"There is difference and there is power. And who holds the power decides the meaning of the difference." --June Jordan

Friday, February 16, 2007

Sweet (but complicated) Progress

First, the good news:

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Golden Globe winner and Oscar hopeful Jennifer Hudson will be gracing the cover of the March, 2007 issue of Vogue magazine, set to hit newsstands this Tuesday. One only needs to scan the whitewashed images in the cover archives at Vogue's website to see that she is a departure from their usual fare. Some of the buzz surrounding the selection of Hudson is that she is only the third African American woman to appear on the cover of Vogue, after Oprah Winfrey and Halle Berry, but that's only if you're counting actresses and not models. Check out a short history of black women on the cover of Vogue over at Clay Cane's blog.

This event isn't just significant because she's the first black singer to appear alone on the cover of the magazine. Perhaps an even bigger deal is the fact that Vogue has chosen to showcase a woman the fashion industry considers "plus-sized". It is famously known that stars like Oprah Winfrey and Drew Barrymore were told they needed to lose weight (twenty pounds in Oprah's case) in order to grace the cover, but this doesn't seem to be the case with Hudson:

"Why should I feel like the minority when the majority of America is a size 12?" she says. "Plus, a lot of singers don't sound the same when they lose weight." She grabs a handful of flesh below her belly. "I have a little singer's pouch, and that's where the voice comes from, so you're all just going to have to get used to my jelly." She laughs. "Hey, somebody has to represent the big girls. Why not me?" (Newsweek Entertainment)

Now, for the bad news:

Although it seems that the overwhelming response to the cover is more positive than negative, the backlash has already begun. Gossip blogs all over the web are desperately trying to put Jennifer in her place by claiming that the photos (shot by none other than Annie Leibovitz) are terrible, that they are airbrushed more than usual to make the star appear thinner, and that her image would be more at home on the cover of a catalog for Lane Bryant than on the "fashion bible". One blog-commenter even went so far as to say that she is pictured with her mouth open because she's always ready for a hamburger to be shoved into it. Because it would make so much more sense to show this outspoken singer with closed lips, giving us a silent and seductive pout?

Also, following the media's never-ending attempt to pit women against each other, the world of celebrity news is using the appearance of Hudson's skinny Dreamgirls co-star Beyonce Knowles on the cover of the upcoming Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue to create a rivalry between the two actor-singers. If there's anything the media loves, it's a catfight. When George Clooney and Brad Pitt appear together in those Oceans 11 movies, does anyone try to imply that the two actors secretly hate each other and constantly pout over who is more in the spotlight? Does the media try to get us to imagine the two in a screaming, hair-pulling fight? (For a great feminist analysis of competition between women, read Leora Tanenbaum's Catfight.)

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I couldn't be happier that the beautiful and talented Ms. Hudson is on the cover of a magazine usually reserved for white, blonde, size 2 waifs. I'm only saddened that she has to appear as a token when her image is much more healthy and normal than that of typical covergirls. It's also disheartening that her appearance will doubtfully have any influence over the content of the magazine -- in this issue or any subsequent issues. Anna Wintour states in her "Letter from the Editor" column: “The question of body image is a current one, and I can’t think of a more compelling and beautiful argument for the proposition that great fashion looks great on women of all sizes than the sight of Hudson in a Vera Wang dress on the red carpet.” But my expectation is that, following this statement, this will be just another issue filled with skinny fashion models and articles about how to lose ten pounds.

(Thanks to Kim and her pop culture radar for keeping me up-to-date!)

Thursday, February 15, 2007

More Commonplace Misogyny

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I'm a big fan of loudmouthed, in-your-face, politically liberal female comedians. I love to hear Kathy Griffin, Wanda Sykes, and Margaret Cho tell it like it is. From what I can tell, they aren't any more outspoken or crass than the most popular male comedians, and while they do crack jokes from time to time that reflect the (often hilarious) experience of being female, this humor does not seem to comprise their entire sets. And yet, to my surprise, it seems that nearly every time one of these female performers is mentioned when I am in the company of heterosexual males, I witness the same reaction. The men in my presence will wrinkle their noses, declare these women annoying, dismiss them as unfunny, or even state, simply, "I hate that bitch."

So what is it about these women that is so abrasive to men? I got to thinking more about this issue after recently reading an essay about how humor based on men's experiences is often taken as universally funny, whereas any jokes that have to do with being female are assumed to be something only women could enjoy. When a woman fails to laugh at penis jokes, she is accused of having no sense of humor, but a man receives no such censure when he rolls his eyes at jokes about periods or menopause. And that, my friends, is a perfect example of male privilege.

