Review: The True Cost

The True Cost: A Review.

Industrialized clothing production has always been problematic, but those problems have become intensified and have much more far-reaching consequences in recent decades. This is due in large part to a phenomenon known as “fast fashion.” In the not-so-distant past, the fashion world had two, at most three “seasons” of new clothing. However, global capitalist markets and industrialization have sped up production, shipping, and other processes that bring new styles to market, so much so that new fashions can hit shelves practically weekly. Hence, “fast fashion,” which encourages consumers to treat clothing as disposable.

The True Cost (2015) is an exploration of the causes and consequences of fast fashion in particular, and global capitalism in general. The film’s creators journeyed from Texas to the UK, from Bangladesh to Cambodia, from China to Haiti, and other places around the world. The film features interviews with experts from a multitude of fields, including ecofeminist Vandana Shiva, Free Market Institute director Benjamin Powell, physician Pritpal Singh, and animal rights activist and fashion designer Stella McCartney.

Perhaps most importantly, the film prominently features individuals struggling against the systemic problems associated with global capitalism in their own niches. Though they may be less famous in Western contexts, their stories are no less important. They help to shed light on the day-to-day consequences of the capitalist system, the ways in which seemingly disparate sectors are intrinsically connected within this system, and what individuals can do about it. Bangladeshi union leader Shima Akhter, American organic cotton farmer LaRhea Pepper, and Cambodian parliamentarian Mu Sochua are among these voices.

The True Cost takes a wide-lens view of the garment industry and the various economic pockets tied to it. I’ll discuss a few of the major themes that are the focus of this film here.

Agriculture

The huge growth seen in the fashion industry would not be possible without accompanying intensive industrialization of agriculture. As infrequently as we ponder the impact on garment workers as we shop for clothes, much less frequently do we think about farmers, who are one more step ‘removed’ from the final product. These industries appear disconnected to most of us, yet our constant consumption of “disposable clothing” would not be possible without industrialized agriculture. The industrialization of agriculture includes the mass use of herbicides, pesticides, and other agrochemicals that are not only dangerous for the natural world but also to human beings.

When her husband died of brain cancer, Texan LaRhea Pepper realized that organic farming isn’t just important, it is “imperative.” While she doesn’t have “a smoking gun” that directly connects the agrochemicals used on the farms surrounding her community to the many farmers she personally knows who have died from cancer, she has more than enough evidence to know that there is a dire need for organic farming techniques. She echoes ecofeminist Vandana Shiva’s sentiment that nature is the original economy, and when the land and waters suffers, humans suffer. Pepper says that we must “respect the life that’s in the land,” a lesson passed down to her in her farming family.

For farmers around the world, ‘modern’ agricultural products and techniques are tempting, despite the harm they can do to people and the environment. Yet it is a hard trap to escape from once signed onto, especially for farmers in “developing” countries, such as India. GMO cotton and other patented seeds have proven to be “ecological narcotics,” as Shiva calls them, because they require ever more chemicals (e.g. pesticides) to maintain their productivity. This in turn creates a dependency on GMO-patenting companies like Monsanto—which are the same companies producing agricultural chemicals. Even more disturbingly, Shiva asserts that the corporations selling carcinogenic farming chemicals are also investing in the development of cancer treatments and pharmaceuticals. In other words, these corporations benefit from causing, as well as treating, human ailments. It is easy to see that there is little incentive for this system to change itself, particularly when it prioritizes profit over human well-being.

Marketing

We think of propaganda “as a foreign thing,” says Mark Miller, professor of media studies at NYU, “but it’s actually as American as apple pie.” Advertising is essentially a form of propaganda that encourages us to buy stuff. Psychologist Tim Kasser has found that increases in materialistic values are associated with increases in anxiety and depression. After reviewing research on marketing, this is perhaps a predictable outcome of advertising that is designed to makes us feel insecure, incomplete, and incompetent—problems that can be ‘solved’ through the constant consumption of new products. Modern day marketing has become the art and science of what 19th century advertising copywriter Samuel Strausser called “consumptionism.” Miller explains that the logic of consumerism wants people “to treat the things we use as the things we use up.” This model is plainly unsustainable, but as economist Richard Wolff points out, American capitalism is treated as above criticism, regularly getting “a free pass” on its dysfunction.

