Inappropriate Conversation Topics: A Cautionary Tale

You may have noticed, dear readers, that I don’t post much about my personal life. This isn’t because I don’t have a personal life; mostly it’s just because my personal life isn’t very interesting. However, when I’m not busy blogging, or researching, or getting yelled at by my boss, I sometimes hang out with people. And, believe it or not, some of those people are dudes. There’s even this one dude whom I live with, and sometimes make out with. For the most part, these dudes are not terribly receptive to my crazy feminist ideas, but they mean well, so in general we all try to avoid the topic and instead discuss more neutral things, like Vulcan biology (the biology of Vulcans). However, every once in a while, one of them will say something like this:

DUDE: Have any of you noticed that all promiscuous women seem to have mental problems?*
BRETT: No.
DUDE: Well, you have mental problems, and you used to be promiscuous.
BRETT: WTF.

Needless to say, the conversation did not last long.

Note to men who socialize with women, feminist or otherwise: don’t make a completely unfounded and sexist argument, then try to back up that argument with WELL YOU’RE CRAZY AND KIND OF SLUTTY AMIRITE? It won’t work. You will, in fact, lose all of your Sensitive Points or Progressive Points or anything else you may have had in your favour. Seriously, just don’t.

Not to mention that this dude initiated this conversation in the presence of both my live-in makeout partner and my sister, who happens to be a totally emotionally stable young woman who has not only had casual sex, but at one point had casual sex with him.

Honestly, even I know better, and I once tried to flirt with a guy by offering to show him how far I could stick my finger into my eye.**

* I am not paraphrasing. This is exactly what he said.
** Yes, this really happened. And no, it didn’t scare him off. I still don’t know why.

The Male as Male in All His Masculine Male Complexity of Manliness

Back in the day when I was an undergraduate at the U of T, I took a class called Men, Gender and Power, 1500-1800. Said class was taught by the brilliant (and no longer retired!) Dr. Barbara Todd, and it dealt with the construction and performance of masculinity in early modern Europe. Dr. Todd talked about how masculine identity has evolved over time, how it was interpreted and performed by men who had little status within early modern patriarchy – working-class men, men of colour, enslaved men, men who had sex with men – and how the range of acceptable masculinities has shifted but ultimately narrowed over time. Prior to taking this class, the word patriarchy had just been an abstraction, and not one that I took very seriously: like many young women, I thought it was something that those silly feminists made up so that they’d have an excuse to complain. By the end of those twenty-six weeks, I understood that patriarchy is far more than a straw-man argument; I had seen the way it granted some men great power, as long as they were born into the right class and as long as they severely limited their self-expression. I had observed clear examples of the often arbitrary social construction of gender, and I soon found ways to relate that to my own experiences of gender, of patriarchy and of sexism. Strangely enough, studying men had turned me into a feminist.

The fact that it took a class on masculinities to get me interested in gender is worthy (because women’s issues with gender are so frivolous, of course, whereas men’s issues are Serious Business All The Time) of a post in and of itself, but what I want to talk about here is the purpose and the value of studying men and masculinity. Dr. Todd created this course because, like many feminist scholars, she felt it was important to highlight that gender is not something exclusive to women – and that by treating it as such, we only further reinforce the whole “men are people, women are women” ideology that has kept patriarchy going for so long. Moreover, she understood that patriarchy has generally benefited a small subset of men, and wanted to examine how other men, those men who belong to marginalized groups, relate to, and are affected by, masculinity. It was a great course. As I stated earlier, it probably made me a feminist, and it probably also made me a specific kind of feminist: that is, a feminist who spends a lot of time thinking critically about masculinity and how Patriarchy Hurts Men Too. A great deal of my feminism is rooted in the belief that dismantling patriarchy and the gender binary will benefit everyone, even those who currently benefit from patriarchy itself.

This is, more or less, why I find the idea of “Male Studies” so ridiculous.

