Archive for the ‘feminism’ Category

Even if Julian Assange is exonerated to the satisfaction of all and sundry, it will still be true that:

  1. Michael Moore, Keith Olbermann, and plenty of other people with far less influence have published information about Assange’s accusers, including their names and enough personal information to allow the truly sadistic types to locate and harm them. (Though I suppose some might make the argument that this would be a form of justice if the accusers were lying. Because women who lie about being raped deserve to actually be raped. We’ll give them something to lie about!)
  2. Michael Moore and others have mischaracterized the nature of the accusations against Assange, repeating the tired “sex by surprise” and “broken condom” rumors rather than acknowledging that Assange is actually accused of using force to hold one woman down and penetrating another while she was asleep, acts which would be considered rape under any definition. (Well, unless you’re Naomi Wolf. And if you’re Naomi Wolf, please, for the love of god, get a GRIP on yourself.) This was perhaps slightly understandable when the accusations first aired, when the reporting was spotty and Assange’s attorneys were making disingenuous statements and no one had yet thought to ask Professor Google about whether the Swedish legal code really criminalizes unprotected consensual sex (for crying out loud, of course it doesn’t; as Kate Harding said on Twitter, “Seriously, where the hell do @MMFlint, @KeithOlbermann & friends think Swedish babies come from?”), but by the time Michael Moore got around to sneering about this on Countdown there was just no excuse for repeating that mendacious bullshit.
  3. Sady Doyle and various other feminists who have spoken out on this subject have been subjected to rape and death threats. Speak out against rape culture and watch, amazed and repulsed, as various misogynistic creepy-crawlies slither out of the woodwork to try their damnedest to make you regret it.
  4. Trolls (many of whom were clearly men tweeting from fake or anonymous accounts; what are they afraid of? It’s not like they’re going to be threatened with sexual violence) are posting rape jokes and other pretty vile stuff under the #MooreandMe hashtag because, oh lolz, you guys, there are like so many women who have been raped reading those tweets right now, and we will make them so sorry for that, we will remind them that they’re not safe, not anywhere, not ever. And it’ll be hilarious.

None of these things will cease to be true at any point. None of these things will cease to be completely and overwhelmingly fucked-up at any point.

And women like me who have been fortunate enough never to have been raped are watching this unfold, and some of us are feeling that sinking dread, that nausea, that comes with the realization that if we ever are raped, this is also what we will face if we make the mistake of thinking we deserve to be heard. I can’t speak for all of those women, but I know that for me, at least, this has been horrifying enough to witness even from my relatively comfortable vantage point. I’m not an accuser and I’m not high-profile enough to draw attention; I’m nobody, really, just some person tweeting and re-tweeting and clicking links and snickering at Keith Olbermann’s repeated flounces.

But I’m also watching very, very carefully. And wondering who will rape me, and how much society will punish me for it.

I know that regardless of the outcome in this situation, I have nothing to answer for. I wonder if rape apologists can say the same.

So. Julian Assange.

Is that guy blond, or what?

There have been plenty of smart people who’ve written plenty of smart things about the allegations of rape against Assange. I may or may not have something smart to add to the conversation, but first I want to link to the two best pieces I’ve read on the subject so far, which each approach it from a different—and worthwhile—perspective: the first is from bfp at flipfloppingjoy, and the second from Maia at Capitalism Bad; Tree Pretty.  They’re both excellent posts, but I’m grateful for bfp’s in particular because it led me to interrogate my own feelings on this subject a bit more closely and to understand what is and is not valuable about the way I’ve approached it.

My response when I read about the allegations, and the reaction to them, was entirely reflexive. The part of me that hates the way that we talk about rape, and rapists, and rape victims—the part that wrote this post—went straight into myth-debunking mode. And while I think that’s useful and appropriate, for reasons I’ll elaborate on in a bit, it’s also something that requires some deliberation. Because that discussion cannot be about criminal retribution. I agree with bfp completely—and have said as much in the past—that an appeal to the state to dispense justice carries with it terrible consequences. Ultimately, whatever power we invest in the state is power that will, as bfp said, be used against us.

But that doesn’t imply that consequences shouldn’t be discussed at all, because consequences can be part of prevention. What I think it does imply is that we should work to redefine those consequences as something to be enforced by the community, rather than by the state.

And that means talking about rape culture.

Rape culture attempts to protect rapists from social consequences, e.g. shame and isolation, by normalizing, minimizing or flat-out denying instances of rape. This is made easier or more difficult by the rapist’s power relative to the victim’s, because power bestows an assumption of credibility and credibility determines who will be believed and supported. So to some extent rape apologists work to widen that power/credibility gap, and anti-rape activists work to narrow it. One way this often plays out is that victims are slandered and made unrapeable. This is why rape prevention so often focuses on deconstructing narratives about victims, e.g. what they look like and how they act, because those narratives exist to narrow the definition of “rape victim” until it excludes almost all women and precludes the possibility that they will be taken seriously if they step forward.