Waste

Most of the waste we produce is non-biodegradable. In recent decades, a growing proportion of that waste is clothing. Increasingly, people think of fashion “as a disposable product,” according to journalist and True Cost producer Lucy Siegle. Many of us try to be more conscious of this, and believe we are doing good when we donate clothing to charity. But the “journey of a t-shirt donated to charity is unpalatable in itself,” says fashion designer Orsola de Castro. For example, almost 90% of the clothing we donate to local charities actually gets shipped to “developing” countries, such as Haiti. The unintended consequence of this is that it puts Haitian clothing manufacturers out of business, so there is less home-grown business and less local capital.

Consumer Capitalism as a Worldview

The True Cost creators interviewed Kate Ball-Young, a former sourcing manager for retail chain Joe Fresh, and in many ways her worldview neatly encapsulates the abstracted beliefs about globalization and capitalism held by most Americans today. Of garment factory workers, Ball-Young asserts that “they could be doing something much worse,” like coal-mining or something. She clearly has no idea just how hazardous garment manufacturing in countries like Cambodia, China, and Bangladesh truly is, both in the short and long-term. “There’s nothing intrinsically dangerous with selling clothes,” she says with a laugh. Perhaps that is true, but she appears to be disconnecting her own work from the very industry that provides her with a source of income in the first place. Ball-Young is emblematic of a Western mindset that as long as we can’t see where a thing came from, then we don’t need to ask hard ethical questions of ourselves, even when we sell or consume that thing.

For me, one of the most serious problems with this mindset is that we are not just cultivating an ignorance of where things come from, but indulging in a fantasy that real people did not create those things. Whether it is clothing or cars or food, we would much rather purchase and enjoy the end product guilt-free than contemplate the journey from field or mine to factory to storefront that a product must take. In doing so, we can overlook the human element of global capitalism—especially human suffering. Maybe we take it a step further by patting ourselves on the back for ‘supporting livelihoods’ overseas. Accompanying this belief is the attitude of TINA: “There Is No Alternative.” When we as consumers choose to believe that “there is no alternative” for the people producing our goods, we can excuse human rights violations, environmental devastation, and other associated problems because—well duh, what other choice do those people have? But what happens when we confront someone who believes this with, Well, aren’t we complicit in a system that has eliminated alternatives? We can’t abstract ourselves as individuals from these complex and interconnected systems in which we participate—and, frequently, which we benefit from. We must acknowledge that our choices as consumers has the power to perpetuate or alter these systems.

Some Criticism

As can be seen from this brief overview of a few of these major themes, the scope of the film is daunting. In its attempt to be accessible by not getting too deep with any one topic, The True Cost touches upon a variety of interconnected issues only superficially. This ends up becoming a core critique from film reviewers, such as Vanessa Friedman. In her New York Times review, she wrote of The True Cost’s director Andrew Morgan, “it’s hard not to feel in the end that he was overwhelmed by the scale of the problem. In trying to do everything, he skirted a lot of things, including acknowledging the shades of gray in this subject.”

Another shortcoming of this film is that it is not explicit enough in stating the disproportionate effect of exploitative industries like fast fashion on people of colour, most of all people of colour in the ‘Global South.’ To put it into perspective, (particularly white) Western consumers are exempt of accountability for their part in exploiting the time, health, and labor of people of colour in ‘distant lands.’ So while I commend the film for putting women of colour’s voices and experiences front and center, it cheats its own argument by shying away from the ways in which gender, race, and nationality play into global capitalism’s systemic violence. The film also does not in any way note how global capitalism is in part an expression of Western colonialism and imperialism, and how people of colour (especially women) continue to suffer the greatest burden of this legacy.

Finally, although there is some discussion of disability and mental health throughout the documentary, this is done without exploration of the experiences of people who are multiply marginalized. That is, the film’s creators do not flesh out the ramifications of living and working within an oppressive system that contributes to mental and physical disabilities disproportionately in communities of colour and in the ‘Global South.’ And where women of colour are place front and center to tell their own stories in their own voices, disabled people are not afforded this treatment. Rather, they are featured more as props backgrounding the ‘horrible’ stories of environmental contamination explicated by the director/narrator.

