Category Archives: Gender

Needless cruelty

Recently, my friend lent me an advance copy of a book we were both looking forward to, as it is the sequel to another book we both seriously enjoyed.  (I won’t be specific about the title or author, because SPOILERS ABOUND.  But even without specifying the book, a lot of this post will sound familiar – you’ve seen or heard similar tropes before.)  Anyway, I couldn’t put the book down; I drank it up for the price of a couple nights’ sleep.  There was a lot to love about the story and the telling.  But one of the last scenes of the book really threw me for a loop, and has sort of obstructed a pleasurable memory of the whole.  I’ve been taking some time to reflect on my response to it.

[TW]

The novel is fantasy fiction.  Toward the end of the book, some of the characters summon a powerful supernatural being, and the supernatural being rapes one of the female characters.

My first response to this – aside from a mental flinch – was to wonder why this incredibly common act of cruelty was acting as the final flourish of a veritable symphony of unusual, supernatural cruelty.
My next and lingering response was to be equal parts disturbed and annoyed that  this incredibly common act of cruelty was acting as the final flourish of a veritable symphony of unusual, supernatural cruelty.

Let’s have some context, borrowed from Sady Doyle at Tiger Beatdown.  Sady is tired of seeing sexual assault as a way to “spice up” horror.  What I found particularly resonant about her post was the observation that most of the buttons pushed in horror are unusual; massacre and torture are horrific, but are blessedly infrequent occurrences in our part of the world.  Sexual assault, on the other hand, is incredibly common – so much so that the probability of a  survivor of sexual assault viewing any such movie is very high.  And the narrative strategy of using rape catapult a horrific scene into more-horrific is just… insulting, really.  Not to mention unoriginal.  Another thoughtful read on using sexual assault as a narrative tool comes from Shakesville: Melissa McEwan is contemptuous of the suggestion that the viewers need gratuitous sex and assault to demonstrate the extent of a character’s villainy.  (Concerning the presence of this visual shorthand in a fantasy film, she adds: “It says something interesting, and not at all pleasant, about our culture that we are willing to accept a complete reinvention of the planet’s climate for the purposes of fantasy, but not the possibility of a culture devoid of sexual exploitation and rape, as if the weather is just a suggestion but rape is immutable.”)

So back to the why.  I picked up and finished the novel described above while I was in the midst of reading The Art of Cruelty by Maggie Nelson, which has put me in the mindframe for contemplation.  The Art of Cruelty is more exploration than argument, which I like. Nelson sets out to consider and analyze some artworks and poems that she finds disturbing, or that have been criticized for their depictions of cruelty; she’s not interested in a wholesale condemnation or relativistic defense, but she does want to find and model a way to query and assess such works.  The way she goes about this is similar to the way I’ve been taught to read poetry and art: what does x element of the work do?  What cultural bells does it set off, does it cause the viewer/reader to view or read is a particular way?  Does the experience of reading/viewing allow the reader/viewer some space with which to make meaning of it?

That’s what I’m asking myself about the act of rape in this scene, in this book.  What does it do for the narrative?

  • The scene that includes the act serves as a climax of one character’s story, and precipitates the climax of the total narrative.
  • The act demonstrates the  cruelty of the Supernatural Being.
  • The act is a trial for the Female Character to overcome.
  • The act is the source of the Female Character’s own supernatural powers.

Okay, fine. Now what if the scene had been deleted, or replaced with something else?

