Wednesday, June 25, 2008

DING! You are now free to move about the country.

We all know this slogan from the annoyingly perky Southwest Airlines ads on TV. And it's kind of clever the first few times.

But this week has been kind of rotten for me, for a number of reasons that mostly come down to the US government sucking, timing being off, and one of my teaspoons getting broken.

So I was thinking about the fact that I need to do some travelling in the next few days, and may even be booking a last minute flight back home if things don't work out.... As usual, my bags are right up against the checked baggage weight restriction, I don't want to pay the new fee for a second checked bag, and I hate feeling like a pack pony when I'm going through security with all of my carry on shit. But, oh, the fees-- they burn.

Indeed, without a car, dependent on air travel to get where I need to go, and with all of the fees and costs involved in booking flights (nevermind the exorbitant rate I may have to pay if I have to return at the last minute) -- with all of these hindrances in my way, it has become clear that we increasingly are not free to move about the country at all, especially if you are of a certain social class and are from certain more isolated parts of the USA (or North America, for that matter).

Now granted, we don't actually have pervasive and authoritatively enforced rules about who can travel where and when (this isn't apartheid, after all), but it occurs to me that the freedom to get anywhere -- even to your job, if you live in a place with bad public transit -- is increasingly disappearing in this world of $4 a gallon gas, airline surcharges and fees, and inflationary pressures on everything else.

My mom asked me a few weeks back about my sort-0f-boyfriend and the fact that he doesn't have a car, even though our hilly, very much suburban-focused city demands one if you want to leave a few core areas that are walkable/transit accessible/bikeable. She said to me, "What kind of person doesn't have a car?" and although I was mostly annoyed about this comment on general principles at the time, it also occured to me that there's a real classist thing going on there, whether my mom realized or not. Yes, even in this oil-boom city the poor often have shit-beater cars so that they can get to work, but there are plenty of people who don't have a means of vehicular transportation, either by choice or by economic necessity. Sure, they can't get to the mega mart on the outskirts of town. But maybe their lives are better off for it. And maybe wondering, with not-so-concealed disdain, about the kind of person who doesn't have the means to purchase a vehicle, and who can't take transit everywhere, only covers up the real problems of mobility and accessibility and the lack of intelligently designed, walkable urban centers in North America.

What kinds of people don't have cars? People who work but can't make ends meet. People who have debt because they chose to get an education and haven't paid off the loans yet (the 'grad school poor, ' as opposed to the 'poor poor'). People who had cars that crapped out on them, and couldn't afford the repair bills because they wanted to pay rent and buy food.

So no, some of us are not free to move about the country. And maybe we never were.

The enviro hippy in me says that this might not be such a bad thing, less driving and air travel. The other part of me says that restricting where we can go, whether directly through regulation and force, or indirectly through economic pressures, can't be a good thing. It makes our worlds smaller, and it places just one more limitation on our freedoms in a country (and this applies to Canada too, although it's less obvious) where civil liberties have been steadily and stealthily rolled back since 9/11.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

30 Second Movie Review: Get Smart

As a child, I loved the original Get Smart series with Don Adams, and so I was pretty eager to see what the movie version looked like.

It was pretty funny, and I liked Steve Carrell as Maxwell Smart (although Ann Hathaway was somehow less believable as Agent 99).


What the fuck was up with all the fat jokes?

It turns out that in this version of the show, Max is just an analyst trying to make full agent status (which I'm not spoiling anything by revealing as a success.) Why did he keep failing his agent exam? Well, it turns out he used to be Fatty McFat. Much hilarity ensues.

Yeah, except this part of the movie wasn't funny, it was just more of the same tired old stereotypes about fat people: haha, can't run; can't climb a wall or do any of the obstacle course; wears hideously baggy clothing, hahaha!

Also not funny: the scene where Max dances with the Fat Chick, again mined for its maximum comedic effect when it ends with him needing help to pull the woman up from a final dramatic dance pose.

Like I said: lots of other funny things in the movie, many of them planned to take full advantage of Carrell's natural comedic timing and brilliant physical comedy.

But the fat jokes: just not necessary.

(See also Kung Fu Panda).

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Deconstruction: Nerd Girls and the Sexy/Smart Dichotomy

I subscribe to a lot of news digests from Alternet, and the selection of featured articles that appeared in the ol' inbox this morning featured the following story on what is allegedly the next hot thing in media culture: ZOMG! girls who are smart and sexy, aka, the "Nerdy Girl" of the piece's title.

Now, as a bit of a self-professed nerd/geek/dork/brainiac/whatever myself, there is plenty to take offense at in the article and the other pieces it links to.