The Bottom Line

Nevertheless, for people who have never met a garment factory worker (let alone are friends with any), The True Cost may bring the human element of exploitative industries, like fast fashion, to the fore of their consciousness. Maybe they will start to pay more attention to workers’ struggles around the globe, including in places like Cambodia and Bangladesh. Maybe it will start to sink in how these systems do much for the West at the expense of the Global South, especially women of colour. Maybe they will start to see how our decision-making processes impact the direction industries take, and thus how we need to take responsibility for those decisions and their effects on our fellow Earthlings.

This documentary is best for people with limited knowledge of the themes it discusses, as it provides some solid, entry-level information. It’s a great starting point for getting a big-picture grasp of the abusive nature of global capitalism. From there, hopefully viewers will continue to more deeply educate themselves on these issues.

Here is some literature that might prove helpful for such continuing education on global capitalism, the interconnectedness of its systems, and how this impacts all of us:

And for those specifically interested in “buying better,” check out this page on the film’s site.

 

 

Eating Animals

C.J. Hunt, creator and host of the ‘documentary’ The Perfect Human Dietclaims to have “rediscovered” what human beings are intended to eat: meat. The documentary describes how he arrived at this conclusion after “a ten year global journey”, and the documentary website calls this conclusion the “solution to the number one killer in America”, meaning heart disease.

Hunt says that diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and other nutritionally-derived health issues could be completely resolved by adopting a primarily meat-based diet. Before you protest that most Americans already have a meat-based diet, in fact we don’t: like most human beings around the world, we have a largely cereals-based diet. We get most of our calories from the carbohydrates in grains, be it bread in America or rice in Cambodia. I will agree with Hunt’s point that carbohydrates are bad for humans. We are simply not designed to efficiently process those kinds of nutrients. Aside from the health implications for individuals, further evidence for the detrimental impacts of agriculture can be found in abundance in Ishmael. But I digress…

According to Hunt, the “paleolithic diet” was composed primarily of meat. He calls humans huntinganatomically modern humans (AMH) “carnivorous”. While it is absolutely true that many hunter-gatherer societies ate primarily meat, it is certainly not a prerequisite for being AMH, and meat made up half (or less than half) of many other societies’ diets, who focused more on seed, nuts, etc. What they all had in common was that they were omnivorous; it is unlikely that humans would have survived long if they’d depended solely on meat (or solely on any one thing), and the diversity of the early human diet is confirmed even by one of the anthropologists whom Hunt interviews. This is another fact of our modern diet: it seriously lacks diversity.

Hunt takes as evidence for humans’ naturally carnivorous nature the hunter-gatherer humans and Neanderthals of Stone Age Europe. There appears to be good evidence* that these people consumed a lot of meat; for much of the year, vegetation would have been scarce, so their very survival would have probably meant a dependency on animals. (The Neanderthal diet of that time seems to be more understood than the AMH diet of that time. For instance, there is confusion about what other sources of food AMHs were getting during the cold winter months if they could not store food.) However, remember that data derived from isotopic analysis can’t tell us precisely how much of their diet was meat, just that most of their dietary protein was coming from animals: “Isotopic analysis provides information about the sources of dietary protein over a number of years, even though it does not measure the caloric contributions of different foods.”

Taking the diet of AMHs of Stone Age Europe as our baseline of what the “paleolithic diet” of hunter-gatherers was like is not only racist but probably inaccurate. Hunter-gatherer societies around the world vary greatly in terms of the types and quantity of animal protein they consume(d), but Hunt chooses to universalize these particular AMH and Neanderthal diets (which also were not identical, by any means) as “normal” paleolithic diets. Perhaps this isn’t surprising, given that Privileged White Man Claims to Embark on Global Journey, Goes Only to North America, Europe and Australia. *facepalm*

It might also be interesting to note that most early human ancestors ate almost nothing but plant matter. This is several millions of years, as opposed to the 1.5 million years that we have (we think) definitely been eating meat in any quantity.

One more issue with Hunt’s assumption that the European AMH diet is some kind of “gold standard” for paleolithic diets: Hunt takes the comments of various anthropologists and archaeologists out of context to support his image of the Perfect Human Diet as one centered primarily (or even entirely) around meat. Vegetation, fruits, and nuts are thrown in as an afterthought, and aren’t really discussed by Hunt, at all. Part of this seems to be a reaction to the “low-carb” fad of weight-loss diets. For Hunt, protein is what should replace carbohydrates. Why does “low-carb” equate to “high protein”? (I suspect there is an argument to be made here regarding animal protein consumption and masculinity, but I’m not going to go there.)