But there’s another way to widen that gap, and it can be even harder to confront because it relies not on defaming victims (something which runs the risk of being perceived as unjust) but on delineating the boundary of “those who commit rape” in such a way that all assumedly-decent people will fall outside of that boundary. This implicitly strengthens the credibility of many men who are accused of rape by stipulating that rape is not something they could possible have committed. Put another way: if rapists are terrible people, it simply follows that people who are not terrible cannot be rapists. And thus men who are viewed positively by their communities as a result of their social privilege— “good” men; “family” men; “pillars of the community”— cannot, by definition, commit rape. Which not only robs their victims of the chance to be heard and believed, but also ensures that rape accusations will only ever be taken seriously when leveled at men with very little social privilege to begin with. And this simply reaffirms our belief that those men, themselves, are hardly human.

We’ve essentially defined rape out of existence except to the degree that acknowledging it suits our purposes, and allegations against men like Julian Assange and Roman Polanski provide an opportunity to confront that dynamic in a way that can receive wide exposure. So I do think that this is an important discussion to have. Undermining rape culture is a necessary part of, as bfp says, “ending rape to begin with, rather than punishing after the fact.”

But. While this discussion is important, I also think it’s a bit of a red herring.

Because Julian Assange is not WikiLeaks.

The former is being held without bail in Sweden; the latter is the focus of a far more ominous and dangerous campaign being conducted in the form of denial-of-service attacks, the freezing of accounts, and government disruption of the public’s attempts to support the organization financially (whether online or via snail mail). The fact that Assange has been subjected to politically-motivated persecution (and he clearly has; to believe otherwise would require some fairly naïve assumptions about the importance typically given to the prosecution of rape as a crime) is in large part a result of his success at making himself the face of WikiLeaks. This was arguably a bad decision on his part, and it’s not one that we, the public, are required to affirm by continuing to conflate the individual and the organization.

WikiLeaks would be stronger, and Assange himself would likely be safer (though I suppose the damage is done on that count), if the two were thoroughly decoupled. If we’re invested in the fate of WikiLeaks as an organization, we need to be aware of the threats being posed to it directly. Concern for Assange is understandable given the possibility that he may be extradited to the U.S. and forced to stand trial for espionage, so I’m not advocating that we all maintain a position of cold indifference to the risks he faces.

But we can’t preserve transparency by defending Julian Assange any more than we can end rape by punishing him.

Images from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/r_sh/ and http://www.flickr.com/photos/nigsby

The verdict in the Oscar Grant trial was read yesterday: involuntary manslaughter. Sentence of four years possible, with two years likely (and possibly three to ten more for the charge of using a gun).

Let’s all take a moment to reflect on the fact that Michael Vick received a 23-month sentence for dogfighting charges.

Rather than embarrass myself trying to form the sort of cogent analysis that’s already been provided by people like Adam Serwer and the writers at Color Lines, I’ll just point in their direction. Racialicious also has a fascinating post up juxtaposing quotes and images from the aftermath of the trial, including the much-anticipated “violent protests.” Luckily, the police arrested upwards of 80 for such devastating crimes as “failure to disperse,” so we know shit’s being handled. I almost expected to hear that some unfortunate protester had been shot by an overzealous officer who’d missed the “Slingshot or Semiautomatic? Learning What the Fuck Weapons Look Like” training course, thereby bringing us full circle. Glad to be wrong about that.

Probably unsurprisingly, I agree with the afore-linked posts, and most of the other left-wing and progressive coverage of the trial, that this outcome only resembled justice in the most remote sense, and then only because it was the first conviction of its kind. In particular, I’m appalled that Mehserle’s stated defense is actually being treated as anything but nonsensical. Even if he truly were so incredibly bad at his job that he honestly mistook his gun for his Taser, both at the point of drawing it and at the point of firing it—in which case, please never issue this man any weapon more dangerous than a Super Soaker ever again—there is simply no reason for him to have pulled any weapon in that situation. Oscar Grant was lying on his stomach, handcuffed, surrounded by multiple police officers; it’s difficult to imagine a situation in which any individual could pose less of a threat, and he no more deserved to be Tased than he deserved to be shot. The weak excuse that Mehserle supposedly saw Grant reach into his pocket for a weapon doesn’t hold even a drop of water—what on earth would have been Grant’s motivation for pulling a weapon, even if he’d had one? Again: handcuffed, lying on his stomach, surrounded by police officers. He’d lived 22 years in this society as a black man. Surely he was perfectly aware of the risk to his physical safety posed by the police in any situation, let alone one that highly charged. I suppose this explanation of Mehserle’s conduct was accepted as valid by the jury (and the media) because, well, we all know that black people just aren’t very smart. Dude reached into his pocket and got shot. Why should we be so surprised? Bell curve, people. Bell fucking curve. (Do I need to make it clear that this is sarcasm? I guess it wouldn’t hurt.)

Nearly all mainstream media coverage of the trial has been terrible, if instructive, in that it’s concerned itself so much more with the supposed riots (“Riots are expected any second in Oakland!” “Riots are happening right this very second in Oakland!” “Here are some pictures of a window in Oakland that is broken right this second from the riots that totally happened just like we said they would!”) than with the actual verdict. Not surprising, and only disappointing if you expected better.

