The 1980 Italian film Cannibal Holocaust includes an extended rape scene in which two white Western men rape a young indigenous-Amazonian (Yanomamo) woman in a muddy field while their white Western female counterpart films them.
The film is supposed to be a commentary on the state of modern “civilization”, wherein wealthy, white privileged Westerners manipulate, abuse, and exploit the “uncivilized” of the so-called developing world/Third World/Global South/etc.
While the film fails on multiple levels to sincerely translate its theme of “who are the real savages, anyway?”, that scene has always stuck with me. Similarly in The Last King of Scotland, the terrifying Idi Amin calls out his Scottish physician as only having come to Africa “to fuck and to take away”.
The global hierarchy is sort of a large-scale parallel of the social human hierarchy composed of individuals. The patriarchal hierarchy tells us who is allowed to rape whom, and where, and when, and to what extent they can get away with it. In the global patriarchal scheme, the “West” is at the top of this hierarchy. America can rape nearly whoever it likes, whenever it likes, and never stand to account for its actions.
Why should I be surprised, then, when its individual parts, its people, behave the same way. White Westerns (men particularly) come to Southeast Asia feeling completely entitled to buy other human beings. They have little or no shame in it. They sit across from me at a hang bai (rice shop) eating their loc lac with one emotionally detached, casual arm draped over the shoulders of a girl half, a third their age. We can talk more about that girl later (a whole post unto herself, she is), but for now let’s look closer at that man.
He might be British, Australian, American, New Zealander, or from somewhere in Europe. He doesn’t need to be wealthy where he’s from; being white makes him wealthy enough here. He could be 20, or 40, or 75; it’s inconsequential in determining the age of the girls, boys, women he will purchase.
He probably feels like he’s doing nothing wrong (yeah, yeah, it’s a crime, it’s illegal, but he was driven to this!); he justifies to himself that “a man’s got needs” and he only flew halfway around the world to satisfy those needs because there wasn’t a cheaper, easier source accessible in his own country. Besides, the real perk of Cambodia is that being here makes him feel like a god. All the locals seem to revere his white skin, his pocketbook. He is taller, richer, whiter, smarter, better than everyone in this godforsakencountry.
He might not be a backpacker or a sex tourist. He might be a teacher at a nearby school. He might be in charge of classes of children aged 6 to 18. He might friend some of them on Facebook and meet some of them off school grounds, after school hours.
He might establish himself as a member of the community by marrying– purchasing– a Khmer woman (not legally, necessarily, but only ceremonially) and having children with her. He might confide to total strangers like me that his wife’s culture annoys him, and that she is ignorant (At least you have something in common? I want to offer, but I wouldn’t degrade his wife by comparing her with him like that).
Taking a long, close look at this man helps me understand myself, my own hypocrisy. Our familiarity ends at the point where I realize we don’t deal in the same currency. This man, like the men in Cannibal Holocaust, see Cambodians (Africans, South Americans) as subhuman. They are purchasable, expendable, replaceable items. They are like animals. Sometimes I fixate on the way Khmer people occasionally treat me like an animal, like the Other, and the way they do it to other Cambodians. But in the hierarchical scheme of things, their Othering will never be as sinister, never as dehumanizing, and never inflict the same level of damage as That Man’s will. He has too much power to compare with them. He’s out of our league. He can get away with almost Anything.
And I’m making it a point to find a way to stop him.
It’s strange to use that possessive pronoun with a word like ‘rapist’, but that’s what you are. Perhaps you’re someone else’s rapist, too, but that doesn’t change the fact that I can still claim ownership over you– for something no one wants, which is still mine.
I listen to a cheerful song as I write this, so I don’t tear the skin off my lips in anxious anger (yet I still do). As I reflect on our relationship, which I have rarely done in the past three years, I realize there are really only two things which I will always hold against you. There are other things for which I hate you, but I imagine some day I’ll get over them. All things save two.
We had Spanish together my junior year, your senior year. It wasn’t planned, it just ended up like that. Inevitably at some point we were put in a group together for a project, which thrilled me at the time. I was also excited about the project, itself– creating a Spanish menu– because it involved creativity and the chance to draw, which you knew I liked. But when we distributed the workload, you alloted yourself nearly all the artwork. When I expressed that I wanted to draw, too, you told me I wasn’t as good as you, and because I foolishly worshiped you, a stone idol, I agreed. On the day we were to submit our projects, I felt a bit resentful; I saw your sketches of paella and tortilla de papas, and thought I could have done as well. I was always small to you. I was never as good as you.