  • The scene that concludes with the act of rape, would without rape still serve as the climax of her story. As my friend and I discussed a few days ago, the summoning of the Supernatural Being is an incredible scene. It is shocking, horrifying, unexpected, meaningful – everything a good plot twist in a thoughtful book should be. (And then the Being leans her over a table and ZZZZZZZZZ and also UGH.)
  • Prior to the rape, the Supernatural Being demonstrates the extent of his supernaturality and cruelty in some pretty spectacular ways – emphasis on spectacle, with the Female Character acting as a horrified witness to the Being’s casual violence. Emphasis on horror, too, where “horror” denotes a class of events that falls so far outside of habitual human experience that we learn something about our own boundaries. (Not that horror is always meaningful! But there is a reason that the stories of historical cruelties still captivate.) Being supernatural, the Being could have done any number of things to the Female Character. It seems… odd, and out of place, that he chose to reenact that pool table scene from The Watchmen.
  • Setting aside the inherently problematic (and overused) trope of giving a female character a rape to overcome as a part of her character development: this Female Character has already overcome a great deal. Among other things, throughout the novel she negotiates a near-constant barrage of sexual harassment and objectification. Her response is to use these circumstances for her own gain, a compromise that earns her both power and damage. That was all well-written and well-considered, I thought. Adding one final, boss-battle outrage against her body just seems like overkill, an Intro to Fiction misstep.
  • And finally – the rape is the first act of sexualized violence in which the Female Character is utterly helpless (rather than complicit, and acting with some agency).  And it is the act that transforms her into a Supernatural Being herself. She is, in other words, a woman in her own refrigerator. She reminds me of the title character of The Wind-Up Girl, who does not discover her own strength until a barrage of unimaginably (yet attentively described) brutalizing circumstances pushes her past the point of endurances.  Not just brutal circumstances, but gendered circumstances. It reminds me, too, of that awful chapter in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men in which the narrator lovingly describes the stoic heroism with which a woman he knows survived a brutal attack. These are not flattering comparisons. They’re called Hideous Men for a reason.

To sum up: no, I can’t think of a single reason why this book – which I was prepared to love, which I did in fact love many things about – derailed me with an act of needless sexual violence. I question the choice to place rape in this seat of honor: narrative climax, boss battle, origin story. I don’t say that it should never be written.  I don’t even pretend to sketch out some rules about when it’s okay and when it is not okay.  I only want to ask – why is this here?

And I wouldn’t mind if authors, editors, and previewers would think to ask themselves the same.

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Blogs, logs, and plugs

I have updated my blogroll with a more transparent list of what I actually read on a regular basis.*  After Bloglines shut down, I tried on about a million feed-readers and finally settled on Netvibes.  Netvibes is a little complicated to explain, but I will try, because I have found it to be a useful organizational tool as well as an effective distraction.  Netvibes allows you to organize yourself a “dashboard” – or more (I have three).  You can add feeds and/or widgets to this dashboard, and view it in reader or widget mode.  Reader mode looks a lot like Bloglines: there’s a window for reading the posts and a sidebar with all of your feeds listed, and when new posts appear the blog is bolded with the number of posts next to it.
But widget mode facilitates my ongoing job search and my ongoing research.  My jobsearch dashboard includes a preview of my Gmail inbox, a preview of Craigslist’s writing/editing job page, two boxes of links to jobsites I check frequently (one for general publishing jobs and one for specific presses I follow), and a to-do box where I copy links to specific jobs I want to apply to later.  The Food Research dashboard is similar, but with links to Calls for papers and web previews of sites I refer to periodically, and – crucial to getting shit done! – a timer.

click to enlarge, but only slightly

If you join, I think there’s a social networking component I haven’t explored.  Look me up; I’m tanglethis, as usual.

Reading feeds is part of my daily routine; I check them when I wake up and when I get home from work, both to to keep tabs on issues that interest me and to unwind with some good reading.  The blogs I choose to read actually have considerable impact on what I know and how I think about it.  It sounds strange to say so; I think it’s not uncommon to feel suspicious of a fairly democratic medium, on which any asshole with an opinion (to paraphrase one of my grandmother’s aphorisms) can broadcast.  On the other hand, some folks who get payment and/or prestige for putting their opinions to print are publishing some truly ignorant and speculative fictions, so. . . Periodically I’d like to take time to respect and admire writers who write carefully, and with care.

Sometimes I’m a tl;dr reader, but lately the posts that cause me to reflect have been posted in something of a series.

