Categories
Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Jessica Valenti’s almost my hero

A while ago, I read Full Frontal Feminism, and then I just recently finished He’s a Stud, She’s a Slut, and 49 Other Double Standards Every Woman Should Know. There are some things I dislike about Valenti (sometimes she does seem to be trying too hard to be hip and humorous, for example), but she’s genuinely a refreshing feminist voice that is able to articulate well what we all know and often can’t express properly.

The book does get a little tedious by the end (she lays it out as 50 “different” double standards, even though most of them are different facets of the same double standard, just so her publisher can boast a long list as opposed to three really long chapters, I guess). Still, Valenti is able to point out many sexist phenomena without sounding like a whining perpetual victim. She’s also able to get across well how sexism against women is actually harmful to men, too, which is really important to progress. We can’t, if we want to live in an egalitarian society, keep thinking of problems between groups and oppressions as us vs. them. “They” may appear to have privilege and benefits, but even those privileges and benefits come at a cost of freedom for all groups.

For example, the expectation that women will either take their husbands’ surnames or consider it while men always keep their names clearly puts men in a position of privilege (his name is important but hers isn’t). Nevertheless, men are often like Princess Jasmine from Aladdin. If they want to get out of the “royal treatment,” they face many obstacles. I thought it was just social pressures (my parents raised a huge stink about me wanting to take my wife’s last name), but apparently in many states a man cannot even take his wife’s name if he wants to, and in the states he’s allowed to change his name in the procedure is far more costly and involved than the woman-taking-her-husband’s-name procedure is.

Of course, there are also some supposed double standards that she exaggerates. For example, she makes it sound as if women are considered selfish if they don’t want to have kids, whereas men are not considered selfish if they don’t want to have kids. That hasn’t been my experience at all. The extent to which the double standard does apply, I think it has to do with single people thinking about the future, as opposed to married couples talking about the present. In other words, if a single man says, “Yeah, I don’t want to have kids,” instead of thinking he’s selfish, people just won’t believe him. They’ll think, “He just says that now. When he gets married, though, some woman will turn him around. I bet he’d make a great father.” If, however, a single woman says, “Yeah, I don’t want to have kids,” the selfish police will come out in droves.

When married couples talk about not having kids, though, the selfish label isn’t gender-specific. My wife and I definitely don’t want to have kids, and I think we’ve heard the selfish line about equally. No one has said, “Your wife is selfish.” They definitely think both of us are.

She’s no Susan Brownmiller, but Jessica Valenti’s got some good points to make, and she is now my… almost-hero.

Categories
Life Movies Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Not to discount your hard work…

I confess—I love watching the E! True Hollywood Story. I love seeing the stories behind the stars and watching their rises to fame and fortune.

I am baffled by one thing, though. Why do they (either the stars themselves or their friends, family members, managers and agents) keep trying to make it sound as if the stars got to where they are today through hard work and talent alone? Yes, I understand they had to work hard. Yes, I understand a certain degree of talent is necessary to succeed. Still, do you really want to tell me good looks or connections had nothing to do with the road to success? Being the child of another famous actor didn’t open any doors, really? Having perfect bone structure and facial symmetry didn’t do anything for their careers?

Now, again, I’m not saying that you can just coast on your good looks and family connections or money. You have to do something. The acting won’t come by itself. The gigs won’t fall into your lap. But how many good-looking children of famous people are there who tried to break into Hollywood and couldn’t get an audition? I can’t imagine there are that many. There are, however, tens of thousands of ugly people who have no connections but who have talent and probably cannot get an audition.

I’m not going to lie. I’m a child of privilege. My parents both have advanced degrees. I grew up in a rich suburb with a more-than-adequate education system. I know that I’ve been offered a lot of advantages most other people don’t have. Have I had to work? Certainly. I did all my school work and earned the grades I got. And at all the jobs I’ve had I’ve worked as hard as I could. Still, I know that if I had come from a family of poor uneducated parents who didn’t speak English and who brought me up in a neighborhood with a failing school system, I’d have had a lot more obstacles to overcome.

