Friday, September 4, 2009

Rihanna goes topless in Italian Vogue

by Thúy-Lan Võ Lite

Rihanna wants to reclaim her title of Queen. Her efforts to rise above “victim” status (see: February’s beating from now-ex Chris Brown) and re-establish herself as singer-icon extraordinaire are admirable and even empowering. Yet her raunchy photo shoot for the September issue of Italian Vogue make me question her methods; how appropriate is it for a former constituent of an abusive relationship to advertise violence?

At first glance, Rihanna’s photos depict her as strong and edgy. In ensembles of dark colors and leather and thigh-highs, she seduces the viewer with smoldering, smoky eyes and provocative poses. Props and equipment (for instance, a muzzle – and is that a whip?) reminiscent of BDSM are sprinkled throughout the photos. In one picture – the current favorite on HuffPo’s poll – she’s wearing nothing but spiky underwear, pasties over her nipples, a long jacket strategically left completely open, and a grimace. She’s a dominatrix, in control of her sexuality and, presumably, her life.

I take no issue with females reclaiming their bodies or with BDSM as a practice between consenting partners. But I do worry that the imagery in these photos only reinforces the public association of Rihanna with domestic violence. How can she stop being a victim if we continually associate her with aggression? Will the motif of the spread help bolster the tragically popular opinion that she somehow provoked her own assault? And, furthermore, how ethical is it for a magazine to profit off her injuries?

Of course, as Judy Berman points out in Salon, “[t]here is no formula for bouncing back from abuse.” These photos just might help Rihanna garner the positive attention she needs to jumpstart her career. But then, there’s the perennial mystery: why should a talented R&B artist have to show us her boobs for us to want her music?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

How liberating was the sexual revolution, after all?

by Brenda Jin

Over 40 years after the summer of love, we're still asking the eternal question: are beauty and sexuality detrimental to women? Shouldn’t women flaunt what they own? This is an issue that transcends class, race, and economic circumstance. For example, in a recent article in The Guardian, Annie Kelly explored the relationship of economy to education in Katine, Uganda, highlighting the fact that young women in Katine are economically disempowered. Even if they earn money from jobs such as working in a garden or selling food in the market, according to Kelly, a young woman’s income is nevertheless controlled by the family, and she will have no say in how it is spent.

So when it comes to such necessities such as sanitary equipment for their menstrual cycles, women are forced to ask the men in their families for money. At UShs 5,000 ($2.50) per pack, monthly sanitary equipment costs more than most families can afford, especially after other expenses like school books and uniforms. As a result, female students often miss several days a month because of their menstrual cycles; without the appropriate equipment, they face embarrassing leaks, a problem that becomes more complicated with inadequate toilet facilities.

This regular absenteeism results in more than just embarrassment and disadvantaged performance in the classroom. In such situations, young women turn to the one thing they do own and can use for economic empowerment: their bodies. Growing up with a deficit of economic empowerment plays a key role in helping girls in Katine discover their sexuality as a bargaining tool for basic living necessities so that they can continue their educations.

"If you look at many of the challenges we face and the barriers which exist preventing young girls from achieving their potential it all comes back to money in one way or another," said Evelyn Okoth of Mifumi, a Ugandan women’s rights NGO. "Girls are lured into transactional sex relationships with often older men because it is the only way they can get the things they need, which results in high numbers of teenage pregnancies and girls leaving school before finishing even their primary education."

It's ironic that in attempting to empower themselves by continuing their education, these young women turn to self-objectification, perpetuating the idea that they are assets or property rather than as potential financial or economic sources of power, an idea reinforced by the current practice of “bride price” in Uganda, whereby brides are exchanged for resources such as livestock, money, or land from the son-in-law’s family, according to Kelly.

But using sexuality in order to compensate for economic disempowerment is not an unfamiliar problem. Self-objectification in the name of self-betterment is not confined to Katine or even to the developing world. And I would argue that it is equally familiar to women in America. Because shouldn’t women be damned proud of their god-given beauty and female genitalia?

In the face of a lack of individual agency in the realms of economic or political power, those groups who lack power will resort to—and perhaps overuse—the only agency they possess, to the point where it can become detrimental to long-term wellbeing. When the girls in Katine lack the power to change their economic realities, they turn to their bodies for agency. When women are not granted the opportunity to excel in their careers as quickly or as equally as their husbands, they pride themselves even more in their given area of excellence: the domestic sphere.

Sexuality is a self-defeating source of power in the end for both women in Katine and for women in America, because of the dangerous potential and tendency for women to be lured into reducing themselves to precisely what they were trying to overcome in the first place: their status as objects.

American women have come a long way in the quest for equality, but progress for women in America should not and cannot stop at sexual liberation. We have yet to earn equal pay. We have yet to receive equal employment and educational opportunities. We have yet to be perceived by all—including ourselves—as more than our biological potential for child-bearing and as a source of pleasure. We have yet to be accepted and measured by our contribution to society above the fact of our gender. Without having achieved equality in society, we have become content to be satisfied with sexual liberation, and we have only achieved for ourselves the only power that we were given from society in the first place, that which reduces us to objects and commodities: sex.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Female journalists, sexism, and mad props to Chloe A.