  • Ta-Nehesi Coates has been reading Jane Austen, and he loves her.  I think Jane Austen can be somewhat of a divisive figure: people tend to either love her or find her quite overrated, and the former is nowhere near a cohesive group, peopled as it is both by fans of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and by diehard canonists who hate film adaptations except the BBC version.  For my part, I’ve never counted myself as among her biggest fans, but I devoured several of her novels in a week one summer when I had the time to do so.  Coates’ posts remind us that Austen remains readable in part because of her craft – her sculpted sentences, her gleefully dry sense of humor – and I appreciate seeing a male writer admire a female (and, as we culturally code her, extremely feminine!) writer this way.  But Coates also finds intersections between the world of Austen’s marriageable women and the language of hip hop, the texts of American slavery, and his own lifelong education.  I like this not only because I need to be reminded that gender and class always entangle themselves with race, too – easy for a white reader to forget in the ivory landscape of pre-Victorian gentry – but because Coates’ insights are more about why literature matters.
    You can search The Atlantic for Jane Austen, but here are some that stood out to me: “How do you teach beauty?” ; “Snobbery“; “No one man should have all that power“.
  • Captain Awkward has several posts on the art of saying NO – at work, in date situations, and more.  Captain Awkward knows you’ve been socialized to do everything in your power to avoid saying no, or telling people you don’t like what they’re doing, because expressing these negative sentiments are impolite!  Nonetheless, she insists, it is far more polite and safe to set clear boundaries as soon as possible; it’s much harder to tell people NO when you’ve already shown them what you’ll let them get away with.  Saying no gently, firmly, and immediately can save you a lot of irritation, or worse.
    This series has come up in conversation a lot lately; I know a lot of people who could use a refresher on being a little “impolite” in order to put an end to (or at least a damper on) bad coworker or date behavior.  I also wonder what I would have thought if I read these posts in my early twenties, when I needed to hear them most.   I am not sure if I would have understood then.  But now reading these posts is cathartic, almost, because I’ve been there and I know, right?
    No at work; No on dates; and more No.
  • The Fat Nutritionist has some food rules for you: eat food, stuff you like, as much as you want.  These posts are like a manifesto for intuitive eating, which is a concept that I may have alluded to in the paltry few of my “Body Unapologetic” posts, but is well described on FN’s blog.  The blogger, Michelle, has some fairly unpopular views that I happen to share: for example, that people are smarter than we give them credit for (or at least, they could be if we equipped them with information rather than punitive restrictions); that how other people eat is not really our business to judge or control; and that eating is about gaining (nutrition, energy, pleasure) not losing (weight, calories, whatever).  We want to eat food that is good;  No really, we want to eat food that makes us feel good; and for a bonus, “If only poor people understood nutrition!” (which includes a pyramid of food needs that I find pretty compelling).

*If you were previously on the blogroll and were removed, don’t feel sad; it’s just because your blog hasn’t seen an update in an even longer time than my blog.  If I know you and you want me to link you or at least read you, let me know!

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Filed under Body Unapologetic, Books, Fun with the internets, Gender, Lists

PQfEW: The Sphinx’s Riddle

One morning recently, I opened a book on mother-daughter relationships in fiction and was struck by this epigraph. As far as I can tell this is the poem (or “prosem,” as I sometimes call such things) in its entirety. I’m very interesting in looking up more of this woman’s work.

“Myth” by Muriel Rukeyser

Long afterward, Oedipus, old and
blinded, walked the roads. He smelled a
familiar smell. It was the Sphinx. Oedipus
said, “I want to ask you one question.
Why didn’t I recognize my mother?” “You
gave the wrong answer,” said the Sphinx.
“But that was what made everything
possible,” said Oedipus. “No,” she said.
“When I asked, What walks on four legs
in the morning, two at noon and three in
the evening, you answered, Man. You
didn’t say anything about woman.”
“When you say Man,” said Oedipus, “you
include women too. Everyone knows
that.” She said, “That’s what you think.”