So, folks—don’t lie about the roles of privilege, connections, and good looks in your career paths, especially you Hollywood folks. Yes, I know you’ve probably had to work hard, probably had to work damn hard. But so do many people. Some people work hard all their lives to make minimum wage with no health benefits. Those folks also have talents. Not to discount your hard work…

Categories
Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Kate Perry: Experimental lesbianism is not subversive

Kate Perry has a pop song with a very catchy tune. It’s about how she “kissed a girl.” Supposedly, this is something she’s very proud of and feels is subversive or bucking the system: It’s not what / Good girls do / Not how they should behave. On the contrary, Kate, it’s quite how good girls are supposed to behave. You talk about experimenting and being curious. You talk about how you hope your boyfriend won’t mind.

Believe me, if he’s like most typical het guys out there, he won’t. That’s his fantasy. The traditional male fantasy is that women will be bi-curious and ultimately heterosexual. They’ll play around with each other, but in the end they just need a penis—that’s the real way to get fulfilled.

Nope. You’re not subversive. You’re not rebellious. That’s exactly what you’re supposed to do, Kate. I’ll be impressed when a male pop star who does not identify as gay says he kissed a boy and he liked it, and he was curious and experimenting and hopes his girlfriend doesn’t mind. That’d be subversive. Then again, people would just think he was closet gay.

Categories
Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Choice pressure

Whether it’s a mate, a name change, clothes to wear, software to use, or food to eat, I’ve read and heard a lot of people refer to choices in life as more or less equal. As Charlotte York proclaims in Sex and the City, “I choose my choice. I choose my choice!”

Do we choose our choices, though? The way people talk about choices, I guess they all live in a world where the choices are three or four doors that all look the same and are all equidistant from the chooser. I rarely see choices that way. The way I see choices, I’m living in a world where one choice has neon lights around it and is right next to me with a moving walkway that has millions of people going into it. All those people, as they pass me on the moving walkway say, “What’s wrong with you? Step on!” The other doors are far away, and some are even hidden unless you get close to them. Some doors are smaller and others larger.

If I choose the door with the neon lights and moving walkway that everyone else is telling me to choose, is that really my choice? Or am I doing it because it’s the easy choice, the popular choice? And if I choose an obscure door I have to seek out, is that really my choice? Or am I doing it because it’s out of the way, and I want to feel different, because I want to resist the pressure to pick the easy and popular choice?

Choices aren’t made in a vacuum. We can try to be individuals. We can try to make informed choices. In the end, we also need to recognize that there are pressures to make certain choices. If you make those choices, really put yourself through some self-examination. Are you making that choice because it’s the right choice, or the easy choice? And if you make a different choice, also ask yourself if you’re making that choice to resist the easy choice or not.

Categories
Linux Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality Ubuntu

The varying degrees of rich

I grew up in one of the wealthiest towns in its state. If you told people you were from my town, they’d call you a “Richie.” Nevertheless, many people in my town identified themselves as “middle-class” or “upper-middle-class” instead of as “upper-class” or “rich.” There were many people in my high school who, when applying to college, applied for and qualified for financial aid.

Many times people use the term rich as a monolithic one. The rich are rich and the poor are poor. To a certain extent, that’s true. Even if you’re on the lower end of rich, you are in a very, very small minority percentage-wise of the US or world population. But there are still varying degrees of “rich,” and they do lead very different lifestyles.

What got me thinking about this was a thread on the Ubuntu Forums asking what will happen when Mark Shuttleworth’s money runs out. Mark Shuttleworth is the founder of Ubuntu Linux, and his initial investment was about US$10,000,000. He also spent, before he set up Ubuntu, about US$20,000,000 to fly into space as a space tourist. In 1999, he sold his company Thawte for about US$575,000,000.

Now let’s think about the typical rich town resident (like the people in my town). My parents were both university professors, so we were barely rich enough to live in the rich town, but we did. A lot of my friends’ parents were doctors or lawyers. Doctors and lawyers can make a lot of money—six-figure salaries, maybe eventually a million a year. If you were a millionaire, you were rich, even in the rich town.

