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!

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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

Patriarchy: How Everyone Suffers

I’m fond of using the word Patriarchy (especially capitalized). Lots of people are. It’s a catchy, encompassing term. The problem is, Normal People tend to associate it (and thus its most ardent users, feminists) with crackpot conspiracy theory.

Can we take a minute and dissect this concept?

A few definitions of Patriarchy I have stumbled across recently are:

from Wikipedia: “Patriarchy is a social system in which the males, especially fathers, have central roles of political leadership, moral authority, and property. Many patriarchal societies are also patrilineal, meaning that property and title are inherited by the male lineage. The female equivalent is matriarchy.”

from blogger ballgame: “Patriarchy is a system of rigid rules and expectations around gender that unjustly overvalues certain qualities and undervalues others. Typically, dominant males are overvalued, and the average woman’s macropolitical agency is significantly constrained. (Patriarchal societies also frequently devalue the average man’s emotional value and possibly his micropolitical agency, though I don’t know whether this is necessarily a hallmark of patriarchy like devaluing the average woman’s political agency is).”

from Kamla Bhasin: “[The concept of Patriarchy] is a tool to help us understand our realities.” She continues, “The word patriarchy literally means the rule of the father or the the ‘patriarch’, and originally it was used to describe a specific type of ‘male-dominated family’– the large household of the patriarch which included women, junior men, children, slaves and domestic servants all under the rule of this dominant male. Now it is used more generally to refer to male domination, to the power relationships by which men dominate women, and to characterise a system whereby women are kept subordinate in a number of ways. In South Asia, for example, it is called pitrasatta in Hindi, pidarshahi in Urdu and pitratonto in Bangla.” She also adds that Patriarchy assumes different forms in different times, places, and cultures.

(Also, interesting essay here.) 

Parts and conceptual sums of these definitions, among others, have shaped my [working] concept of Patriarchy. I guess I don’t have a simple definition, but this is generally what I mean when I say it…:

Patriarchy is both a system and a way of thinking which holds certain values that benefit some peoples and individuals and necessarily discriminates against others. Although these values and their manifestations vary by culture, location, and time, a general pattern can be identified: value for competition; value for strength, power/authority, and domination; value for role conformity; value for hierarchical structure; value for masculinity. Patriarchy also devalues femininity, weakness, subordination, and deviation. The forms these values take are necessarily shaped and expressed by culture, by which ‘masculinity’, ‘femininity’, gender roles/norms/expectations are defined, and the specific values of a culture in terms of race, age, sexual orientation, etc. Hierarchy within Patriarchy is multifaceted; multiple hierarchies may exist which are interconnected or interdependent and function around concepts not only of gender but also race, age, sexual orientation, and so on.

Thus can it be that “progressive” America (in which women can vote, run for office, work outside the home, have sex with other women, and so on) is a Patriarchal society and “backwards” Afghanistan is a Patriarchal society, as well.

The BBC just had an article on Men’s Rights activists. The reason why I am so irritated by this movement is not because I want to subjugate men, don’t believe in their rights, etc. Obviously not (see my definition of feminism). What is so utterly bothersome is that these proponents are either a) complete ignorant of their victim-agent status within Patriarchy (and sometimes Patriarchy, itself), or b) want to have their cake and eat it too. That is, they want all the benefits and privileges of their Western White Wealthy Phallocentric Patriarchy without any of the consequences. Well, I’m sorry people, but if you subscribe to hierarchy (and even if you don’t), you had better know there are drawbacks for those who are not at the top.

Some of those consequences/drawbacks are nicely illustrated by the article. I will go through some of them. Please note the irony of blaming feminism for these “ills upon men” (nevermind their Patriarchal origin).

As described in the article, David Benatar’s new book addresses the various ills of men which include: being conscripted into the army, being victims of violence, losing custody of their children, and taking their own lives.

1. Conscription into the army. Last time I checked, there was a lot of hesitation (confusion?), even disgust, about women joining the army in “the West”. Yes, they can do so in a lot of countries. Yes, publicly they are praised as patriotic for their service. But American women are still not allowed into combat. Hatred of women by the military apparatus, itself, manifests as [tolerated] violence against their own. And the Ideal Soldier will never, ever be recreated as feminine or female in the eyes of the Patriarchy. Fighting for one’s country is a classic Patriarchal value in America and much of Europe, not to mention elsewhere. Blood-letting is considered masculine and unfeminine, and unfeminine women are often portrayed as “butch” and repulsive. But ultimately, allowing for the conscription of women into the army would not reduce Patriarchy, at all: the very purpose of the war machine as a tool of domination is both a manifestation of and means of perpetuating Patriarchy, regardless of whether the fighting puppets have penises or not. (Personally, I don’t think anyone should be conscripted into the army. But I’m radical like that.)

2. Victims of Violence. It’s true that men are more likely to experience and die of violent crime than women (excepting rape).  It’s also true that men are more likely to commit violent crime than women. This probably has little to do with the inherent nature of men or women as more or less violence-prone, and more to do with our socialization within a Patriarchal society. Patriarchy often dictates that men are naturally (and should be) assertive, aggressive, even forceful if that is necessary to get what one wants. Women, on the other hand, should not be aggressive, or are “naturally” more nurturing, passive, and empathetic. Men who display these attributes are labeled emasculated, effeminate, even gay (oh god, not that!) the world over, from the States to Cambodia. Women who are assertive, aggressive, or forceful are abnormal, unnatural– “bitches”, reallly. All this masculine-identified aggression is partly responsible for violence in all forms. This is not to say that women aren’t violent– of course they are, but statistically they are far less likely to be physically violent– perhaps because the Patriarchy has many recourses to put them back in their subordinated place. The other aspect of this is risk-taking; both as perpetrators and victims, men are encouraged to do more risk-taking than women. The leading cause of death for young men is accidents, and more men die of accidents than women, generally. Women are encouraged to adopt “safer” lifestyles than men. They are child-bearers and raisers, after all.