Despite some of the obvious holes and inconsistencies in Hunt’s argument, I tried to entertain the thought of everyone assuming such a diet. After all, many people think avoiding meat altogether is equally (or even more) wacky. However, it doesn’t take much consideration to decide that more humans eating more meat is a bad idea, if not for the individual then most definitely for humans as a species as well as for the planet.

As things stand, livestock-related emissions contribute 14.5% to GHG emissions each year, which is only going to continue to increase as countries like China (sorry China, you always get blamed– I’m not blaming you, you just have a lot of people, but we’re still friends!) continue to consume more meat. Consider this: per capita, only Luxembourg eats more meat than the United States (figures courtesy of The Economist). So even though China on the whole eats twice the amount of meat as the U.S., the average American citizen still eats more than twice the amount of meat as the average Chinese citizen.

Consider how things will change as China and the rest of the world eat ever more meat (for which we will have only ourselves to blame as we promote a capitalist American lifestyle throughout the world). Consider how things might look if Americans decided to focus their diet even more on meat, and if the rest of the world began to follow suit. I have a feeling that greenhouse gas emissions from livestock would suddenly come to the forefront of the discussion on climate change.

Finally, in response to the paleolithic diet fad, I appreciate this comment from Scientific American: “Ultimately—regardless of one’s intentions—the Paleo diet is founded more on privilege than on logic. Hunter–gatherers in the Paleolithic hunted and gathered because they had to. Paleo dieters attempt to eat like hunter–gatherers because they want to.” Given that this documentary was created by a man at the top his “foodchain”, it makes sense that privilege is a central factor in this “logic”.

Thoughts on this??

 

 

*This book is downloadable for free! Pretty cool! Also, one of the co-authors of this book appears to be the same Michael Richards interviewed by Hunt for his documentary. But, if you wanted to explore that source more deeply for yourself, here it is.

This Just In! Ad Industry Exploits Women and Implies Sexual Violence is Funny!

(Warning: graphic images follow.)

Okay, just kidding, that’s old news. And yet it’s not.

Virgin Mobile USA thought better of a clearly inappropriate holiday ad that had gone up online after Richard Branson was like, “Um, no.”

When I think “Christmas Surprise” I think “Chloroform your partner”. In all seriousness, though… I get such a kick out of Mad Men because the absurdly misogynist caricatures of the advertising moguls of Madison Avenue seem exactly that: absurd. But then one realizes: they are still making ads. Only now some people have the good sense to get pissed off when those ads attempt to derive humor from the suggestion of sexual violence.

On the production side of things, however, seemingly little has changed. Take American Apparel ads, for example. I have despised AA ads since their store came to East Lansing while I was in undergrad there. This was how they debuted their new store to Michigan State University students back in 2005.

These ads were banned by the ASA in the UK, as they were considered exploitative and practically pornographic. Getting banned is nothing new for AA. A visit to the AA website reveals that this is not just the theme of their outdoor and print ads; virtually every single [female] item for sale on the site is model in the same pornographic fashion.

For whom are the commodities in these ads intended? Women: does this ad make you want to buy this t-shirt? Why or why not?

These ads scream: MALE GAZE.

American Apparel has long claimed that their ads are unique, progressive, and inventive, because they portray women who are not necessarily professional models, who are not airbrushed or digitally perfected. (Apparently they believe that this promotes self-esteem.) If anything, all that says is that any woman can be turned into a personality-less fuck object. Now that’s progressive.

What has always struck me about AA ads are their resemblance to pornography: vapid, inane expressions, sexually-laden yet childlike behaviors, suggestive postures, faces off an assembly line. How can these ads claim to be a celebration of the natural female body when a) all of these women are of a very particular look, shape, and size and b) their target audience is voyeuristic men and insecure women?

AA is telling us that fat or flat are both repulsive, even “natural” women require makeup, and the only hair you should have is on your head.

I suppose all of this is unsurprising given the kind of person AA’s founder is.

There is nothing unique, progressive, or inventive about what AA does. The “Mad Men” were doing it long before AA ever arrived, and they’ll be doing it long after it’s dead.

Make yourself heard with a survey.

