Reblog: Dangerously Provocative

Feminist Philosophers

Jessica Wolfendale (co-editor of Fashion: Philosophy for Everyone)  is currently completing an article on sexual modesty. Her most recent article, “Provocative Dress and Sexual Responsibility,” is forthcoming in the Georgetown Journal of Gender and the Law. and now she’s just published a piece on being “dangerously provocative” here.

The provocatively dressed woman is dangerous. She is disruptive; a distraction and a temptation. She can lead good men to thoughts of infidelity; she can distract men and boys from the important tasks of work and education. The dangers posed by the provocatively dressed woman mean that she must be monitored and controlled. Girls must be forbidden from wearing provocative clothing to school, so that they don’t distract boys.[2] As a principal of a Canadian High School wrote in a letter to parents: “Girls wearing short skirts should think about how they sit and what is revealed when…

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Rape, and love.

I’ve been reading a lot about rape, as I try to finish my thesis, which deals with sexual violence as well as institutional violence. I’ve listened to and read a lot of survivors’ accounts of these types of violence. It’s too much at times, because this is how I spend my academic life, my intellectual life, but it’s also on the news all the time. It’s in songs, in movies, on TV, in teen fiction, in casual jokes and everyday conversation, in political discussions.

There was a time not so long ago (2008, 2009) where I would’ve been astounded and pleased to see nation-wide media discussions about sexual violence. So much changed in the time I was gone. It still blows my mind that we are including things like bystander intervention training in college freshman orientations, or that the FBI updated its definition of consent to condemn sexual acts against an unconscious or drugged person as rape. This seems like massive progressive. Seems like we’re headed in the right direction. Then why the fuck am I filled with anxiety, why am I drawn tight like a bowstring whenever sexual violence arises as a topic of conversation, a court case, a news story, a song lyric, a painted subject. Is it just because I’ve experienced it? Is it just PTSD, blah-dee-blah? Something tells me otherwise.

At certain times in the history of feminist theory and activism, some feminists have voiced the opinion that rape is a crime of violence, only, not a crime of sex. Susan Brownmiller has been cited as supporting a view of rape as a being about violence, not sex (see Cahill 2001, 16-28). While I was a SAC advocate and crisis counselor at the Listening Ear, I shared this view of rape. “It’s not about sex,” so the line goes, “it’s about power and domination.” Of course, this is coming from people who either cannot fathom an association between power, domination, violence, and sexual arousal, or who cannot admit to themselves that for many people, such a connection exists.

There are many people who associate violence, sex, and power. Sometimes this is enjoyable, and sometimes it is born of traumatic experience—undoubtedly sometimes it’s both. Many kinksters who associate pain and pleasure, and who derive enjoyment and arousal from playing with power dynamics. However, kinky sex is not rape, due to the fact that communication, consent, and mutual enjoyment are the central tenets of BDSM and fetish practitioners. Rape happens when genuine consent is absent, whether when a person says no, when a person is silent, or when a person feels that they cannot say no (e.g. because they are being coerced, threatened with the end of a relationship, etc.).

Something that strikes me is that among all these discussions of the relationship between violence, rape, and sex, something that never seems to come is the subject of love. Now, we know that the vast majority of rapes are perpetrated by people known to their victims. In fact, they are often the closest people to us. They are our friends, our parents, our pastors, our teachers, our siblings, our neighbors, our lovers, our partners. They are people for whom we often feel a great deal of trust…and love. This doesn’t strike me as coincidental. It is the people whom we love the most that can often get away with doing the worst kinds of things to us, because we cannot admit to ourselves, let alone anyone else (e.g. a court of law), that they would do something to us that contradicts our understanding of their love for us. This seems to cross boundaries of all kinds of love. The love felt between parents and children, teachers and students, spouses, siblings, and so on—these are all very different kinds of love. But it seems to me that all of these kinds of love (perhaps all kinds of love) are founded upon trust.

This is what makes rape so devastating. It is a violation of bodily autonomy, it is a violation of the mind, and it is a violation of trust and love. Even where trust is broke, even again and again, love remains… Maybe it gets chipped away, maybe it wears like beaches shaped by waves, maybe it erodes into nothing, over time. But when it comes to the people we love most, we will suffer the worst kinds of betrayals, even more than once. We tell ourselves whatever is necessary to endure this kind of abuse: we put the people we love before ourselves, that is what true love is; we keep faith in them even when they fuck up, because love conquers all, and through love they will change and improve; love doesn’t always come easy, sometimes it requires work, maybe it even requires sacrifice; we can’t betray love, even when the people we love betray us.