I didn’t. But there are people I did expect better from, and one of them disappointed me terribly yesterday. Silvana Naguib, who blogs at Tiger Beatdown under her full name and Bitch Ph.D. under her former pseudonym, M. LeBlanc, posted what struck me as two unbelievably wrongheaded tweets:

Once again, pretty uncomfortable with entire twitterstream bemoaning a guilty verdict. By a jury. #thishowjusticeworksyall

I am glad that everyone seems to know that mehsehrle should spend life in prison b/c they watched a video. This is why we have trials.

I want to preface this by saying that I’ve been an M. LeBlanc* fangirl for years; she’s one of my all-time favorite writers. She strikes me as one of the least-myopic big-name feminist bloggers and I’ve always admired her integrity. In fact, this post, which I linked to in a previous entry of mine, has actually done quite a lot to shape my opinion on the intersection of feminism, racism, and the justice system. And I simply can’t reconcile the person who wrote that linked post with the person tweeting that we should all sit down and be quiet and accept the Grant verdict because a trial by jury equals justice, by god, and so what if you actually watched Mehserle shoot an unarmed man in cold blood; what are you going to believe, the scales of justice, or your lying eyes? And the fact that the jury was purged of African-Americans** is irrelevant, because shut up, that’s why.

She caught a bit of heat for her tweets, including from me here, and responded to her followers at large here. I tried again here; no response. It was a surreal exchange, to say the least. To see M. LeBlanc, of all people, implying that one can’t question the outcome of a trial in which a white police officer shot a black man with no provocation and was subsequently convicted of the mildest form of manslaughter by a cherrypicked jury unless one can point to a flaw in procedure honestly left me wondering if someone had hijacked her Twitter account. Does this really need to be explained? That context matters? That racism almost certainly informed the actions of the defendant and the views of the jury? That this is likely true even if the jury doesn’t stand up and say, “We declare Mehserle innocent because we think Grant had it coming and his life really isn’t worth a damn to us anyway because he’s black”? Not every trial will have a Mark Fuhrman, and systemic racism does not always manifest itself in obvious ways that we can point to and yell “HA! RACISM!” If, as Adam Serwer wrote, every single one of those jurors agreed that Mehserle’s fear of Grant was justified because Grant was black, that may not be a procedural error, no. But it’s also not justice.

And that dig about the Youtube video? Ridiculous. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that the details of the case would have raised many hackles even without recorded evidence of the murder, because we’ve been down this road before. (Sean Bell, anyone?) With that evidence, even the most obstinate have to admit that something went very, very wrong in that BART station on New Year’s Eve; that video is probably the only reason we have a conviction at all. We all saw Mehserle shoot a prone and restrained Oscar Grant in the back, and the resultant outrage was undoubtedly a driving force behind the finding of accountability. So now that outrage is mock-worthy? Now we’re just an angry mob with a “thirst for blood“? Is it even possible to be more insulting towards the people who would question the assumption that a police officer’s actions are de facto justified and that a black man’s life is worth nothing?

I do understand her intent. She’s making the point that the court of public opinion can’t be trusted to determine guilt, and that this is why we have juries and the right to a fair trial. But I’d argue that the public’s trust in that process has been undermined by these sorts of outcomes. To declare, “This outcome is a result of the proper functioning of the justice system, and therefore represents justice” begs the question of whether the system actually exists to dispense justice in the first place, particularly for those who have been deemed expendable by the state. Those of us who challenge this verdict believe it does not. If she wants to argue that it does, fine, but it seems to me that she’s arguing against both historical context and her own previous statements to the contrary. And if anything strikes me as knee-jerk, it’s her tweets ridiculing the rest of us for giving a damn.

At any rate, yes, someone was definitely wrong on the internet yesterday. But so many other people were right, and more good reading on the subject can be found here, here and here. The Department of Justice has also announced that it will be conducting its own investigation of the murder, and a civil suit is likely, so there may be other opportunities for some form of justice in this particular case. But that doesn’t address the larger context of racism and state violence which ensures a never-ending supply of Sean Bells and Oscar Grants. And I worry that we’ll forget about this until it happens again, at which point we’ll forget that it’s happened before. Unless we make the effort to remember.

*Still have a hard time thinking of her as Silvana.

**I mistakenly tweeted that Mehserle was convicted by an all-white jury; it did include people of color, but no black jurors.

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The verdict in the Oscar Grant trial was read yesterday: involuntary manslaughter. Sentence of four years possible, with two years likely.

Worth noting that Michael Vick received a 23-month sentence for dogfighting charges.

Rather than embarrass myself trying to form the sort of cogent analysis that’s already been provided by people like Adam Serwer and the writers at Color Lines, I’ll just point in their direction. Racialicious also has a fascinating post juxtaposing quotes and images from the aftermath of the trial, including the supposed “violent protests” that swept Oakland after the verdict was read. Said violent protests, according to such outstanding media outlets as the Huffington Post, seem to have consisted mostly of the looting and ransacking of a Foot Locker and a jewelry store. Oh, and someone set a few trash cans on fire. Beware the incendiary rage of the urban minority population!