But it's not just their comedic material that tends to put men off. The lovely and hilarious Margaret Cho, in her book I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight, sums up this conundrum beautifully:
"It seems to me that America hates it when women are wildly successful, and there is built-in punishment that comes along with that kind of wealth." (p. 116)
And isn't she right? Who among us hasn't heard family, friends, and media personalities (both male and female) tearing down famous, successful females? And if they give reasons, would the reasons sound legitimate if it was a male celebrity they were bashing? Here's what Cho has to tell us:
"If you are a feminist or not, I don't think it is acceptable to hate a woman in the media unless you have a well-worked-out explanation as to why, have examined all your own prejudices and can convince me that you are not just another fascist follower of fashion."
So attention all haters of Hillary Clinton, Rosie O'Donnell, Kathy Griffin, Queen Latifah, Martha Stewart, Barbara Walters, Courtney Love, Camryn Manheim, Monica Lewinsky, Margaret Cho, Madonna, Kirstie Alley, Roseanne, Anna Nicole Smith, Wanda Sykes, Nancy Pelosi, Oprah Winfrey, etc., etc., etc. I will no longer be accepting, "I hate that bitch," as your valid opion of a woman's character. Prove to me that you would have the exact same level of hatred for any man with the same characteristics, and I might be able to see you as something other than a complete misogynist asshole.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Freedom to Marry Week: www.freedomtomarry.org

"If we are not absolutely insistent, unflinching, strident about lifting the ban on same-sex marriage, then we might as well forfeit the Constitution, cross out all the Amendments, knock down the Statue of Liberty (it was a gift from France, anyway - those peace lovers: who needs 'em?), reverse Roe v. Wade, pretend Stonewall never happened, reinstate Prohibition, deny women the vote, derail the Underground Railroad, bring back slavery, retrieve all the tea bags from Boston Harbor (actually, let them steep - gay marriage is still legal in Massachusetts, for now), give Patrick Henry death instead of liberty (he's fucking dead now, anyway), knock Paul Revere off his horse, realize that George Washington lied, albeit posthumously (besides, all those dudes had slaves anyway), get back on the Mayflower and go back to England. The only problem would be, trying to bring the Native Americans back to life and restore their nations that we so cavalierly destroyed in our own pursuit of religious 'freedom.'
"Without the reality of same-sex marriage, there is no freedom. This is not an argument about homosexuality, or God, or what is in the Bible, or what your moral value system is or what you feel is ethical. It is a no-argument zone. No spins here, not in the least. It is about upholding the idea that America is the representation of freedom in the world. That to be an American is to be free. Unless we have same-sex marriage recognized and legalized by every state, then we are not free. We are hypocrites, for we are according freedoms to a certain group in our population while denying those same rights to others. It is discrimination, and that is that."
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-Margaret Cho, I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight

Saturday, February 10, 2007

A Herstory Lesson from the Second Wavers

Anti-feminists often say of our patriarchal society that it matches the "natural order" of things. That men are natural leaders and women natural nurturers (and should therefore be subservient). If women are so equal to men, they argue, why have men been in power in vast societies throughout recorded history? It has to do with man's inherent strength over women, they say, unwilling to acknowledge that the main biological differences between the not-all-that-otherwise-different sexes resulted in the systematic oppression of women, and it is that oppression and domination which has characterized the woman as the "weaker sex".

Susan Brownmiller gives her take on the original subjugation of women in 1975's Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, asserting that ancient man's discovery that he possessed the ability to rape was likely the beginning of man's oppression of women. And here's Andrea Dworkin's version, excerpted from her 1974 book Woman Hating:
"Even patriarchy and misogyny began somewhere. Here I can only guess. We know that at one time men were hunters and women were planters. Both demanded incredible physical strength and considerable knowledge and skill. Why did men hunt and women plant? Clearly women planted because they were often pregnant, and though pregnancy did not make them weak and passive, it did mean that they could not run, go without food for long periods of time, survive on the terms that hunting demanded. It is probable that very early in human history women were also hunters, and that it was crucial to the survival of the species that they develop into planters - first to supplement the food supply, second to reduce infant and woman mortality. We see that the first division of labor based on biological sex originated in a fundamental survival imperative. In the earliest of times, with no contraception and no notion of the place of the man in the process of impregnation, women were invested with a supreme magical power, one which engendered awe and fear in men. As they developed skill in planting, they embodied even more explicitly fertility, generation, and of course death. The overwhelming mana of women, coupled with the high mortality which went along with childbirth, could well have led to practices of protection, segregation, and slowly increasing social restriction. With pregnancy as the one inevitable in a woman's life, men began to organize social life in a way which excluded woman, which limited her to the living out of her reproductive function. As men began to know power, that power directly related to the exclusion of women from community life, the myth of feminine evil developed and provided justification for laws, rites, and other practices which relegated women to pieces of property. As a corollary, men developed a taste for subjugating others and hoarding power and wealth which characterizes them to this very day."