I feel compelled to say something that I have suspected before, that makes my stomach turn and that I know the thought of which makes many people feel ill. Rape and love are connected. I won’t claim to understand their relationship. Either rape and love are connected (hence why it is most often the people we love who perpetrate our rapes), or we do not yet understand rape, or love. Quite possibly I think it is both. I suspect that until we better understand both rape and love, sexual violence will always be a normative aspect of our culture. Even as we say, “Rape has nothing to do with sex, rape has nothing to do with love,” we lie to ourselves that our rapists—our parents, our pastors, our best friends, our partners—love us. Maybe it is not a lie… Maybe they do love us. Maybe we do love them. Then we’ve got it wrong… Rape and love have something to do with each other. It seems fucked up, it seems unimaginable. But we also say that rape, itself, seems unimaginable. We say bizarre things about rape: “I’d rather die than be raped”; “I’d kill anyone who raped you/me.” We say sensical things about rape: “I can’t believe that person committed rape”; “I don’t understand how that person could have rape their best friend/spouse/child/classmate.” All of these utterances seem to me to indicate a serious lack of understanding about rape, but also love.

Something that we fail to talk about and to really seek to understand are the motivations of rapists. We pass them off as deviants, as psychos, as one-offs, as aberrations, as monsters under the bed, as strangers in the shadows. When it’s the people we love who fit this description, it’s like they become unknown, unknowable to us. It stops making sense. Our relationship stops making sense. Love stops making sense. Our bodies stop making sense. Our will stops making sense. It’s unfathomable, it goes against everything our culture has taught us about love, it goes against everything we feel and understand about love, about relationships, about ourselves, about the people we love. This isn’t how it’s supposed to work, it doesn’t make any sense. It’s incoherent, it’s like living in a horrific faerieland where nothing makes sense, nothing ever coheres.

It makes no sense to me whatsoever that a person whom I love and trusted very much raped me repeatedly. They made me feel like I was wrong for refusing them. They made me feel that I was saying “I don’t love you” whenever I said no. They made me feel that I was hurting them by saying no. They made me feel that they had a right to my body—more than that, they had a right to my bodymind and they had a right to believe I enjoyed it. Eventually I ran away from them because I felt like I was going to die—on some level I believed that it was me, or the relationship. One of us was going to end. I had come to believe that it was my destiny to kill myself, and that I wasn’t deserving of love, and I believed everyone who made me feel that my partner was ‘putting up with me’ and that I was abusing them. Probably most of those people had no idea what my partner did to me for more than two years. Sure, a lot of them knew that that person had jerked me around and gone out on me, had manipulated me and lied to me and so on and so forth. All part of the game that is college relationships, I suppose. But they didn’t know that my partner would touch me against my wishes, even in public places, like work. My partner wasn’t afraid of consequences, I think; I suspect that they felt they were in the right. They made me afraid to be alone at work with them. They made me afraid to walk up the stairs first. Eventually I couldn’t let anyone walk up a flight upstairs behind me, because I’d start having a panic attack. Of course, I wouldn’t figure out for a long time that that’s what they were.

Despite all this, I loved my partner so much, I couldn’t imagine my life without them. They were so smart and considerate and creative and funny and good-looking, they were going places, they had a good head on their shoulders, they were kind, everyone said so. Many people said I was lucky to be with them. I believed this. But in order to keep my partner happy, I had to do what they asked. If that was holding hands, or kissing, or letting them touch me, or having sex, then that’s what had to happen. It took almost four years for me to figure out that all of that was wrong, was not my fault, and the sex we had wasn’t ‘sex’, it was rape.

The part that is now very difficult for me to get my head around is that that person thinks they didn’t do anything wrong. No, scratch that, I can get my head around that. We live in a culture that tells some groups of people they’re better than other groups, that they are entitled to things from groups which are beneath them. Shrug. I can understand that. I read books and shit. What I can’t understand is how that person can live with themself, because they work in a place that is directly involved in people’s sexual health. What makes them think that they have even a modicum of understanding about sexual health? They made me feel that there was something wrong with me, with my body, when I didn’t enjoy having sex with them. Having sex you don’t enjoy over and over again—this is the opposite of healthy.

