The NWSA Executive Committee sent the following letter by email to its members earlier today. It does a good job (especially the third paragraph) of showing how different forms of violence and seemingly disparate attacks, though not to be conflated, are interconnected through broader cultural currents.
Dear NWSA members,
As members of the Executive Committee, we write to express our collective outrage over the attack at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub during its Latinx-themed night. We recognize this heinous act for the hate crime it is against LGBTQ people, people of color, and those who live at the intersection of these communities. In this difficult time, we urge our community of scholars, educators, and activists to draw on the insights of feminist/anti-racist/queer activists and thinkers to address hatred and violence, imagine alternatives to domination, and foster community.
We draw on an intersectional political framework to call for the collective liberation of all. Given that systemic racism, misogyny, ableism, colonialism, and homophobia are deeply interconnected, we condemn the Islamophobia that has emerged in the wake of the attack and urge you, our members, to find ways to contest the widespread culture of violence that surrounds us, including histories of violence against queer and trans people of color. This culture of domination is local and global, intimate and structural, and is pervasive. It includes: harassment and discrimination; gender violence, rape culture, and murder; the criminalization of divergent lives/bodies/loves and the violence of the carceral state; silencing, dispossession, and erasure; eugenic and genocidal practices; colonial gendered violence against Indigenous people; and militarization and war.
Diverse forms of brutality must be understood as distinct and yet interconnected. It is essential to think through how the Pulse nightclub shooting, the church shootings in Charleston, the murder of Indigenous women in Canada, and the murder of transgender sex workers in Brazil and elsewhere are interrelated without collapsing the important differences in each of these, and many other, contexts. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but one that should highlight the role we all can play in refusing and resisting a culture of violence wherever we find it.
In this time of mourning and remembrance, we call on you, our NWSA members, to confront domination, intolerance, and hatred—in the intimacies of everyday life and on a wider, macro-political scale. We also underscore the importance of supporting each other and being mindful of the impact of myriad violences on ourselves, each other, our students, and our scholarship. Though the work at hand may be difficult, our collective labors to understand how systems of oppression are interlaced and must be thought through and addressed together are pivotal and deeply relevant.
Vivian M. May, President
Nana Osei-Kofi, Vice President
Diane Harriford, Treasurer
Carrie Baker, Secretary
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
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.
I have come to the realization (again) that I am racist. For some reason, I feel disappointed every time I have this realization. Maybe I gave myself too much credit, thinking that once I got it the first time I was just gonna get over it? Or maybe I thought it was an easier problem to root out than it’s turned out to be. A friend recently tried to console me that these realizations of my “cognitive biases” are a step in the right direction, which of course they are, but I still don’t feel very positive.
When I came across this open letter, I felt grateful to the author, but I also felt nervous reading it, as a “white” person. Could I ever read a letter like this, intended for a black man, with sincerity? Am I subconsciously, permanently tainted with racial prejudice? Then I got to part where Dyson, the author, says, “in America, we are taught to fear black men.” And whether or not I can read a letter like that with sincerity stopped mattering right then, because she had just spoken the truth, and the truth speaks not only to the subconscious self, but to all Selves. Yeah, I thought, we are. Who teaches us that? I instantly recognized that as true, but could not pinpoint particular moments in my life when I felt like I was being taught to fear black men. I guess this has just been a part of my general societal education, and is deeply rooted in me, whether I like it or not.
It’s really not easy to recognize one’s hand in oppression (of any kind). It’s painful. It’s humiliating. It’s depressing. Whether it’s small-time oppression or full-scale oppression, most people seem interested in justifying their behavior and, really, avoiding guilt.
I know that my friend knows what they’re talking about, concerning cognitive biases; I have seen them realize, acknowledge and begin to work through their own. It takes a huge amount of humility and honesty to even begin that process. I also understand why oppressed people resent their oppressors even after they have begun this process– but it can’t stay that way forever, if things are going to change for the better. Begrudge them, punish them, but eventually, work with them. Recognize them for the ally they’ve become.