Luckily, the police arrested dozens of people for “failure to disperse,” so we know shit’s being handled. I was almost expecting to hear that some unfortunate protester had been shot by an overzealous officer who’d missed the “Slingshot or Semiautomatic? Learning What the Fuck Weapons Look Like 101” training course, thereby bringing us full circle. Glad to be wrong about that.

Probably unsurprisingly, I agree with the afore-linked posts, and most of the other left-wing and progressive coverage of the trial, that this outcome only resembled justice in the most passing of ways, and then only because it was the first conviction of its kind. In particular, I’m appalled that Mehserle’s stated defense is actually being treated as anything but nonsensical. Even if he truly were so incredibly bad at his job that he honestly mistook his light and non-holstered Taser for his heavy holstered gun, both at the point of drawing the weapon and at the point of firing it—in which case, get that incompetent asshole off the streets, for fuck’s sake, and please never issue him any weapon more dangerous than a SuperSoaker—there is simply no reason for him to have pulled any weapon in that situation. Oscar Grant was lying on his stomach, handcuffed, surrounded by multiple police officers; it’s difficult to imagine a situation in which any individual could pose less of a threat, and he no more deserved to be Tased than he deserved to be shot. The weak excuse that Mehserle supposedly saw Grant reach into his pocket for a weapon doesn’t hold even a molecule of water—what on earth would have been Grant’s motivation for pulling a weapon, even if he’d had one? Again: handcuffed, lying on his stomach, surrounded by police officers. He’d lived XXX years in this society as a black man—surely he was perfectly aware of the risk to his physical safety posed by the police in any situation, let alone one that highly charged. I suppose this explanation of Mehserle’s conduct was accepted as valid by the jury (and the media) because, well, we all know that black people just aren’t very smart. Dude reached into his pocket and got shot. Why should we be so surprised? Bell curve, people. Bell fucking curve.

Nearly all mainstream media coverage of the trial has been terrible, if instructive, in that it’s concerned itself so much more with the supposed riots (“Riots are expected any second in Oakland!” “Riots are happening right this very second in Oakland!” “Here are some pictures of a window in Oakland that is broken right this second from the riots that totally happened just like we said they would!”) than with the actual verdict. Not surprising, and only disappointing if you expected better.

Obviously, I didn’t. But there are people I do expect better from, and one of them disappointed me terribly yesterday. Silvana Naguib, who blogs at Tiger Beatdown under her full name and Bitch Phd under her former pseudonym, M. LeBlanc, posted what struck me as two unbelievably ignorant tweets:

XXX

XXX

I want to preface this by saying that I’ve been an M. LeBlanc* fangirl for years; she’s probably my favorite writer on Bitch Phd’s blog. This post, which I linked to in a previous entry of mine, has actually done quite a lot to shape my opinion on the intersection of feminism, racism, and the justice system. She strikes me as one of the least-myopic big-name feminist bloggers and I’ve always admired her integrity. So those tweets were a bit… disconcerting.

I simply can’t reconcile the person who wrote this post with the person tweeting that we should all sit down and be quiet and accept the Grant verdict because a trial by jury equals justice, by god, and so what if you actually watched Mehserle shoot an unarmed man in the back; what are you going to believe, the scales of justice, or your lying eyes? Oh, and racism has ceased to exist, apparently. So the fact that the jury was purged of African-Americans and that a non-trivial percentage of the jurors (I’ve heard between one-fifth and one-half) had relatives in law enforcement is irrelevant, because shut up, that’s why.

She caught a bit of heat for her tweets, including from me here, and responded to her followers at large here. I tried again here; no response. It was a surreal exchange, to say the least. To see M. LeBlanc, of all people, imply that one can’t question the outcome of a trial in which a white police officer shot a black man with no provocation and was subsequently convicted of the mildest form of manslaughter by a cherrypicked jury unless one can point to a flaw in procedure honestly left me wondering if someone had hijacked her Twitter account. Does this really need to be explained? That context matters? That racism almost certainly informed the actions of the defendant and the views of the jury? That this is likely true even if the jury doesn’t stand up and say, “We declare Mehserle to be innocent because we think Grant had it coming and his life really isn’t worth a damn to us anyway because he’s black?” Not every trial will have a Mark Fuller, and systemic racism does not always manifest itself in obvious ways that we can point to and yell “HA! RACISM!” If, as Adam Serwer wrote, every single one of those jurors agreed that Mehserle’s fear of Grant was justified because Grant was black, that may not be a procedural error, no. But it’s not justice.

