Category Archives: Gender Trouble

Watching Mel Brooks in 2016

On November 9, I sent myself an email. The world breaks, again and again, read the subject line. Maya Angelou supplied the body of the message with her poem “Still I Rise.” I don’t care if that’s a cliche.

Yesterday I wrote myself a note: “The culture comes into consciousness and is repeatedly repressed. Constant vigilance!”

The dangerous myth of progress is that it’s cumulative and linear. But progress isn’t set-it-and-forget-it. Progress toward social justice, toward a world in which everyone has access to basic resources and can exercise their human rights, requires constant maintenance. People in power are loath to cede any of it, never more so when their positions have become reified to the point that they believe any questioning of who occupies positions of power is an encroachment upon their occupation of said positions. One group’s gain is another’s loss in the zero-sum paradigm that governs our society.

Backlash is never not a possibility. People are never not at risk.
A few weeks ago, I sat down with my family to an enjoy a diversion: Mel Brook’s History of the World, Part I. We chuckled a few times, but it was not as funny as I remembered. There are many reasons for this, but chief among them is that we’re living in the aftermath of November 8.

Somehow, the sequence where a caveman assaults a cavewoman with a stone club, thereby enacting the first marriage, did not inspire laughter, nor did bearing witness to a monarch’s serial sexual assault of his ladies in waiting. Watching an enslaved black man repeatedly argue for his life, never mind his freedom, was distinctly uncomfortable. The abuse of power was rampant, and played for laughs.

The movie, which came out in 1981, had a particular temporal relationship to tragedy. A perceived–discursive, at least–distance from assault on marginalized bodies. Times were relatively good; collective suffering was a distant memory. There was space to skewer that which had plagued previous generations.

Today, we’ve come too close to these realities, too near the precipice of the possibility that our material circumstances are about to get worse, our rights may be called into question, our environment–and by extension, humanity’s future–may be laid waste in sacrifice to the altar of extraction capitalism.

The discomfort that came from watching History of the World, Part I made me think of Brook’s other comedies that wouldn’t play as well today, chiefly To Be or Not to Be and The Producers. Both rely heavily on lampooning Hitler for their comedy. “Springtime for Hitler” was a hilarious showstopper in 1968–and again in the late 1990’s. But today, in a country where we can no longer agree that Nazis are bad, that premise becomes less humorous and more tone-deaf. Sinister, even.

“Never again,” we keep declaring. Except it’s already happened.

When I was a teenager, I thought there was nothing left to fight for. Then the U.S. declared war in Iraq. The more years that pass, the more intractable achieving social justice seems to become. There is always something to fight for. And that means that sometimes, laughter has to wait.

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Filed under Beginning of the Body, Contemporary, Gender Trouble, Historical, Power, Racism, Television and Movies

Forcible Consent: (in)Humanity & Submission on Star Trek

About a month ago, I sat through a season four episode of Star Trek: Voyager that left me feeling deeply uncomfortable. No, not the one where B’Elanna succumbs to oxygen deprivation and declares her misguided love for Paris. As troubling as that installment was, it was an arc in the first few episodes of season four, culminating in “The Gift,” that had my jaw on the floor.

A brief background on the episode before we wade into the (un)ethical subspace of the Delta Quadrant:

After striking a tenuous alliance with the Borg to defeat a common enemy, our wayward crew finds itself playing host to Seven of Nine, a member of the Borg whose connection to the Collective has been severed for the standard techno-magical reasons. A few other Borg henchmen are unceremoniously dispatched from Voyager after they betray the crew’s trust, leaving Seven of Nine to advocate for itself. (It should be noted here that the Voyager crew think of Seven of Nine as female, although at this point the Borg probably considers such gendered designations Irrelevant.) The crew digs into their effective captive’s history, discovering that Seven of Nine was once a little girl who was abducted and assimilated by the Borg. At that point, Captain Janeway makes it her mission to bring Seven of Nine back into humanity’s fold.

7 of 9 borg

Seven of Nine, badass Borg

This is not the first time Janeway’s leadership has made me uncomfortable. I’m not sure I’d follow her home, especially if the option of joining Holo(hottie)-Chakotay in his coup were to worm its way out of its interactive fictional exercise and into reality. The point is, Seven of Nine wants to return to the Collective, or, barring that, be dropped onto the nearest hospitable world. Both of these requests are denied, as is her more basic request to maintain her personal (or species?) agency.

