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Hit the Books: Five Feminist Novels to Read Posthaste

In books, class, feminism, race, social justice, violence on October 3, 2014 at 6:32 am

Girls Like Giants contributors put our heads together to recommend a few of the best books we’ve read in recent times. What’s on your reading list?

Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie’s searing portrait of life before, during, and after the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970), follows the narratives of three radically different characters—the beautiful and upper class Olanna, the houseboy turned child soldier Ugwu, and the white British expat and journalist Richard. There is neither a singular narrator nor narrative but rather a switching back and forth between these characters’ various perspectives, a literary move which heeds her call for the necessity of multiple narratives. As a result, we witness the war and its attendant violence from the perspective of each character. For instance, we see rape as a tool of war twice: once in a threat made against Olanna by a soldier and then in Ugwu’s own horrific participation—after he is conscripted into the army—in a gang rape of a young bartender. In Adichie’s novel there is neither safety nor cover from the casual and everyday violence of warf. And there is no simple resolution to its lasting its scars as it reaches into the depths of our lives. Before the war, there was happiness, fun, and radical politics—the latter embraced and touted by Olanna’s husband, a university professor. Yet, as Adichie makes clear, embracing revolutionary politics is far afield from the masculinized violence and terror of war. Her powerful critique reinforces the fact that there are no winners amidst this violence and that the independence sought is sadly never gained, even as lives are lost and irreversibly changed. I can’t recommend this book enough. From Adichie’s eloquent writing to her formal innovation and political critique, Half of a Yellow Sun is by far the most beautiful, difficult, and empathetic novel I’ve read in a long time. - Phoebe B.

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson

In the last couple years I have read several excellent books. Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane delighted me and creeped me out in equal measure. Booker Prize winner The Luminaries, by wunderkind Eleanor Catton, brought magical realism to a sweeping historical western set among whores, charlatans, and opium peddlers in a New Zealand mining town. But without hesitation, the best book I’ve read recently is Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. This mysterious novel reminds me of the modernist works I love, with a dash of postmodern instability and feminist exploration thrown in for ballast. It focuses on the many lives of Ursula Todd, a person with the gift (or curse) of constantly rebooting back to birth whenever she dies. We follow Ursula through several noteworthy historical happenings, from the Great War and the contemporaneous influenza pandemic to the Blitz in London during World War II. We also see different iterations of Ursula, a person changed ever so evocatively by the various things that happen to her and then alter the trajectory of her life. I won’t give away any more twists or turns but just urge you to snatch up a copy of Life After Life as soon as possible. It’s smart and entertaining and absolutely ideal for delving into during blustery autumn weather. - Sarah S. Read the rest of this entry »

“Look at Her Butt:” Nicki Minaj, Power, and Sexual Objectification

In body politics, feminism, hip hop, race on September 9, 2014 at 5:02 am

MinajSnarls

Melissa Sexton

Ever since Nicki Minaj posted the cover art for her new single in late July, I’ve been trying to finish a piece about the “Anaconda” controversy. Each time I had to push the project back, I feared that I had lost the relevancy so important to writing about popular culture. But sadly, there has been no lack of opportunity to reflect on issues involving women’s agency over the display of their own bodies.

Last week, unrepentant hackers posted stolen photos (real and photoshopped) of Jennifer Lawrence, Jill Scott, Kirsten Dunst, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and other female celebrities. The response was depressing if not surprising: mixed in with thoughtful critique, there were plenty of arguments about (men’s) free speech and (women’s) responsibility to protect themselves from exploitation by never, ever taking a photo of themselves or, ideally, never ever taking their clothes off outside of a private dressing bunker equipped with magnets to destroy photographic film and digital storage systems. It was a painful swirl of arguments that, to me, boiled down to a couple of confusing prescriptions for women: first, your body should never ever be publicly visible, so make sure that doesn’t happen; two, expect that men will do everything they can to make your body visible and be prepared to defend yourself; third, if your body should become visible, you will be held morally responsible, whether you chose to display your body or had your body displayed against your will.

This incident merely provides the most recent evidence that how we respond to the sexual objectification of women’s bodies is mostly about who is controlling the display. When women’s bodies are put on display by others, particularly men, we respond as though it is unfortunate but unavoidable. In the same way as victim blaming, this rhetoric figures the sexual desire of men as boundless and the moral responsibility of prevention as belonging to women. The female body is figured here as terribly powerful and terribly vulnerable, capable of short-circuiting men’s ability to act rationally or compassionately. The only way to deal with this power and vulnerability is through fear and containment. Wear long skirts when you go out and make sure your photos are inaccessible to hackers. Men don’t seem to be held culturally responsible for choosing to display women’s bodies when women fail to contain them.

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Violently Inclined: On TV’s Obsession with White Male Violence

In race, Television, violence on August 7, 2014 at 1:20 pm

Phoebe B.

It turns out the more televised violence you watch, the more fear of crime you develop—even if that fear is not specific to your life, family, neighborhood. Recently, the Annenberg School (USC) released the results of a study on TV violence. The study, as reported by Deadline Hollywood, “confirm[s] the effects of TV on people’s fear, but do not support the idea that people think there is actually more crime in their neighborhood.”

The study’s release was perfectly timed with Emily Nussbaum’s wonderful essay on FX’s television adaptation of Fargo. “How good does a violent drama need to be to make the pain of watching worth it?” Nussbam asks. She concludes, ultimately, that Fargo is not quite good enough to endure the violence it showcases. In a TV landscape where depictions of violence are replicating like zombies on The Walking Dead, Nussbaum’s question and the Annenberg study results are particularly pressing.