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PQfEW: bell hooks on men and sexism

from Feminist Theory: from margin to center.

All men support and perpetuate sexism and sexist oppression in one form or another.  It is crucial that feminist activists not get bogged down in intensifying our awareness of this fact to the extent that we do not stress the more unemphasized point, which is that men can lead life-affirming, meaningful lives without exploiting and oppressing women.  Like women, men have been socialized to passively accept sexist ideology.  While they need not blame themselves for accepting sexism, they must assume responsibility for eliminating it. [. . .] Men are not exploited or oppressed by sexism, but there are ways in which they suffer as a result of it.  This suffering should not be ignored.

When I first read this paragraph months ago, I wrote in the margins “Wow!  Why is this so revolutionary?”

This is why I love bell hooks.  In one paragraph, she smoothly addresses the issues of male privilege and Patriarchy Hurts Men, Too – and with grace and surety.  Feminist Theory should be required reading for all undergrads, I think – I’ve never read such a plain and accessible yet sharp explanation of intersecting oppressions.

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Many selves

Two conversations and the PQfEW that sparked their memories.

1. Between myself and my first love, a year or more after the romance had ended and the rupture it left had started to close painfully together:
I don’t remember the context – perhaps I remarked on how much he’d changed over the last year, how he’d gone from fervently religious to agnostic and back again. He said he felt that he was the same person he had always been. I’m me, he insisted. There are always certain characteristics that define me. I’m loyal. Hard-working. Passionate.
I didn’t know how to disagree aloud, but I could see cracks in these identities he had chosen. Loyal to what, at whose expense? Passionate when and at what cost?

2. Many years later, I was drinking sour ale and waiting for a table with a former flame – the flame part was already former to this occasion of waiting. We regaled one another with tales of our shared history, of what we’d been and done since then. He said, I think you’re the same. Older. More grown-up. But the same.
I said I wouldn’t like to think so; I didn’t like who I was then. I didn’t add whether I thought he was also the same. There were some continuous threads: same cockiness, an occasional startling tenderness. I remembered those characteristics from our adolescence, but in truth I felt that the object of my infatuation from so long ago was not relevant to the person drinking sour ale with me that night.
He said, you think there’s nothing in us that stays the same? That we’re endlessly changing from the forces external to us? He didn’t say it quite like that; I’m sure he said it more eloquently and with a note of tender derision.
I thought, because it seemed like so much blasphemy to say that there was no kernel that is me. Am I nothing? Just a bundle of repeated behaviors and related images? But for the sake of argument I said yes, there is nothing. I may or may not have added, the sameness that you see in me is what you desire and fear to be the same.

3. And then there is Trinh Minh-ha saying the same thing more beautifully and with more hope. She says,

A critical difference from myself means that I am not i, am within and within i. I/i can be I or i, you and me both involved. We (with capital W) sometimes include(s), other times exclude(s) me. You and I are close, we intertwine; you may stand on the other side of the hill once in a while, but you may also be me, while remaining what you are and what i am not. The differences made between entities comprehended as absolute presences – hence the notions of pure origin and true self – are an outgrowth of a dualistic system of thought peculiar to the Occident.

So then, that idea that I am myself and not more or less than that – it is just an idea. One way of comprehending the incomprehensible. She says,

“I” is, therefore, not a unified subject, a fixed identity, or that solid mass covered with layers of superficialities one has gradually to peel off before one can see its true face. “I” is, itself, infinite layers.

And if so, there is no need to limit oneself to one self. No need to find the self, in that sense that it is something concrete that got lost or covered in dust. No need to hang onto the same self that you projected when you didn’t know what that self could or ought to be. A web, infinitely built and rebuilt, not sediment. No kind of rock, precious or not.

Quotes from Woman, Native, Other.