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Offended Yet?

Advertising expert David Ogilvy says:
"What you say in advertising is more important than how you say it."

I beg to differ.

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Caption: "8 Airbags"

Sony Noise Reduction Headphones
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Caption: "Dramatically reduces unwanted sounds."

Kiesel Camera Bags
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St. Pauli Girl Beer
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Caption: "Nice cans."

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

A Bit of Guerilla Activism

My bimonthly trip to the salon to get my hair cut is a rare treat, mostly because it seems to be the only time I come into contact with "women's magazines". You know the ones. Cosmo, US Weekly, Marie Claire, Vogue, In Style, Redbook, Glamour, etc. The magazines that never show a single image of a woman who's bigger than a size 4 unless it's a "before" picture in a weight-loss ad. I generally avoid opening these, preferring instead the book I always bring myself for the obligatory twenty minutes or so of "color setting" time under the dryer. (Last time, I raised the eyebrows of more than a few of my fellow salon-goers by proudly reading Inga Muscio's Cunt: A Declaration of Independence.) But something I just read inspired me to leave my own book at home this visit and take a look within the dreaded pages of these magazines for a change.

I will look at these magazines. I will allow myself to be filled with rage at the way women are targeted and objectified by advertisers and the way the models and celebrities are airbrushed thin, glowing, and completely pore-less. And I will calmly and quietly take out the subscription cards from these magazines and put them into my purse.

Those subscription cards are free for me to take. And, more importantly, they are free for me to send, due to the clearly marked "NO POSTAGE NECESSARY" and "POSTAGE WILL BE PAID BY ADDRESSEE" on each card. But I will not be filling them out with my address or checking the box to purchase a subscription. Instead, I will be giving them a piece of my mind. A little bit of guerilla activism inspired by famous advertising analyst Jean Kilbourne.

I'm not exactly sure yet what I'll write. It may be as simple as scrawling "Stop Exploiting Women," or "Feed Your Models," across the cards with a Sharpie. Or perhaps I might put down some statistics linking the women's fashion industry to the alarming rates of anorexia and bulimia among girls. Or I may get specific and air my grievances with the exact ads and articles that piss me off, filling the entire card with my response to them. It's free for me to do, and it costs them something like thirty cents for every one that gets sent back. Not only that, but it gets those annoying cards out of the way for everyone at the salon.

(Support progressive, independent booksellers. Buy Cunt at Feed Your Head Books.)

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

"It's a Man's Man's Man's World"

Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that James Brown, the "Godfather of Soul", the "Hardest Working Man in Show Business", died of heart failure on December 25th. The tributes, of course, started immediately. The three days of public funerals, the Rolling Stone tribute, the endless list of celebrities who spoke out about what Brown meant to them. Article after article put the singer on a pedestal for his musical legacy and even his charity, citing toy and food drives, but they all conveniently left out information about how he also had a knack for physically battering the women in his life. There was no mention of the fact that he was accused of domestic violence by all four of the women he married and was arrested for it on more than one occasion.

He's not alone, of course. Brown is only one name on an extensive list of famous alleged batterers, along with Rick Allen, Steven Adler, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, Lou Rawls, Dennis Rodman, Charlie Sheen, O.J. Simpson, Ike Turner, Mike Tyson, Billy Dee Williams, Yanni, David Hasselhoff, Axl Rose, Sasha Mitchell, Tommy Lee, Lou Diamond Phillips, Tyrese, and many, many more.

And as much as our culture generally disapproves of domestic violence, there are some conflicting attitudes when it comes to our "great" male performers and heroes. One of either ignoring their transgressions to keep their "private lives" private, and another of romanticizing their violent sides to show that they did brilliant work either beacause of or in spite of their tulmultuous lives. The more dramatic their experiences, the more interesting they become.

But what about the invisible victims? With the exception of possibly Ike Turner and O.J. Simpson, all of the men on the above list of names will be remembered only for their work, while the women whose bodies and lives they scarred will, for the most part, remain nameless to us. And when they die, they get televised tributes and statues of themselves so the world can remember what great men they were.