The problem is not, though, just the prevalence of violence on TV. Rather, it is the kinds of violence and victimhood that are emphasized: programming revels in white male violence, exploring it in excruciating detail, while other forms of violence and their consequences are dismissed or ignored. I wonder, not about the cause and effect of violent white male TV depictions, but rather about the culture revealed in contemporary violent shows and in our fascination with fantasies of white masculinist violence propped up, too often, by both the protection and murder of white women.

It is not, then, simply that viewers experience increased levels of fear, but the ways in which that fear is framed, narrated, and told is of particular importance. The first time I remember the effect of violent media narratives was during the child abduction scare of the 1990s, initiated at least where I lived by the gruesome disappearance and murder of Polly Klaas.

Klaas’ abduction out of her Bay Area bedroom window and subsequent murder made national headlines and evoked terror in then-pre-teen me. Her abduction incited a media circus and a nationwide hunt; ultimately, her murder played a role in the passing of California’s controversial three-strikes law.

The media narrative surrounding Klaas’ abduction drew on age-old scripts of the white “Dead Girl,” whose murder usually both incites a narrative and serves as the justification for violence. The dead girl plot is not, however, inherently a bad thing, Sady Doyle suggests, because when the dead girls talk back, when they are allowed their own voice, they become complex and active characters rather than ghostly projections of male fantasy.

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“Try This Instead:” Interview with Cameron Johnson

In race, social media, web series on March 26, 2014 at 8:45 am

Phoebe B.

About a month ago I was searching for web shows to teach in my class on comedy, race, gender, and sexuality. Then I happened upon “Try This Instead,” a series of short, satirical videos on how well-meaning white people can avoid racial microaggressions. Not only is the web series totally hilarious, it proved a great way to frame discussions about race.

“Try This Instead” has already been featured on HuffPo; Shadow and ActClutch Magazine; and even Upworthy (among other places)! Thus, I was super excited when creator and star, Cameron Johnson, agreed to answer a few questions for GLG.  Read on for Cameron’s thoughts on the project, what he’s up to next, and his favorite non-work activities like hanging out with his pup and watching lots of awesome TV.

How did you come up with the project “Try This Instead?” Can you talk a bit about what this project means to you?

There are so many stories of microaggression from my life, but what inspired this show was an evening in November. I was sitting at the Standard Hotel Downtown when a group of white guys with an ethnically ambiguous friend came in and started throwing around the n-word with reckless abandon and making us all really, really uncomfortable.

It is a daily struggle for me to keep my mouth shut, so after about five minutes of this, I turned and said  “are any of you black? If not, did your black friend co-sign on your ability to say the n-word? Because I don’t.” They were really uncomfortable. Apparently, the ambiguous one was biracial and had, in fact, led them to believe that it was okay for them to say the N-word. It occurred to me though that one person saying you can do something that is offensive to a large group of people really isn’t enough, so I went home and started writing.

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Re-Plotting History: Omission, Race, and “The Vampire Diaries”

In race, teen soaps, The South on December 5, 2013 at 1:54 pm

Aoife Ní Dhochartaigh

THE VAMPIRE DIARIES

It’s no secret that The Vampire Diaries is obsessed with history. I suppose it’s kind of a given on a show about immortality. The past informs the present: the characters constantly react to, reference and repeat history. Mostly, of course, they engage with their own, private histories. Stefan thinks of the people around him in terms of people from his past: Caroline as Lexi, Elena as Not-Katherine, Klaus as Damon (once upon a time.) Damon casts his sexual partners as himself, and himself as Katherine – reliving that particular shitstorm over and over – which has resulted in some pretty horrific abuse over the course of the show.

And one of the great things is that TVD references its own history – the history contained within the show – in really effective ways. They don’t need to tell us that history is cyclical, because they do such a good job of showing us. The dialogue and visuals contain so many parallels that the repeated settings and lines become hugely meaningful, especially to dedicated viewers like me. (To name but a few: Wickery Bridge, Elena’s porch, the whole ‘always’/’right now’ thing.)

Despite this historical obsession—both American history and the show’s own history—the story TVD tells is structured by one clear and egregious absence: slavery. Instead, the hideousness of slavery keeps being suppressed, and keeps manifesting in gross, awful ways: compulsion, sire bonds, the relentless economics of the doppelganger body. Read the rest of this entry »

On Patsey and the Amazing Lupita Nyong’o

In adaptation, fashion, Film, gender, race, violence on November 19, 2013 at 7:43 am

Sarah S.

I recently saw 12 Years a Slave and it’s phenomenal in all the ways you’ve heard. The movie focuses on Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a musician and family man kidnapped and sold into slavery. But it also lends its precise gaze to others, including the white slaveowners—male and female—corrupted by the act of owning human beings, and the enslaved women, often forced to endure unique losses and abuses.

This particular brand of horror is most visible in Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), who works alongside Solomon on the plantation of the sadistic, perhaps even mad Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).

Solomon’s tale contains evils enough but it was the powerlessness of Patsey, selected for extra abuse without rhyme or reason, that most touched me.

She spends her days picking more cotton than any of her counterparts, then endures confused, cruel rape by her master at night. She is systematically raped by Epps, who is violently obsessed with her. His obsession with Patsey is at the very core of his cruelty to her and the horrors to which he subjects her to.