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

Our ever-prolific editor emeritus, Chloe Angyal, has a piece on Splice this week about some female journalists (most recently, Tina Brown) who have a tendency to rip into the physical appearances of women in power. Angyal comments incisively that powerful women are subject to an illogical catch-22: they are either too unattractive to be taken seriously (hence Tina Brown's comment that Clinton "needs to get back to the gym" or the recent discussions of Michelle Obama's "right to bare legs") or too attractive, as when Laura Ingraham claimed that Meghan McCain was only receiving media attention because she was "kind of cute." Does any of this chatter about legs, weight and relative cuteness have anything to do with the intelligence or accomplishments of Obama, Clinton or McCain? Of course not. Is childishly bickering over whether Michelle Obama should wear shorts a problem that's restricted to female journalists? Definitely not.

Chloe writes, "The truth is, America has a widespread cultural discomfort with women in positions of power. Sexist remarks about Clinton's appearance and demeanor, made by Chris Matthews and other pundits, were infuriatingly frequent during last year's primaries. The time has come for America to decide: are we going to be a nation in which any person, regardless of their appearance, can contribute their valuable ideas to our public debate? Or are we going to continue to waste time, and women's talent, chatting about lipstick, hairstyles, shorts and pantsuits?"

Damn straight. I just hope someone sends Chloe's piece to Robin Givhan.

You can read more commentary on Chloe's piece on Jezebel. And if you want to read more by Chloe Angyal, check out Feministing, where she will soon be profiling amazing feminist women.

Monday, August 31, 2009

On having a feminist mother

by Malavika Balachandran

Katie Roiphe's controversial article on feminism and motherhood sparked a heated debate on the role of women as mothers and whether this really should be mutually exclusive from success in a career. While I am not a mother, I am a child, and I have seen my mother's struggle to balance both.

My mother, raised in a traditional Indian household, was only encouraged to become a housewife. While she has a bachelor's degree, it is a bachelor's degree in home economics. She spent her time in college taking classes on child psychology and cooking. Shortly after, she got married, moved to the United States, and eventually had two daughters.

While my mother adores us more than anything, every day she regrets that her mother didn't push her to become more than a housewife. When my sister and I started school, my mother also went to school, taking accounting classes at LSU, and soon got a job as an accountant with the university. Even though my mother worked, she didn't have to give up being a good mother. She was able to blend both aspects of her life, and thus my sister and I largely grew up on the LSU campus. Instead of staying at home during the summer, my sister and I participated in the youth programs that LSU offered every summer. By the end of high school, I spent half my day at LSU, taking classes and working in my mother's office as a student worker. We even ate lunch together every day. In fact, her work enabled my sister and me to spend more time with her as we got older.

Moreover, the only thing my mother wants is for my sister and me to be independent. She has always pushed us to pursue our dreams. My mother does want us to become wives and mothers one day, but she never wants to see us relying on a husband for survival. She wants us both to be independent and successful in our own right. She has always stood by us and without my mother, we would not have accomplished all that we have achieved, as well as all that we will achieve in the future. Although my mother misses me with all her heart, she is so proud of the fact that I am able to study at one of the best universities in the country. And every day, I am so grateful to my mother, for shaping me into the person I am today.

So if you think that feminists can't be good mothers, I think you are very mistaken. My mother is just one woman among many who prove that you don't have to choose between work and motherhood, and you can succeed at both.

Thoughts on the "opiate" of motherhood

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

Katie Roiphe published a piece on feminism and motherhood last Tuesday, and it immediately sparked a heated discussion. This was all last week, so we're very late to the party. It's been picked over so many times that I'm almost tempted simply to give links to the very good analyses on Slate and Broadsheet. But I think as a young feminist, there is another perspective to add. As I first debated about whether to respond to Roiphe's piece, I felt somewhat as though I was unqualified to discuss it at all. After all, I'm a junior in college, and I've never had children, so I've never experienced Roiphe's "daze" of motherhood - so was it my place to comment upon her experiences? When I sent out the links to the Equal Writes listserv, another blogger brought up this very issue. Below is my response to his question, which I think deals with this question of whether we're "qualified" as non-parents to talk about motherhood, and articulates some of my issues with Roiphe's arguments.

"I'm going to write something about this, because I had the same reaction at first - how am I qualified to comment on this piece? But I think that's the trap she wants us to fall into - she wants to make feminists who have had children feel guilty because they're not constantly celebrating this "perfect" motherhood experience, and feminists who haven't had children feel unqualified to speak. But you don't have to have had a baby to comment on the ways that motherhood is constructed by pieces like this one, and I think a smackdown is very much in order for Roiphe, because this piece is in some ways quite offensive.

Just to clarify, I think my main objection to the article is not that Roiphe has fallen in love with her baby. It's that Roiphe is first attacking feminism for somehow denying this bond (quite unfairly - although I will admit that part of the blame lies with Slate for their banner headline), and then equating these feelings in the first six weeks with child-rearing generally - something that she is herself not capable of speaking about firsthand. Also, let's examine what Roiphe's doing to celebrate her love for her child: writing about it, even though she says in the first paragraph that writing about her feelings seems out of reach.

So great for Roiphe - I'm glad she's loving motherhood, and my problems with this article have nothing to do with her personal experiences. But this article is more about her trying to push buttons than anything else, something she's clearly done. And I think that as commentators on feminism in the media, we have every right to comment upon Roiphe's argument, without touching the fact that she's experiencing parent-child bonding, which I have no doubt she is. What about postpartum depression, for example? What about women who don't experience this opium-like love haze? Are they not real mothers? Are they brainwashed by feminists? What about women who don't want children? Are they not real women? And you must admit - Roiphe uses feminism as a straw man in what I think is a very cheap way. The essay is well-written, but it doesn't hold up, and I would thus love it if one of our bloggers took it apart."

What do you think - about Roiphe, motherhood, and what "qualifies" us to talk about certain issues?