But there is a huge difference between being even a millionaire and being a half-billionaire.

If you’re a millionaire, you can afford a nice house in a rich town, but you’re probably still paying a monthly mortgage. You can go out for meals at fancy restaurants every now and then, you probably own a couple of expensive cars, and you can pay your kids’ college (that’s university, for you non-Americans) tuition without taking out a loan. You’ve still got to be mindful of your money, though. You can’t spend recklessly, and you can’t just quit your job.

If you’re a half-billionaire like Mark Shuttleworth, you don’t have to work. You can invest your money, and the interest you earn on that money per year is probably more than most people earn in a lifetime. In other words, Mark Shuttleworth has about as much money as five hundred millionaires. If he lived to be 100 years old, never invested any of his money, and just had the US$575,000,000 from the original Verisign deal, he could spend US$21,288 every day and run out of money only a little after his hundredth birthday.

That’s more than half my yearly salary he could spend every day and not go broke for another 65 years. Do we have to worry about Mark Shuttleworth running out of money? I highly doubt it. And, hey, he set up Ubuntu on the Isle of Man for a reason. The guy is not dumb. I don’t know if Ubuntu will ever be profitable, but I know it’s not going to die in my lifetime for lack of funds.

Categories
Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Is there a new word to add the sociological dictionary?

Discussions of racism and sexism (or any *ism, really) in mixed company can easily become heated, especially if some people in the discussion try to combat the notion that we are “all in the same boat.” I don’t think the emotional charge of the discussion comes so much from what is being described as how it’s being described.

Usually, people trying to combat the notion of us “all being in the same boat” will use one or more of the following words: power, privilege, oppression. The “all in the same boat” or “reverse *ism” people will usually counter by using words such as victim mentality or whining.

Gender and race relations aren’t that difficult to understand. I think most people understand sociological phenomenon quite well, as examples are usually not argued with—it usually the meaning made of the examples that is cause for debate, offense, and possibly denial.

The problem, as I see it, is the lack of a proper word to describe a sociological problem that can’t be accurately described with the phrases “It goes both ways” or “We’re all in the same boat.” The word power isn’t exactly accurate to describe race or gender relations, nor is privilege. To say “you have power” with the implication “I don’t have power” makes the sociological problem too simplistic. To counter this claim, all the person who “has power” has to do is give an example of how the “powerless” has some kind of beneft the “powerful” doesn’t. The same limitation of the word privilege applies as well. The word oppression also makes it sound as if the “oppressor” is doing something deliberately malicious and invites the “oppressor” to accuse the “oppressed” of having a victim mentality.

I don’t know what this new word is, but I’ll try to explain why I think we need one, lest the status quo remain, wherein many Whites and males in America (the same may apply to other countries as well, but I can speak only for the US) feel hedged in by “political correctness” and accusations of “power,” “privilege,” and “oppression”; while many non-Whites and females in America (same disclaimer) feel frustrated by what they perceive as apathy, denial, and ignorance. Clearly, there are problems (again, at least in America) with regard to gender and race. Almost everyone knows there are problems. But we need a vocabulary to talk about these problems without making it personal.

I will say, as someone who has seen both sides of this debate (as a male “oppressor” and as a non-White “oppressed person”), that no one should take anything personally in these discussions. When feminists talk about the patriarchy, they are talking about a culture that both men and women perpetuate that is more than a collection of sexist actions by individuals. Likewise, when antiracists talk about systematic racism, they are talking about a culture that both Whites and non-Whites perpetuate that is more than a collection of racist actions by individuals.

Let’s take a break from race and sex for a moment, though. I can already anticipate the blood boiling of some of my readers. I know Hari is dying to talk about dowry harassment again.

I’ve always worked in schools. I’ve worked in many schools, and I know that not everyone in a school is equal. There are students. There are younger students and older students. There are students making good grades. There are students about to fail out. There are faculty members. Some faculty have been teaching for years. Others are new. Some faculty are prized by the community. Others are on the brink of being fired. There are staff members. Some staff have a higher position than other staff. Some staff get paid more than other staff, even though they work the same hours. There’s a principal or head of school. And there may be a board of trustees or some kind of school board. Maybe a superintendent.