The Return of Vishnu

https://i1.wp.com/www.mediapeta.com/peta/images/main/sections/mediacenter/printads/lisaedelsteinPETA.jpgThe following is the transcript of a dialogue I, Lee Solomon, had with my feathered friend, Vishnu. In case you missed our first conversation, Vishnu is a hen empowered to speak through a machine that translates Vishnu’s chicken thoughts into human language. *Warning: Links are to Graphic Images*

[Transcript Opens]

LS: Hello, hello…

V: Hearing you loud and clear.

LS: Great, it works. So, how are you, Vishnu?

V: Amused.

LS: Eh? How’s that?

V: I’ve just been reading something on this organization called PETA.

LS: Ah, yes– People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. What’s amusing?

V: Well, that they lobby so ardently against animal testing and experimentation, fur, animal products in the food industry, animals used for entertainment, and so on, when their very presence on Earth is a serious threat to the health and well-being of other animals around them. That, and that they distinguish between “people” [makes quote motion with wings] and “animals”. We…animals are always the Other, you know?

LS: So I have come to realize. Well, don’t you think they’re doing some good work?

V: I guess it’s better than doing nothing.

LS: Oh, come on, they have achieved some pretty admirable things, don’t you agree?

V: Such as?

LS: Such as… Well, getting some pretty famous celebrities not only to stop wearing fur, but also to campaign against the killing of animals for fur. That’s pretty remarkable, yeah?

V: Oh, you’re talking about this. [Holds up ipad.]

LS: Since when did you get an ipad?

V: Since I started saving money by selling my eggs.

LS: [pause] Oh. [Takes ipad; browses webpage.] What…the f***?!

V: Ha ha!

LS: [Shouting.] Vishnu, you’re not funny! I know you think you’re funny, but you’re not!

V: Come on, you have to admit, this is pretty funny. [Pause.] In an ironic way.

LS: [Shaking head.] Yeah, or it just makes me nauseous. Campaigning for animal rights by fetishizing and commodifying women? W-T-F?

V: It’s rather incredible…[sarcastically] don’t you think?

LS: [Frowning.] Sometimes you’re just mean.

V: So what do you think is wrong with this ad campaign. Doesn’t it serve a good purpose?

LS: If they reinforce the idea that the female body can and should be use to sell something, then to me it defeats the purpose. The ends does not justify the means.

V: Maybe, but it’s not so bad, is it– how exactly are they commodifying women?

LS: By depicting their bodies as hypersexualized, passive, consumable objects, slung with slogans and brands.

V: It is disturbing the way they are posing nude with those rabbits… [Shudders visibly.]

LS: Both the women and the various animals posing in these pictures look really vapid and devoid of thought.

V: They look rather stupid, yes.

LS: The women– oh wait, and this one guy, too [holds up ipad]… But even this picture is not hypersexualized, the pose is not erotic or suggestive, he is just standing on a runway with this sign. Anyway, the women in these ads are not on a level with animals, or as you say, V, the Other– they are like pieces of meat. The underlying tone of these ads, [makes quote motion] “CONSUME ME”, speaks louder than their so-called “good message”.

V: That’s a little dramatic, don’t you think?

LS: What’s dramatic are these stupid taglines. Is sexual double entendre really necessary to convince people to respect animals, even if it worked? Which it doesn’t, by the way. The idea that PETA, who are supposedly all about the rights of animals, would use tactics so degrading the rights of human beings makes me doubt that any outsider would possibly take the issue seriously. When has that ever worked? [Mimicking a man’s voice.] Oh, well, this sexy ad has caused me to reevaluate my moral position on eating animals. [Scoffs.] Yeah, right. Not to mention it’s playing on detrimental norm-enforcing dogma. I mean, look at this one. [Holds up ipad.] Masculine stereotypes are also being reinforced in these ads, though virtually never in a sexual way– no, no, that would be too feminizing, emasculating. The men are necessarily shown in strong, powerful poses with forceful, aggressive expressions. Or they just general look like bad-asses. The women, on the other hand, are posed suggestively with seductive looks. I’m sorry, but how does soft-core porn encourage one to become a vegan?

V: [Smiles.] Indeed. It is surprising that a group so devoted to the rights of animals would not see a problem in their using this particular kind of animal– female humans, I mean– in such a way… [Silence for some moments.]