3. Losing custody of the kids. Alas, the Woman as Nurturer motif has finally come back to bite men in the ass. Patriarchy, of course, doesn’t only discriminate against women in its sometimes ironic functioning. Discrimination has long worked in apparent favor of women in this regard: women are Mothers and innate Nurturers; men are (or should be) distant, emotionally-detached Providers. You can’t rightly expect a Provider to properly raise babies, now, can you? But also, the realm of babies and children is a necessarily feminine one, for babies and children are weak, just as women are. This is why women and children need the Protector/Provider male, and why single motherhood equates to child abuse.

4. Suicide. Higher rates of suicide among men can be partly explained by the methods men employ as differentiated from women. Suicidal men statistically resort to more violent means than women, which results in higher rates of success. Although women attempt suicide more often (and have higher rates of self-harm), men actually succeed in killing themselves more often. It has been suggested that men are not only encouraged to seek out more violent means to commit suicide, but also are able to attain those means more easily (such as acquiring and using a gun). Mental illness is a major (if not the major) factor leading to suicide, and men are less likely than women to seek help over mental health issues. This tendency is also founded in normative masculinity: “real men” don’t show weakness, don’t cry, and don’t talk about their feelings. [Interesting side note: the suicide rate is actually higher for women than men in China. Between that and female infanticide, the future sure looks grim for Chinese women.]

Other points mentioned:

5. 90% of prison inmates are male. This ties in with much of the above. Value of male aggression and even violent competition are at the root of this issue, but it should also be pointed out that the majority of prison inmates are people of colour. The systems within the System are not simply based on gender, but privilege or disadvantage is based on a myriad of other factors, as well– including ethnicity and social class. Many styles of Patriarchy love White Wealthy Westerners, hence one reason why you don’t see a whole lot of them in prison. And class is of course derived from our status within the system of capitalism. Let me tell you, Patriarchy loves Capitalism. (Hehe.) They are old friends, although Patriarchy is a lot older. Capitalism has a lot going on that Patriarchy adores: cutthroat competition, domination, winners and losers, and so on. But as a way of life, Capitalism sets up a situation which almost ensures that some groups of people are going to be underrepresented in the upper classes and overrepresented as the bottomfeeders or criminals; Patriarchy helps shape how those groups are defined (as by colour, religion, etc.). As a fortune cookie once told me, “Society prepares the crime; the criminal commits it.” It should have added, “And Patriarchy unfairly molds certain groups of people into the criminal role.” If you’re about to say, “Crime is an individual’s choice,” say no more Dickensian nonsense; crime as an individual choice complete removes both the crime and the individual from the context of culture and thus makes it into a moral dilemma-scenario in a philosophy book. In other words, completely detached from reality.

6. Men are invisible victims. An American web designer in Ohio is setting up a domestic violence shelter for men. I think this is an absolutely pro idea. A lot of people, though, are probably going to laugh their heads off at this. Why? Because MEN HIT WOMEN NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND, DUH LOL. Well, that is certainly what Patriarchy wants us to believe. And, more often than not, that is the reality; most perpetrators of violence are men, most survivors and victims women and children. But not all. And an increasing number of women are becoming perpetrators (which, by the way, women have long perpetrated violence against children, no surprise there) as the physical and psychological moorings of Patriarchy continue to shift. Women are Patriarchs, too, after all. Anyhow, this shelter: it directly points to how Patriarchy does not simply function on gender, but is multidimensional. Hence why white middle class American men should think again about their fervent support of Patriarchy, for when they becomes its victims, who is left to turn to? Suddenly the marginalizers have become the marginalized. Men are supposed to be the aggressors, not the victims. Am I being redundant? Is a pattern emerging here?

7. Men’s body image. Pressure and negativity surrounding male body image has grown steadily from an almost-neutral standpoint in the industrial era of “the West”, to a nigh-obsession today. Women have experienced this since…well, who knows when, and that’s not to say male beauty standards have not also been prioritized for a long time. But for modern men, I can see why these changes should come as a shock; they’re not the fair sex, after all– women should be the ones worrying about their appearance, dammit! A man can and should be able to fuck anyone he wants regardless of how he looks, and to be loved by anyone without them caring about his appearance. My, how the times have changed. Vanity and beauty are suddenly no longer so, well, feminine. Does this mean we are now going to admit to the subjectivity of beauty and toss out antiquated “ideals” and norms that control people’s lifestyles and cognitions? Somehow I doubt it…

There are a lot of other points mentioned in the article that should be addressed within a conceptual framework that accounts for Patriarchy. Maybe I’ll get to them later, but I don’t want to bore you… The point is, Patriarchy is shit. It’s not just bad for women. It’s bad for men. It’s bad for black people. It’s bad for Cambodians. It’s bad for Canadians. It’s bad for the elderly. It’s bad for kids. It’s really really bad for young, black, poor single moms, and it’s the least bad for White Wealthy Western males. This is not just about sex. This is not just about colour or class. And no, Men’s Rights Activists, you cannot have your cake and eat it, too.

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.