Writing helps… I’m feeling a bit better for having written this. Writing is a Lens of Clarity in faerieland. Maybe now I can get back to my thesis…

Safety Tips for Sophia Katz

Reblogged from the Belle Jar.

The Belle Jar

Trigger warning for rape

When my grandmother was eighteen and freshly out of high school, she got a job doing clerical work at Pier 21 in Halifax. Pier 21 was the landing spot and first point of contact for those immigrating to Canada across the Atlantic ocean, and my grandmother helped process paperwork. She loved her job. She especially loved learning people’s stories, poring over their forms and finding out where they came from, what their children’s names were, and what possessions they’d chosen to bring with them all the way to this strange new country. You can tell a lot about a person and their priorities, apparently, based on what stuff they believe is worth hauling across the cold, grey Atlantic.

My grandmother was only able to work at Pier 21 for a few months, though, because it was just too exhausting for her father. Why? Well, because her shift ended…

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Unpleasantly pleasant surprises

Reblogged from Zero at the Bone.

Zero at the Bone

I have recently had the good fortune to have many respectful and pleasant interactions with men. Men looking me in the face rather than in the figure! Men excited about how my career is going and wanting to help me along with that! Men who are happy to shoot the breeze about current events and our families without ulterior motives or condescension! Men who want to share knowledge and time, and interact regarding professional and social matters as though we are both human beings and not as though the woman half of the equation is there to be stared at/creepily hit on/looked down upon. It’s been nice, you know? Nice and perfectly normal and also strange.

And it’s strange that it’s strange, because that should be normal, right? And oftentimes it is. This sense of this situation’s oddness is, I suspect, coming about because things have been weighed so heavily…

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What I’m Owed.

Most of what I want to say about this has been said elsewhere.

For some background, see Jezebel‘s video post, the supposed “last video” of the killer. Be warned, it’s…not very exciting. Sounds like a badly scripted Josh Trank film. It’s so utterly mundane that it pisses you off. Only a rich, passing-for-white American male thinks it’s okay to shoot people after not getting what he wants. And possibly fascist dictators. :D

Also see:

Daily Life:









The New Statesmen: “Capitalism commodifies that rage [regarding the conviction that men have been denied a birthright of easy power], monetises it, disseminates it through handbooks and forums and crass mainstream pornography. It does not occur to these men that women might have experienced these very human things, too, because it does not occur to them that women are human, not really…As soon as women began to speak about the massacre, a curious thing happened. Men all over the world – not all men, but enough men – began to push back, to demand that we qualify our anger and mitigate our fear.”

What I disagree with…:We have seen incontrovertible evidence of real people being shot and killed in the name of that ideology, by a young man barely out of childhood himself who had been seduced into a disturbing cult of woman-hatred. Elliot Rodger was a victim – but not for the reasons he believed.” No. This isn’t a cult. This is a widespread culture of hatred which is openly tolerated, accepted and defended by “normal” people. I know them. You know them. As an example, if you have ever felt that sex was owed to you, you are one of them. This isn’t some bizarre deviance, this is our culture, people. Next time you hear your friend, your parents, your siblings, your teachers or coaches say something racist or sexist or dehumanizing, call them out. At the risk of losing a lot of face and getting called a hypocrite (which we are) and being really unpopular, call them out and don’t let them get away with it. Call out hatred where you see it. You can do it in a loving way. But do not “lovingly” let it go like it’s not your problem.

What really disturbs me having watched “Elliot Rodger’s Final Video” is not how deviant and aberrant he seems, but how much he reminds me of boys and men that I know. It’s not scary because it’s so random and crazy, but because it’s so sickeningly normal. This particular dude is only special because he was materially and ethnically “privileged” enough to kill as many people as he did before killing himself. If you have even the tiniest suspicion that I am talking about you, then you should be disturbed (and I probably am).

But hold up a second. Do I think that people who are angry and outcast and lonely do not deserve to be empathized with? No. In fact, if our society weren’t so cripplingly patriarchal, there is a chance that empathy could have saved the day. There is a chance that by being listened to, the killer might have learned how to listen to others, women in particular, and see them as human with problems and feelings like his own. The suppression of emotions as feminine and negative is a big contributing factor to the mental health problems experienced by a disturbingly large proportion of Americans, which no one seems to want to talk about.

The last thing I want to say….

People. A lot of women like sex. They really really want to have sex. So do a lot of queer people. If you ever feel entitled to sex, stop for ten seconds and think about aaaaaaaaaaalll the other people out there who want sex, too, and aren’t having it. Think about how most people might feel real sorry for themselves but aren’t frequenting misogynist, racist forums to talk about it.

