Why are people picking on Girls?

Last year when Girls debuted on HBO, there was a lot of pushback on the blogosphere. Why was the cast all white? Isn't this New York? These whiny people aren't the voice of this generation. I was, frankly, confused by this reaction. All the criticisms were founded, of course. I just had no idea why people were (and actually still are) picking on Girls and on Lena Dunham.

Pretty much every major show on the normal networks and on cable has white lead characters, with the characters of color as support or background characters. Friends was all white in New York. So was Seinfeld. So was Sex and the City. Even the shows that have some racial diversity still feature white characters as the leads (for example, Law and Order: SVU had B.D. Wong and Ice-T, but the main leads were Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni; Hawaii Five-O's latest incarnation has Grace Park and Daniel Dae Kim, but the main leads are Alex O'Loughlin and Scott Caan).

There are, of course, exceptions. The Mindy Project features Mindy Kaling. And Psych has two leads, one of whom is Dulé Hill, though you could easily make the case James Roday is the main lead of the two leads, with Hill being more of a supporting lead character. (As a random side note, Roday the actor is partly of Mexican descent, but his character definitely appears to be generic white.)

If people are going to be upset about Girls being racist, they'd better be equally upset about... just about every other show in America! And if they're going to be upset about whiny characters, they should be equally upset about Curb Your Enthusiasm, Californication, and a host of other shows that are critically acclaimed.

Ultimately, I think this singling out of Girls comes down to sexism. For some reason, straight, white male directors/actors/writers get let off the hook for featuring straight, white male characters. But if a straight, white female director/actor/writer dares to feature straight, white female characters, all hell breaks loose. She's a woman! Shouldn't she be perfect?! Geez. No. This is an HBO show and is no more perfect sociologically speaking than any other HBO show. True Blood has lots of black characters, but are you honestly going to tell me that Sookie and Bill are not the main focus of the show and that the black characters are the main focus?

I'd love Girls to break some new sociological ground. I just don't think that one show alone should bear such a burden. The whole system needs to change. No need to single out Lena Dunham to turn the whole thing around herself.

Further reading: How Hollywood is Racist


The Oppression Olympics

Welcome to the Oppression Olympics!

Here are some of the events you can watch, courtesy of the Google search engine:
Which Is Worse? Racism, or Sexism, or Asking Which Is Worse?
Sexism Is Worse Than Racism
Do victims of racism or sexism suffer more?

I don’t get why people get in stupid debates about whether racism or sexism is “worse” and whether black men face more obstacles than white women face. It’s silly. I’ve created a very simple illustration to show why it’s silly to entertain such a line of inquiry.

Take a look at this square. Let’s say that being closer to the top of the square means… better, whatever that is (more opportunities, less hate, more money—however you define “better”). Let’s also say that being closer to the bottom of the square means… worse, however you define “worse.”

So how would you then describe the situation of the dark-green stars in relation to the light-green circles? Is one simply in a better situation than the other? I don’t think so, since even such a relatively simplistic illustration shows more complexity than the “sexism is worse” or the “racism is worse” crowd would have you believe. I don’t get why people who have presumably taken geometry in secondary and/or primary school can get into such linear ways of thinking (“I’m ahead, you’re behind” or “You’re ahead, I’m behind”).

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.

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?

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.

Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

“I’m not a feminist, but…”

Ani’s not an angry girl, but it seems like she’s got everyone fooled. Every time she says something they find hard to hear, they chalk it up to her anger and never to their own fear. Recently, I was talking with a female friend of mine about various songs, and I mentioned Ani DiFranco’s “Not a Pretty Girl,” and she responded that she didn’t like the song and she’s not into “angry” music like that.

I’ve also encountered my fair share of women using the famous “I’m not a feminist, but…” line. My favorite was in college when someone came away from church and criticized one of the praise songs lyrics (“With you, fatherless I’ll never be”) as being sexist and reinforcing of patriarchal traditions. Of course, she prefaced it with the phrase I’m not a feminist, but….