Take, for example, this gem:

Of course, until now female geeks' sex appeal has been roughly equivalent to that of Napoleon Dynamite. Wikipedia describes the nerd girl as a stock character who wears eye glasses, dresses unfashionably, wears pigtails (and other little girl items like mary-jane shoes and knee high socks), is shy and socially inept and either overweight or gangly.

So, let me see if I have this right: to be considered an (unattractive) nerd, one merely has to possess some of the following characteristics: poor eyesight, bad fashion -- let's read "not in keeping with current trends and/or conventional norms of feminine presentation" here -- shyness or an introverted personality, gangliness or awkwardness (i.e., lacks grace, that common trope of normative femininity), and being overweight -- again, let's read this as "heavy by the ridiculous measure that is BMI and/or not a skinny sex-bot type".

There's a lot to unpack just in this part of the paragraph, but how about we start with the ridiculous and totally pervasive idea that somehow fat people can't be attractive, that is, the notion that attractiveness (or sexiness, since this is the overarching claim of the Alternet piece) and fat are mutually exclusive.


(Also, what on earth is the connection between being fat and being a nerd?!?)

Moreover, and this is something perpetuated by the title of the article itself, notice the description of the prototypical female nerd once again: she has pigtails and other childlike clothing items (mary-janes, knee socks). She is described as a Nerdy Girl. So even if she is able to design and pilot a solar-powered car, she nevertheless must be described in infantilizing terms -- and thereby rendered impotent, unoffensive to male sensitivities about weakness and the loss of privilege. (And this infantilization functions on a implicit level even when it's the women self-identifying themselves as "Nerd Girls," since this implies fun, a playful sense of humor, and none of those threatening characteristics that are associated with powerful or smart women). Add to this the fact that the Nerdy Girl is also supposed to be sexy (in a way never before possible!! How amazing, what a revolution!), and we have a creepy tinge of the pedophiliac lurking in the background, because infantilized women + sexy = ewwww.

And the piece just gets worse from there:

More recently, they [nerds] sometimes have a passion for social justice (see Simpson, Lisa) are feminist or post-feminist (see Granger, Hermione) or come up with the piece of knowledge that enables the plot to be resolved (see Velma from Scooby Doo). And sometimes, just sometimes, they get a makeover and become kinda pretty albeit in an awkward way (see Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

Wow. Not only is the author of the Alternet piece totally wrong about Willow (HAWT, in every form), but she also dresses up an old antifeminist canard in a slighlty different form: feminists are unattractive, therefore any nerd self-identifying as, or perceived to be, a feminist must also be unattractive. Again, just wow. I mean really, feminists are not all hairy-legged harpies. We've been through this before: one can indeed be a feminist and a nerd and sexy and smart all at once. It's called intersectionality, folks, and it means that all of our identities have multiple, intersecting, often overlapping or contradictory, facets.* (Or, if you want to be less academic, simply recall that people have many dimensions that make them who they are.)

Moving further into the text of the article, see if you can spot what all of the examples of hot nerds have in common:

An example of the new prototype is Cristina Sanchez: a master's student in biomedical engineering and a former cheerleader who can talk "endlessly" about

Newsweek goes on to say that they've modeled themselves after Tina Fey, whose character on 30 Rock is a "Star Wars-loving, tech-obsessed, glasses-wearing geek, but who's garnered mainstream appeal and a few fashion-magazine covers. Or on actress Danica McKellar, who coauthored a math theorem, wrote a book for girls called "Math Doesn't Suck" and posed in a bikini for Stuff magazine. Or even Ellen Spertus, a Mills College professor and research scientist at Google -- and the 2001 winner of the Silicon Valley "Sexiest Geek Alive" pageant."

Hmm, could it be that all of the examples of totally hot!! nerdy girls prove the existence their ZOMG hotness! through more or less objectifying means of achieving mainstream acceptance? Could it be that the article couldn't find any examples of hot women scientists who are deemed hot by means other than the male gaze (pageants, modeling, Stuff magazine spreads, and cheerleading being just a few examples of gaze-approved activities)?

I could go on, but frankly debunking this kind of shit is exhausting.

To end on a slightly more uplifting note, there is some positive news in the article. Apparently among the 12-17 year-old set, girls are more involved in blogging and social networking sites than their male peers; on the other hand, the statistics about attrition rates for women in science and engineering professions, a drop-out rate due in large part to pervasive sexual harassment, are rather depressing.

[Also, this Alternet article on the Nerdy Girl and the Newsweek piece it links to are pretty appalling when placed alongside the gushing New York Observer commentary on the buffing-up of the nerdy manchild and brooding hipster.]