In a school, I wouldn’t exactly say that the teachers are more privileged than the students. Yes, the teachers can come and go without getting a hall pass. They don’t have to have “senior privileges” to go off-campus. They get paid to be in school, whereas the students have to pay (through taxes, tuition, or both) to go to school. Nevertheless, you could argue, I guess, that faculty don’t have the same privileges students have. If a faculty member’s performance is poor, she may get a warning and a little support, but basically she’ll end up fired if it continues. It’s not difficult to be fired if you’re a teacher, even if you’re trying your best.

It is, however, quite difficult to fail out as a student if you’re putting in any kind of effort. When you’re a student, everything revolves around you. You do what interests you. If you aren’t doing all your work well, you are the only one who suffers. If you’re a teacher and aren’t doing all your work well, all your students suffer.

Do teachers have more power than students? Ostensibly so. If a teacher tells an administrator or another teacher “Jenny was cheating on her final exam,” most likely the administrator or other teacher will believe that Jenny has cheated. Teachers can make arbitrary rules students have to follow. Teachers decide how much work students have to do. On the other hand, if a student tells an administrator, “Mr. Neruda touched me inappropriately and tried to have sex with me,” that student has pretty much ruined Mr. Neruda’s teaching career, whether the charges are true or not. A student can fail out of school or get kicked out of school and still get an education at another school. Once a teacher has been accused of sexual misconduct with a student, that teacher is very likely not to get a job teaching again… anywhere.

Are students oppressed? Not really. They can’t make the rules. They’re often considered less credible than the teachers. But the school is really all about them. If the students’ needs aren’t getting met, the staff and faculty are expendible and can be replaced.

Of course, there are limitations to this analogy as it applies to race and gender relations. After all, one could easily sum up what the teachers have that the students don’t have with the word authority. You can argue with power and privilege, but ultimately teachers have authority, and students don’t. Even when a student accuses a teacher of sexual misconduct, the student has to be believed by other adults, not by peers alone. You can’t say White people have authority and non-Whites don’t. Nor can you say men have authority and women don’t. Or if you do, that would be only one small part of the problem.

I don’t know what the solution is. All I know is that we aren’t all in the same boat, and I don’t really know how to convey that without people accusing me of having a victim mentality or of misusing the words power and privilege. I do know that it’s important to realize that we are all dependent on each other and that sociological phenomena is not a zero-sum game. White people were not better or happier people in 1850 in America than they are in 2008 in America. Men were not better or happier people in 1900 in America than they are in 2008 in America. But you would think they would have been if the words power and privilege applied. After all, if you consider me to have power and want me to give up that power, then I have less power. If you consider me to have privilege and want me to give up that privilege, I have less privilege.

All I know is that with all the fighting, backlash, more fighting, concessions, denial, arguments, and semantics debates, sociological problems are staying just the way they are. I don’t want America to be a place where politicians and celebrities make racist and sexist remarks or “jokes,” get protested by various activist groups, and then give a token apology or retraction.

Categories
Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Handling unwanted advances

In high school, college, and beyond, I’ve had many conversations with female friends about street harassment, and the conversations have almost always been disheartening. It usually goes something like this:

  • Woman is minding her own business on the street, on the bus, in a coffee shop, in a store.
  • Random man makes a lewd sexual remark or gesture or begins talking to her when she clearly does not want to talk with him, and then he begins staring at her cleavage or otherwise making her physically uncomfortable.
  • Woman’s only instinct is to be polite even though she really does not want to deal with this man. She wants to say something clever to get him to piss off but she freezes up in the moment.
  • Woman is pissed the rest of the day that that guy intruded on her space and she had no foolproof way of dealing with it.

I don’t really know what exactly can be done about this. Of course, sometimes it happens that you think up a witty retort that evening or the next day, but by then it’s too late, and you can’t really know if it would have worked to drive the guy away or if it would have just provoked him more (perhaps someone like him, who is not able to pick up on basic social cues, may take your ingenious way of shooing him away as some kind of twisted flirtation?).