A crucial aspect of “The Gift’s” plot revolves around the ethical question of whether to return Seven of Nine to her original human state. Because she is no longer connected to other Borg, the Doctor determines that the human parts of her body are rejecting the Borg technology. Captain Janeway seizes upon Seven of Nine’s biological history as proof positive that she is fundamentally human and must, deep down, wish to become so again biologically. Janeway denies Seven of Nine the choice of whether to undergo what amounts to both major invasive surgery and a change in biological identity, instead claiming this as her prerogative, citing Noble Human Reasons.

In doing so, Janeway denies the Borg as a species the dignity of personal agency. And since what little humanity is left within Seven of Nine doesn’t readily (or recognizably) asset itself, Janeway takes it upon herself to speak on its behalf and give it more weight than the (very loud) assertions of the Borg part of Seven of Nine. Thus Janeway leverages her power as captain to declare Seven of Nine’s Borg identity invalid, clinging to the idea that what was once human must still be fundamentally so. She orders the Doctor to medically extract and enhance Seven of Nine’s available human biology, enabling it to completely eject her Borg DNA and technology. The Doctor, for his part, enables Janeway, and Seven of Nine is forced to become human against her will through a process that amounts to medical torture.

Why the Doctor doesn’t invoke his Hippocratic oath, as he did when Tuvix expressed his desire not to die (season 2, episode 24), is a major unanswered question. The Tuvix episode did a much better job of representing the complexity of the ethical dilemma at hand. There’s little such nuance here. Viewers are made aware of the opposing arguments [read: Seven of Nine’s position about her own body] only so they can be shut down by the characters who occupy the positions of power in the Federation hierarchy and along the moral axis of the cast.

One of the most maddening weaknesses of Star Trek‘s otherwise inclusive philosophy is its insistence that humanity is the pinnacle of existence. The episode is SO SURE of Janeway’s moral high-ground that it’s disturbing, which points to Star Trek‘s occasional failure to achieve the progressiveness it prides itself on espousing. Janeway’s position amounts to one of human species supremacy, echoing centuries of colonial white supremacy, and she imposes it on a being who is already in a disadvantaged position and has little recourse. Janeways repeatedly ignores Seven of Nine’s clearly stated desires and staunch refusals to grant consent. But in a heartbreaking irony, resistance for this Borg is indeed futile.

7 of 9 human

Seven of Nine, reluctant human

Once again, the female body is stripped of its agency and remade into society’s image. This time literally. Viewers are meant to side with Janeway’s view of the situation and cheer when humanity triumphs and they are able to count Seven of Nine (see what I did there?) as one of their own.

Perhaps contemporary discourse surrounding consent and identity politics is what’s causing me to react so negatively to this plot and character developments. I don’t doubt that the episode’s moral stance was better received when it aired in 1997. But today, these blatant denials of someone’s personal agency simply do not fly (puns are always intended).

In the Delta Quadrant, the perception of humanity eclipses even the Prime Directive.

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Filed under Beginning of the Body, Gender Trouble, Power, Television and Movies

It’s All About You: Korean Air sells the virtue of American selfishness

At first, Korean Air’s “All About You” global ad campaign seemed like a fanciful satire. Orchestras and international landmarks glide across the heavens. The titular song (calculated to trigger James Bond flashbacks) lulls rich, white travelers to sleep while airline employees pamper them with serene smiles on their faces.

“At the heart of our world is you,” a female voice intones.

This had to be a joke…right?

Research and repeated viewings have since disabused me of that hopeful notion. While the commercial presents as tongue-in-cheek, its earnest undertones and ultimate endgame [read: profit] subverts any such satirical integrity. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

The commercial (unwittingly?) lampoons the archetypal American business traveler, selling the airline by showcasing what is traditionally the subtext of American ads: the consumer as the center of a commodified universe. A be-stubbled white man closes his eyes, encased in headphones. A white woman plucks a giant shrimp from the sky with chop-sticks. Another makes meaningful eye contact with the folks at home before she (presumably) takes a sip of her freshly shaken martini. But not before her blue cocktail turns into a round pool featuring female synchronized swimmers, who in turn become the rods and cones of her blue eye.

It’s all about you, indeed.