And that dig about the Youtube video? Ridiculous. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that the details of the case would have raised many hackles even without recorded evidence of the murder, because we’ve been down this road before. (Sean Bell, anyone?) With that evidence, even the most recalcitrant have to admit that something went very, very wrong in that BART station on New Year’s Eve; that video is probably the only reason we have a conviction at all. The world saw Mehserle shoot a prone Oscar Grant in the back, and the resultant outrage was undoubtedly a driving force behind the finding of accountability. So now that outrage is mock-worthy? Now we’re just an angry mob “out for blood”? Is it possible to be more insulting towards the people who would question the idea that a police officer’s actions are de facto justified and that a black man’s life is worth nothing?

I do understand her intent. She’s making the point that the court of opinion can’t be trusted to determine guilt, and that this is why we have juries and the right to a fair trial. But I’d argue that the public’s trust in that process has been undermined by these sorts of outcomes. “This is justice because it was dispensed by the justice system” begs the question of whether that system actually can be assumed to dispense justice consistently, particularly for anyone who’s been deemed expendable by the state. Those of us who challenge this verdict believe it can’t. If she wants to argue that it can, fine, but it seems to me that she’s arguing against both historical context and her own previous statements to the contrary. And if anything strikes me as knee-jerk, it’s her tweets ridiculing the rest of us for giving a damn.

You know, I consider it a testament to feminism that misogyny is becoming so darn sneaky.

At first blush, this article actually seems to contain something which might resemble actual sympathy towards women and the complicated relationship we have with our bodies. It’s patronizing, granted (“All right, fellow dudes, time for me to do a little explainin’ about the ol’ ladybrain!”), but it seems almost sincere, really. Guys don’t get what it’s like to live in a female body, argues the author, one William Leith. They aren’t steeped in the same toxic brew of incessant marketing campaigns, impossible standards of thinness, and photo manipulation; they’re “not at the mercy of corporate manipulation on remotely this scale.” He even goes so far as to acknowledge the iconic significance of the female body and its function as an aesthetic object subject to the cultural gaze. The guy’s no Germaine Greer, but I’d call that Feminism 101.5, at least. And he isn’t wrong that women are simply held to a higher standard, and yeah, most guys don’t get it because they aren’t really required to.

So what should we do with this knowledge of the unique pressures to which women are subjected?

Uh, revert to gender essentialist crap about our caveman ancestors, I guess:

But why are women so much more vulnerable to pictures of perfect bodies than men?

In his book The Evolution of Desire, the American psychologist David Buss goes some way towards explaining why this should be so. Since the Stone Age, he explains…

Whew, I was starting to worry that all of this beauty stuff was cultural! Evolutionary psychology to the rescue! Why don’t I go ahead and sum up the rest for you, so you can spend that extra three minutes, I don’t know, eating a delicious cupcake, instead of having to ingest the regurgitated chunks of pseudo-science ejected by Mr. Leith.

It turns out that women are right to be insecure about their looks, because men value youth and beauty because FERTILITY, DUH, and guys just don’t understand that pressure because women are (of course) hard-wired to prefer older dudes. So if you’re a man, you don’t have to do anything other than, um, age? And possibly learn how to spear mastodons in a very manly way? Or something? It’s totally biological, is the thing, and wow, it kind of sucks to be female, doesn’t it? Let’s hear some sympathy! Let’s try to understand why the ladies have meltdowns by reading some Naomi Wolf and completely missing the point about how beauty is a fucking social construction, subjective and ever-shifting so as to more easily trap each woman in her own private purgatory of obsession, despair and, above all, consumption.

Pieces published in mainstream media outlets which purport to explore the destructive power of the beauty ideal always, always fall back on the Just-So School of Social Critique: yep, the status quo sure is unfortunate, but we’re just kinda hard-wired this way and there’s nothing to be done about it, so tough bananas. Because an acknowledgement of the fact that the ideal is culturally mandated would raise a whole host of scary questions about why it exists, and to what purpose, and for whose benefit.

What’s interesting to me—and this is why I decided to write about this here, because sexism in the Telegraph isn’t really a rare enough occurrence to warrant firing up the keyboard—is that feminist theory seems to have penetrated the mainstream enough that it’s considered wise to acknowledge the pressures women face to obtain physical perfection, but articles like this one make it clear that there’s a certain line that just can’t be crossed. Which, to me, throws the whole farce into even sharper relief than avoiding the subject altogether would. Drum up sympathy for the impossible position women are in, sure, but suggest that this position is anything but inevitable? Out of line. Thank god for evo psych! How would we walk that tightrope without it?

But, really, what the fuck do I know? I’m just a feminist, hard-wired to be grumpy and critical of all of the poor William Leiths out there, emissaries from the land of Female Neurosis sent to educate the benighted citizens of Dude Nation. Me? I’ll probably die alone. Trampled by a mastodon.

I was lucky enough to see Angela Davis speak at San Jose State a few days ago. What an amazing woman. Also, I thought, an excellent speaker: careful and deliberative in her word choice, which I appreciate, and her commentary was interesting and thought-provoking and even amusing throughout. I forgot to bring something with me to take notes on, but when I got home afterwards I figured I’d do my best to write up a summary, both to help myself retain it and to detail it for those who might be interested.