She then suffers extra abuse from Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulsen), jealous of her husband’s infatuation. Here the white woman is not only complicit in the violence against Patsey, but actively perpetuates and embraces it.

Patsey begs Solomon to do the human mercy of helping her to kill yourself, only to have him refuse on principle. She is trapped in that—believing in Christian doctrine—she cannot kill herself, but insists that were Solomon to kill her it would be a mercy killing, an act of valor. For Patsey, death is the only foreseeable freedom from the violence of the plantation.

She sneaks away to get soap since Mistress Epps will not give her any, only to return and be whipped to unconsciousness—an act in which Solomon must partake (emphasizing not only Patsey’s abuse but the emasculation through forced complicity and inability to protect that Solomon experiences).

These are just a few of the inescapable horrors she suffers within a system that denies her humanity and subjects her to consistent and ongoing violence. In sum, the ongoing victim of a chattel system forces her to be the screen on which both the Epps project their irrational jealousies.

Switching gears a bit, I just wanted to end on how fantastic Lupita Nyong’o is as Patsey. A few notes then on Nyong’o’s break-out role:

-She is entirely accomplished and worldly. Nyong’o studied in Yale’s acting program and has lived in Mexico, Kenya, and the US. Oh, and she made a documentary about albinism in Kenya.

-She rocks the red carpet. During the film, I kept feeling as if I’d seen Nyong’o somewhere before. Then I realized it had been on the fashion commentary blog Go Fug Yourself, where the Fug Girls have described her as “nailing it.” Thrust onto the circuit by the success of 12 Years a Slave, Nyong’o has been making an impressive debut.

-She works alongside some of the finest actors today and more than holds her own. In addition to the mesmerizing Ejiofor, 12 Years boasts Fassbender, Paulsen, Michael K. Williams, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alfre Woodard, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Quvenzhané Wallis, and Brad Pitt. Most of these performances, big and small, are excellent examples of acting in an excellent film. But as Patsey, newcomer Nyong’o carries one of the biggest roles and gives her character impressive depths and nuances.

(With thanks to Phoebe for feedback and edits!)

Why We Should All Be Making a Fuss about Miley’s VMA Moves

In activism, gender, race on August 27, 2013 at 3:03 pm

Phoebe B.

Since the infamous Miley twerking incident at the VMAs, I’ve spent the last couple days following Facebook conversations—mostly by white liberals, of which I am one myself—on Miley’s performance. For the most part, white liberals have spent these threads arguing over whether or not to pay attention to this particular media event and if it really even matters. A few comments have suggested that “well-intentioned white liberals” are overreacting to Miley’s appropriation of black ratchet culture. This brand of dismissal is not only wrong on many counts, but also, I think, a big part of the problem.

Many of the conversations I have been following miss several truly important points about the history of white appropriation of black culture—and erase the participation of black voices from the discussion to boot.

UGH.

UGH.

As Dodai Stewart writes on Jezebel,

“basically, she, as a rich white woman, is “playing” at being a minority specifically from a lower socio-economic level. Along with the gold grill and some hand gestures, Miley straight-up appropriates the accoutrements associated with certain black people on the fringes of society.”

Miley is just one in a long line of stars who have appropriated parts of black culture for their own financial and image-remaking advantage. Indeed, Miley adopts this persona for power and profit, both of which are her reward for said appropriation. In her re-making of herself from Hannah Montana to … well, something else, she unapologetically uses black culture—and a specific vision and part of black culture—as a way to make her appear cool, hard-core, and badass. This brand of appropriation reinforces problematic and harmful stereotypes about black culture and reiterates that it is a-okay for a rich white girl to steal, use, and abuse any part of black culture that she sees fit (as she also de-historicizes and de-politicizes ratchet culture).

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How Great is Gatsby? The Sarahs Respond

In adaptation, books, class, Film, gender, race on May 15, 2013 at 5:30 am

I love The Great Gatsby. It took several readings for me to appreciate its strange genius but now I’m hooked. It’s so rich and weird one can read it again and again and find a different perspective on the characters or an exquisitely beautiful passage. But it’s not a book that would seem to transfer well to film. But then again, nobody factored in Baz Luhrmann, who seemed a great choice to make an adaptation of Fitzgerald’s masterwork because you knew that’s what he would do—an adaptation—some heady filmic rendering of the novel, rather than an attempt to re-create the novel on screen. So how did Baz do? GLG’s Sarahs gathered their word-nerdery, film hats, and finest furs to find out.

***

Sarah S: I thought the movie was pretty interesting on both class and gender, albeit perhaps subtly enough that the average viewer might miss it. I also found any notion that it idealized that world sans critique completely stupid. I have more detailed thoughts but I’ll add them based on what you  think. What say you, Sarah T?

Sarah T: Yes I agree with you on both counts! On the gender front: People tend to hate Daisy because they think she’s just a blonde, glamorous, blank projection of men’s dreams. And she is a projection, but not just a projection. The problem isn’t that she has no personality, it’s that nobody sees Daisy–not Gatsby, not Tom, not even Nick, who prides himself on being observant. They’re all too busy being dazzled by that voice that sounds like money. (Good voice choice by Mulligan, by the way—low, musical, lilting, balmy as a summer day in Louisville.)