I felt guilty reading that letter, like I didn’t deserve to. I’m still trying to work out precisely what that means. My friend also said that acknowledging one’s participation in oppression is only the first step…”the end of it is what you do after you know that about yourself.”
There are many reasons why ‘feminism’ is a dirty word, not the least of which is when certain people who personify feminism’s opposition call themselves feminists (e.g. racist Camille Paglia, victim-blaming Naomi Wolf, etc.) Now George R.R. Martin, author of the wildly popular Song of Fire and Ice medieval fantasy books-turned-HBO-series, joins the ranks of pop feminists. He kindly defines for us what his feminism is:
“To me being a feminist is about treating men and women the same,” Martin is quoted as saying in this Telegraph article. “I regard men and women as all human – yes there are differences, but many of those differences are created by the culture that we live in, whether it’s the medieval culture of Westeros, or 21st century western culture.”
Of course, I am dissatisfied by so many definitions of feminism nowadays, so I shouldn’t be too harsh. But by his own definition, Martin’s literary works are surely not feminist.
While Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice female characters are arguably more three-dimensional than most other fantasy of the same ilk, I find their stereotyped natures tiring. Cersei is the seductive slut; Arya is the tomboy; Catelyn Stark is the steadfast mother and wife; Sansa is the sweet and innocent princess in need of rescue; blah blah blah. Predictable, and therefore reliable. To some degree this can’t be avoided, right? Fiction, especially fantasy, functions at least partially on the familiar, shared assumptions (read: stereotypes) about kinds of people to anchor us while guiding us through a fantastic and impossible story. Besides, not all of Martin’s female characters have been created from drab stereotypes (Brienne of Tarth, for example).
No, what truly bothers me about Martin’s comment about feminism, and the serious slack cut him by supposedly feminist bloggers, is his constant depiction of rape, domestic violence, and other forms of sexual violence as attractive, arousing, enjoyable. This is where Martin gives himself away: a feminist does not depict rape as sexy and enjoyable.
Why stop at sexual violence. Martin glorifies battle and the taking of lives throughout the series, a huge portion of which is devoted to high-def, graphic scenes of beheadings, disembowelments, torture, and other “glorious” aspects of war and the violent societies in which the story takes place. The content is patriarchal, and is consumed largely by a patriarchal audience (men and women alike). War is cool, rape is sexy, same old, same old. To his credit (?), Martin makes 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? Can we drop the feminist act now?
And besides, there is a whole realm of racism in A Song of Fire and Ice that we haven’t even touched on yet. Highly illuminating read on that topic here!
Whatever the case, I (mostly) enjoyed reading these books. I even (mostly) enjoyed the one or two episodes of the HBO series I’ve seen. I don’t think there is anything wrong with enjoying works of fiction that are inherently racist, sexist, classist, and so on (unless it’s for those aspects that we enjoy it, of course)– but that we like or enjoy something should not stop us from critiquing it. Or from calling out its makers when they say shit like, “Ima feminist LOL.”
Fantasy doesn’t have to show rape as sexy, or war and killing as glorious. It doesn’t have to paint all the people white or all the heroes male, though it is true that you will sell more novels if you do these things. But if you choose to do so, as an author, then you have forfeited the right to call yourself feminist. As readers, we have the right to read what we enjoy, but I think we also have a responsibility to question that literature, even literature we praise. When useful criticism like this happens, valuable conversations can take place about issues that matter IRL (that’s IN REAL LIFE for you non-nerds out there, though sometimes I think nerds forget IRL exists).
Let’s also not forget that there is really great fantasy and science fiction out there which questions, analyzes, deconstructs, and parodies gender, race, class, age, ability, and so on, and dreams up whole new ways of conceptualizing these things. A Song of Fire and Ice is not the end-all, be-all of fantasy literature, and even if it were, that shouldn’t stop us from questioning it, taking it apart, and assessing it from different points of view.
Now I’d better get a head start on the Martin fans; I hear them trying to break down the door as I write!