It simultaneously celebrates and spoofs American travel fantasies, often at the expense of Korean women. Each of the travelers being served in the commercial are white. All of the airline employees occupying service positions (flight attendant, bar-tender) are portrayed by Korean women. Meanwhile, men exert their dominion in the cloudy kitchens. The shadowy background dancers–per James Bond standards–are all women, serving the voyeuristic eye of the casual American viewer. The commercial is selling its target consumers–business travelers and a (largely female) leisure class–what Korean Air presumes to be their ideal version of themselves, all while reinforcing a (racist) status quo that devalues the women serving them.

In short, the commercial nails white American entitlement by showcasing aspirational consumerism that trades in the tired trope of Korean women servicing white clients. The only “modern” twist is that many of these clients are themselves women.

*Note: This goes live around the fifth anniversary of the blog’s first “real” post, so I thought it only fitting to return to the blog’s roots of deconstructing commercials for gender trouble. Ah, nostalgia…

 

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Filed under Contemporary, Deconstructing Commercials, Gender Trouble, Racism

An Open Letter to Young Women at Their First Swing Dance

*Trigger Warning: This post discusses sexual harassment and assault.*


[Edited 12/11/15–see addendum at the end]

Welcome!

On behalf of the swing community, let me first say that we’re so glad you’re here! I hope you have such a good time that you come back every single week. You make our dance community richer.

You’re going to learn a few basic steps, enough to get you out on the floor and moving to the music. Your teachers will get started in a few minutes, but first I wanted to talk about what to expect in this social situation, and remind you of your rights as a person.

Your instructors will probably encourage you to accept (enthusiastically, even) every offer to dance, especially if the offer comes from one of your fellow classmates. If you feel this enthusiasm, by all means, accept! Dance! Have fun! Make mistakes! Laugh at them! Try not to step on anyone! Apologize if you do! Just be your awesome self!

But–and this is very important–I want to make sure you also feel good about declining offers. Especially if you feel uncomfortable.
Too often girls and women are expected to smile and be demure, to put up and shut up, all while feeling as though they’d rather be anywhere else. Let’s not repeat this pattern that makes it easier for people–mostly men–to take advantage of us.

 

Tonight I’m encouraging you to assert your right to be in this space as a full person, a person with bodily autonomy.

 

It took me a decade to get to this place of asserting my right to a safe space, and I still slide back into harmful, enabling habits from time to time. I’ll sometimes eschew the directness I know is needed if men are going to learn that their advances are not always welcome. I’m trying, with this letter, to save you a decade of self-doubt and personal violations.

 

Too often, we teach new female dancers to be coy in their refusals, to say we’re “taking a break,” or “going to get a drink of water” in the name of politeness. But this places the burden, as usual, on women to coddle the fragile male ego. Enough. We’re only making things uncomfortable and unsafe for ourselves and the next generation of female dancers.

 

You’re probably going to be approached by a few older men tonight. They will ask you to dance. Most of them will be great people. But one or more of them might make you uncomfortable. I’m here to remind you to trust your discomfort and act accordingly. You do not “owe” anyone a dance. You have the right to say “no” firmly for any reason. Asserting yourself isn’t rude, it’s your right as a person. Don’t let the social expectation of female politeness bully you into saying “yes” to a situation that you think will make you uncomfortable.

 

It’s not about the intent of the person who is making you feel uncomfortable. Don’t even go there. That’s what predators want–room to get in your head and create space for thoughts like, “he probably doesn’t mean anything by it…” Nope. Trust your gut. Listen to yourself. Assert your boundaries, and brush off any douche-bag who tries to guilt-trip you about having or setting them.

 

You are under no obligation to make someone else feel welcome at the expense of your personal safety. You have as much right to this space as anyone else; as much right to your body as any other individual has to theirs. You are not obligated to feel flattered that someone is asking you to dance. You are never obligated to say “yes.”

 

The men who make you feel uncomfortable are counting on your also feeling too intimidated to stand up for yourself. They are counting on your ignorance of their MO. How could you possibly know that these men consistently target the newest, youngest, most inexperienced dancers in the room? (Welcome to the dance-floor power dynamics.)

 

These men will position themselves as benevolent, more experienced dancers who are doing you a favor. They expect you to be flattered, or at least taken back enough that the politeness you’ve been socialized to respond with kicks in over any inner hesitations.

 

These warnings and suggestions should not be taken as an indictment of older men as a category. You can (and should, when you want to) dance with people of all ages and experience levels–there’s fun to be had all around! This is not about advocating for snobbery. This is about remaining in tune with your comfort level, and respecting your very real feelings of discomfort. Predators are counting on you to dismiss your feelings in favor of abiding by social expectation. They look for girls who are young and shy and unsure of dance floor etiquette. They look for girls and women who have internalized the gendered social role of submissive politeness.