* Yeah, I realize that this isn't quite how the term intersectionality gets applied a more rigourous academic context, but I still think that it applies, even if I am providing a really loose definition here.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

On Communication

These past few weeks, it seems like a lot of the communications that I've sent out -- largely over email, but also on facebook and to a lesser extent by phone -- have been less than successful.

So the lesson in all of this seems to be that communication during mecury retrograde = FAIL.

I mean seriously, how hard is it to return a phone call or reply to an email message?

Lawrd knows that I myself spend hours procrastinating each day just by replying to emails....

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Book Review: Susan Faludi's The Terror Dream

[I realize that I'm a little behind the curve with this review, in the sense that the book has been out for more than six months. I swear, I only manage to do fun (i.e., non-academic) reading during the summer months, much to my chagrin.]

NOTE: This post is ridiculously long.

So. Overall, I really liked Susan Faludi's latest book, The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post 9/11 America. Faludi is a master at accumulating waves upon waves of damaging evidence to support her argument, as she demonstrated in her earlier books Backlash and Stiffed. She also crafts a very compelling narrative conveniently divided into two parts, ontogeny and phylogeny, which treat, respectively, the present day 'symptoms' of the mythical terror dream that she examines, and the historical origins of that continually reanimated mythology.

Put simply, Faludi reads the perversely retrogressive responses to 9/11 (responses largely fabricated by the MSM) as indicative of an attempt to reincarnate a foundational American myth, namely the narrative of the strong male-as-protector and its necessary correlative, the weak woman in need of rescue and protection. That the myth is precisely this--fiction--matters little, as the narrative functions to buttress a vulnerable and damaged nation with an illusory picture of its own strength and impregnability. And so the tendency for 300-plus years (which Faludi painstakingly chronicles) has been to trot out this myth at moments of national crisis because of the mistaken belief that, as Faludi puts it, "only a house divided against itself can stand" (p. 295). That is, for men to be propped up as (artificial) heroes instead of the victims that they often have been in the course of US history, women must be consistently denigrated as helpless and infantile, stripped of all symbolic and actual power that they possess. It is only by consistently maintaining the fiction of a powerful and dominant manhood clearly demarcated from any contamination by 'feminine weakness' [sic!] that the persistently resurfacing evidence about the vulnerability of the USA can be covered over.

Here's a quote from the end of the book that I think best sums up Faludi's argument:
When an attack on home soil causes cultural paroxysms that have nothing to do with the attack, when we respond to real threats to our nation by distracting ourselves with imagined threats to femininity and family life, when we invest our leaders with a cartoon masculinity and require of them bluster in lieu of a capacity for rational calculation, and when we blame our frailty on 'fifth column' feminists--in short, when we base our security on a mythical male strength that can only measure itself against a mythical female weakness--we should know that we are exhibiting the symptoms of a lethal, albeit curable, cultural affliction (p. 295).

Again, I should be clear, I really enjoyed the book and found Faludi's argument and supporting analyses extremely powerful, if not also a little disturbing for their ability to, as they say, hit the nail on the head vis-a-vis prevailing cultural attitudes towards masculinity and femininity in the USA.

But, that being said, there were a few things about the analysis that troubled (and continue to trouble) me in ways that I can't quite clearly explain.

My first nagging worry is about the conclusion that this myth of male superiority and female inferiority ultimately reduces to and relies upon. As Faludi makes clear in both contemporary (Jessica Lynch) and historical (captivity narratives) examples, this foundational myth ends up relying on the false imputation of rape as a way to reinforce the oftentimes incorrect view that these women were helpless waifs whose very innocence and purity -- hallmarks of the imagined femininity that the myth requires -- required male salvation. That in a large majority of these examples rapes never occurred is beside the point; Faludi shows that portraying the ordeals of women solely in terms of sexual violation effectively eliminates their agency -- and thus reinforces the parameters of the myth.

I think what worries me about this ultimate conclusion is that it seems to reduce a lot of the fucked up-edness of gender relations in the US to this one thing, the threat of rape and the unavoidable taint of susceptibility that it positions as a kind of sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of women.

To go all philosophical for a moment, there is a clear phenomenological argument to be made in favor of the assertion that many women do experience their lives as though the threat of rape were ever-present. As most women could tell you, we tend to walk differently at night, have a different level of awareness in terms of what's going on around us, and we often keep our 'radar' more sensitvely attuned to the potentially unsavory intentions of men, both strangers and acquaintances... But a lot of this extra situational awareness is itself probably a product of the rape culture that continually tells us that we are vulnerable and that we ought to be vigilant, lest we wear a short skirt and invite attack. (And all of this should be taken to denying the very real vulnerability felt by women who have been a victim of rape or other forms of unwanted sexual attention.)