But as both Fitzgerald and this movie make clear, Daisy’s actually pretty complex. For one thing, she’s got this sly wit that she gets no credit for at all. (“Tom is getting very profound,” she says dryly after Tom goes on a ridiculous, racist rant. “He reads deep books with long words in them.”) And I loved that scene in the sweltering hotel room where we see how Daisy’s being ripped apart by two men who are each trying to control her, though Tom far more brutishly than Gatsby. I also like the image of the three-strand pearl necklaces that Tom gives to both Daisy and, later, to Myrtle–a handy symbol of the wealth and power that he uses to lure and trap women. That’s why Daisy tears them off when she tries to break off their engagement. Though it turns out that Gatsby is just as determined to use money to get to the girl of his dreams, too.

I also loved Jordan in this movie–so skeptical and breezy but with a new undercurrent of kindness that the book doesn’t give her. She came across as loyal to Daisy, compassionate toward Gatsby. And it’s clear how frustrated she is by Nick’s passivity, which is his greatest flaw, so good lookin’ out, Jordan.

Sarah S: There were a couple lovely scenes with Daisy when she realizes that Gatsby sees her as something to possess, a status symbol, just as Tom does. Gatsby might be nicer but that doesn’t change the essential fact. We see this when Daisy asks to go away and Gatsby insists they live out this public display of a fairytale. And then, as you mention, the room in the hotel when Daisy is literally repeating Gatsby’s words at his command (until she stops). (This scene is performed almost exactly as written in the novel.) The audience has this impression confirmed, too, when Gatsby watches Daisy prancing up his grand staircase and comments to Nick how glamorous she makes his house look. It’s almost as if she’s The Dude’s rug in that she “really ties the room together.” I found this a perfectly plausible way to represent Daisy based on the book and a nice way to push past Nick’s dismissal of her as vain and shallow. We still don’t have much access to Daisy but this twist, combined with Mulligan’s performance, gives us tantalizing glimpses, as if glimpsed through billowing curtains.

As to class, I felt that Luhrmann did an excellent job showing the crassness of Gatsby’s display of wealth, a poor boy’s excessive fantasy of how the wealthy live. When Tom taunts him that he’ll never belong, it’s true, and we know it’s true. When Nick tells Gatsby that “they’re a rotten crowd,” he’s right and, again, Gatsby will never belong with them. Depending on how you think about it, it’s a rather pathetic consolation prize, their rottenness. I also thought the film nailed the “valley of ashes” and the desperate, awful lives of Myrtle and George. No wonder Myrtle embraces an exciting affair with a rich brute (rich being the only part she’s not used to); no wonder George wants to sell that coupé and head west.

One other small thing that struck me was how often intimate conversations went on with servants still in the room–and how uncomfortable this made me, the grossness of ignoring the other humans in the room. In Downton Abbey and the like the family don’t have serious conversations in front of “the help.” So this detail seemed like a really subtle way to drive home the class distinction.

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Drawing Beauty: Limits and Surfaces in Dove’s Social Experiment

In advertising, body politics, feminism, gender, girl culture, race, Television, Women's health on April 18, 2013 at 9:06 am

Chelsea H.

By now, you’ve probably seen that Dove “social experiment” that’s going around, but just in case you’re as behind as I am, here it is:

The premise here is simple and, if I’m honest, well-meaning: many women, as evidenced by the way they describe themselves, don’t recognize – or are reluctant to acknowledge – their own beauty.  Any flaws they have in appearance are magnified when they view themselves; every crease set by joy and laughter is a “crow’s foot.”  Every tiny, cinnamon-dust dot is a big ugly freckle.  Chins protrude invasively.  Cheeks that don’t have flesh-slicing angular edges are chubby.  These flaws are captured when they describe themselves, all unseen, to a trained forensic artist who draws their portraits to match their descriptions.  And really, this shouldn’t be terrifically surprising.  Women are hard on themselves.  We’ve been taught to be.  Lines, wrinkles, creases – these are harbingers of mortality.  Any freckle, any spot, even the hopefully named “beauty mark” is looked upon as a flaw.

But then the tables are turned: earlier on the day of the experiment, each woman met and chatted with another participant.  Each is asked to describe the other person, and again the sketch artist draws the face that is described.  Results are, as you might expect, startlingly different: faces described by their owners as fat are simply pleasantly oval in shape.  Chins that are claimed to protrude are “nice” and “thin.”  Noses are “short and cute.”  Each woman is then shown the two portraits: one “drawn” by her own eyes, one by the eyes of a stranger.

Most of the women stand in stunned silence.  Some tear up.  Some smile ruefully, and some seem – not ashamed – but a bit bashful at their own perception of themselves.  The one older participant, Florence, who is given a lot of face time, says “I should be more grateful of my natural beauty.  It impacts the choices in the friends that we make, the jobs we apply for, how we treat our children, it impacts everything.  It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.”  The images of the women standing in an otherwise empty gallery gazing on the sketches send a powerful message, the tagline of the whole campaign: you are more beautiful than you think.

At first viewing, my impulse was that this video rocked.  I got a little teary.  I said some affirming things to myself.

But then I watched it again, and I started asking questions.  Yes, the message is good: women should celebrate their beauty, but what is really being said about beauty in this depiction?

As blogger Jazz has said perhaps more eloquently than I can, there is a disparity in the types of woman being represented here.  Most are white – and not just white, but blonde.  Most are young.  All are thin-to-average in weight and build.  The women of color who are shown are featured less – say less and receive less screen time – than their Caucasian counterparts.  The one Asian woman represented, as Jazz points out, says nothing at all.  Beauty is, then, a young, thin, white woman.