Think about how a feeling of self-entitlement can easily lead to a situation where you rape someone, as in you coerce someone or drug someone or physically use force against someone or pout until someone succumbs to what you want. If you ask once, twice, three times and they finally say yes, is that consent? Women and queer peeps might even feel as entitled to sex as men do. Don’t let this confuse you into think it is anything less than rape if it’s a women or a man or a queer person doing the coercing.


Open Letter to My Rapist


My rapist.

It’s strange to use that possessive pronoun with a word like ‘rapist’, but that’s what you are. Perhaps you’re someone else’s rapist, too, but that doesn’t change the fact that I can still claim ownership over you– for something no one wants, which is still mine.

I listen to a cheerful song as I write this, so I don’t tear the skin off my lips in anxious anger (yet I still do). As I reflect on our relationship, which I have rarely done in the past three years, I realize there are really only two things which I will always hold against you. There are other things for which I hate you, but I imagine some day I’ll get over them. All things save two.

We had Spanish together my junior year, your senior year. It wasn’t planned, it just ended up like that. Inevitably at some point we were put in a group together for a project, which thrilled me at the time. I was also excited about the project, itself– creating a Spanish menu– because it involved creativity and the chance to draw, which you knew I liked. But when we distributed the workload, you alloted yourself nearly all the artwork. When I expressed that I wanted to draw, too, you told me I wasn’t as good as you, and because I foolishly worshiped you, a stone idol, I agreed. On the day we were to submit our projects, I felt a bit resentful; I saw your sketches of paella and tortilla de papas, and thought I could have done as well. I was always small to you. I was never as good as you.

Then came the day, not long after the Spanish project, that we were watching a movie in the basement of my house. My home. My parents were outside, in the barn or the garden, maybe. Giving us mistrustful privacy.

For months you had been telling me that we should have sex, because “people who love each other should give everything to each other” and, well, we were going to get married anyway, weren’t we? Yet I steadfastly resisted: my position was that sex was reserved for marriage, which at the time I was resolutely convinced was God’s Will– a god, as it turns out, who does not exist.

On this day you were going on about something like that, we should share everything with each other, don’t you love me, if you loved me you’d have sex with me, blah blah blah. I wasn’t really listening because I already knew what my answer was. I already felt a terrible anxiety about the state of my virginity (how much could you kiss someone before you lost your virginity? Did making out count as sex? What about hand jobs?), so it was easy, simple, for me to say “no”. I couldn’t believe you’d even consider it– weren’t you worried that we were already going to hell?

You said, then, that you wanted to know “what it feels like”, meaning my vagina. You said you wanted to touch it. I lost my patience. If we weren’t already fallen from God’s grace, we surely were now. Or at least you were. I got up to leave, exasperated.

I never could have guessed, would have allowed myself to believe, what you would do next.

You grabbed my arm, which didn’t immediately alarm me until I tried to pull away. When you didn’t let go, I felt a deep, primal urge to dig my nails into your face, your eyes, but I rationally resisted the impulse: why would I do such a thing to someone I loved? But you did not let go. Your hand was like a vice grip, likely the outcome of all that baseball you played, all that sculpting of clay you did. You pulled me down to the carpet and knelt on top of me in one smooth, swift movement, almost as if it was practiced. As I look back at myself then, I appear as a small animal, a young child, pathetically weak, with huge, round eyes brimming with the realizations of fear. My little animal brain hadn’t caught up to reality yet, not even as you forced your hand down the front of my jeans (How did you do that? I pondered vaguely; I had thought the waistband of my jeans would prevent such a thing from happening, it was much too tight, wasn’t it?), and your digits into my vagina. Strange pain. Blink, blink. It must have been less than ten seconds, but I remember thinking then that it had lasted much longer. I finally registered how strong you were and felt shocked that you’d used it against me, and how heavy your knees were as they pinned my arms down, like a straight jacket. Then you were talking about me, about my body, as you still had your fingers inside me, like a scientist describing matter-of-factly a newly discovered landscape (words like “soft” and an exclamation of “Wow!”, when remembered still make me want to throw up). You felt around in me as though I were an inanimate object, a garbage disposal into which something had fallen and caused a jam. I noticed how itchy the carpet was.