Then came the day, not long after the Spanish project, that we were watching a movie in the basement of my house. My home. My parents were outside, in the barn or the garden, maybe. Giving us mistrustful privacy.
For months you had been telling me that we should have sex, because “people who love each other should give everything to each other” and, well, we were going to get married anyway, weren’t we? Yet I steadfastly resisted: my position was that sex was reserved for marriage, which at the time I was resolutely convinced was God’s Will– a god, as it turns out, who does not exist.
On this day you were going on about something like that, we should share everything with each other, don’t you love me, if you loved me you’d have sex with me, blah blah blah. I wasn’t really listening because I already knew what my answer was. I already felt a terrible anxiety about the state of my virginity (how much could you kiss someone before you lost your virginity? Did making out count as sex? What about hand jobs?), so it was easy, simple, for me to say “no”. I couldn’t believe you’d even consider it– weren’t you worried that we were already going to hell?
You said, then, that you wanted to know “what it feels like”, meaning my vagina. You said you wanted to touch it. I lost my patience. If we weren’t already fallen from God’s grace, we surely were now. Or at least you were. I got up to leave, exasperated.
I never could have guessed, would have allowed myself to believe, what you would do next.
You grabbed my arm, which didn’t immediately alarm me until I tried to pull away. When you didn’t let go, I felt a deep, primal urge to dig my nails into your face, your eyes, but I rationally resisted the impulse: why would I do such a thing to someone I loved? But you did not let go. Your hand was like a vice grip, likely the outcome of all that baseball you played, all that sculpting of clay you did. You pulled me down to the carpet and knelt on top of me in one smooth, swift movement, almost as if it was practiced. As I look back at myself then, I appear as a small animal, a young child, pathetically weak, with huge, round eyes brimming with the realizations of fear. My little animal brain hadn’t caught up to reality yet, not even as you forced your hand down the front of my jeans (How did you do that? I pondered vaguely; I had thought the waistband of my jeans would prevent such a thing from happening, it was much too tight, wasn’t it?), and your digits into my vagina. Strange pain. Blink, blink. It must have been less than ten seconds, but I remember thinking then that it had lasted much longer. I finally registered how strong you were and felt shocked that you’d used it against me, and how heavy your knees were as they pinned my arms down, like a straight jacket. Then you were talking about me, about my body, as you still had your fingers inside me, like a scientist describing matter-of-factly a newly discovered landscape (words like “soft” and an exclamation of “Wow!”, when remembered still make me want to throw up). You felt around in me as though I were an inanimate object, a garbage disposal into which something had fallen and caused a jam. I noticed how itchy the carpet was.
And then you got off me. I just laid there at first, my arms still at my sides. I felt nothing, I couldn’t describe how I felt. You noticed my blank face and suddenly all your joy was gone. You seemed instantly, intensely apologetic– “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I’ll never do that again”– but in retrospect I imagine you were terrified I’d tell someone. I got up and your I’m-sorry-so-sorrys followed me to the stairs where, one step ahead of you, I turned around and looked down at you and I said– I don’t fucking remember what I said, something like “You will never do that again,” something which I would not say now.
So let me tell you what I would say now.
What you did to me the State of Michigan defines as Criminal Sexual Misconduct of the First Degree according to Chapter 76 (Rape), Section 750.520b. Being that you used force, and that your actions resulted in physical pain and mental anguish, it was a felony.
But let’s face it. Even had I filed a police report, and even if that report had been examined by the DA and taken to court, you would have easily escaped punishment. Rich all-star travel team white Christian boys do not go to jail for sticking their hands where they don’t belong.
So what I’m left with is this.
That to you, I was a gutter clogged with rain-soggy, rotting leaves. A skinny, dirty glass in the sink, that you can’t quite reach the bottom of with a sponge. A pencil that has rolled off the table and under a couch, and now you’re on your knees reaching, reaching for it.
You talked about me in the third person. “Hello, I’M RIGHT FUCKING HERE. I can hear you,” I should have said. You talked about me in the fucking third person, like you were having a nice little chat with yourself. Let me try that for a moment:
“He is a despicable, abhorrent, perverse, loathesome creature.” “A violator, to be sure. A fascist, a betrayer of human rights.” “He must have turned out like his dad.”
Do I find it as satisfying as you did? You thought me cold all those years you tried to talk to me, and I wrote you back with words of venom. You forfeited your right to my kindness when you assumed your desires trumped my bodily autonomy.
