A Blog of Ire and Spite

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 girl characters have been created from drab stereotypes (Brienne of Tarth, sorta kinda).

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 (of all genders). War is cool, rape is sexy, same old, same old. To his credit (?), Martin makes half-hearted 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?

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!

Fresh Bites

Awesome (sadly universal) anecdote on sexual harrassment from Ann Friedman. Are you on The Island?

Gender discrimination presides and athletes keep their mouths shut so as not to seem “negative and moaning”; the Wheel keeps turnin’.

Interesting, having just seen the Agent Orange (dioxin) exhibit at the  War Remnants Museum here in Ho Chi Minh.

Feminist lit is on a roll! Can’t wait to get a copy of Liza Mundy’s book.

And, Islam and feminisms compatible? Sure, why not?

Take Back the Night 2012, Koh Kong!

Only two weeks in, and already June has been an eventful month. The first weekend was the national commune elections, and I was happy to see the political hubbub finally die down. But the very next weekend (after a week of my being sick) was the event which has been months in planning.

Click the link below to open up the full post and see photos of the event! ^_^

Continue reading

The Means of Reproduction (a review)

This is a review of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World by Michelle Goldberg (2009).

Reading The Means was a lesson in self-discipline. At times, I was filled with elation and I wanted to run around and jump up and down for the energy it gave me. At other times, I was so frustrated or angry that it was all I could do not to launch the book (which I’d borrowed) across the room at the far wall; “Just take a breath and set the book down…” I would tell this part of myself, and give myself a minute to do something detached. For as sharp and lucid as Goldberg’s writing was a certain parts that could induce such feelings, the overall message of her book put those parts into a deeper, broader, more meaningful context. To that end, she’s a great, readable writer and even if you’re not deeply invested in the “big ideas” of the book, I’d still recommend it if you’re into well-crafted non-fiction prose.

What are the big ideas of this book, anyhow? (From this point on, there will probably be some “plot spoilers”, just to warn you.) That somewhat anthropocentric part of the subtitle, “the Future of the World”, nicely sums one recurring theme: human population on Earth. Perhaps it would be better to say “the Future of the World as We Know It”, but the discussion of population and demography is one which Goldberg examines and dismantles from every angle, from the ironically “anti-imperialist” far right of religious and political America and their far left counterparts, to the Cold War-era voices of Malthusian pushers of the “population bomb” theory.

Another major focus of Goldberg’s admirably well-researched work is the history and development of women’s rights and feminism in the global scheme. I admit to being woefully ignorant of women’s movements in places outside of my immediate experience (i.e. “the West”); Goldberg’s deep research and firsthand accounts of conversations with the major players in the international women’s movement is a crash course in the evolution of perspectives and strategies within that movement.

Another crucial motif is Goldberg’s analysis of “culture versus human rights”. This is an issue with which I have struggled for some time, especially coming out of school with a degree in anthropology (cultural relativism lalala). How can one objectively view the contentious, often incompatible relationship between the relativity of cultural views/values and the fundamental rights of the individual? I felt betrayed when it at first appeared that Goldberg was lending credit to the notion of culture trumping human rights– but that is why one must read this book from beginning to end. The careful examination Goldberg gives to all sides of this argument is edifying and elucidating.

Perhaps the most important theme is that which sums the elements of the subtitle; many, many aspects of this book come down to control, particularly control of female bodies. When put that way, it may sound horrific (what are women– cattle for breeding? Indeed, perhaps…), but the implications go far beyond an individual’s choice to have children, to control of our own persons. The author slowly but clearly builds on this picture, awakening us to the very real and imminent connections between our persons and our collective sustainability within our environments. She manifests some realizations that are impossible to ignore, my favourite of which is this: empowering women (i.e. recognizing women’s rights as human rights) is good for everybody– is good for Earth. (I’m tempted to plot-spoil on this, because it’s such a fantastic point, but because the entirety of Goldberg’s research gradually unfolds this point, I won’t ruin the pleasure of discovering her profound conclusion– you will just have to read it for yourself!)