And then you got off me. I just laid there at first, my arms still at my sides. I felt nothing, I couldn’t describe how I felt. You noticed my blank face and suddenly all your joy was gone. You seemed instantly, intensely apologetic– “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I’ll never do that again”– but in retrospect I imagine you were terrified I’d tell someone. I got up and your I’m-sorry-so-sorrys followed me to the stairs where, one step ahead of you, I turned around and looked down at you and I said– I don’t fucking remember what I said, something like “You will never do that again,” something which I would not say now.

So let me tell you what I would say now.

What you did to me the State of Michigan defines as Criminal Sexual Misconduct of the First Degree according to Chapter 76 (Rape), Section 750.520b. Being that you used force, and that your actions resulted in physical pain and mental anguish, it was a felony.

But let’s face it. Even had I filed a police report, and even if that report had been examined by the DA and taken to court, you would have easily escaped punishment. Rich all-star travel team white Christian boys do not go to jail for sticking their hands where they don’t belong.

So what I’m left with is this.

That to you, I was a gutter clogged with rain-soggy, rotting leaves. A skinny, dirty glass in the sink, that you can’t quite reach the bottom of with a sponge. A pencil that has rolled off the table and under a couch, and now you’re on your knees reaching, reaching for it.

You talked about me in the third person. “Hello, I’M RIGHT FUCKING HERE. I can hear you,” I should have said. You talked about me in the fucking third person, like you were having a nice little chat with yourself. Let me try that for a moment:

“He is a despicable, abhorrent, perverse, loathesome creature.” “A violator, to be sure. A fascist, a betrayer of human rights.” “He must have turned out like his dad.”

Do I find it as satisfying as you did? You thought me cold all those years you tried to talk to me, and I wrote you back with words of venom. You forfeited your right to my kindness when you assumed your desires trumped my bodily autonomy.

You are a violator of space. You put your hands where they didn’t belong. You did things which you can’t take back. Maybe there are people in the world who love you and deeply care about you. That is entirely inconsequential to me, whom you betrayed, in my own home. My home. You will always be a selfish, pathetic 19 year old jerk, in my mind.

Understand this: I will never forget, and you best hope you never meet me on the street, for I will greet you loudly and clearly with your most enduring title:

“Hello, rapist.”

How to Get Away with It

Julian Assange is telling Obama to “do the right thing”. Ah, if only it were so simple.

One of the complicating factors is Assange’s charges: rape of two Swedish women two years ago. Most people presume they are making that s*** up. But wouldn’t it be ironic if he did after all, as he’s been comparing himself with the feminist crusades of jailed band members of Pussy Riot?

“Assange attempted to draw parallels between himself and the Russian punk band Pussy Riot, three of whose members were convicted and jailed this week for a performance denouncing President Vladimir Putin in a Moscow cathedral.” [MSNBC]

So many people have pointed out the obvious, but I’m gonna go ahead and say it again anyway: Julian Assange could have in fact raped two people. In which case, I really don’t care what government conspiracies he’s trying to blow the lid off of– he should do his time. And preferably his life thereafter should be veritably ruined, for being an asshole.

And if that were the case, not only would he have made a sham out of the Wikileaks truth concept, but he would be a sick, manipulative, narcissistic @#$%^&* for identifying himself with the PR plight. Really, I wasn’t going to say anything ’til I saw that. The possibility is just too horrific to ignore. (Have you read the accounts? Don’t look good.)

Of course, what will probably happen in this case is what usually happens: even if he is a rapist, and even if there is a trial, the rich, powerful white dude will walk away because he’s– well, a rich, powerful white dude. Either that, or someone will give him safe harbor.

On a separate note, Laura Croft Reborn…after surviving rape? I don’t want to hear your fantasies, male-dominated gaming community!

And: “In the role playing game known as The Real World, “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is.” Funny, and insightful, you should read it.

Ode to Search Terms

*Heads up: this post isn’t appropriate for everyone, it’s got dirty words in it. You’ve been warned.

**Moreover, trigger warning.

Many bloggers get their readers through links from other blogs; some even advertise their blogs. And a whole lot get readers from search engines who are looking for something and stumble onto blogs quite by accident. Below are some things people have apparently searched for (or should I say googled, since that’s my biggest referring search engine), and found me…haha. The irony. [Note: I’ve kept the original search terms exactly the same– spelling and all.]

Continue reading

Fresh Bites

Olympic archery is cool!

Kawanaka received a bronze model for her part on the women’s team in archery.

