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January 2010

sexist self-righteousness a la mode

HotheadP Warning: just venting. Nothing really constructive here. Today in sexist self-righteousness, from the NY Times Ethicist column:

Our small nonprofit, the Opportunity Fund for Developing Countries, offers scholarships to African boys and girls who agree to keep up their grades, stay out of trouble and refrain from pregnancy. When a 20-year-old orphan we’ve supported for many years had a baby, we revoked her scholarship. (Significantly, we have never dropped a male’s scholarship for impregnating a female.) [Emphasis mine] Now she wants to return to school. We’d like to readmit her to our program, but won’t that set a precedent? DEB DAY OLIVIER, SALT LAKE CITY

To restore this girl’s scholarship may well set a precedent, and I think it should. As you seem to realize, to apply this rule only to one sex is strikingly unfair and violates your own agreement with the students. What’s needed is a new policy, one with a better response to young people’s lives than “just say no babies.”

By definition, nobody welcomes an unwanted pregnancy. As Cynthia Lloyd, an authority on population and education issues and a lead author of the book “Growing Up Global: The Changing Transitions to Adulthood in Developing Countries,” put it in an e-mail exchange, “Obviously in Africa, many young women who get pregnant have not necessarily made that choice willingly or with any control.” I admire your wish to help these students avoid obstacles to education, like too-early parenthood, but I admire even more your reluctance to let an imperfect policy inflexibly applied thwart a young woman’s desire for an education and a better life.

What form should that new policy take? Here I defer to educators and experts in family planning. Lloyd suggests one that you might consult: Codou Diaw, executive director of the Forum for African Women Educationalists, an N.G.O. operating throughout the continent from its headquarters in Nairobi.

When you restore this girl’s scholarship, as I hope you will, you can announce your intention to change course. It is commendable to gauge how effectively your policies serve your ends, and to amend or abandon those that are ineffectual.

UPDATE: Olivier told me by e-mail that they did not continue this girl’s scholarship but that she may reapply next year.

Fail. Fail. Fail.

Abstinence_by_jaig_1_ Not only the part about dropping this young woman's scholarship without considering how she got pregnant, whether she had access to birth control, or if she even wanted to get pregnant, but big ol' FAIL for never dropping a young man's scholarship for impregnating another young woman. Because, in case you hadn't noticed, it takes two people to get pregnant. If you are trying to enforce an abstinence only policy (which is what sounds like is going on here), then everybody has to abstain and everybody gets the same penalty. Not that I think abstinence only is a useful policy, but why punish only women for failing at the unworkable? If it's wrong to get pregnant, it's wrong to make someone pregnant too.

Beyond that, to enforce that policy on a 20 year old adult is completely unrealistic and unethical in itself, especially without offering alternatives. According to their own annual report, this organization provides no access to birth control, only HIV/AIDS "training," which I would bet consists of saying "don't have sex; you'll get HIV." If you don't want young women getting pregnant, it's a proven fact that just saying no doesn't work, especially in poor countries where women have fewer rights and resources than they do here. Not addressing the facts of violence (and just plain ol biological imperatives), and condemning women alone for the outcome is the worst kind of self-righteousness: do as I say, not as I do. Make my dogma work without the resources I have access to. It absolves men from taking responsibility for their own actions while condemning women, often, for being victims of male violence and at the least, of male irresponsibility. Why do people not get this?

I know: because it serves the patriarchy not to. But it particularly irks me when women don't get it and bind each other's feet.

last trip to staten island


Out in the morning in the dark
stumbling from bed to bathroom
to kitchen and out the door
with a detour for a muffin and tea, to
a long, slow ride on the train
from the Bronx, yawning,
to stand on the corner blinking
into rising sunlight
reflected off
the Empire State Building,
the Metropolitan Life Building
and a glittery newcomer like
stacked boxes, then nodding off
on the bus
as it rocks through downtown
Brooklyn, and across the Narrows,
for my last day.

And coming back:
another bus to the ferry
with the sisyphean bag of papers,
the John F. Kennedy coming into a slip
as we board the Samuel I. Newhouse
a blast of the horn
as we leave ours
and out on the water:
a long limbed bridge
spanning the Narrows in fog,
three pale ships in the harbor
and nothing beyond
except a turning for home.