LS: [Browsing with ipad.] What the– really? Not all…? [Sighs.] Here’s your ipad. [Hands back ipad.] Let’s watch a movie or something.

V: Sure.

[End of Transcript]

Addendum: A brilliantly written article from Lucy Uprichard on Huffington Post Students. The real problem with PETA– couldn’t agree more.

Professional Girlfriends: a letter

Dr. Hoefinger:

The results of your seven years of research as summed in your article “A Woman’s Work” left me rather disappointed. I recently read said article in Southeast Asia Globe Magazine, and what disturbed me was how thoroughly saturated it is in Patriarchy.

I am not necessarily pro or anti-prostitution or systems related to it (transactional sex and so on), but I do question any cultural system which homogenizes an individual’s identity based on “lump categories” like ethnicity, gender, age, etc., which is exactly what prostitution, bar work, and karaoke-singing in Cambodia do. It also functions within and perpetuates Patriarchy. I am compelled to question a situation (be it career, school, family-related, etc.) wherein a group of people is conspicuously absent or present. I find bar work in Phnom Penh troubling precisely because it is all young, economically disadvantaged Southeast Asian girls and women.

Your article highlights several young women who chose to go to the city for bar work. Opening with a discussion with one professional girlfriend about the benefits of her work, I was immediately overwhelmed by a sense that her identity and values were shaped around high-profile consumption, that she is fixated on consumerism and the associated prestige. As you introduce and quote a few more women, a world of hyperconsumption emerges: individual women are themselves being consumed, even as they struggle for means to further their own consumption. (On a brief tangent, does any person “subscribe” to capitalism, as you say, or aren’t we all just born into it?) On the one hand, a very shallow picture is painted of greedy women preoccupied with make-up, clothing, gold jewelry. On the other, we’re told they are “virtuous” as they provide for their families back home and take care of themselves. Either way they are fulfilling the opposite but equally stereotypical expectations of the Patriarchy.

This representation of ‘virtue’ further irritates my feminist sensibilities, particularly as how it connects to the family. Within the traditional (some would say ‘ideal’) Patriarchal Khmer family, women are constantly relegated to lower positions than their male counterparts. The expectation exists that females will provide for the family in ways which compliment male contributions, but which often become exploitative. The ‘freedom’ and ‘adventure’ bar workers experience perhaps offsets this exploitation to a degree, but still at the risk of harmful stigmatization. The burden of family honor placed on young (particularly marriageable) women is as much an item of Patriarchy as is the consumption of female sexuality. This is the shortcoming I see in affirmatory studies and articles on sex workers, bar workers, and karaoke workers again and again: simply approving of the ‘chosen careers’ of such women does little to ground their ‘choices’ in reality.

One might ask how real a ‘choice’ it is to opt for the ‘freedom’ of bar work over work in the provinces. Thus is it necessarily a gendered choice; we see few boys pimping or sexually commodifying themselves in order to attain material security, prestige, or just to get by (indeed they exist, but the point is we don’t see them). Yet women who commodify their own sexuality to fulfill male sexual pleasure, stigmatized as they are, are highly visible and are in high demand. Here is the aspect of bar work that I felt your article failed to address: how is sexual commodification (here in the form of bar work, professional girlfriendry, and transactional sex) a gendered phenomenon, and how does it affect the overall sociocultural status of Cambodian women? Indeed, of all women?

Part of me thinks your article was merely written to appeal to the masses– with sex appeal, quite obviously. Even the title of your article degrades the potential seriousness of the subject, while simultaneously upholding the Patriarchal standard: “A Woman’s Work”, really? It seems to be a most disappointing subscription to Patriarchal norms.

I appreciate your intimate use of participant observation. But the problem with this research method is that it can become too personal; I wonder if it didn’t for you? Being too close to a situation or subject can blind us to a broader, deeper context. Perhaps in your effort to portray such women as self-reliant, capable, and career-oriented, you allowed yourself to overlook the more desperate aspects both of their individual situations and the situation of women in Cambodia in general.

This you did not do in your article, “In This Place, We Are Kin” (which really only reaffirms my thoughts about mass appeal); in “A Woman’s Work”, you make no mention of the potential long term outcomes of transactional sex and bar work. You give a very detailed account of one such worker in “In This Place”, however, and I think it would have edified SEAGlobe readers to have read about her. Whereas bar work once allotted her personal freedom and stability, it ultimately does not provide realistic long-term support, and after encountering economic hardship she feels obligated to marry someone she does not love in order to survive. Her chosen career path may seem like a far cry from the textile workers and farmers in the provinces, but the end result is very much the same: unable to support themselves and their families (through no fault of their own), they are forced into relationships which are, verily, exchanges of sex for security– transactional sex, as someone would say.