The commentators…not so much. One of them (a Brit whose name I haven’t been able to lay my hands on) kept referring to Kaori Kawanaka of Japan as “the Japanese girl”, while her Russian competitor was simply “the Russian”; yet all of the male archers were referred to by their, er, names (such as Marco Galiazzo, Michele Frangilli and Mauro Nespoli of the Italian team, whom he called by their last names).

I thought commentators received training about that sort of thing? Not that it’s needed; most people probably don’t notice it as it’s so taken for granted.

From ESPN, a great article on the hypercompetitiveness of kids’ sports. Since ESPN is kinda an authority on these things, I appreciate their position: kids should be having a least as much fun as they are focused on winning.

Also, people really really do not know what rape is. Really. Men who rape, women who rape, the people who are raped, and a large number of bystanders– people are very confused about how to define rape. (That’s why I’m glad I have such a simple, straightforward definition, though admittedly rape is much more than a physical phenomenon.)

Pussy Rioters get jailed in Russia for blaspheming god Putin and being feminist (which really are the same thing, in fact).

A fun post on English language idioms.

Michiganians compete in the London 2012 Games!

An interesting blogger with a knack for limericks.

The Guardian has this cool chart which shows LGBT equality/lack thereof in the States.

And queers are going Alice Paul on MI politics in metro-Detroit.

(I know nobody cares except CELTA trainees and applied linguistics nerds, but this phonemic chart “keyboard” is so neat! And it’s saving my life, since MS Word is stupid and doesn’t have all the necessary symbols for writing in phonemic script, unless you know all the magic key combinations.)

Everybody’s Doing It: KONY 2012

Yesterday I watched “Kony 2012”, the short film which has “gone viral” (to quote BBC and NPR, which frankly they’ve taken all the joy out of that expression with their overuse of it) on the web this past week. Created by the same filmmakers (headed by Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell) who produced the hour-long original “Invisible Children” film and started the awareness-raising campaign of the same name, the video has been seen several million times and has almost quadrupled the number of followers they have on [insert disparaging adjective here] facebook. Almost immediately after watching it, I turned on the radio to hear BBC discussing their opinions of “Kony 2012”.

The title of the film is meant to remind you of a candidate in a political campaign (Bush 2004, Obama 2008), but Joseph Kony isn’t running for any kind of office (well, not in the near-future anyway, but who knows?); actually, Kony is rather obscure despite (what he would call) his accomplishments. The folks from Invisible Children chose the name because they want him to become one of the most famous people in the world this year– or more accurately, the most notorious. He is one of the Ugandan warlords who abducts children, rapes them, tortures them, forces them to kill their own parents, and ultimately turns them into child soldiers and sex slaves. “Kony 2012” is the campaign to make Kony and his crimes against humanity so well-known that world powers will have no choice but to act and get this guy charged and on trial at the International Criminal Court. According to Jason Russell, who is also the film’s narrator, all this has to happen this year, because…er, for reasons unbeknownst to us. Their “deadline” is never actually explained to viewers. (Maybe because the possibility exists that Obama won’t be president, and there’s not a chance in hell that a Republican president will give a #%$ about atrocities in Africa?)

Since yesterday afternoon, I have been thinking quite a lot about this…short-film-meets-documentary-meets-visual-personal-essay. My initial reaction upon watching it was very similar to how I felt after watching the original “Invisible Children” film in college: deep sadness, empathy, anger. Which is how the filmmakers want you to feel after viewing either film. The difference between the two films is that “IC” was more of an educational, awareness-raising piece, whereas “Kony 2012” has an actual, spelled-out political agenda. And what they appear to be banking on is that you will either forget the nidus which produced these films, or you will already be on their side so it doesn’t matter if you know, anyway. If that sounds enigmatic, let me explain…:

When I first saw the original “Invisible Children”, I was sitting in a church. I had been invited by a number of acquaintances from a student group on campus, Spartan Christian Fellowship. No one had told me what the movie was about (before I watched it I was actually under the impression it was a fictional story), and most of the few dozen people who came also seemed oblivious to its content. So I was quite surprised when it turned out to be a homemade documentary about the plight of child soldiers in Uganda (and also a fund-raising program).

I recall that during and after the film, we (the “Christian fellowship”) were deeply touched; many of us cried. At that time I was also a professed and somewhat outspoken Christian, though I had little in common with the ultraconservatives who attended this particular group. What we did agree on, however, was that it was our Christian duty to bring God’s love and justice to the people in Uganda– love for the child soldiers and justice for their torturers. Then we sang some songs, had a group prayer session, and went home.