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More Thoughts on Gender, Education and Income

The relationship between the gender gap in education and the gender gap in the workforce continues to hold my attention, even after two rather long blog posts. (This may have something to do with my being an overeducated and underpaid woman myself, but I digress.) Debates over it seem to spring up every once in a while in the blogosphere, and even with all the essentialist crap and ad hominem attacks that tend to dominate the discussions (it is the internet, after all), there’s always something there that makes me want to do more research and more arguing.

One argument that’s come up a few times is that statistics relating to the income gap cannot be indicative of current trends because they factor in the entire working population; theoretically, men will always come out on top in these statistics because of the number of older people in the workforce, whose careers began in periods of much greater inequality. Therefore, statistics relating to younger workers would be much more indicative of the way in which the workforce is heading now. This tends to go hand-in-hand with the argument that, with women entering higher education at such high rates, the wage gap will eventually reverse itself and begin to favour women.

The first point is certainly valid, to some extent; I looked into income statistics by age, and it does appear that the gender gap is quite a bit narrower among workers in their 20s and 30s – for example, in 2005, Canadian women aged 25 to 29 made 85 cents for every dollar that men make1; in the US in 2008, women aged 25 to 34 made approximately 88 cents to the dollar2. This seems promising until one takes into account the class dimension – in Canada, at least, female university graduates in their mid to late twenties make 89 cents to men’s dollar; conversely, women with a registered apprenticeship or a trade certificate make 65 cents to the dollar, and women with no high school diploma make 67. So, while the gap is fairly narrow for middle-class women (and, I guess, women willing to take out massive student loans), young working-class women are still at a huge disadvantage compared to their male counterparts.

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From Whitewashing to Equality Casting

Via Racialicious, a recent interview with M. Night Shyamalan shows that his racefail is not limited to the blatant whitewashing of all the characters (except the bad guys!) in his upcoming adaptation of The Last Airbender. A sample:

The great thing about anime is that it’s ambiguous. The features of the characters are an intentional mix of all features. It’s intended to be ambiguous. That is completely its point. […]

I was without an agenda, and just letting it come to the table. Noah is a photo double from the cartoon. He is spot on. I didn’t know their backgrounds, and to me Noah had a slightly mixed quality to him. So I cast the Airbenders as all mixed-race. So when you see the monks, they are all mixed. And it kind of goes with the nomadic culture and the idea that over the years, all nationalities came together.

Now, I’m not terribly familiar with Avatar: The Last Airbender, but based on what I’ve gathered from various blogs over the past couple of months, none of this is even remotely true. For one thing, the series was created by Americans, so it’s not technically anime. And while the races of the characters may not correspond exactly to real-world ethnicities, they were deliberately portrayed as non-White, to counteract the overwhelming whiteness of most American media. The cultures portrayed were apparently also modelled on real Asian and Inuit cultures – something that has also been eliminated from the film adaptation. And finally, Mr. Shyamalan might want to take a look at the actors he has cast in these so-called “ambiguous” roles. They aren’t remotely mixed-race. They are totally, unambiguously, White.

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Updates and Things

Hello there, fellow bookworms! I’m running off to Cuba tomorrow for some much-needed rest and relaxation (as it turns out, being an administrative assistant is no fun at all) so I’m going to be neglecting my duties as a blogger even more than usual for the next little while. Not to worry, though! I have several more posts planned for when I get back. And in the meantime, here’s some stuff you may or may not care about.

Things have been pretty crazy lately, in both the internet and non-internet worlds. Radical Bookworm is growing, slowly but steadily, despite my apparent inability to post consistently (I blame my job). It’s even developing something of a Google presence. I don’t know what exactly people expect when they search for “gender proportion usa historical” or “why canadians enjoy olympics”, but this is what they’re getting. (On a more sincere note, I was pretty psyched to find that my post on forced sterilization had been linked by FWD/Forward, which is an awesome blog that you should start reading, if you haven’t already.)