I do intend to read your book when it comes out next year. You must still be writing it; if it is more of “A Woman’s Work”, expect more pejorative letters. If you decide to give a less single-minded account of the experience Cambodian bar workers, I might even buy it.

Best,

Lee Solomon

p.s. One could really go on, too, about the abysmal absence of aspects of sexual violence, but we can save that for another time.

I’m Not Commodity

For some unexplainable reason, I woke up at 5 this morning with R.E.M.’s “King of Comedy” (from the Monster album) stuck in my head. Obviously that means I need to write about the commodification and objectification of women.

Let’s start with objectification. Objectification is simply the process of recreating or using a person as a thing. We do this all the time. Some time ago, a friend told me that I was objectifying them by resting my head on them; I had turned them into a pillow. It is objectification to lean on someone when exhausted, as if they are a crutch. It quickly becomes apparent that some objectification is fairly mundane or benign, and other kinds of objectification are harmful. Sexual objectification is an obvious example of this.

Sexual objectification means turning a person into an object, accessory, or tool for sex. If you like sex in which either you or your partner is not an active participant, not giving and receiving pleasure mutually, then sexual objectification is probably gratifying to you. If sex is more than you using another person as a means to an end (your own sexual satisfaction), or being used to this end, then this kind of objectification is problematic.

The traditional view of heterosexual sex is deeply entrenched in objectification. The man is the pursuer, the initiator; he is necessarily aggressive, maybe even forceful. The woman is the pursued, the “end goal”, the object; she is passive, submissive, although in many ideal fantasies she also secretly wants to be pursued and caught. This view is reinforced in mass media the world over, in magazines, TV shows, movies, music videos, books, advertisements, video games. It is no wonder that lots of boys and young men are both confused and resolute about their understanding of a girl or woman who says no as just playing a role, and of girls and women who say yes as breaking that role (that is, as being sluttish).

Sexual objectification unavoidably sets the stage for the commodification of sex. Commodification is the process of recreating or portraying someone or something as a commodity– a good, an object for consumption. The ways in which sex is commodified still conform neatly to traditional views of heterosexual sex, which are also patriarchal. In this situation, men are the subjects and women are the objects. Patriarchy holds that sexual pleasure is naturally (or should be) centered around men; there is an emphasis on the uncontrollable nature of male sexual desire, whereas women are either passive recipients of this desire, or objects used to cater to it.

Women, specifically, have long been commodified as sexual objects (and men have, too, in a different fashion and to different ends). We aren’t just used to sell things, but we are things; we are figuratively “on sale” for consumption all the time. Although women are hypersexualized in this process of commodification, as individuals they are stripped of their own sexuality. If an object has a perspective on its own sexuality, its sexual identity or desires, it is in danger of becoming real, a subject. Commodification thus also means the smothering or eradication of female subjectivity.

I think a lot of men find all of this difficult to swallow. On the one hand, I guess I can see why it would be challenging to view things from such a different perspective– if you have always been the buyer, the consumer, there has probably never been much reason or incentive to view things from the perspective of the good/commodity. On the other hand, I think men can understand this perfectly; a large number of them are sexually objectifying and commodifying females all the time. I have a large number of very close guy friends who would adamantly deny this, but even if they truly see all human beings as, well, human beings, they surely experience their peers doing this much of the time.

What surprises me is when men have absolutely no qualms about doing this blatantly and shamelessly in front of women. I think this is because they feel either there is nothing wrong with it, or that there will be no consequences for doing it. For example, I was fundraising outside of a supermarket (for a project to end gender-based violence, no less) not too long ago, and I was observing a security guard as he was…observing a young woman coming out of the store. She was loading her groceries into a tuk tuk. She was wearing a dress, though by American standards I can’t say it was “too short” or what have you. The security guard was standing not far from her, staring at her– no, not staring at her, but staring at her behind. His stare was long and open, and at one point he even licked his lips. I had been talking to him earlier about the project I was helping fundraise for, so I felt it was not too out of place for me to ask, “What are you doing?” His answer was phrased completely innocently: “She’s a beautiful girl, why shouldn’t I look? Why is she wearing that dress if she doesn’t want me to look?”