As the next few weeks passed, I was struck by how suddenly everyone seemed to have Invisible Children apparel, bracelets, DVDs, stickers, and so forth. Even now, I see IC’s scheme to bring to light the suffering of a voiceless, marginalized group of people as a positive: people who had never heard of child soldiers (or of Uganda, for that matter) were suddenly deeply, almost personally invested in helping them. The commercialized, commodified treatment of the plight of child soldiers did nag at me, however. I didn’t buy any shirts nor did I choose to donate money to the IC.

This is not the most widely circulated critique of the video. The BBC’s main complaint about “Kony 2012” is that it is reductionist, oversimplifying what is in reality an extremely complex conflict. Their point is well-taken: “Kony 2012” makes understanding the “main bullet points” of the Kony dilemma so simple that even a five year old can understand them. Literally. Gavin, the film director’s (I’m guessing five year old?) son, is given a very boiled-down, easy-to-understand lecture on who Kony is and what he does, wherein their family friend Jacob (one of the children featured in the original “IC”) is positioned as the “good guy” and Kony is positioned as the “bad guy”. It is the film’s way of presenting and explaining this Ugandan conflict.

Is this an insult to the average adult’s intelligence? I think most people would probably say so, but then again most people who are watching this film aren’t, in fact, adults. This film has mostly “gone viral” with young adults, teens, pre-teens… The facebook generation, that is. What the film sets out to do is not to give people an in-depth (or even broad) understanding of Ugandan politics of conflict; indeed, we hardly even learn anything about Kony, whom the film is supposedly about. IC was also one of the organizations criticized by Foreign Affairs for “manipulat[ing] facts for strategic purposes.” The purpose of the film, in my opinion, is to create some hype and appeal to people’s emotions in order to further the agenda of the IC.

Before I get into what I believe that agenda might include, let’s look into this “emotional appeal” aspect of “Kony 2012”. There is a scene in the film that is actually taken from the first “IC” film, in which creator Jason Russell is talking with the young Jacob. Jacob has just described how he would rather die than continue his present existence, which Russell seems astounded to hear. Jacob explains that it would be better to meet his brother in heaven than to live in constant fear of being abducted and killed– a reality that hits too close to home for Jacob, whose older brother was violently murdered when he tried to run away from LRA soldiers. Jacob breaks down and cries; it becomes clear that perhaps he does not truly wish to die– he just wants a respite from the terror and agony he feels every day. Watch this part of the film and tell me you don’t get choked up, and I’ll call you a heartless bastard. Like I said, this film does an aces job at striking an emotional nerve.

This is where the film takes a pivotal turn. Russell, perhaps in a desperate bid to ease his own helplessness, tells Jacob, “I promise you we are going to stop them.” He repeats this promise over and over, asking Jacob, “Do you hear me?” Jacob nods and says yes, but seems entirely unconvinced. Actually, he looks even more hopeless than before he shared the story of his brother.

The crisis counselor and the feminist in me at this point exchanged knowing glances. “Well he certainly botched that, didn’t he?” they said with a sad shake of the head. Let me see if I can get them to explain exactly what they thought was botched… Crisis counselor: “Well, he probably thought he was making Jacob feel better by trying to ‘fix the problem’. Unfortunately, Jacob reacts to this by stopping crying and receding– we see him almost physically withdraw, into himself, away from all those feelings he just put out there. It was a huge, brave risk Jacob took, sharing those deep, vulnerable parts of himself, but he didn’t receive any empathy, support, or validation. Instead, Russell tries to make Jacob ‘feel better’– in reality he’s probably just trying to make himself feel better, suppressing his own strong emotions– by promising to solve the problem. This is problematic in multiple ways. First off, there is simply no way to fix ‘the problem’ of Jacob’s brother’s death. It is an unsolvable situation. Secondly, it’s both unempathetic and counterproductive to try to ‘solve’ another person’s problems; we only disempower them to help themselves, and even possibly create a situation in which they keep coming back to us to fix their problems. Lastly, possibly most importantly, we should never presume to know how to fix another’s problems…Whose to say that we won’t exacerbate the situation? It’s awfully arrogant to take such a presumptuous position as ‘problem solver’.” Okay, let’s have the feminist weigh in on this: “Agreed, it is not only presumptuous, but also masculist. Assuming the role of ‘problem solver’, even– especially!– in the face of an unsolvable issue, is a classic patriarchal reaction. Talking about emotions, even revealing emotions, is counterproductive to the masculist: what good does talking about feelings do if it doesn’t fix the problem? Moreover, sharing feelings earnestly is a ‘symptom’ of the feminine: weak, pathetic, deplorable. Contrast this with the stereotypical associations with the masculine: strong, assertive, corrective. ‘Boys don’t cry’, after all, but women cry and complain, and what good does that do them? Russell’s declaration that ‘we are going to stop them’ is also neocolonialist; the white Westerner needs to intervene in the chaos of Africa in order to set things straight. His racist moral high ground figures the ‘we’ he refers to not as himself and Jacob, but as himself and others like him. He is not talking with Jacob, but at him.”