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Rey Chow on “the enemy”

Last fall I had a (brief) series that I called Powerful Quotes from Empowered Women.  Like many posts on my blog, it was mainly a tool to help me process material for my work – in the case of PQfEW, to gather thoughts for weekly response papers in Feminist Studies.  I’ve decided to continue that series, since in my reading I keep coming across staggering quotes from women who’ve managed to articulate my concerns or interests more accurately than I’ve yet learned how to do.  I may or may not comment on these excerpts, since my notes on them are usually for exam purposes, but you always should feel free to comment or ask questions about context.

From Rey Chow’s Writing Diaspora.  Italics are hers, bolding is mine (wanted to remember her names for the four tactics).

I use “enemy” to refer not to an individual but to the attitude that “women” is still not a legitimate scholarly concern.  Depending on the occasion, this enemy uses a number of different but related tactics.  The first tactic may be described as habitual myopia:  “You don’t exist because I don’t see you.”  The second is conscience-clearing genitalism:  “Women?  Well, of course! . . But I am not a woman myself, so I will keep my mouth shut.”  The third is scholarly dismissal:  “Yes, women’s issues are interesting, but they are separate and the feminist approach is too narrow to merit serious study.”  The fourth is strategic ghettoization:  since “women” are all talking about the same thing over and over again, give them a place in every conference all in one corner, let them have their say, and let’s get on with our business.  These tactics of the enemy – and it is important for us to think of the enemy in terms of a dominant symbolic rather than in terms of individuals, that is, a corpus of attitudes, expressions, discourses, and the value espoused in them – are not limited to the China field.  They are descriptive of the problems characteristic of the study of non-hegemonic subjects in general.

I find this passage useful because Chow describes acts of sexism that are performed or spoken by individuals, but emphasizes they are performed or spoken in the service of a larger system of ideas of which the performer or speaker may or may not be aware.  A lot of bloggers rely on the word patriarchy as shorthand for this ideology that minimizes or erases women, but I’ve noticed that some people are suspicious of the word or the anthropomorphization of a system of concepts.  Rey Chow, I think, nicely sums up the relationship of people and ideas in that system.

Besides, I can think of an example I’ve heard of every one one of those tactics.  Habitual myopia – the students of Dead White Guy literature who defend their narrow focus by insisting that it’s where all the Great Literature’s at.  Scholarly dismissal – the professor who waved away Eve Sedgwick in our weekly reading group because he just couldn’t see the applicability of her ideas, even though the rest of us could.  And so on and on. . . .

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PQfEW: Pre- and Post-colonial feminisms

Better late than never.

These quotes come from the anthology that I quoted from last week, Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures. The essays are mostly descriptive – they explain and contextualize some of the ways that feminism exists in so-called Third World countries. (The term Third World is problematic, but it is frequently used by these writers to refer to any country that is struggling to develop a national government, economy, and identity in the wake of American or European colonization.) But the essays are also a little prescriptive – they are warnings or maybe even chastisements to Western feminists who make Third World oppression their business without acquainting themselves with the colonial history that led to the present state.

Reading transnational feminism is challenging for me – world history is not my strong suit, and transnational feminists frequently employ sharp theoretical criticisms as well as material narratives. But the perspective is well worth the challenge – let me know if you want me to explain or clarify anything in this sampling.