Bitch Magazine has also picked up this issue and paraphrases it perfectly: “The hearts of conventionally beautiful women can grow a little warmer today.”  And really, isn’t that what’s being shown here?  While Florence is a bit older than the other participants, she barely tips the scales at middle aged.  She talks about her wrinkles and crow’s feet, but she’s barely got any to worry about.  All the women featured have feminine hairstyles, all wear make-up, all are dressed in casually stylish but unremarkable ensembles.  Women should consider themselves beautiful, then, but the depiction of beauty we are told should be celebrated fits within a stiff, traditional mold.

Dove, I commend you for selling us a vision of much needed self-affirmation.  I commend you for acknowledging this tendency in women and encouraging a move away from it.  I commend you for resisting the urge to sell us your skin care in a promise to enhance the beauty we already having.  As Bitch notes, there is no product schilling in this ad, and that’s nice.  But this video does sell us something.  It sells us a standard: while telling us to celebrate ourselves – we are more beautiful than we think – it sells us what beauty means, and what we should do with it.

What beauty means here, beyond an image of a thin, fair-skinned, young woman, is a physical appearance.  There is no acknowledgment of personality.  There is no discussion of inner strength or kindness or courage or wisdom.  We see chins and cheeks and eyes and hair.  We see surface.  What is revealed about these women’s thoughts is appearance-based as well: each woman is made to think, and think deeply, but her thoughts are all – every one of them – about how she looks.  Everything is about the surface.

So beauty means what someone looks like on the outside.  And knowing our surfaces meet a standard makes us feel good which, as self-affirming messages go, is bad enough already: the right kind of beauty = happiness!  Let’s look again at Florence’s conclusions: “I should be more grateful of my natural beauty.  It impacts the choices in the friends that we make, the jobs we apply for, how we treat our children, it impacts everything.  It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.”

Do I really want to live in a world where my physical appearance and how I interpret it impacts what choices I make when I seek friends?  Friends, I can tell you with certainty that neither my looks nor your looks were what drove me to desire your friendship.  Are my own looks really going to impact how I treat my children?  My wrinkles and laugh-lines, as they develop, will somehow influence the way I love?  Beauty as Dove defines it – how I look on the outside – is not, and should not, be what is most critical to my own happiness as a person.

But that’s not all.  In the final scene of the ad, one of the women’s voices tells us “We spend a lot of time, as women, analyzing and trying to fix the things that aren’t quite right, and we should spend more time appreciating the things we do like.” As she speaks, the scene changes from a reflective moment in the gallery of portraits to an outdoor setting.  Against a bright beam of sunlight, she is suddenly enfolded in the arms of – judging from what we can see of him – a young, conventionally attractive, well-dressed man.

So, it’s not just that women should celebrate their own beauty, it’s not just that the women in this video are what beauty looks like, but part of the message is also about heteronormativity.  That’s disappointing, even though it’s not strange.  But what really bothers me here is that even as we are told that women should stop worrying so much about how they perceive themselves and concentrate on more important things, we are told exactly what those more important things are.  The couple depicted here at the end of the video embrace each other, her hand grasps at the bottom of his jean jacket as they walk, and the video closes with this image of her tucked under his arm, almost disappearing against his body – providing a clear interpretation of what it is that we should “spend more time appreciating” and what it is that, at least in her case, “we do like.”

What we get here, then, is suggestive.  Beauty suddenly isn’t an idea in itself; we are shown what appreciating our own beauty does for us.  When we aren’t so worried about our fat cheeks and pokey chins and gross freckles, we can devote our time not to building our self-confidence or learning new things or celebrating our independence, but to hooking, hanging onto, and demurely all but fading into the protection and strength of a man.

Now that’s a message I want to send to my friends and my children…

In the Sky, Lord, in the Sky: Historical Guilt and Bioshock Infinite

In class, dystopian literature, games, gender, race, spoilers, technology, time travel, Uncategorized, violence on April 4, 2013 at 9:30 am

brian psi

Irrational Games’ latest opus, Bioshock Infinite, was released last week, to universal acclaim. Creative director Ken Levine has been making the kind of upscale promotional rounds usually frequented by novelists or filmmakers—rare air for someone who has just made an ultraviolent first person shooter, the most reviled (and most lucrative) subgenre of the most debased popular art form. Like other games of its type, the new Bioshock features plenty of gunplay and gruesome melee finishers; unlike other games in any genre, Infinite’s storytelling, setting and themes explore the most troubling aspects of American history, providing a fairly scathing commentary on the interplay of American exceptionalism, racism, religion and labor exploitation. What really struck me is the way that the game evokes—in its narrative and mechanics—two very different responses to historical guilt, responses which make the game’s politics both fascinating and contemporary.

WARNING: massive spoilers below, including major plot twists and ending!

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Watching without Williams

In race, sports on March 19, 2013 at 8:46 am

Serena

brian psi

It’s the Ides of March, and I’m watching tennis. Semifinals of the first big American hard court tournament of the year, and Caroline Wozniacki is about to edge Angelique Kerber to make the final. It is a close match, but not a particularly good one.  Kerber is noticeably hobbled by a back injury. Wozniacki got here because Viktoria Azarenka—one of the world’s two best players—forfeited their quarter due to an injury of her own. Both players are spraying and looping shots everywhere, seemingly content to wait for their opponent to lose. It is almost over now, which is probably the only thing preventing me from turning Tennis Channel off and catching up on Girls. I wish there was more offense on display. More fire. More Serena Williams.