Those two can sometimes get a little reductionist, themselves, not to mention they have a bit of a superiority complex, but their points are well-taken in examining the underlying sociocultural (subconscious?) motives at work.

I want to consider these points as we expand our investigation to include not just the IC films but the organization of IC, itself. IC posts its finances on its website for all to see, so we know how the money is used, but where does it come from? Purportedly a large number of IC’s donations (not to mention moral support) come from their Christian following. Considering the context in which I was first exposed to IC, I am not surprised. But what are the ramifications of this?

Between now and May, there will be IC film screenings at over 150 Christian churches all over America (average of about 3 screenings a day). That’s a lot of support coming from a single sector, which doesn’t include screenings at Christian-affiliated schools, colleges, or other institutions. Clearly there is a bit of hype about IC among Christian Americans. Even if it is not IC’s explicit directive to portray their organization or their mission as Christian, the Christians are doing it for them. At the events I attended during college, it was made clear that we had a divine imperative to “save” these folks (mainly the Ugandan children) because of our God-given duties as Christians and Americans. For it is not for Americans alone to enjoy the glory of Jesus, but we cannot rest until “every ear has heard”. (But quite frankly, my impression of the people participating in these events/film screenings/etc. was mostly that it was just “a cool thing to do”.)

In that vein, I take issue with how IC’s media-oriented strategy seems to focus on and portray only two groups of people: victimized, powerless Ugandans and salvation-carrying, white, largely Christian Americans. (And I’m not the only one whose irritated by this portrayal.) It appears as a retelling of the old classic, the Great White West moves in to save the neoprimitive savages. IC’s activist campaigns and photographs of the movement (which can be seen on their websites) are full of young, fist-pumping white folks, often wearing IC apparel. There is even a section where these folks are called “The Rescue”; perhaps they romantically believe they really are just “helping”, but any time you get together a bunch of people and put them in uniform, you should really question whether or not the participants truly understand the various levels of ideology at work. Another interesting feature of the website are the photographs and descriptions of all their staff. IC staff is strikingly gender-balance, and is also equally proportionate in the number of Americans and Ugandans, though the Americans are almost entirely white. For some reason the Board of IC is listed last: it is comprised entirely of white male Americans.

“But Lee, what are you saying, that white Americans can’t or shouldn’t help Africans?” I’m so glad you asked. Why, not at all, but to unquestioningly and uncritically accept the fantasy of the GWW “saving” black Africa is to ignore deeper, perhaps not-so-entirely altruistic motives subjacent to the movement we see on the surface. I would never say helping another person is bad, in and of itself, regardless of either person’s position in the Universe (e.g. as racialized, genderfied, etc. entities). However, would you accept the help of a person who not only desires to “help” you, but also to fulfill what they perceive as a mandate of their god? Would you accept the help of a person who is primarily helping you because they see you, consciously or unconsciously, as inferior? Would you accept the help of a person who does not see themselves as helping you, an individual, but as helping “correct” a system– a system which perhaps is the culture you live in? These aren’t questions with simple answers, and that’s entirely the point. To reiterate the BBC, “It’s a bit more complicated than the IC films make it out to be.” And simply put, I do not believe this is so simple as some white travelers to Africa trying to make themselves feel better about what they’ve seen there.

I’ll shut up now, but p.s. IC is calling on your (American) government to deploy forces to aid Uganda’s army in capturing Kony, and they’ve already been partly successful. But the Ugandan army has been called out by human rights groups as being guilty of war crimes, themselves, including the mass rapes of women and murders of refugees, not to mention the Ugandan government has also violated the human rights of their people.

p.s.s. For other people’s critical perspectives on IC, check out Visible Children, who links to some other resources of information.