I don't need to get on a soapbox here to talk about how domestic violence is not a "private matter" that should be left out when talking about the lives of celebrities. When my Rolling Stone magazine came in the mail with James Brown on the cover, I read every word of the article that detailed his life history and entire musical career, and I was shocked to find not even the slightest reference to his penchant for smacking around his wives. This was disappointing, considering that I was already pissed off at how the magazine featured rapper Snoop Dogg as "America's Most Lovable Pimp", complete with a picture of him leading two women on leashes. (Needless to say, I will not be renewing my subscription.)

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Notes on a Double Standard

It's an odd coincidence that I saw Notes on a Scandal on the same day that I happened to read Jennifer Maher's essay, "Hot for Teacher," from the book Bitchfest: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism from the Pages of Bitch Magazine. I had my usual feminist-radar turned on while watching it, but having this essay (which deals with the gender dynamics of the student/teacher relationship) fresh in my mind colored nearly every aspect of my experience with this film. I could write full posts on each of its positives and negatives -- from the insightful exposure of beauty as a commodity and a privilege to the demonization of the older, lonely, covertly lesbian Barbara (Judi Dench) -- but the aspect of the movie that struck me the most was the relationship between Sheba (Cate Blanchett) and her fifteen-year-old student Steven (Andrew Simpson).

In her essay, Maher first points out the obvious. That

"...debates within academia and depictions in popular culture take as a given that what we talk about when we talk about teacher-student love is the love between male professors and female students,"

and that

"...the age-old gendered assumptions (male professor = predator, female student = victim) are so taken for granted that popular culture rarely touches on their reversal... That is, the expectation is that males are active and females passive, that men are the lookers and the women the looked at."

She really piques my interest, though, when she says:

"Rarely do we see a female teacher as a figure of desire for her male students without violent or potentially violent repercussions."

This resonated with me, because it made perfect sense. Unless the teacher is a dim-witted, short-skirted blonde dancing on a desk in a Van Halen video, any sexual relationship she has with a student is likely to contribute to her tragic downfall.

And Notes on a Scandal is no exception. Cate Blanchett's character is assaulted by the boy's mother, fired from her job, kicked out of her home, hounded by the press, and sentenced to prison; her actions pretty much ruin her life. Not that I'm defending her actions, of course, but the extent to which the movie followed Maher's description is striking. Not only that, but at no point in the story does Sheba get to play the part of the suave mentor seducing an innocent youth in her charge. In fact, it becomes painfully clear rather early on that the fifteen year old holds all the power in their relationship. Young Steven lures Sheba in with a feigned interest in art and lies about his home life, practically stalking her and seducing her into each encounter throughout their unsettling affair. At no point does she resemble his authority figure (or even his equal, for that matter). Instead, we only see her swooning at his romantic gestures and looking up into his eyes as if he has rescued her. Rather than mirroring the power dynamics of the stereotypical teacher/student relationship, their tryst mirrors a stereotypically patriarchal one. Even their "breakup" is on his terms. Adhering to "typical guy" protocol, Steven wants out of the relationship as soon as it gets complicated. He makes it clear to Sheba that he doesn't want the responsibility of being her escape from her problems and that he only pursued her in the first place because he "thought it would be fun". The audience is given the feeling that Sheba is in love with the smug boy, and that it devastates her to stop seeing him, but it's obvious that the sentiment is not returned.

So why does this double standard exist? Why is the seductive male teacher always portrayed as powerful and dominant (though not necessarily likable) while his female counterpart is stripped of her authority status and reduced to a lovesick and tragically doomed weakling? Jennifer Maher would say that it's just one more byproduct of male privilege. While it is natural for a female subordinate to both respect and be sexually attracted to her male superior, it is more likely for a male subordinate to deal with his attraction to his female superior by objectifying her. Sexuality tends to elevate the status of a male, whereas, for women, sexuality only diminishes her potential for respect.

"To put it more bluntly, though we might accept a woman as sexual (as long as she is heterosexual) and we might accept a woman in a position of authority, the two together at the same time is threatening to masculine privilege.
Here's the problem: For a female student, identifying with the man at the front of the classroom means gaining power in the form of knowledge, authority, and sexual possibility. For a male student, however, identifying with a woman means losing it. So while the female teacher can be looked at as sexually desirable, looking up to her is problematic."

Once again, Maher's description of the media's formula is right on target when it comes to Notes on a Scandal. Sheba is beautiful yet hopelessly never in charge, while Judi Dench's aged and stern (and therefore desexualized) character Barbara is shown to be authoritative and in complete control of her classroom. (Her power is later undermined in the film by the classic female-aimed insult of "no one likes you", but that's the starting point for an entirely different discussion.)

(Support progressive, independent booksellers. Buy Bitchfest at Feed Your Head Books.)