The struggle between the religious right and more secular liberals is one that overwhelms much of this book (even, I think, at the loss of including other perspectives on women’s rights, including environmentalists’ thoughts on the matter). As they are the major shapers of rights and policies which directly impact people’s lives, it makes sense that she makes this conflict a central focus. In that sense, we get to see the very irritating, very hypocritical ideology of the religious right at work in international politics: their arguments against women’s reproductive rights often assert that the liberal agenda is merely neocolonialism in disguise, motivated purely by the desire to control the “under-developed” world. They frequently voice their concerns that liberal international (human rights) policies disrespect and undermine a culture’s autonomy– i.e. imperialism. What those same religious bodies never admit is that their colonialism has been attempting to alter and “purify” cultures for millennia. Is their denial of the neocolonialism within their own agenda willful ignorance, or do they simply define “culture” and “colonialism” in ways that best suit their own (patriarchal) interests?

Going along with this, something that makes The Means very difficult to digest is that Goldberg pulls no punches when analyzing all sides of an argument. That means we have to hear some hurtful, angering, at times shocking “logic” from some truly misogynist, racist, or nationalistic individuals and organizations. Whether you believe in hearing all sides of a debate because you believe in critical thinking or simply because you want to “know thy enemy”, this aspect of the book often clouds impartiality as it strikes powerful emotional nerves (not Goldberg’s fault, but the partiality of the reader). Take, for instance, the Uganda parliamentary representative who wanted to deny a spouse’s right to not have sex: “Refusing to have sex is the most violent thing a spouse can do” (p. 10). I still haven’t wrapped my head around that one. Or the fact that the world still takes seriously people like Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who supports spousal abuse and execution of sodomites, though as to the former, “men should beat their wives lightly, and only as a last resort” (p.164). Or take the blatant 1970s sexism of American employers: “You’ll just work with us for a year or two and then you’ll go and have babies” (p. 69)– for, apparently, maternity and careers are mutually exclusive. Or, in examination of women’s rights in northern India, “To be frank, [a woman] is never consulted whether she will go to bed with [a] man. So there is no freedom of decision” (p. 191). The Means is full of perspectives that are difficult to digest, but they also give a pluralistic view of how humanity sees women– the “point” of women, especially.

That “purpose”, actually, does lend hope in the end. This aspect of Goldberg’s work is neatly summed in this, one of my favourite quotes: “Such religious rivalries, however, masked an equally important polarization, both inside of countries and among them, between secular, liberalizing cultures and traditional, patriarchal ones. One saw women as ends in themselves, human beings with dignity and autonomy. The other treated them as the means of group cohesion and identity whose primary value lay in their relation to men” (p. 169).

For me, this book comes down to two things, which are intrinsically connected: the dismantlement of hierarchy, and the prioritizing of human rights over culture. What is manifest again and again in The Means is that hierarchy hurts the vast majority of the world’s people, whether it comes in the form of Patriarchy, the caste system, racism, or capitalist economic dominance (and truly they are all very much interconnected), true fulfillment of human rights is simply impossible within a hierarchical context (unless, of course, one rejects equality as a fundamental prerequisite of human rights).

The dawning realization is that “culture and tradition is not a monolith” (p. 195); culture, as anthropologists have long droned, is dynamic. It is forever changing, evolving moment to moment, sometimes subtly, sometimes drastically, at times subconsciously and at other times with human imperatives hugely present. This issue, in my opinion, is one that has been growing more and more salient on the world stage. Maybe the major question every human individual needs to decide is “when culture and human rights collide, which should prevail, and who gets to decide?” (p.104). Traditionalists often cite identity, autonomy, and sheer reverence as reasons for the reactionary approach to culture, but to do so is to maintain harmful systems of hierarchy. That is one reason why I so appreciate the perspective of Agnes Pareyio, whom Goldberg interviews at length: “[Pareyio] wants Masai culture to change to embrace strong, educated girls” (p. 147). Pareyio’s ideas can and should be debated by individuals and groups of people, and globalization has made this somewhat unavoidable anyhow. This is an idea which the themes in Goldberg’s book foreground not only through her analysis of worldwide trends, but also through the relation of individuals’ experiences. It is time for humanity to move out of the age of the Cultural Mandate, and for each of us as individuals to engage in the study, shaping, and reshaping of culture, beginning with a collective redefining of cultural values.

A Conversation with Vishnu

A device was recently invented which instantly translates the language of chickens into human languages, like English, and vice versa. The following is the transcript of a conversation between myself, Lee Solomon, and Vishnu, a chicken, which was held using my newly-purchased device.