“Throughout global history, with few exceptions, women, the feminine, and figures of gender, have traditionally anchored the nationalist imaginary – that undisclosed ideological matrix of nationalist culture. For example, at some point of their historical emergence, nations and nationalisms inevitably posit and naturalize a strategic set of relationships linking land, language, history, and people to produce a crucial nexus of pivotal terms – “motherland,” “mother tongue,” historical or traditional “mother culture,” “founding fathers,” etc.- that will hold together the affective conditions, the emotive core, of nationalist ideology and pull a collection of disparate peoples into a self-identified nation.”
“Nationalism is so powerful a force in the Third World that to counter the charge if anti-nationalism – the assertion that feminism is of foreign origin and influence, and therefore implicitly or expressly anti-national – the strategic response of a Third World feminism under threat must be, and has sometimes been, to assume the nationalist mantle itself.” Geraldine Heng, “’A Great Way to Fly’: Nationalism, the State, and the Varieties of Third-World Feminism.”
There are two important prongs to this argument. 1, sexism is often built right into the foundations of a developing nation – the metaphors Heng lists are certainly familiar, and they do reflect a pattern of figuring the nation as a female body that both nurtures/generates its citizens and requires those citizens to protect and possess it. Sometimes this weird gendering of land and people remains at the metaphorical level, but often enough it reifies a preexisting division of labor and urges the nation’s men to protect their women from the political sphere, and the women to replenish the supply of protective men. Heng quotes some staggering speechs from the Singapore prime minister along these lines. She also gives a very literal example of this appropriation of the female body for national image and ideology: the Singapore Girl, the sexy air hostess/mascot for Singapore Airlines. Publicity for SIA revolved around this sexualized, Orientalized image of a passive woman eager to provide comfort and satisfaction. This image crystallizes a number of ideological problems – the appropriated female body, the hypermasculine business world, the Westernization of the business world, without which this Orientalized icon wouldn’t have so much currency – but criticism from women’s activist groups was not successful in addressing those issues. Why? They were accused of trying to sabotage the Airline’s key to successful business – which leads to quote 2: feminism in the Third World might be seen as anti-modern when it attacks processes of development that disadvantage women, but it might also be seen as too modern as it is a product of the West.
Thus, despite all of the internal contradictions, feminism may very well take on the “mantle of nationalism” (a phrase that conjures an image of hiding underneath a big national flag, to me) in order to carry on the business of protecting women’s more immediate interests.

 

“Prevailing gender ideologies have much bearing on the types of violence that are manifested in a given context. The confinement of women to the economically dependent role of housewife is a condition that has made it difficult for many women to leave otherwise unbearably violent situations. In other words, the domestication of women is a precondition for the crime we define as domestic violence.” Amina Mama, “Sheroes and Villains.”This is a line in a larger argument about the types of oppression experienced by women in sub-Saharan African countries, and the ways in which women resist – that resistance is a huge point in each essay I read last week. The writers insist that we avoid falling into the trap of considering “other” women helplessly victimized – where there is oppression, as I said in an earlier post, there will be resistance.
But this quote jumped out because it could certainly apply to American women as well. I find the phrase “the domestication of women” particularly compelling… it sounds like the women are animals that are housetrained for practical use or enjoyment. In the instance Mama describes – the Congolese housewives hand-picked and trained to espouse the local men employed by the colonial regime there – this is not an exaggeration; one can observe vestiges of this kind of sexism in family values talk in our own political arena.

 

“To fully comprehend the struggles of native peoples, and specifically native women, we must also understand the US as an advanced colonial state, because territorial colonization remains integral to the relationship between the state and native peoples.”
“Unlike other racially subordinated groups whose relationship to the American state have been defined largely by forced exclusion, the relationships of native peoples have been predicated on practices of forced inclusion.” Marie Anna Jaimes Guerrero, “Civil Rights versus Sovereignty.”
In case you forgot, the United States began as a colony – and, although we like the heroic story of breaking off from the big mean empire, the first and continuous story is one of disenfranchising a pre-existing nation – well, a multitude of pre-existing nations. This essay describes the ways in which the United States not only rewrote the citizenship and government of the indigenous people, but also superimposed a patriarchy onto cultures that practiced various degrees of matriarchy, gender equality, or gender fluidity.
Two phrases that are useful and meaningful: I’m not completely sure what Guerrero means by advanced colonial state, but it does seem that the US is one of few colonies that has not only maintained its political control over the land and indigenous people for centuries, but is pretty successful at disabling the indigenous culture: Native Americans can choose reservation or assimilation, both of which are largely dictated by US standards. Also, forced inclusion is a succinct way of describing exactly what “assimilation” means – it is not a synonym of integration, which suggests agency and cooperation.

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