In other news, the University of Toronto’s undergraduate history journal is publishing one of my papers! Exciting, I know. Granted, those journals are pretty much just for nerds looking for something to put on their grad school applications (I admit nothing) but it’s still pretty damn cool. Fellow U of T nerds, take note: the journal is being released at the faculty-student social being held in the JCR at University College this coming Thursday. I will not be there, as I will be too busy lying on the beach drinking unlimited quantities of beer, but my sister has promised that she will go and pretend to be me. She’s tall, has short brown hair, and will probably be saying things like “Sorry, I can’t hear you over the sound of how awesome I am” because that’s how she thinks I talk. If you see her, say hi and remind her to record Supernatural for me.

Finally, you may know that March is Women’s History Month. I haven’t done much about it, since pretty much every month is Women’s History Month as far as I’m concerned. I have, however, been looking for an excuse to link to the Annales historiques de la Révolution française, which is an extremely old-school Marxist French historians’ review, whose archives, I recently discovered, are all available online. Even more awesome is the fact that back in 2006, they did an entire issue on women’s public political roles during the Revolution: La prise de parole publique des femmes. Unfortunately, it’s all in French, which I realize probably excludes the majority of the readership of an English-language blog, but it’s still pretty great to see real historical scholarship made available to the public.

Similarly, Robert Darnton and the American Historical Review have set up an interesting little site on news and media in eighteenth-century Paris, which includes an article summing up a lot of Darnton’s work on the subject as well as a number of primary documents he references. I realize that I am probably the only person who’s interested in this kind of thing, but it’s still great that it’s out there. Since leaving school, I’ve become incredibly frustrated at how elitist and inaccessible academic publications can be. This, if you ask me, is exactly what the internet is for, and it’s great to see it being used in that way.

Thanks for reading, everyone. I doubt I’ll post at all this week, but come back next week for more geekiness, exclamation points and righteous feminist rage.

In Defense of Pornography

As a feminist who likes porn, I often feel like a bit of an outsider in the feminist blogosphere. When I say I like porn, I don’t mean that I tolerate it or that I don’t believe it should be censored. I watch, and read, a significant amount of porn. I’ve written porn. I once wrote a thirty-page paper on eighteenth-century porn. I really, really, genuinely enjoy pornography. Which isn’t to say I like all of it, of course. That would be ridiculous, since a) pornography is a huge, diverse and hugely inconsistent genre, and b) most of it is terrible, and a lot of it is horribly misogynistic.

But neither of those characteristics – poor quality and gross misogyny – is inherent or necessary. Porn is defined simply by explicit depictions of sexual activity, and no one could legitimately argue that sex itself is demeaning to women. Porn, like all other forms of media, exists within a capitalistic and patriarchal culture; unfortunately, this means that the vast majority of it will be produced purely for profit, with no consideration for either quality, tastefulness or social justice. The problem is patriarchy, not pornography, and the solution to bad porn is good porn, not no porn at all.

All media has the potential to perpetuate stereotypes and oppression – in fact, most of it does. No one is immune to culture, particularly culture spread through mass media. But porn isn’t special. It reinforces sexist norms and gives people unrealistic ideas about sex and relationships because, in the age of television and the internet, pretty much all media does that. Chuck Klosterman made this argument in Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs: when we model our real-life experiences on those we see in fiction, life becomes an imitation of an (artificial, incredibly skewed) imitation. This is a problem, and porn is part of the problem – but so are sitcoms, and I don’t see anyone arguing that we should do away with those.

We need to acknowledge the difference between reality and fiction. We need to provide kids with adequate sex education, so they don’t have to get it from Slut School 3. We need to give help to people who suffer from porn addiction, just like we should help people with any other addiction. But most of all, we need good feminist porn.