[Transcript opens.]

LS: Testing, testing.

V: I got that.

LS: Okay, me too. We’re good. [Clears throat.] This is Lee Solomon speaking with, with my friend here… For the record, can you please state your name and species?

V: I’m Vishnu, I’m a chicken, Michigan-born and raised, and I’m 25 years old. In chicken years.

LS: Wow! Me too! What a coincidence. That I’m 25, and from Michigan, that is, not…that…I’m a chicken.

V: Right. Ha.

LS: Say, isn’t Vishnu a boy’s name?

V: No.

LS: Oh…Okay, anyway, let’s get started. I have a few questions lined up, but whatever you feel like discussing, let’s just go with it.

V: Shoot.

LS: I hope this isn’t too predictable, but it needs to be asked. You are aware that I technically bought you from a chicken farm, right? [V nods.] And how do you feel about this?

V: Pretty horrible. I’m sure you can imagine how horrible you might feel if your life was a commodity, especially given your interest in human trafficking. It’s the same concept.

LS: Hm, yes, I suppose it is. But humans have had a long relationship with many domesticated animals, including dogs, sheep, and cattle, going back thousands of years. Would you say these relationships are symbiotic?

V: No, because they are not entered into mutually, but are assumed. By humans. Even now that we have a voice, chickens are not being asked for their consenting participation in their own domestication. That participation is still being assumed, because humans don’t want to hear what we have to say.

LS: Mm. So you don’t see the chicken-human relationship as mutually beneficial?

V: That is not the point. A marriage can be mutually beneficial even if it’s arranged, but that doesn’t make it consenting. Whether or not “real” [makes quotation motion with wings] symbiosis is occurring is secondary. What’s missing is consent.

LS: Okay…Okay, my next question is even more complicated. Now let’s say I want to enter into a mutually beneficial, consensual relationship with you. I will agree to– [V interrupts.]

V: Wait, wait; aren’t we getting ahead of ourselves?

LS: What?

V: You paid for me, remember? So that makes you, like, my slave master. Before we can even begin to use words like “mutual” and “consensual”, you need to acknowledge the illegitimacy of your action of purchasing me, and denounce your superior status. Then we can actually get somewhere. [Murmuring, background noise.]

LS: [Nodding.] Ah, all right, all right, you’re making sense… So, I acknowledge my “master” status as false, that it arises from my privileged position within a social hierarchy, and not from some inherent or “natural” superiority as a Homo sapien. And, although we may be trapped inside this human-created hierarchy, I want this relationship– you and me– to exist outside of that, on the same level.

V: Okay, well, that last bit might be a bit too unrealistic, [both talking at once] but this is a good starting point–

LS: Wait, why is that, why is that unrealistic?

V: Because we would need to have a dialogue in which we rethink what it means to be human, what it means to be chicken, what it means to think, what it means to be alive–

LS: I see…I see. All right. Let’s go on.

V: [Scratching on the couch cushion.] So you want to enter into a relationship with me.

LS: Yes, and in that vein I agree to provide food for you, aah, shelter, protection from predators…

V: And in return you’re asking…?

LS: I’m asking for your consent to consume your body for sustenance after you’ve passed on.

V: You want to eat me after I’m dead.

LS: See, I went to such effort to phrase it so nicely, and– [both talking at once.]

V: Yeah, well, I don’t usually care for niceties. [Smiling.] You know that I may die from disease, in which case my body would be unsafe for, for consumption.

LS: [Shrugging.] That’s a possibility.

V: You’re also aware that people don’t often eat old chickens, because we just don’t taste that good after we get on in years.

LS: I’m more concerned about caloric intake than flavor quality.

V: The other problem I see– well, let me ask you this: are you an organ donor?

LS: Yes, I think my organs should be harvested, but I really want my body to be donated to science. For instance, to a medical school for use in the practice of autopsy. [Laughs.] I’d rather not be “wasted” [makes quotation motion with hands], you know. I mean, I’ll be dead, so I won’t care– I just hope my body is used in the best possible way.

V: [Nodding.] Well, you must be aware that some people are morally– religiously– opposed to the, to what they see as the desecration of a body? Of a human body.