The bulk of her talk centered on social justice and organizing, with a particular focus on the evolution of our understanding of freedom. She stressed the importance of always allowing for our notion of what freedom means, and who is worthy of it, to be challenged and expanded. In fifty years, will we look back on this period and wonder how transpeople, or immigrants, or the disabled, could have been treated—even by social justice activists!—as less worthy of that freedom? How can we ensure that our movements are truly all-encompassing and continue to evolve with our understanding of equality?

She mentioned that her generation tends to look down on today’s youth, to condemn them for their apathy, for their lack of involvement and organization and activism. But she continues to place her faith in the younger generations; she contrasts their greater understanding of the connections between racism and homophobia and sexism and all forms of oppression with that of the activists of the 60s, who had a much more limited view of who truly deserved civil rights. She’s also impressed by the tech-savviness of the younger generation, by their utilization of the internet and social networking as powerful organizing tools. She feels that young people are still passionate and motivated, but that their activism simply looks different from what her generation might expect.

My friend Juliet, who saw the talk with me, pointed out that Davis remains “the inveterate optimist”. Powerful interests have tried to silence and intimidate and imprison her; she’s been targeted by counter-intelligence programs, fired for her political associations, even put on trial for murder. But she’s still an idealist. And her idealism isn’t blind, but rooted in pragmatism and an understanding of history.

She used Obama’s election to illustrate the danger of blind idealism. So many pinned their hopes and dreams on his election, which she believes is characteristic of the American desire for messiah figures. We designate and elevate one particular charismatic individual and wait for him (always a him) to effect change, rather than acknowledge that, historically, change has come from the unnamed organizers and activists and citizens, those forgotten by the historical record. Martin Luther King, Jr. may be the name most associate with the civil rights movement, but the Montgomery Bus Boycott was successful as a result of the collective actions of female service workers. How many of their names can we recite now? But we need to acknowledge them, not least because we need to remember that the poor and the powerless have agency, and that, collectively, they can challenge even the most powerful interests.

But once we’d elected Obama, we felt we’d earned the right to rest on our laurels, no additional action needed. We waited—avidly, impatiently—for him to dispense justice and realize equality. And what did he do? Increased troop presence in Afghanistan. And where was the outrage? Where were the protests and the marches? We had failed to hold our messiah accountable.

And, in the end, “What good is it to have one black man in the White House when we still have a million black men in the big house?” Davis spent some time discussing the prison industrial complex, which is self-perpetuating insofar as it devours the resources that could be used to prevent the future incarceration of young people who can see no future for themselves. She allowed that there is a need to remove from society those criminals who have committed acts of violence, but this, of course, excludes the majority of the incarcerated. She cited a fairly alarming statistic: eighty percent of the women in prison are there on drug-related charges. She then flatly stated, to wide applause: “They should all be released. Now.”

She mentioned that prisoners are often voracious readers; as she put it, this is often the first real chance many of these men and women have to truly live a life of the mind. She contrasted this to the reality of university, particularly graduate, education. Today’s graduate students feel intense pressure, almost from the beginning of their studies, to market themselves, to publish, to professionalize and monetize their academic path. A main culprit of this shift has, of course, been the privatization—and subsequently the increased costs—of education. Education is now financed by sizable loans which need to be repaid; students therefore see themselves as, primarily, future members of the workforce. Thus has education become a commodity. She commended the success of the March 4th protests, particularly the use of the internet to broaden the scope of the movement from the local to the national stage, and shared a pretty amusing anecdote about how, when she was a young activist, a planned national protest had to be cancelled because the group didn’t have enough money to make the long-distance calls needed to organize the demonstrations.

Many of the questions posed after the discussion were quite thought-provoking. One questioner challenged her on whether we can really hold students accountable for (what some see as) their lack of activism given the barrier she’d mentioned. If students are expected to focus so heavily on professional development (and on working to pay their way through school), is it therefore fair to judge them for their inability to devote themselves to political activism? She clarified that she intended not to reproach younger generations, but to acknowledge the difficulties they face. And she believes they’ve risen to the challenge in their own ways, by changing the feel of activism from something deadly serious to something fun and accessible, something that incorporates art and music and humor and joy. She implied that youth has something to teach even the most hardened civil rights veterans: “After all, we told you to give up on the idea of electing a black junior Senator named Barack Hussein Obama to the White House.”

Another questioner asked how he could ensure that he avoided abusing the power he’d been bestowed through his activist work. She answered that the truly effective leaders are those who have scrupulously represented their constituencies, who have remained connected to the desires of the people. The abuse of power can be avoided by working closely with the groups one represents, by truly hearing and respecting their voices, by allowing oneself to be challenged and informed and changed by their struggle.

Another questioner, Fred Hershaw (whom she knew personally and described as one of the activists most dedicated to securing her freedom during her trial), drew a parallel between the Dred Scott decision and the current rhetoric around immigrants’ rights, and she acknowledged the similarity and briefly discussed the new immigration bill in Arizona and its function as a justification for racial profiling. “What does it mean for a person to be illegal? And we’re all immigrants. We’re all motivated by a desire for a better life.” And, as she pointed out, most immigrants are simply fleeing the poverty in their own countries, the poverty which exists as the grim offspring of NAFTA and global capitalism. Immigrants’ rights, in her view, is the most important civil rights movement of our generation.

