husbands or their only son, and were left with no means of support in the "hungry years" after the war. I wrote a few weeks ago about the contradictions of being a woman in Vietnam, where the government's official line dictates equality, while traditional gender roles enforce something else entirely. The propaganda posters in the first temporary exhibit illustrated all too clearly that the permanent exhibit itself was nothing but propaganda - giving a pretty picture of a charged and messy set of expectations, where women are expected to be patriots, mothers, wives, students, and workers, despite the paradoxes inherent in all of these roles.

The third room presented yet another puzzle. Last summer, restrictions were placed on street vendors, who are primarily female, so that they could no longer sell their products in so-called "historic" parts of Hanoi. Ethnographers connected to the museum spent nine months wandering the streets of Hanoi, talking to these vendors both before and after the restrictions went into effect. The stories are heartbreaking. Vendors make a profit of less than a dollar a day, and they are mostly rural women who travel to the city to supplement their husbands' income. The restrictions themselves make it much more difficult for them to eke out even the most impoverished living, and they don't really get rid of the street vendor presence, because vendors still venture into the restricted areas, risking fines that simply throw them into further poverty. The stories were fascinating without taking gender into account, which the ethnographers mostly did not do. The interviews only scratched the surface of where these women fit into the narrative presented in the museum's other two rooms - there were glimpses of other problems, as when women would talk about children left with grandparents in villages, the problems of living away from their husbands, the challenge of juggling household work, and the loneliness of being single and without a community in an unfamiliar metropolis.

I left the museum with more questions than when I had entered. I wonder what the other visitors thought - did they realize that the museum was constructed entirely for their benefit? And what do Vietnamese women themselves think of the Vietnam Women's Museum? Real lives rarely make their way into museums, and the stories are always simplified. But I'm glad I visited - even if I seem like a grouchy skeptic, I want to avoid the sweeping generalizations that I think Western feminists so easily make. After all, at least the Vietnamese are celebrating their female soldiers, even if they may have an ulterior motive - Americans just hide statistics about the numbers of women soldiers who face sexual violence within the military. The women who served on the American side of the Vietnam War are all but forgotten. And rape is a hidden crime in every war in history, not just the wars here. Like the female street vendors, women are disproportionately affected by poverty in the United States, and their stories are rarely told. So I'll visit this museum again - and I recommend it to anyone who comes to Hanoi - simply because it gave me so many new questions to ask, even if there weren't many answers.