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GLG Round-Up: The Oscars, Racism, Sexism, and Quvenzhané Wallis

In Oscars, race on March 2, 2013 at 1:30 pm

I will admit that I didn’t watch the Oscars as I don’t really like awards shows, I kind of really dislike Seth McFarlane, and last year’s Oscars were horrible (as were the years before). I expect the show to be simultaneously offensive and boring, but I did not expect the overt sexism and racism–and sheer disrespect even from red carpet reporters–directed at the incredibly talented and adorable (puppy purse!) star of Beasts of the Southern Wild, Quvenzhané Wallis. There’s been a lot of great (and not so great) stuff written about the Onion‘s unacceptable and racist tweet and McFarlane’s inappropriate joke about the nine-year old actress. We wanted to provide a space on GLG to showcase and highlight the conversation.

Crunk Feminist Collective’s Moya writes an awesome “Love Letter to Quvenzhané Wallis.

“He wasn’t nice. Some of the people who have interviewed you and are talking about you have been really disrespectful. You’ve done such a great job telling people how to say your name. It makes me mad that people still can’t get it. People think it’s funny to make fun of Black girls with names like ours. When I was little people would say my name wrong on purpose.”

Jessica Luther’s “On Quvenzhané Wallis,” at Shakesville, provides not only a great overview of the conversation, but also a really spot-on discussion (including the failings of white feminists this week).

She’s a young black girl in a country with a horrific history of racism and sexual exploitation of young black girls. Because – AND I CAN’T SAY THIS ENOUGH – black women’s bodies have been sexually exploited, used, disparaged FOR CENTURIES. That’s great for you if that history doesn’t mean anything to you but that doesn’t mean that history isn’t real and isn’t present now. The fact that you don’t have to engage with that history when MacFarlane or the Onion “jokes” just means you’re lucky.”

Tressi MC asks and answers (with empirical analysis) “Did White Feminists Ignore Attacks on Wallis?

“In the final analysis, the white out on Quvenzhané and The Onion is gradational. Some feminist outlets covered the issue, if only tangentially. The notable exceptions are the biggest brands and the most corporate outlets. What appears to be closest to the truth of what happened, and what feminists of color are arguing, is that white feminists ignored how race made Quvenzhané vulnerable to attack and that race muted the intensity of the response from white feminists.”

And Arturo Garcia wrote “Apparently, People Have Beef With Quvenzhané Wallis,” over at Racialicious.

The Days Are Gods: Interview with Liz Stephens

In books, environment, gender, race, Uncategorized on February 25, 2013 at 5:00 am

Sarah S.

Liz Stephens needed to get out of Los Angeles so she packed up her husband and her dogs and moved to…Wellsville, UT. She moved ostensibly for grad school but found she learned as much from diving into local history, her Mormon neighbors, the animals she raised and gave away and the ones who died, as she learned in books and classes. In her lovely, meditative memoir, The Days Are Gods, Stephens tells about white teenagers dressed up as Indians, a French kid who spends his summer on a Dude Ranch, surprise goats, and discovering how going to a non-trivially alien place helped her discover (or become or transition or whatever) into her adult self.

Stephens received her PhD in creative nonfiction from Ohio University. Her work has been featured in Brevity, South Dakota Review, Western American Literature, and Fourth Genre. She received the Western Literature Association’s Frederick Manfred Award and was a finalist for the Annie Dillard Creative Nonfiction Award. She’s equally talented at making a cup of earl grey tea and a mean mint julep. She will stop to ogle or coo over any animal in the vicinity, especially dogs. She can parallel park like a boss.

book-cover-for-sidebar

You can buy The Days Are Gods from University of Nebraska Press or from Amazon. You can also find out more about Liz Stephens and her work on her website, thedaysaregods.com. After you finish reading this interview and buy her book, be sure to read her devastating essay “Ten Years I’ll Never Get Back.”

***

SS: Okay, let’s just start out with a big one: At one point you write about the sight of a grey barn on a mountainside: “I’ve seen that movie, the one with the barn in the mountains. I’ve read that book, the one with the treacherous winter. And now I am really there.” Now that you’ve lived in Utah and returned for visits, spent 4+ years in Ohio, and returned to Los Angeles (not to mention written and re-written this book), is there an essentiality to “the West” or is it—always and forever—artifice? Or narrative? Or dream?

LS: I think the West is like a celebrity who when interviewed says, “You know, there’s me, and then there’s capital letter Brad Pitt”—or whoever—the distinction of course being that from inside one experience you know a thing, and then culturally there is this mystical entity fed by a whole culture’s desires. Cultural values I wanted to attribute to the West exclusively were demonstrably true of Ohio as well: tractor derbies are good fun, and you should keep your business at the local feed shop or they will close and you will be screwed some day in the future when you need them. Neighbors are, like fences, worth investing time in. Being a college professor living in the country is not the same as being a grounds keeper at the campus and driving in to work, and none of you are going to be able to pretend it is. It’s a wise idea, that you suggest in your own question that the West may be a narrative. It is. If you tell your life in a big epic way, those are the features you feature in your surroundings, no matter who you are or your line of work. If you keep stories small and close to the home, you value that in your narrative of your own life. You describe your region in which that life plays out accordingly. Sometimes the West is simply the line of box stores you are most familiar with, with a really long snowy season.