© Lee Kottner 2010

privilege, culture, appropriation, stories

BNFMoiOkay, I rarely do this here, because I rarely let my non-fandom and fandom lives intersect, but in this case, they already do. I posted this originally on my LJ, where I usually post goofy Star Wars crap and my own fan stories. But fandom often gets its knickers in a twist over what litcrit types call meta issues. It seems there are a number of litcrit type people in fandom, especially in slash because of its transgressive appeal. Every so often, someone expresses the opinion that X shouldn't write Y because they're not Y. The latest round arises from a protest by some gay men about straight women writing male homoerotica and is just . . . stoopid, as stoopid as such protests always are. I say this as a pro writer, as a writing teacher, as a teacher and student of literature, and a straight, female writer of fanfic. I have a number of unpopular reasons for saying this, reasons that do not pay lip service to popular critical theory in the Academy, because those theories are mostly developed by people who do not write fiction, but only dissect it. Criticism, too, is a form of appropriation, if you like. Whatever, criticism and fiction writing are two very different heads and rarely coexist happily.

Am I speaking from the proverbial position of privilege? Why, yes, probably, depending on your point of view (thanks, Obi-Wan), but I have some thoughts on that too. I have some problems with this concept, not because I don't enjoy a certain amount of it as a white, able-bodied, cis-gendered citizen of one of the richest countries in the world, but because I believe at least some of this idea, the way it is being currently expressed, also arises from a sense of not just exclusion, but of desire: desire for something one thinks one does not have and believes others do, i.e., the grass is greener syndrome. I believe, like Eleanor Roosevelt, that "no one can make me inferior without my consent." Now, I am female, and a feminist, so I do have a strong sense of what discrimination and injustice and exclusion mean and what they do to people's lives. I see it every day in the lives of my students, too, and hear it in the stories they tell me. Privileged? Moi? Depends on what you're comparing me to and how you structure your hierarchy. If you want my bio, check it on on Facebook and you decide.

Nonetheless, this is a bullshit issue from any POV.

First of all, this is not about the GLBTQ community. It's about censorship. Here's why:

Writing fiction is only partially a political act. It is only a political act if you, the writer, intend to make it one, not if someone interprets it that way. Nobody gets to say what the ultimate meaning of your piece of fiction is but you. Other people can interpret it as they like, and see what they want to see, and do, which is the wonderful thing about literature, but the only one who really knows What It Means is the writer. To say otherwise is to believe you, the critic, have a special mission from the Gods of Literature, and there are good drugs for that now. If the writer sits down and says, "I am going to write this story to bring this issue to the attention of the public," that's a political act; if that writer says, "I wonder what would happen in this situation with these people under these conditions?" and proceeds to write that story, that's not a political act, it's an act of imagination and psychological exploration. Either way, if you insist that writer has no right to tell that story, FOR WHATEVER REASON, that's censorship.

If fiction writers were restricted to writing only about their own experience, literature would be a dull, dull place. Because, yanno, writers mostly don't get out much, except in their heads, having to spend hours in front of their keyboards writing and DOING RESEARCH. Sometimes the DOING RESEARCH entails getting out and experiencing something new or talking to new people, sometimes not. But DOING RESEARCH is a lonely business too. The beauty of fiction is that, as a writer, you get to take on different personae. This does not make you that persona, or make you an expert, but it allows you to SEE THE WORLD IN A DIFFERENT WAY. Sometimes, looking from the outside in provides an interesting perspective. It's not the only perspective, just a different one.

(Here's where the flame war really starts:) It is absurd to say someone else is "appropriating" YOUR story. Unless you have a copyright on that baby, your story is just as free in the world as any other idea. If what you are calling "your story" has to do with your culture and upbringing and language, I have news for you, there is no one story of your culture or language. Even within each culture people tell different versions of the same story. And here's the thing: those stories? In all their different versions, they're told everywhere else on earth with different characters, wearing different clothes, in different cultures, in different languages in somewhat different situations. Every story told anywhere, I don't care what it is, boils down to an archetype and a motif. Every story told anywhere, about anything, can be boiled down to one of a large number of motifs or plots, something we'd all be more aware of if folklore studies were still a viable field. There is no such thing as a culturally unique story. There is only the human story, in various costumes. Human behavior is human behavior. Our cultures are just fancy dress. Stripped down to our cores in extreme situations (which is what fiction does) we are just human, that's all.

It's also absurd to talk about the appropriation of something as ephemeral as stories and culture because appropriation in this context refers to something akin to theft. I can't steal something that continues to exist in its original form when I use it. No matter how much I transform it, the original is still going to be there, as long as someone is telling that story, or engaging in those activities or whatever, somewhere else. Anglo Saxon Culture ca. Beowulf no longer exists, not because someone co-opted it, but because no one speaks Olde Anguish anymore (except Merlin, on TV). No one speaks Old English any more because History Happens: The Normans arrived, for one thing. Times change. Unless you wall yourself off entirely from everyone else in the world and become completely closed and insular society, outside influences are going to change your culture. Even if you manage this, say, the way China has managed it (incompletely but with more success than elsewhere), your culture will not remain homogeneous and monolithic. You think your culture has never, will never, is not now going to change? You are delusional, my friend. It is changing as I write this, with every breath you take.