So on this level at least, Faludi may be spot-on in her identification of the construct (constant threat of rape) ensuring that the myth continues to provide shelter for our national fears, psychoses, and weaknesses.

At the same time, however, the fact that the threat of rape sits at the center of a national fantasy about appropriate gender roles and traditional domesticity seems -- to me -- to call out for a separate, more penetrating analysis that Faludi does not completely provide in the book. Certainly, The Terror Dream is devoted to piercing holes in the inherent misogyny that permeates American culture, but I wish that this project was carried out more explicitly, and more directly employed the language of sexism, misogyny, privilege, and oppression in its argumentation. [This criticism may just be the theory nut in me wanting a more 'academic' analysis, so I'm not sure that this is actually a strong knock against what I still think is a very insightful claim.]

My nagging worry about the rape threat that seems to sit at the center of, and function as the productive force for, the narrative Faludi illuminates also connects to another, related worry about the treatment of race in the book.

For all of the ways in which the historic and current examples of captivity-and-rescue stories rely on unfounded allegations about the rape of women by terrorists, 'savages,' or other 'barbarians,' it seems to go largely without comment that only the rape of white women by brown men 'counts' when it comes time to reinforce the mythical narrative that Faludi dissects. That is, there is no corresponding way in which the vulnerability of enslaved WOC to the whims of their raping white masters -- for example -- challenges the dominant paradigm in which rapeability stands in for national weakness. (By the way, I'm really uncomfortable with the implications of this parallel and others bearing a family resemblance, for what I hope are obvious reasons that have been better explained by Chris Clarke (in a post the body of which seems to have disappeared), Thinking Girl, and Rana.)

This leads me to the second element of Faludi's treatment of race that is setting off alarms for me, namely the largely unspoken assumption that this is a foundational myth by and for white people (and more specifically, it would seem, white, heterosexual, Christian men).* While I get how the ontogeny that provides the historic pattern for the reenactment of this narrative of male strength and female weakness is based in racist fears about violence perpetuated by Native Americans, African-Americans, and scary Russian communists -- the examples that Faludi refers to in the second half of the book -- I find it strange that there is no explicit commentary on the fact that this fear-inspired myth of national virility is predicated on racism as well as misogyny.**

Anyhow, those are my thoughts on the book right now; I know that they're a little scattered, but I hope that they at least manage to provoke some discussion about a few things that seem to -- problematically -- go unsaid in Faludi's analysis.


* I would also ideally want to add some class identifier to this list, but to be honest I'm not sure whether the myth is targeted at working-, middle-, or upper-class men because of the way that fears about masculinity and power intersect in complicated ways with class and racial identifications, privileges, and/or oppressions.

** This notion, that the narrative roles afforded to strong men and weak women are themselves also predicated upon a corresponding set of racial prejudices and fears, also calls out for an intersectional analysis that I can't quite wrap my head around at this particular moment. This is more than likely a product of my own privileges, and when I've got it figured out I'll update the post accordingly.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Call it what it is

I stumbled across this little gem in the local news this morning, and couldn't resist posting my own brief four-word deconstruction: this. is. fucked. up.

From the linked article:

It's the only way Tory Bowen knows to honestly describe what happened to her.

She was raped.

But a judge prohibited her from uttering the word "rape" in front of a jury. The term "sexual assault" also was taboo, and Bowen could not refer to herself as a victim or use the word "assailant" to describe the man who allegedly raped her.

In case it's not clear what is the problem with this judge (and with other similar rulings of this kind), check out what an advocate for defense attorneys had to say (bold emphasis mine):

Those who defend the accused say the determination of whether what happened was rape or consensual sex is up to juries, not witnesses. "They shouldn't be able to use the word 'rape' as if it is a fact that has been established," said Jack King, director of public affairs and communications for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "These are loaded words."

So, let's be clear. Forced intercourse is rape. Non-consentual sexual acts of any kind are rape. This is a fact, and not some opinion open to discussions and debates about the semantics and the signification and the blah blah blah. When a women says that she did not consent, when she says that she was raped, that's what is was. It is a fact. So let's just call rape what it is -- RAPE -- and skip this dance about prejudicing juries' feelings with what is an accurate and entirely appropriate term.

(For more on why labels matter, see Shakesville's earlier post on this case here, and one of the many many installments in a multi-part series here.) In fact, a giant tip of my hat to Melissa McEwan in general for alerting me to this ridiculous phenomenon.