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Pretty Little Liars Recap, “She’s Better Now” (Season 3, Episode 14)

In 2012 election, gender, race on January 11, 2013 at 6:27 am

In “She’s Better Now,” Mona adopted a fun retro-preppy look for her return to Rosewood High, Meredith taught Civics not-so-civilly and then got exploded (probably by Mona), and Jason and Mona are Rosewood’s newest Nefarious Power Couple. In non-Mona news… practically nothing. This was an all Mona all the time episode! Just giving the people what they want, ay show.

Pretty Little Liars 3x14 She's Better Now

Why is Aria’s dad so horrible and creepy?

Sarah T: I know! He sleeps with his students, he has under-handed psycho dealings with Aria’s teenage friends, he stares insanely at his daughter while she stares intently at necklaces and then accuses her and her friends of blowing up Meredith based on nothing. (Except, granted, a history of blowing up Jenna. BUT THAT WAS A LONG TIME AGO.) The man makes Spencer’s dad look like Father of the Year.

Phoebe B: So true … By comparison, Spencer’s dad is looking amazing. Also, Emily’s dad is the BEST of all the dads by far (that security system on the house was crazy!). But Aria’s dad is freaking me out so much. That moment when he stares creepily at Aria plus him eavesdropping outside her door when she’s on the phone were SO scary and why on earth does he think the PLLs blew up Meredith. Why would he not suspect Mona, who just got back from being extra evil? And the Jenna thing was totally Ali (right?!). Also, Ali was scary in this episode … scarier than normal I thought as she blackmailed Aria’s dad.

Mona is back. What’s she got up her sleeve this time–was she behind the brain in the locker incident and/or blowing up Meredith?

Sarah T: I’m gonna guess that she was the mastermind behind both incidents. She put the brain in her own locker as part one of the Mona: Sympathy for the Devil campaign, and she blew up Meredith either because warped logic led her to believe that it would help her prove herself to the Liars or because of A team reasons, which are always mysterious.

Phoebe B: I will second you on all counts. I definitely think Mona is working in cahoots with the janitor (who is now on the A team?) and definitely running an intense Sympathy for the Devil campaign. Also, Mona walking down the hall with that knife. Amazing. And scary too. I agreed with Hanna’s grandma wholeheartedly (also, I was so glad she was back! But where was Hanna’s mom?), who said that Mona was trying way too hard. Lastly, speaking of Hanna’s grandma, do you think there was a reason she sang so much at the beginning of the race? Like was she trying to distract folks from something? Or was it just for comic value?

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GLG Weekly Round-Up

In #Kasandra Michelle Perkins, gender, race on December 7, 2012 at 10:13 am

On remembering Kassandra Michelle Perkins, from the Feminist Wire:

“Each time we say her name we remember her life and her tragic murder.  Each time we say Kasandra Michelle Perkins, we remember her 4-month old daughter who lost her mom and her dad on December 2, 2012.  Each time we say her name we push back at the privileging of celebrity-life  over her death.  Each time we say her name we are hopefully reminded of the ubiquity of domestic/partner murder.  Each time we say her name, we refuse the silence and erasure of domestic violence and intimate partner murder, particularly when the victims are women of color.  Each time we say her name we refuse the racism and sexism that obscures the humanity of those lives lost.  We challenge the discomfort that compels silence and erasure.”

Jada Pinkett Smith on Willow’s new hair, from the Feminist Griote:

” I made a promise to endow my little girl with the power to always know that her body, spirit and her mind are HER domain. Willow cut her hair because her beauty, her value, her worth is not measured by the length of her hair. It’s also a statement that claims that even little girls have the RIGHT to own themselves and should not be a slave to even their mother’s deepest insecurities, hopes and desires. Even little girls should not be a slave to the preconceived ideas of what a culture believes a little girl should be.”

Fit and Feminist tackles a crazy kickstarter campaign and body size:

“Respect is not a zero-sum game, y’all.  Recognizing the humanity of one group of people and treating them with respect and dignity does not suddenly mean we have to treat another group of people like shit.  There’s plenty of respect and dignity to go around.”

Lit mag The Destroyer let GLG’s Sarah T.  talk about Lana Del Rey, Santigold, race, and American nostalgia:

“Nostalgia lays present-day fantasies over the past like an automatic filter. It’s also a luxury available mostly to the privileged: the people who get moony-eyed about the past while ignoring its injustices tend to be the ones who have it pretty easy in the present.”

Rookie magazine hosts an honest, open, and very multifaceted roundtable on cultural appropriation:

“I’m not saying, ‘Burn all of your turbans/bindis/feathered headdresses/face paint/kimonos/etc.!’ I’m just saying learn about why, even if you don’t feel like you are oppressing someone, you may be participating in an act that has played an important part in oppressing/silencing/shaming other cultures.”

Sady Doyle questions why she uses theory in non-academic contexts and wonders who she’s writing for; Kara Jesella responds.

“As much as I would love to have a specific sort of audience, the sort of people who are just dazzlingly literate and cool and have a lot of feelings about Big Star and would dissolve into bubbling goo like the Wicked Witch of the West if Coors Light passed through their lips, I’m not sure that I write for them any more.”

AND

“to reiterate: i love theory, i have always loved theory, except for when i hate it, but, like, i can avoid zizek. and it probably hasn’t really gotten me much except a lot of debt.”