I have more news for you: appropriation under this definition happens all the time, too. It's not just an act of colonization, though it can be that and sometimes deliberately is, though suppression of said literature is an easier and quicker method of assimilation. Any time you retell any story you've heard or read from someone else, you are "appropriating" it unless you tell it exactly the way it was told to you, with the exact same tone of voice, vocabulary, AND INTENT. (See Borges, Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.) Ever play that game Telephone? It's usually done to make a point: that we all edit and change everything we're told and that goes for what we read and write too. Human beings are storytellers, even if it's only of the "Man, you'll never believe what happened on the bus today!" kind. At one time, before the advent of copyright, stories were currency. The cost of a night of hospitality was often a story. During the middle ages, there were fairs where singers and storytellers met to exchange stories and learn new ones. The farther afield someone had been, the more popular their stories were because that was news. Stories are, and always have been, the way we learn about each other. If you keep other people from retelling your stories, you close a major highway of communication and information. One of the early ways we begin to know the world is through stories about other cultures, no matter who tells them. By trying to control those stories, you are turning them into propaganda, and preventing them from being vehicles of cultural exchange. You are stifling access to your own culture.

Once you start saying to anyone "Hey, you can't write that, you're not X," most of the canon--most literature ever written--goes out the door. That story about a hunchback? That story about musketeers? That story about a time traveler? Lady Chatterly's Lover? The Odd Women? Louisa May Alcott's horror stories? Sherlock Holmes? Edgar Allen Poe? Are you getting my drift? Literature is an exercise in imagination and in exploration of what other writers have written. If the storyteller's imagination does not match yours, tell your own damn story. There's plenty of room. In addition, books and authors talk to each other, so by stifling one piece of literature, who's to say what other writers you're stifling? As an example, let me direct you here.

Finally, fiction, while powerful, is still fiction, not fact. While it may shape one's personal viewpoint, it is not legislation. It does not cause harm in the same way that, say, the Ugandan legislation imprisoning people for being gay will. Fiction is  true in a particular way, in that it portrays the behavior of human beings and the results of certain situations in a more emotionally powerful and interesting way than mere fact can, precisely because it is unrestricted by fact. If you think all human beings act according to your own view of them, you are either naive, inexperienced, or extremely arrogant. To confine any story to that preconception is to have a failure of imagination. If your imagination fails there, you might learn something by reading someone else's view. If you're not interested in learning anything from someone else's point of view, then just get out of the way and stop whining. Or write your own. The best remedy for misrepresentation is not less writing, but more.

feminism and me—it's complicated

HotheadPaisanMary Daly died recently, and that has set me to thinking about my relationship with feminism, since so much of it is wound up in my relationship to religion. My mother was a proto-feminist who taught me that girls could be anything they wanted to be, and made damn sure I went to college, because education was the way to economic independence. At the same time, the religion we belonged to told us we were to be subordinate to male authority and not allowed to teach in church, while at the same time women did the majority of the grunt work in evangelizing from door to door, which was a big part of worship. So we could serve in the trenches, but not at the "altar." And that was different from Catholicism or mainstream Protestantism (or any other religion) how? Women's studies courses and departments were just a gleam in most feminsts' eyes when I was an undergrad, but the college I went to was strongly feminist and had its own radical tradition. That's where I first read Mary Daly and heard her mentioned (I forget by whom) and ran into the idea of God the Mother for the first time. And didn't that rock my world.

At the same time, there was something uncomfortably male-hating about many of the feminists I knew then. There was a strong separatist contingent at the school, and that turned me off. Men were a pain in the ass, but I wasn't by any means sexually attracted to women (I know this may come as a shock to some of you), so what's a girl to do? I distanced myself from the feminists. It didn't change how I acted or dressed or how I felt about sexism (wrong, immoral, vile) or my propensity to call people on it, but I stopped calling myself a feminist.

Then I went to grad school, where I was talked over in class by guys and had my ideas paid attention to only when they were picked up and repeated by men. And that pissed me off enough to reclaim that label. I haven't stopped calling myself a feminist since. Getting jobs outside academe only reinforced that choice. Male behavior is so often institutionally, deliberately, casually, and/or even just unconsciously sexist that it's impossible to live as a self-aware, intelligent, and self-confident woman and not want to call somebody on some kind of stupid sexist shit at least once a day, usually more. Sometimes with a frying pan upside the head. With hot grease in it.