If I’d had the guts, I would have asked her about the issues Brownfemipower discussed in her post on Feministe, about the convergence of sexual violence and our designation of certain bodies as “illegal”, particularly as it relates to the law in Arizona. This new legislation has particularly ominous implications for immigrant women, who face the threat not only of racial profiling but also of sexual assault and rape by law enforcement, and I would have been interested to hear her thoughts on how feminist and anti-racist organizations can best address that. But, alas. I was too intimidated.

I think I’ve summarized her talk fairly well here, though I’m sure I left some important things out. I didn’t really add any of my own commentary, so it’s fair to assume that everything written above (save the paragraph preceding this one) originated with her comments, though obviously I paraphrased like crazy. At any rate, I hope that this will be interesting reading to some!

Brownfemipower has a great guest post up on Feministe about citizenship and sexual assault. I can’t possibly do it justice with a summary, so I recommend clicking through and reading the whole thing.

I found this bit particularly poignant: “[Ending sexual violence] will require taking a good long look at what many feminists are deeply invested in: a nation/state response to sexual violence.” This is painfully apt in that quite a lot of anti-rape activism assumes that there is, and should be, a place for the criminal justice system at the table of proposed solutions. We struggle over how to make the police and the courts more responsive to sexual assault, how to support victims through the process of reporting and trial, how to draw media attention to abysmally low conviction rates. But these methods offer no recourse to the women most susceptible to sexual violence: those designated as illegal—whether in the technical or figurative sense—by the state. And as BFP points out, that designation, in addition to excluding them from traditional (read: white, middle-class) avenues of obtaining justice, also renders them vulnerable to state violence (including re-victimization should they report their assaults).

Of further concern is that when the system is responsive, it’s often in the service of destroying communities of color. Turns out that relying on a white-supremacist and patriarchal system to administer justice to victims of white supremacy and patriarchy is darkly ironic at best.

I think there’s some recognition of this in mainstream feminist activism. I know my advocacy training touched on the additional barriers faced by immigrants and women of color in seeking services. It was framed as a bit of consciousness-raising to get us to think about why, for example, not every victim of violence would jump at the chance to get the police involved. And most activists have a vague understanding of the limitations of the justice system, if only because we see how it fails even the “good” victims.

But these issues were presented as largely tangential; there was no real in-depth criticism of our approach as a whole. There was no discussion of whether our investment in making the criminal justice system more responsive to sexual violence might actually serve to reify said system’s power and, by doing so, increase the vulnerability of the populations both excluded and targeted by it. A courtroom victory is seen as a triumph by activists, but doesn’t that just legitimize the role of the state in meting out justice?

There have always been people excluded from that system, and they’ve had no choice but to develop their own methods of recourse and survival, e.g. models of community/restorative justice, or the testimonios BFP mentions in her post. But these forms of activism receive little recognition by mainstream organizations working to end sexual violence. I’m a certified sexual assault advocate, and I’d never heard of them until I started reading bloggers like BFP. In this as in so many things, we white feminists tailor our approach to the women who look like us, at the expense of the women who don’t.

And thus we become complicit in the same system we claim to want to destroy.

Fandom’s a fascinating thing, isn’t it?

It’s been years since I’ve been involved (former Lord of the Rings geek here), but I still remember my fandom days surprisingly clearly. As with so many things, this particular experience really looks different when I reflect on it now with a feminist perspective.

And after doing that, I have a theory, half-baked and rooted mostly in my own experiences though it may be. And I doubt it’s particularly original, either. So, here, have some caveats, I guess? At any rate, my theory is this: female-dominated fandoms have the potential to contribute to the subversion of gender roles and the weakening of patriarchy, while simultaneously reinforcing other forms of hierarchy and certain ugly social dynamics. (I also have this theory that Jared Padalecki is much hotter than Jensen Ackles, but that’s hard to prove, statistically.)

So, first off, a claim which I’m (fairly) sure will be uncontroversial: many of the popular female-heavy fandoms coalesce around movies or TV shows starring attractive male actors. Twilight, Lord of the Rings, Lost, Supernatural, even Harry Potter (creepy though it is to acknowledge this given the age of the fandom and the ages of the actors): there’s a common thread here, and that thread is the pretty, pretty boys.*

This, in itself, is subversive. Women motivated by their desire for men (as opposed to men’s desire for them)? Unpossible! So straight off you’re seeing a rejection of the typical feminine role. If you’ve never spent a day or two poking around female fandom, it can be quite enlightening, because lady behavior in online communities can be unbelievably dirty. Yes, it’s often objectifying. No, I’m not obligated to complain about it. I might be if female desire were catered to in society such that men were viewed primarily as objects rather than as full human beings—you know, the current situation in reverse—but until then, I just can’t be bothered to care about the plight of hot male actors. Come talk to me again after the revolution.