 

It’s time to call bullshit on that dynamic. All it does it take power away from us and hand it to another person.

 

For too long we’ve let lecherous older men prey on the young women who come here to have a good time, intimidating them into close contact and taking advantage of their naiveté. They hold women too close, they make suggestive conversation, they touch women inappropriately. This often drives women away, which weakens the dance scene and indirectly perpetuates this predatory behavior.

 

Don’t get me wrong; consensual inter-generational dancing is awesome! Making friends with people of all ages and ability-levels is part of the magic that is this community. All I’m encouraging you to be aware of are your personal boundaries, and to reject the burden of the cultural expectation that says women must make men feel welcome at all times. You have friends here. We’ll back you up. Women stay silent about this type of harassment for many reasons, one of which is fear that speaking up will backfire. The knowledge that our credibility may immediately be called into question, or that we’ll be accused of being “too sensitive.”

 

Well, that’s not this community.

 

Earlier this year, a woman came forward to share her experience of being sexually assaulted by an older dancer. Other female dancers soon confirmed his predatory behavior by sharing their own experiences. The most common response to their stories? “I believe you.” Prominent dancers in the community spoke out in support of these brave women, and serious discussions took place both online and at dance venues around the country. We all had to process what this meant for the community, and are committed to creating safer spaces for dancers, spaces that don’t create opportunities for predators.

 

So please remember that you get to say “no” at any time, not just to the initial ask for a dance. If you say yes initially and get out on the dance floor and start feeling uncomfortable with your partner, you can and should walk away from the situation.

 

You have as much right to be here as anyone, and that means feeling safe and in control of your body.

 

So let’s practice saying these perfectly acceptable phrases:

 

“No.”
“No thank you.”
“You’re making me uncomfortable.”
“This dance is over.”

 

The more we assert ourselves in this clear, direct way, the more normal it will become.

 

Let’s make the dance floor a safer space for everyone. We deserve it.

Addendum: Several swing dancers have rightly pointed out that predatory behavior is not found solely among older men. The older-man/younger-woman dynamic is the most visible example of predatory behavior, and that is why I focused on it. But this power dynamic is by no means the only context within which abuse can occur. Unfortunately, people of all ages have been known to violate others’ boundaries.

There are many other things that must be done to make social dancing a safer space, chief among them educating men about appropriate behavior early and often. The point of this particular letter was to empower dancers who identify as female to trust themselves and refuse to engage with people who make them uncomfortable. I’m hoping that more dancers will feel comfortable paying attention to, respecting, and maintaining their comfort level. This includes enlisting the support of fellow dancers and venue organizers when their boundaries are not respected — whoever the offender might be. The burden is on all of us to make this an easier thing to do.


Cross-posted to Medium.

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Filed under Contemporary, Gender Trouble, Power

Embodying the Other: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Regret, Hope

When I was about 6 years old, I used two paper bags from the grocery store to make myself an “Indian” costume for Thanksgiving. (It was the early 90’s. “Native American” wasn’t in use among 1st graders yet.) I was, and am, very white. No one in my family thought this home-made costume was problematic. On the contrary, I remember being praised and photographed for being cute and creative.

Wearing that costume was wrong. I wish I hadn’t done it. I wish someone had pointed out why this was an offensive sartorial choice.

As we near Halloween, we’re seeing the yearly outpouring of thoughtful articles about costumes, sexualization, and cultural appropriation. I hope, if I have kids, that I am able to communicate the importance of cultural respect and appropriate costume choices. Why wearing another person’s heritage is racist, violent, and erases their humanity. It reduces identity to a commodity, to something a white person can put on and, crucially, take off, because a white person has the power to remain unmarked.

It only gets worse when you consider the difference between costumes designed for women. Alden Wicker wrote recently about the intersection of sexist & racist costumes. Though not simultaneously, I, too, have been guilty of both. I hope to teach my children that “sexy” costumes are yet another way for our culture to control women and tell them that they only have value insofar as they cater to the straight male gaze.

With knowledge and respect for people of all cultural backgrounds and genders, perhaps my future children won’t make the kinds of offensive, dis-empowering mistakes I have.

I must do better than younger me, for future us.

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Filed under Childhood, Commodification, Gender Trouble, Power, Racism