This is an argument that I’ve heard time and again. Women secretly desire the male pornographic gaze on them. It’s what compels women and girls to wear make-up, to dress like the models on magazine covers, ultimately to sexualize themselves. Under the surface, all women really want to appeal to male sexual desire.

If that woman wanted that security guard to stare at her while licking his lips, I’ll eat my hat.

But that’s besides the point. This idea of women’s secret desire for men to visually consume them is based on a much more sinister myth: the idea that women secretly want men to fuck them. This sounds so absurdly egotistic and narcissistic as to be unbelievable, but when I look around myself I can see how it sort of…makes sense, in a sort of droll, male-centered way.

In high school I had a friend whose room was covered with large, glossy posters of Playboy Bunnies. There was one at the head of his bed that I can’t seem to forget; whenever I think about this person, I inevitably think of this poster. In it, a typical white, blonde “Bunny” is positioned on the floor with her butt high in the air, her knees bent, and she is propped up on her elbows. She is looking at the camera with an ecstatic, childish expression, and she is wearing nothing but bubbles. Yes, only soap bubbles, on her breasts and her crotch. I remember feeling horribly uncomfortable when I would go to this friend’s house to play video games with him and our other friends– all of whom were Good Christian Boys who regularly attended church and youth group. And stuff. Only one of my guy friends had the nerve to ask him if it wasn’t such a great idea to put up posters of mostly naked women on your walls– wouldn’t God be offended? (God definitely would be offended, since the Christian God hates women, after all. Ho ho ho, surely I’m just kidding…)

When I look around myself right at this moment, I am in an internet cafe in which every computer besides this one is occupied by a young man or boy. I am tempted to check each screen to see how many of them are watching porn, but I don’t want to get kicked out. Don’t worry, most of the younger guys are just playing WoW… Well, I guess that’s sort of the same as watching porn, isn’t it? Anyway, on the walls are posters advertising various Khmer and other Asian websites, mostly for games. Almost all of them feature partially-naked women, even the cartoon ones. The one behind me features two realistic-looking cartoon women with guns posed between two bulky men in armor; both women have huge breasts and long, skinny bodies. One is wearing a low-cut top with her midriff showing, and the other is wearing shiny black leather (she sorta looks like a dominatrix with that nazi hat on).

I could describe the other posters in here, but I won’t bother. You get the idea. Anyway, from your own experience, you already have an idea, I’m sure. Just looking around us at other people, at billboards and posters, at book covers and album covers, at music videos… We are constantly being inundated by this shit, all the time. Taking all this in, it isn’t hard to see why girls and women are so easily recreated as personality-less, consumable objects devoid of agency.

Perhaps the absolute worst part is that it is not only men who recreate and consume women as sex objects, but women recreate and consume women as sex objects, as well. Actually I think that’s why it is such an immense challenge to confront and negate these processes of commodification and objectification. Women and girls commodify themselves, early on and often for their entire lives. We hypersexualize and objectify our bodies, our sexual identities, but to what end? Ultimately it seems entirely dissatisfying, time-consuming, and hurtful. The results are a preoccupation with unattainable “beauty” standards, self-loathing of our own persons, and jealousy and contempt for other women whom we perceive as surpassing our own efforts. If you fail, all you get is some really low self-esteem; if you succeed, you get to be a sexually-consumable object for male-centered pleasure, which really only holds if you are available for consumption 24/7. Congratulations.

What I would like for us to do, then, is to reject our own commodification. Question yourself, question others, question culture, when you feel compelled to do something, go somewhere, dress some way, say something. I don’t believe this is easy, but I have learned multitudes about myself through such self-reflection and critical thinking of my surroundings. But it is as they say: once you’ve seen, you can’t un-see. Maybe ignorance is bliss, but transcendence is better.

I’m not king of comedy,
I’m not your magazine,
I’m not your television,
I’m not your movie screen
I’m not commodity
I’m not commodity

[R.E.M., “King of Comedy]

p.s. This is a really aesthetically-shit but highly informative website on some particulars of how women are portrayed as sex objects in certain media.

p.s.s Post on the sexual commodification of men forthcoming.