You are a violator of space. You put your hands where they didn’t belong. You did things which you can’t take back. Maybe there are people in the world who love you and deeply care about you. That is entirely inconsequential to me, whom you betrayed, in my own home. My home. You will always be a selfish, pathetic 19 year old jerk, in my mind.
Understand this: I will never forget, and you best hope you never meet me on the street, for I will greet you loudly and clearly with your most enduring title:
Who decides what the rules are when it comes to gender and sex?
The short answer is, the People at the Top. You may not be surprised to discovered that, in patriarchal cultures (which describes most cultures), this is men. We can be more specific, however: bottom-to-top position in this hierarchy is determined by many things, and the closer one gets to the top, the richer, more educated, and lighter-skinned these men get. Upon discovering that the People at the Top are predominantly wealthy, white, Western males, understanding gendered rules and expectations becomes a lot easier. Patriarchal hierarchies of dominance vary from place to place (and even time to time), but the patterns of wealth, education, skin colour, ability, age, sexual orientation, and so on are fairly consistent.
As many people have discussed, not only in terms of gender but also in terms of race and other categories, the People at the Top do not actively and consciously determine and define gendered rules, necessarily; rather, it is largely through their mere existence as Normal and Best (or Default, as some say– I like that) that definitions of other persons are shaped relative to them. Male equals normal, female equals abnormal or deviant; male equals default, female equals Other.
That’s the short answer, but it’s not whole answer. The more accurate, complete, and much longer answer is: everybody. We all decide what gendered rules and expectations will be, by following them. And perhaps even more importantly, by punishing those who deviate. It comes so naturally to us it seems biologically innate to call the boy in your eighth grade class who was caught wearing toe nail polish a fag. Hatred and fear of deviance, however, is not innate; it is learned. We are taught early and often that deviation is bad, most appreciably by being punished, ourselves. Normal/good little boys do not play with dolls; they pretend to shoot each other. Normal/good little girls do not pretend to shoot each other; they sweetly and passively care for their dolls. Full-grown men do not cry. Full-grown women do not have double mastectomies. Et cetera. This is reinforced to us all our lives. We witness what happens to those who deviate, and we learn to participate in their persecution, be it in the comments section of Youtube or NPR, or on sports teams, or in ballet class, or in our classrooms, or within our own families (this is often referred to as gender policing). If you are not doing the persecuting, chances are you might be persecuted– so which side would you want to be on? This is the question faced by every single person who lives within the confines of patriarchal culture.
The next time you hear someone tell a young man “boys don’t cry” (or “you throw like a girl”, or whatever), call to mind the question: Who decides what the rules are when it comes to gender and sex? You do. Either through your inaction or by validating that young man’s feelings, you are helping to decide what the rules are.
In order to contemplate the rules and think about how you’d like them defined, they first have to be recognizable. For most people, gender rules are normative and it would never occur to them to question them. Those who do are said to be “challenging Nature” and pushing “unnatural ideas”. Challenging our conceptions of “natural” is a good place to start.
I have come to the realization (again) that I am racist. For some reason, I feel disappointed every time I have this realization. Maybe I gave myself too much credit, thinking that once I got it the first time I was just gonna get over it? Or maybe I thought it was an easier problem to root out than it’s turned out to be. A friend recently tried to console me that these realizations of my “cognitive biases” are a step in the right direction, which of course they are, but I still don’t feel very positive.
When I came across this open letter, I felt grateful to the author, but I also felt nervous reading it, as a “white” person. Could I ever read a letter like this, intended for a black man, with sincerity? Am I subconsciously, permanently tainted with racial prejudice? Then I got to part where Dyson, the author, says, “in America, we are taught to fear black men.” And whether or not I can read a letter like that with sincerity stopped mattering right then, because she had just spoken the truth, and the truth speaks not only to the subconscious self, but to all Selves. Yeah, I thought, we are. Who teaches us that? I instantly recognized that as true, but could not pinpoint particular moments in my life when I felt like I was being taught to fear black men. I guess this has just been a part of my general societal education, and is deeply rooted in me, whether I like it or not.
It’s really not easy to recognize one’s hand in oppression (of any kind). It’s painful. It’s humiliating. It’s depressing. Whether it’s small-time oppression or full-scale oppression, most people seem interested in justifying their behavior and, really, avoiding guilt.