The second element of subversion in fandom is the creation of strong female friendships. Online communities often lend themselves to the formation of relationships that persist far beyond whatever shared interest drew participants together, and certainly fandom’s no different, though I think it has the potential to be more influential in this regard than other, more narrowly-targeted communities. Pop culture has a broad reach, after all. And anything that draws women into each others’ orbits and connects them in a supportive way is a threat to patriarchy.

The third element of subversion is the inspiration to creativity. Fandom has spurred many a non-writer to pen fanfic, many a non-artist to create fanart. MST3Ks** and satire abound. Some women cut their writerly teeth on fandom and become very influential bloggers or authors outside of it (cleolinda being the most famous example). And fangirls produce some of the best material you’ll ever read on the analysis and criticism of pop culture. It’s not that I think creativity, itself, is intrinsically subversive of femininity (in fact, I think creativity is gendered as feminine in many ways, at least to the degree that it remains unthreatening and unmonetized). But fandom gives women a way to find their voices, to realize that their talents and opinions matter. And the communities it creates are places to receive feedback and encouragement. These are the necessary ingredients for empowerment. They don’t guarantee it, but the potential is there.

These elements combine to become particularly powerful in the context of fandom because it can be deceiving at first, in that it feels reassuringly conventional. In the end, fandom is still centered on 1) male actors (“actor” used here in both senses of the word), and 2) pop culture, considered a “safe” interest for women in its triviality. Because feminism and political consciousness in our society are demonized, people will often reject them as concepts simply out of a desire not to be tarred with an unflattering brush. Fandom is a gateway drug. Even the most feminism-shy among us probably won’t see the danger in giggling with our girlfriends over a celebrity crush. And if we stumble over some type of awareness in the process, well, who could have predicted that?

But fandom’s not all sunshine and rainbows and picspam. For one thing, it’s far from a haven from misogyny. “Comprised of women” doesn’t necessarily imply “not sexist”. This can sometimes be seen in the way that certain female characters are treated. Call it the Hermione Effect; the amount of hatred she engenders is, I would argue, completely excessive given her flaws as a character. This dynamic sometimes extends to female actresses, too: the treatment of Evangeline Lily by the Lost fandom when it was first discovered that she was dating Dominic Monaghan was jaw-droppingly vicious. I won’t say that all female characters or actresses are hated by female fans—that wouldn’t be even remotely accurate (Eowyn, Bellatrix, and Professor McGonagall are a few examples of widely-beloved female characters). But I do think that when a female character or actress is designated as a target, the amount of vitriol directed at her is excessive, and I believe the explanation is sexism. (I also have a theory about why certain characters are designated as targets while others escape unscathed, but it’s still somewhat inchoate at this point and I’m not sure I have the evidence to back it up yet.)

Beyond that, fandom also reproduces other unpleasant social dynamics. There’s certainly a noticeable hierarchy in every online community, female or no. Not just in terms of snobbishness or cliquishness (though those are sadly common and, I think, probably more common in female-heavy spaces due to social conditioning), but also in terms of privileging certain voices over others. RaceFail ’09 is a great example of the kind of gigantic privilege clusterfuck fandom is susceptible to, though I suppose this example doesn’t support my point all that well, as I really don’t know what the gender makeup of the sci-fi/fantasy fandom is. I do think, though, that one would be hard-pressed to argue that male fandom is more prone to privilege blindness than female fandom (in areas other than gender, anyway).

To illustrate, here’s a mea culpa that’s long overdue: I played a non-trivial role, in the LotR fandom, in creating and sustaining an environment that was not queer-friendly (always a sore spot in fandoms dominated mostly by straight women). It’s too long of a story to even think about summarizing here and there’s no handy link to provide, but I need to say it all the same: I fucked up. I thought that because I read and wrote slash, I couldn’t be homophobic. I thought that presuming a person straight until proven otherwise was an assumption rooted in statistics, rather than heteronormativity. I dismissed the legitimacy of genderqueer identification and perpetuated transphobia. I didn’t understand that slash, itself, is fetishizing and that it repurposes queer sexuality for consumption by straight women.

I was wrong. I’m not doing this for cookies—I recognize that it’s easy to admit fault long after the events have occurred, and without directly facing the people you harmed—but because it just needs to be said. And I might as well use myself as an example to prove my point. Interesting that fandom, which played a non-trivial role in my own evolution as a feminist, was also where I fucked up so blatantly and publically. But to acknowledge this evolution, I have to own my mistakes.

At any rate, those are my hypotheses. I’m sure there are people doing proper scholarly work on fandom, and I might try to dig some of it up—I’m curious about how accurate my guesses are. If anyone reading this has anything they’d like to point me to, please do. I’d be just as interested in seeing where I’m wrong as seeing where I’m right.

*Apologies for the heteronormativity; I’m trying to make a larger point about the reversal of gender roles, but I don’t want to seem dismissive of the fact that female fandom does have a sizable queer contingent. Though from what I remember about my time in fandom, many of the most fanatical M/M slashers were queer women, so I think my point probably stands.

**Totally just dated myself here. I doubt anyone still writes these.