Porn doesn’t have to be sexist! It doesn’t even have to cater exclusively to the male gaze! Pornography in previous centuries was actually comparatively woman-positive: the earliest pornographic texts, while they were still largely created by and for men, were almost always centred exclusively around woman. The most common format was that of a dialogue in which an older, more experienced woman recounted her sexual history to a younger, naive one. Thérèse philosophe, the most well-known pornographic novel of the eighteenth century, was the story of a young woman who discovers sex (and philosophy!) through masturbation. These books weren’t great literature, but the women in them had agency. Sex for them was empowering and fun, just as it should be in real life.

Porn may have gone downhill over the past 200 years, but I’m not giving up on it yet. As women are becoming more open about our sexuality (thanks, feminism!) more and more of us are watching, writing about and creating porn. Women like Belladonna and Tristan Taormino are starting to break into the mainstream. Toronto’s amazing co-operative sex shop Come As You Are even has a section on their website dedicated exclusively to female directors. The Fifth Annual Feminist Porn Awards (also check out their facebook page here)are coming up in a few short weeks (yes, I will be there, and will most certainly blog about them). Feminists may still be on the margins of porn, but we’re there, and we’re not going away.

Porn is like any genre; it’s not good or bad by definition. It can be done well, it can be done badly, and it has a tendency to reflect the norms and ideologies of the dominant culture. As anyone who has ever watched late-night TV knows, porn has the potential to degrade and objectify women – but it also has the potential to break down the silence surrounding sex, to encourage openness and to reduce guilt and shame. Which is pretty damn feminist, if you ask me.

Breaking News: Canadians Enjoy Hockey, Beer

I don’t care too much about the Olympics, but I was pretty psyched when the Canadian women’s hockey team won gold the other day (and not just because I’ve had a huge crush on Hayley Wickenheiser since the 2002 Olympics, either). I thought the pictures that were later released of their on-ice celebration – in which the players drank beer, smoked cigars and at one point attempted to drive the zamboni – were, well, pretty awesome pictures of great athletes celebrating an important (and well-deserved victory). The fact that there has been any controversy at all is baffling.

Yes, Marie-Philip Poulin is only 18. Big deal – that’s the legal drinking age in her home province anyway, and besides, she scored the two goals that won the game, so she can do pretty much whatever she wants at this point. And bad sportsmanship? Really? Millions of people are publicly celebrating the team’s victory, so why shouldn’t they get to have some fun?

Thankfully the IOC changed their minds about investigating the party, and the public as a whole has been supportive of the players, but the fact that an investigation took place at all, and that Wickenheiser was asked to publicly apologize for the offense they had caused, is ridiculous. (One woman interviewed on CTV said that, in her experience, you only apologize when you’ve done something wrong. I have to agree.) Howard Bryant of ESPN.com rightly pointed out the sexism of the whole thing, saying, “I can’t imagine Sidney Crosby puffing on a cigar after winning a gold medal turning into an international incident.” Damn right.

Tracy Clark-Flores at Salon concurs. As does Brad Cran, Vancouver’s Poet Laureate:

(In case you don’t know, the picture on the left is Canadian skeleton racer Jon Montgomery, who celebrated his gold medal win by walking down the street with a pitcher of beer and drew no criticism whatsoever.)

Lastly, if women’s hockey is insufficiently competitive because Canada is too dominant, the solution is not to eliminate it to the Olympics, but to lend more support to women’s sports. Hayley Wickenheiser and her teammates let the young women of Canada know that they can be just as good as the guys, and can party just as hard, too. Let’s keep it that way.

Ottawa Columnist Argues for Forced Sterilization

From Dr. Gifford-Jones of the Ottawa Sun: Should women who deliver FAS children be sterilized?

Short answer: No.

Long answer: No no no no NO what the fuck is wrong with people.

Seriously, Canada. First there was the story about medical students performing pelvic exams on unconscious women without consent – and weeks later, I’m still shocked and horrified at that – and now this? I used to think we had a pretty good track record when it came to women’s bodily autonomy and reproductive rights. And granted, I’m not at all familiar with the Ottawa Sun, but judging by its name and the fact that it looks strikingly similar to the Toronto Sun (a newspaper whose front page headline a few days ago announced that Tiger Woods has “no balls” – stay classy, Toronto Sun) I’m guessing that it’s not the most respectable publication. Nevertheless, the fact that something like this could be published at all – and in the “health and fitness” section, no less – is sickening.