I know that my friend knows what they’re talking about, concerning cognitive biases; I have seen them realize, acknowledge and begin to work through their own. It takes a huge amount of humility and honesty to even begin that process. I also understand why oppressed people resent their oppressors even after they have begun this process– but it can’t stay that way forever, if things are going to change for the better. Begrudge them, punish them, but eventually, work with them. Recognize them for the ally they’ve become.
I felt guilty reading that letter, like I didn’t deserve to. I’m still trying to work out precisely what that means. My friend also said that acknowledging one’s participation in oppression is only the first step…”the end of it is what you do after you know that about yourself.”
First I would like to start off by thanking you for creating a wonderful social networking site that brings people together with family, friends, and their community. It helps small businesses grow, and lets us create communities that suit our personal interests. We can spend time relaxing and talking with friends, or sit back and play some games with all the apps you have for us.
There are many reasons why ‘feminism’ is a dirty word, not the least of which is when certain people who personify feminism’s opposition call themselves feminists (e.g. racist Camille Paglia, victim-blaming Naomi Wolf, etc.) Now George R.R. Martin, author of the wildly popular Song of Fire and Ice medieval fantasy books-turned-HBO-series, joins the ranks of pop feminists. He kindly defines for us what his feminism is:
“To me being a feminist is about treating men and women the same,” Martin is quoted as saying in this Telegraph article. “I regard men and women as all human – yes there are differences, but many of those differences are created by the culture that we live in, whether it’s the medieval culture of Westeros, or 21st century western culture.”
Of course, I am dissatisfied by so many definitions of feminism nowadays, so I shouldn’t be too harsh. But by his own definition, Martin’s literary works are surely not feminist.
While Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice female characters are arguably more three-dimensional than most other fantasy of the same ilk, I find their stereotyped natures tiring. Cersei is the seductive slut; Arya is the tomboy; Catelyn Stark is the steadfast mother and wife; Sansa is the sweet and innocent princess in need of rescue; blah blah blah. Predictable, and therefore reliable. To some degree this can’t be avoided, right? Fiction, especially fantasy, functions at least partially on the familiar, shared assumptions (read: stereotypes) about kinds of people to anchor us while guiding us through a fantastic and impossible story. Besides, not all of Martin’s female characters have been created from drab stereotypes (Brienne of Tarth, for example).
No, what truly bothers me about Martin’s comment about feminism, and the serious slack cut him by supposedly feminist bloggers, is his constant depiction of rape, domestic violence, and other forms of sexual violence as attractive, arousing, enjoyable. This is where Martin gives himself away: a feminist does not depict rape as sexy and enjoyable.
Why stop at sexual violence. Martin glorifies battle and the taking of lives throughout the series, a huge portion of which is devoted to high-def, graphic scenes of beheadings, disembowelments, torture, and other “glorious” aspects of war and the violent societies in which the story takes place. The content is patriarchal, and is consumed largely by a patriarchal audience (men and women alike). War is cool, rape is sexy, same old, same old. To his credit (?), Martin makes lame attempts to suggest that war isn’t all cool: look, you could get your sword hand cut off, and then no one will want to fuck you– least of all your sister. Wow, is that the best he can do? Can we drop the feminist act now?
And besides, there is a whole realm of racism in A Song of Fire and Ice that we haven’t even touched on yet. Highly illuminating read on that topic here!
Whatever the case, I (mostly) enjoyed reading these books. I even (mostly) enjoyed the one or two episodes of the HBO series I’ve seen. I don’t think there is anything wrong with enjoying works of fiction that are inherently racist, sexist, classist, and so on (unless it’s for those aspects that we enjoy it, of course)– but that we like or enjoy something should not stop us from critiquing it. Or from calling out its makers when they say shit like, “Ima feminist LOL.”
Fantasy doesn’t have to show rape as sexy, or war and killing as glorious. It doesn’t have to paint all the people white or all the heroes male, though it is true that you will sell more novels if you do these things. But if you choose to do so, as an author, then you have forfeited the right to call yourself feminist. As readers, we have the right to read what we enjoy, but I think we also have a responsibility to question that literature, even literature we praise. When useful criticism like this happens, valuable conversations can take place about issues that matter IRL (that’s IN REAL LIFE for you non-nerds out there, though sometimes I think nerds forget IRL exists).
Let’s also not forget that there is really great fantasy and science fiction out there which questions, analyzes, deconstructs, and parodies gender, race, class, age, ability, and so on, and dreams up whole new ways of conceptualizing these things. A Song of Fire and Ice is not the end-all, be-all of fantasy literature, and even if it were, that shouldn’t stop us from questioning it, taking it apart, and assessing it from different points of view.