Really? So why are you complaining about sexism and the patriarchy if you’re not a feminist? What is a feminist, then? Why don’t you want to be a feminist? Yes, of course, there’s the stereotype of the hairy, bra-burning, ugly, man-hating, anti-vaginal-intercourse loud lesbian (of course, in all the years I’ve been reading radical feminist literature, I’ve never come across any of these supposed embodiments of that stereotype). I don’t think these I’m not a feminist, but… women are really afraid of being mistaken for that stereotype.

I think they’re just afraid of appearing angry. That’s it. They just don’t want to be considered angry. They want, as many post-feminist millenials and generation-X-ers want, to be fun-loving, positive energy folks. They want to enjoy life and have others enjoy life with them. They don’t want to be downers. They don’t want to be complainers. So, in order to complain and not be considered a complainer, you have to preface your complaints with “I’m not a feminist, but….” The idea is that the person you’re talking to will think “Okay. If you were an angry feminist, I’d just tune out. Since you’re clearly someone who is generally positive about life, I’ll listen to your complaint.”

If you ask me, it’s a cop-out. It’s like in discussions about racism in America, when a handful of Asian-Americans will try to appease the White Americans by saying there isn’t institutional racism or White privilege, and there’s absolutely no need for affirmative action of any kind. That’s their special “I’m not an antiracist, but…” preface for race instead of gender.

Nobody wants to be a downer or a whiner. Nobody wants to be a victim. Feminists are people just like you. Feminists want to enjoy life, and they do. Feminists laugh. Feminists go skydiving, rollerblading, kayaking, and all those other fun things people do in the “I have herpes, but I don’t mind” commercials. The truth is that feminists, like everyone, just want justice. They want people to recognize injustice and do something about it. They’re not going to hide behind phrases like “I’m not a feminist, but…” because they want to be honest.

It’s okay to be a feminist. It’s okay to be angry. People won’t think any less of you as a woman, just because you advocate for equal rights and equal treatment. Own up. We’re all in this together… or we should be anyway.

Movies Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Stark Sexism

I was quite looking forward to this new Iron Man film adaption. I’ve been a big Iron Man fan for decades (particularly fond of the alcoholism saga and armor wars of the 80s and 90s).

Well, last night, I saw an advanced screening of it at the Balboa Theater. I love this theater. With the special deal of advance-purchased tickets, my wife and I saw this film and had a “small” (what most movie theaters call “large”) popcorn with real butter, a jumbo hot dog, and a small (what most theaters would call “kids”) soda—all for US$23. The management gave out free posters to everyone and welcomed us at the beginning of the show, had two trivia questions with prizes, and apologized for the terrible Louis Vuitton commercial we had to sit through before the previews. It’s sad that independently-owned theaters like this are falling by the wayside in favor of megaplexes like the Metreon. The Balboa has personality and affordability. More importantly to me, it has a good mix of mainstream and artsy films. But I digress…

In terms of remaining faithful to the spirit the comic book and in terms of thrilling action and laugh-inducing jokes, the film is a success in spades. What is up with the sexism, though? I cannot imagine a film about a billionaire woman who is drunk all the time, sleeps around with and uses men like tissue, and is so incompetent that her personal assistant must do everything for her being doted on and admired by said personal assistant with the basic attitude of “Well, she may be a mess, but she’s my mess, and even though she’s kind of an asshole, I love her.” Who would watch that?

Of course, most people don’t really care if a male character is an asshole, as long as the film has laughter and well-animated violence. It just made me angry how the (terribly miscast) Gwyneth Paltrow assistant character is so pathetic. She’s basically Bond’s Moneypenny but without the wit and the sex appeal. Instead of Moneypenny, she’s a bit more like Sandra Bullock’s character from Two Weeks Notice. The only other prominent female character in the film is the sorority-looks-with-a-liberal-conscience reporter whom Stark has a one night stand with and then basically ignores.

My first reaction was to think, I thought we’d made some progress. I thought this was 2008. What is this? The 1940s? Then, I thought again and realized that roles for women in 1940s films were much better. You had the fast-talking Katherine Hepburn types and the film noir femme fatales. Most personal assistants and secretaries in films of those days had sass and could banter. Now we get the “You’re so bad and undeserving but I adore you. Tee hee!” women? I hope this backlash will abate soon, and third-wave (or are we on the fourth one?) feminism will come back in full swing.

Is it a sin to want an enjoyable action film with humor and just a little less sexism and misogyny?