What’s the solution? If you try to ignore the guy, you appear rude and/or you still feel violated. If you try to tell the guy to go away, he may feel egged on anyway.

I’m not a woman, so it’s easy for me to say this, but I think in this situation it’s best to avoid wit or politeness and just say something firm and, well, “bitchy”:

“I don’t want to talk to you. Quit staring at my breasts or face the consequences.” If that doesn’t shut up him, yell loudly, “I said ‘Leave me alone,’ asshole!” so that others nearby can hear you. If he still doesn’t, kick him in the nuts—hard.

I guess you could argue the guy was just in a pathetic way looking for attention, so that would just feed into his game. Can a woman in this situation win? Any strategies to share?

Categories
Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality women Writing

Full Frontal Feminism Indeed

Right now I’m reading Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters by Jessica Valenti, and I have to say, with a few rough bumps along the way, it’s an impressive piece of literature. Most of the feminist works I’ve read—while rationally argued, fully annotated, and well-written—are dry and too academic for most pre-university readers to enjoy. Cynthia Heimel’s humorous books (columns originally published in Playboy magazine, ironically) like Get your tongue out of my mouth. I’m kissing you good-bye! and If you can’t live without me, why aren’t you dead yet? were the closest to accessible-for-teenagers feminist writings, and even those were mainly targeted at 20-something and 30-something readers.

Jessica Valenti has done a great thing in terms of boiling down the essential feminist issues into large print in a small book. The book does have its flaws, of course. For one, it tries too hard. It also does a little bit of a mental bait-and-switch. You have to be a little forgiving on the former problem, though, since it is taking on the nigh-impossible task of making feminism “cool” for girls and women born after 1990. The latter problem seems to stem from a lack of restraint on the part of the author. Valenti begins by essentially saying, “Hey, everyone should be a feminist. It makes sense. It’s not a scary thing. It isn’t some crazy fringe of whining unattractive people (not that there’s anything wrong with being unattractive). Are you on board?” but then quickly starts hammering you with statistics about rape and domestic violence—issues she quite rightly gets passionately outraged over.

I do admire, though, how she treads a very fine line on the whole “freedom” debate. She manages to get across that she values freedom from patriarchy most highly while not disparaging those in the “doesn’t freedom mean I have the freedom to be traditionally feminine?” camp. In other words, she appreciates balance and does not want to alienate anyone.

The whole time reading the book, though, I kept thinking, “Someone should write a Full Frontal Linux book like this.” I’ve seen books like [Fill in the blank] for Non-Geeks, but they’ve basically still been pretty geeky. How do you make Linux “cool” for the general public? How do you explain that software license freedom is the ultimate goal while not alienating those who still want their free-to-run-what-proprietary-software-I-want freedom? Who knows? Maybe after I finish reading Full Frontal Feminism, I’ll take a crack at Full Frontal Ubuntu (I probably don’t know enough to speak for all of Linux).

Hats off to Jessica Valenti. It’s not a perfect work by any means, but it fills a niche that needed filling.

Categories
Life Movies Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Stupid husbands and smart wives on TV

If you’ve seen any American sitcoms featuring het couples in the past ten years or so, you’ll probably have noticed that it’s common for the show to portray the husbands as a stupid but endearing oaf who likes beer, barbecues, watching TV, hanging with the guys, and ogling women; and the wife as a smart, attractive, career woman who is also a housewife… and who generally just puts up with the man.

Some people have tried to use this as evidence that feminism has gone too far, but I have seen no indication from feminist writers or bloggers that they approve of this dynamic. Granted, I don’t hear a lot of feminist outcry over it either, but it is worth nothing that feminists do not celebrate the gender dynamic in popular husband-wife sitcoms like King of Queens, The Simpsons, George Lopez, or Rules of Engagement.