We live in a culture—hell, a world!—that systematically and consciously not only devalues women but, in many cases, actively beats them down and beats them up. In addition to the gap in pay, the lack of support for children and family issues, and the general marginalizing and silencing of women, there's the outright violence. Far too many of my students are living day to day with male partners who threaten their safety and well-being physically or emotionally or psychologically. At least once a semester I deal with a student who is either going into, living in, or coming out of a domestic violence shelter—or who needs to get into one and doesn't realize it yet. Sometimes it's more than one. That movie "Precious"? Ask my students how real that is. Many, many of them have been raped in the past, sometimes more than once. And it's not just my students in their socioeconomic ghetto, it's my friends, as well, rich and poor, educated and not. I can count on one hand the number of my female friends who have not endured some kind of sexual or physical or emotional assault from men. It's enough, really, to make any woman a riot grrrrl, like Hothead Paisan.

But. There's always a but, in any movement. They're never all good, no matter how noble the cause, because people are complicated. And the "but" in my case is the constant rage and utter joylessness in so many feminists. Lately, I'm feeling a little bombarded by it in blogs, books, articles, whatever. Even when there are steps being taken to change people's ideology and awareness, even when there is something positive happening, it never seems to be enough for some folks. It's a bit like the people who are pissed off with Obama for not initiating the changes they wanted instantaneously upon taking office. Here's an example, just a small one:

A comic I read with regularity, "Luann," apparently does not pass muster in this particular instance, even though it has a main character who is a strong, independent female firefighter who fixes her own cars and extricated herself from an abusive relationship to have one with a guy who happens to appreciate her just the way she is—not, incidentally, just because she's beautiful. The writer then goes on to carp about how comics are just not as funny as they used to be. Boohoo.

I really like this comic for precisely the reasons I state above. Toni is a great role model for girls: a fully realized person, and a woman who is strong and self-confident enough to have rescued herself and work in a male dominated field and find a new guy who respects her strengths and abilities. This is not feminist enough how? Taken out of the context of the storyline, this panel isn't a particularly funny comic but I fail to see the outright sexism. In context, it takes on a different meaning, one not particularly insulting at all: Toni's got a better touch with Brad's car and that makes Brad feel inadequate and betrayed by his own possessions. That doesn't mean he feels Toni is inferior in any way. I feel that way every time a tech person can get my computer to do stuff I can't, regardless of the tech person's gender.

And there's more carping at something that is not "enough" in some way: sending special care packages to women soldiers with (gasp!) make-up and Cosmo in them! That the Dove self-esteem campaign actually helps sell Dove products at the same time it raises girls' awareness of the fakeness of advertising! That the Nicholas Kristoff/Cheryl WuDunn book Half the Sky does "more harm than good" by not being a weighty, theory-heavy tome! Jesus, people.

My point is that if you are going to take active offense at everything that is not perfect, or not just the way you think it should be, you will hate everything in the world, including yourself. Lighten the fuck up, and stop the navel-gazing. The suffering of women is not the center of the universe or the source of all injustices or problems in the world. Yes, the world would be a far, far better place if women were respected and valued in equal measure to men. It would also still not be a utopia.

While I happen to agree with Barbara Ehrenreich's thesis that too much positive thinking is akin to brainwashing, I think that applies in the opposite direction as well. Anger can be a very powerful force for good in the world, but on its own, cut loose from compassion or any sense of joy in life, it becomes destructive, self-destructive; coupled with any ideology without the tempering of joy or compassion, it becomes fundamentalist extremism. We've all seen how destructive and dangerous that is, to those who swallow that joyless ideology, to others who refuse to embrace it, and to the movement itself. If we don't use our anger constructively, if we only see what's wrong and not what's right and what's changing, we risk losing people who may support us and yet cannot bear to see everything in the world as a horror show. Every war needs victories and needs to celebrate and enjoy those victories to have the heart to keep fighting. Don't rob people of that.

Feminist-BookstoreI keep this Callahan cartoon around to keep me honest in my feminism.  Yes, it's a stereotype, but every stereotype exists because somewhere, somebody fits it. Ask yourself, sistah, if it's you, and how much your own attitude is making you miserable—and hindering the movement, too.

Happy New Year!

Moonlitdoll I wish you
health and happiness
pleasures of the body and the mind
new adventures
the rekindling of old loves and/or the discovery of new ones
security financial and otherwise
good stories
continual astonishment
spiritual enlightenment (your choice of dogma or karma)
frequent amusement
a wee dram when you need it
big hearts
deep pockets
long fuses
something warm and fuzzy that is already house-trained
a sense of the ineffable
and people in your life who are as dear as my friends are to me.

I wish all of us peace in a time of war; compassion in a time of hatred; generosity in a time of need; self-knowledge in a time of blame; courage to right past wrongs, and above all things, love unconditional.