Now I’d better get a head start on the Martin fans; I hear them trying to break down the door as I write!
‘Tis true that good movies are hard to come by in Cambodian cinemas, but that doesn’t stop me from going most every Sunday. Now that I can (mostly) afford it, I will shell out to see films I would never have considered back home. I’d have probably preferred a sharp stick in the eye to Beautiful Creatures, for example. But these are desperate times I live in.
Having read an interview with the authors of the B.C. series some time ago, I was looking forward to seeing if their ambitions with an anti-Bella female protagonist would translate in the films. Well, shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up. I haven’t read the books, so maybe I’m giving the authors too much credit as it is, but the movie’s version of the protagonist Lena wasn’t exactly light years ahead of Twilight’s Bella.
It was sort of refreshing to see the female protagonist fanning her lover after he had swooned, and to see him in awe of her magical powers. (Sort of interesting, too, was that this witch story was set in a very Christian town in the South.) The pluses basically end there. The film (and books, presumably) focus on the boy’s perspective, which is all well and good except that Lena remains bland and personality-less. And for whatever reason, female witches, though not male ones, can’t control whether or not their “true nature” is ultimately good or evil. Unlike boy witches, their fate is predetermined and revealed on their 16th birthday when they become “a woman”. This is a form of ageism that I particularly despise, but I guess they can’t be blamed for using it, how else would this story have worked?
A much bigger hitch, though, was that this movie is a carbon copy of almost all the “romantic” movies I’ve seen in the past couple years. Yes, I’m desperate, I’ll see just about anything in the Kingdom because I love the Big Screen experience, but if I have to watch one more moody, melodramatic, I’m-pushing-you-away-but-don’t-leave-me-I-can’t-live-without-you teenage love story I am going to punch out the nearest theater steward.
On the same note, I can no longer stand overly long make-out scenes, with which B.C. was rife. Sex scenes are always a bore, but I actually prefer them to make-out scenes now because they take up fewer minutes of my movie-viewing time.
I get it: these movies are made for teenagers. But cartoons like Toy Story and Up were supposedly made for children, and people of all ages can enjoy them. Is it impossible for Hollywood to make a movie about teenagers that isn’t just for teenagers? I am quite sure there are plenty of teenagers who are bored by that crap, too.
Are movies like this still being made because there is genuine demand for them, or are they made to perpetuate certain cliches upon which so many high-grossing films are made and about which books and movies are quickly and easily produced? Are we really interested in buying this crap, or is the movie (and book) industry just that good at convincing us we are?
(On a more personal note: is the fact that these movies make me nauseous a sign that I am maturing into a real, live adult? Maybe that’s a bit optimistic…)
It’s always amusing when people defend their racist or sexist ideas by pointing out others who are doing roughly the same thing, only more loudly or obnoxiously. More amusing still are those that defend themselves by claiming that what is obviously racist or sexist is, in fact, somehow good, forward-thinking, or progressive.
Consider, if you will, Alex Bilmes, the editor of Esquire, talking about women featured in the men’s magazine. At first, one has to admire his earnestness: he doesn’t deny the fact that women are objectified in every sense of the word, on the same level as sports cars. Of the women featured in Esquire, he said, “I could lie to you if you want and say we are interested in their brains as well. We are not. They are objectified.” He further describes Esquire women as “ornamental”.
Well. Okay, we’re on the same page, at this point. Notice also how he said “we”. This guy’s an asshole, and totally unashamed of it.
We begin to diverge when he tries to claim that Esquire is “more honest” than women’s magazines in terms of its depiction of women. Women’s magazines only feature a certain type of woman, according to Bilmes. Esquire, on the other hand, objectifies women who are “more ethnically diverse, more shape diverse.” He also added that “in fashion magazines women are much thinner. We have older women, not really old, in their 40s.”
So Esquire is an equal-opportunity patriarchal establishment, by Bilmes’ own assessment: they will objectify any vagina-carrying entity (under 40, of course), be they black, white, thin, fat (not too fat, of course), unlike those backwards fashion magazines. Tasteful.
It’s interesting that he doesn’t see the irony (or hypocrisy) of his “older women” comment, either, but after all, he’s the editor of Esquire– one shouldn’t be too harsh.
(p.s. fashion mags, Esquire may be a sad waste of glossy paper with an ass for an editor, but you’re not off the hook. I might feel better if you publicly owned that you objectify women to make money off of them.)