I do think the dynamic comes from a combination of sociological factors and political light-stepping, though. First of all, there are several types of humor—slapstick, irony, insult, shock… just to give a few examples. Sitcoms, especially those featuring a family, have decided to go the insult way. Slapstick humor still packs the theaters (think Will Ferell and Ben Stiller), but it cannot sustain a several-seasons-long show for adults. Irony takes too much set-up time, and my feeling is that people are sick of seeing too many Three’s Company and Golden Girls episodes to put up with more of that Shakespearean “smart” humor. Shock humor is better suited for stand-up comedy, and at least on American non-cable television (where swear words are verboten) cannot be utilized to its fullest extent… which generally leaves (with the exception of Seinfeld) insult humor.

Now, as we have seen on Will and Grace, insult humor can go multiple directions (basically come from any character directed at another character), but I think it isn’t feminism per se that’s informing studios’ choices about how that humor takes its form as the studios’ perception of feminism. They know if the woman insults the men that men will take it because they don’t want to be perceived as having thin skins or not being able to take a joke (after all, those would be “unmanly” reactions), and they know if a man insults a woman, women will find it ungentlemanly and feminists will be up in arms about the woman-hating on television.

I do think, to combat this notion that it’s feminism that’s behind this depiction of men as oafs, feminists should speak up in objection to this phenomenon. Nevertheless, I don’t believe feminism is responsible for this dynamic ultimately, for two reasons.

When is it “okay” to make fun of someone? I work in a school. If some students did a skit making fun of the faculty, I’m sure everyone would enjoy it, including the faculty. If some faculty, however, did a skit making fun of the students, no one would find that funny, not even the other faculty. That isn’t right, since the faculty are in authority and would be abusing their power. Likewise, we as citizens of our government can safely make fun of politicians and draw caricatures of them in cartoons. If a politician made fun of a political cartoonist or regular citizen, however, it would be viewed as being in bad taste, since the politician is in a position of power and is abusing that power. It’s the same reason kids can make fun of their parents and parents shouldn’t make fun of their kids. In other words, backwards as it may seem to some who would like to think of the poor husbands as victims, the husband-wife sitcom is about as antifeminist as you can get, since it still shows men to be the “head of the household” that can take a joke.

Also it is a traditional marriage (not one of equality or even of female domination), in which the men fit traditional gender roles (ogling women, drinking beer, sitting on the couch watching TV) and the women fit traditional gender roles as well (putting up with men, cooking dinner, shopping, henpecking). It’s actually the perfect situation for men, for several reasons.

  • It reaffirms traditional gender roles.
  • It allows for men to identify with the husbands as being henpecked.
  • It allows men to complain that feminism has made it so men look stupid.

If studios really wanted to take feminism into account, they wouldn’t make sure to have the woman be attractive (she could be, but she wouldn’t have to be), the marriage would be more evenly divided (the man could take care of the kids or cook dinner), either party could be ogling other people or actually be totally faithful (not just “I work up my appetite elsewhere, but I always come home for dinner” sexuality). Stop blaming the feminists for this one, seriously.

Categories
Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

How many prison rapists will use a condom?

Apparently, a Local Prison [in Vacavilla is] To Provide Condoms To Inmates even though sex between inmates is supposedly illegal. Of course, everyone knows same-sex sex happens in prison all the time, and it is usually prison rape, not consensual sex.

So what’s the point exactly? Sure, HIV is spreading widely (five to seven times the rate the outside-of-prison population has, according to the article), but are prison rapists really going to say, “Yeah, I’m beating you up and raping you, but hold on a second—I want to get some lube and put on a condom to make sure I don’t infect you with HIV”? I highly doubt it.

The only way to stop prison rape is for prison administrations to really crack down on prison rape and punish severely those who rape other prisoners. If you stop prison rape, the only people who’ll be having sex in prison are the actual gay prisoners (a relatively small percentage of the prisoners currently having same-sex sex, since some men seem to believe that sticking their penises in another man’s ass or mouth is heterosexual but receiving by force another man’s penis is being homosexual).

Maybe some prison administrators and lawmakers should read the Human Rights Watch report on prison rape.