LS: Yes.

V: You think chickens aren’t like that?

LS: Oh, I…Well it never occurred to me before.

V: [Clucking.] Obviously. Well, I’m okay with you eating my body after I die. But for the record, something to keep in mind for the future, not all chickens are the same, hold the same beliefs.

LS: Oh, no, of course not.

V: Yeah, so, it seems to me like you’re getting the shorter end of this stick. You provide me food, water, shelter, protection– can we add entertainment? I saw part of an episode of “How It’s Made” once; I’d really like a TV.

LS: Well, there is, there is one other thing… I mean, sure, of course, TV. Um, so the other thing is…

V: Is what.

LS: Is…[both talking at once.] I’m just, well, it’s–

V: Are you gonna make me say it? Are you gonna make me say it?

LS: It– [Pause.]

V: Eggs.

LS: Yeah, all right, eggs. [silence for several more seconds.]

V: What if I don’t want you to eat my babies.

LS: Well technically they won’t be babies– [both talking at once] you would need, you would need–

V: Are you saying, you’re going to deny me the right to reproduce?

LS: That would require me to buy– I’m sorry, that would mean we’d have to find a rooster, you know, and…

V: And who are you to decide when life begins? Just because my eggs aren’t fertilized doesn’t mean they don’t carry the potential for life. [Silence for several seconds.] As it happens, I agree with you; I don’t think an unfertilized egg is “alive” [makes quotation gesture with wings], and I don’t think that just because I have a fertilized egg means I have to keep it. [Stares up at the ceiling.] Listen to me, I’m speaking in the language of the Masters! [Laughs.]

LS: I take your point.

V: You look upset.

LS: I’m not.

V: You sure look upset. [Both talking at once.] You look, really, you look upset.

LS: I’m– I’m not– I’m, okay, yeah! [Slaps the side of the chair.] I’m…I’m upset!

V: What are you upset about.

LS: I’m…I guess this is all really overwhelming. [Takes a deep breath and then releases it.] Please, continue.

V: I think what it comes down to is, are you prepared to sell me one of your ova?

LS: Wh-what?

V: Would you sell me one of your ova?

LS: Ye—yeah, I think I would.

V: Would you give one to me?

LS: Well, we don’t really know each other that well…

V: But you want me to give you– [both talking at once] you want me to give you one of mine, several, so you can eat them?

LS: You brought it– you brought it up! [Pause.] You brought it up.

V: I just said what you couldn’t.

LS: So…Okay. Eggs are off the table.

V: I didn’t say– [interrupted by LS.]

LS: Eggs are off the table.

V: Okay, eggs are off the table. Literally. Haha. [Flutters wings, settles again.]

LS: Wow, damn, I never though one day I might be eating chicken, but not eggs. [Silence for several seconds.]

V: You might be eating eggs. Everyone feels differently about their bodies. I’m okay, actually, with my unwanted eggs being eaten, but I would like to be appropriately compensated for them. [Silence for several seconds.] You look upset again. [Pause.] I’m guessing this is not how you imagined this conversation going down.

LS: Uhm…[Rubs face.] Well god, I never had to think about all this stuff before! I mean, not like this.

V: Why not? I mean, take this as a for-instance: the FBI recently changed its definition of rape to a broader one, of which I’m sure you’re aware.

LS: [Nodding.] A step in the right direction.

V: Sexually touching an unconscious person is considered a violation of their body. They do not have the ability to consent if they are unconscious. Anyone who does not have the ability to clear communicate– because they are unconscious, intoxicated, mute, cognitively impaired, whatever– cannot give consent. So, before this device [gesturing to the translation machine], all kinds of things were– are still! Are still being done to chickens without their consent. And you can have the same dialogue about dogs, and sheep, and cattle, and pigs, and fish, and animals kept as pets, animals kept and bred for commercial usage, animals used for experimentation…

LS: Kept in zoos…

V: Exactly. [Several seconds of silence.] Exactly. [Pause.] It’s going to be a long road to change.

LS: It’s a struggle. I see myself as an ally in that struggle– [interrupted by V.]

V: And while I think you’re moving in the right direction, you really have a long ways to go, in terms of self-reflection, reassessing your values, your definitions, rethinking reality…

LS: I think so… I think so….

[Eng of transcript.]