I’m not going to argue that alcohol consumption can’t cause complications in a pregnancy, although, as Lisa Wade of Sociological Images points out, the risk of Fetal Alcohol Symdrone is a lot lower than most of us are led to believe, and is influenced by a number of factors, including malnutrition, poverty and even genetics. Women who are most liklely to deliver FAS babies, therefore, are women who have a very poor quality of life, and whose alcohol addiction is so severe that they cannot stop drinking heavily for even nine months. These women need help; instead, Dr. Gifford-Jones of the Ottawa Sun believes they should be forcibly sterilized. Here I thought we needed to address the socioeconomic factors behind issues like poverty and addiction; apparently all we really have to do is blame (and punish) the women who are most affected!

I guess my feeble lady-brain has been so clouded with feminist ideology that I forgot that women’s bodies are public property, and that some of us don’t deserve reproductive choice. It’s no coincidence that those women, according to Gifford-Jones, are mostly poor First Nations and Inuit women (who have higher rates of alcoholism, and therefore of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome). Low-income women of colour are perceived as public property anyway. This is just the next step. At least Gifford-Jones is honest about misogyny, though. The last paragraph of the article pretty much says it all:

Many argue that individual rights prevent sterilization of these women. But surely there must be legislators who believe that an innocent fetus has more rights that an alcohol-sodden mother. For babies’ sake, legislation should end this tragedy.

Fetuses having more rights than women: totally okay, apparently. And here I was, thinking I was a human being or something. Ugh.

The Abuses of History

The story of racism and eugenics, in the United States and elsewhere, is a story that needs to be told. Moreover, it is a story that needs to be told by feminists, because it is a story that was and still is written on our bodies, and one which continues to have implications for the way we understand reproductive choice. It was through women’s bodies, and our sexuality, that race as we understand it was constructed. It was through repeated violations of our bodily integrity – whether forced sterilization and forced abortion or forced birth – that eugenicist experiments were carried out. It is a story with repercussions that continue into the present, with racist politicians attempting to coercively or forcibly sterilize low-income women, and it is a disturbing reminder of what can happen when women’s fertility is perceived as a political tool rather than something that we have a right to control.

Which is why I am so disturbed by the recent anti-choice campaign that has proclaimed black children an “endangered species” due to abortion. I won’t post a picture of the billboard here; honestly, I can’t stand to look at it any more. This campaign takes the story of racism and eugenics – a horrifying, yet crucially important story, for women in particular – and uses it to further an anti-woman agenda, and from what I’ve seen, their co-option of this narrative has been frighteningly effective.

It’s no coincidence that, in trying to market the anti-choice message to the Black community, these anti-choicers talk about “children” rather than women. It’s so easy to shift the abortion debate onto fetuses and forget about women entirely. Because the fact is that safe, legal abortion SAVES WOMEN’S LIVES. Margaret Sanger’s racist and eugenicist beliefs cannot and should not be erased from the history of Planned Parenthood, of the reproductive justice movement, or of the United States more broadly, but this does not change the fact that Planned Parenthood performs much-needed services, services that allow women not only to survive, but to choose the kinds of lives we want to live. Thanks to organizations like Planned Parenthood, women’s lives are no longer dictated by our uteri. Reproductive choice grants us control over our bodies and, to some extent, our lives – something that is crucial for all people, but particularly to people who are systemically marginalized, excluded and oppressed by capitalist and patriarchal society.

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Someecards: 1; John Mayer: 0

I don’t normally get the point of e-cards, but this one just made my day.

Renee at Womanist Musings and Jill at Feministe have more (much, much more) on Mayer’s gross Playboy interview and general douchiness.