GLG Weekly Round-Up

In election, election 2012, gender, music videos, race on October 26, 2012 at 11:51 am

Nico Lang breaks down why The New Normal’s ironic racism is neither funny nor progressive in “‘Gaycism’ and The New Normal“, at The HuffPo:

“Remember hipster racism? This is that turned up to 11, like Murphy throwing a big blackface party on TV and saying its okay because it’s “ironic.” However, the biggest problem with pointing this out is that people often don’t realize that ironic racism is still just racism. And what actually makes the show’s racism so doubly troubling is that the act of being systemically oppressed should make people more aware of the ways in which they have the ability to marginalize others, because they have experienced the same thing themselves. The New Normal is even ABOUT that marginalization, specifically the discrimination Bryan and David (or “Bravid”) face for being two men who want to raise a child.”

Check out “An Open Letter to Abigail Fisher,” via Clutch Magazine.

“You are insisting that the University of Texas at Austin denied your application for undergraduate admission because they were required to fulfill a federal diversity quota, which subjected you to bias. In blaming affirmative action for that denial letter, you are disregarding your responsibility as a college applicant. It is much easier to fault affirmative action than to hold up a mirror and see that you just weren’t qualified.”

Scott Nagakagawa talks race and voting rights over at Race Files:

“I grew up in the 1960s and 70s, back when that La Choy commercial was considered about as offensive as selling water softener as an “ancient Chinese secret.” That was a much more naive time for whites. That naivete was rooted in the unquestioned dominance of whiteness. In fact, so dominant were whites that American was synonymous with Caucasian. But the racial equity movements of my childhood would soon shatter that naivete, pulling whites into a struggle to maintain their cultural dominance that made the contours and vulnerabilities of whiteness visible to whites, perhaps for the first time. Until then, being the assumed racial and cultural norm of America was fundamental to white identity and to the ethos of American exceptionalism.”

Lastly, a few fun videos from this week:

Watch Tina Fey’s excellent, rousing speech about how sick she is of “grey-faced men with $2 haircuts” telling women what to think about rape.

Check out Lena Dunham for Obama. And Slate talks about the conservative response to her video.

And if you are missing summer and “Call Me Maybe” then check out Carly Rae Jepsen’s new, perfect pop song: “Your Heart Is a Muscle.”

GLG Weekly Round-Up

In body politics, hip hop, race, social media, Weekly Round-Up on June 22, 2012 at 12:48 pm

Here are some super interesting reads from around the web this week. Enjoy!

An intriguing read on social media, viruses, and violence from A.J. Aronstein, “The Plague Years” at the New Inquiry.

Arturo Garcia provides provides coverage about Jonathan Wall’s racist and violent treatment at a North Carolina bar, on Racialicious: “Grad Student’s Story Leads To Protest Against North Carolina Bar.”

Cord Jefferson has a terrific essay exploring the capitalist underpinnings of “No Church In the Wild” and the Watch the Throne version of revolution.

The writers at XOJane are public personae. Does that mean they can (or should) write about each other? Tracie Egan Morrissey considers Cat Marnell at Jezebel.

A great piece from Dances With Fat, “Feeling Fat vs. Being Fat” in response to Daisy’s “I’m Fat and I’m Not Okay With It” piece at xoJane.

GLG Weekly Round-Up

In activism, gender, race, Weekly Round-Up on June 15, 2012 at 9:38 am

Here are some fun and interesting things the GLG folks read this week. What did you read this week? Let us know in the comments!

From the Racialicious Tumblr, debunking the Kumbaya myth.

Check out the awesome trailer for the upcoming Dear White People movie here and their Tumblr here.

What pop culture items do academics study most? Buffy? The Matrix? Find out the answer this week at Slate.

A recap of the misogynistic backlash to Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarted project about video games and misogyny, on Feminist Philosophers. And another post from Slate on this same topic.

Lastly: Going on a date this weekend? And looking for a perfume? Smell like Labyrinth! Check out Labyrinth-inspired perfumes over at Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab.

Food Network Star, Branding, and Ethnic Entrapment

In Food, race, reality TV, Television on May 16, 2012 at 8:38 am

Chelsea H.

I love the Food Network, and I watch a lot of their shows. I use their website for recipes and for inspiration, and I am hooked on many of their brands of “reality” TV. I can’t get enough of “Chopped,” I am a devoted fan of both The Next Food Network Star and The Next Iron Chef, and recently Taylor and I watched Worst Cooks in America together. In the past year or two, I have been delighted to see new types of food show up on the Food Network website (i.e. more than grilled sandwiches, Italian specialties, and Emeril’s mix of Cajun/French/Louisiana fare). I am excited to try these new styles of food: Mexican food, Indian food, even some gluten free options. Things I’ve never made before but have eaten with utter gusto in restaurants.

But then I started looking at who was making these foods, and I noticed something that bothers me: the way the network seems, in the cases of non-white and non-black chefs, to match the ethnicity of food with the ethnicity of the host preparing it. This tickled me with significance on and off, and I’d almost forgotten about it, in fact, until Melissa’s post on the problems with ANTM’s representations of racial/ethnic identity (given the approaching end of my graduate studies and impending dissertation defense, this post has been in production for a while now…). Like ANTM’s racial stereotyping, the Food Network seems to be pigeon-holing its “ethnic” stars.

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An Ideological Mess or: How I Learned to Not Stop Worrying and Still Love Rock Climbing

In class, gender, race, Rock Climbing on May 11, 2012 at 6:54 am

Guest Contributor Narinda Heng

Iíve been climbing fences, balconies, and trees for years, but it wasnít until January of 2011, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, that I went rock climbing for the first time at Malibu Creek State Park. It’s funny that instead of participating in a Day of Service, I went rock climbing. I guess that could be seen as one of the very first moments when I had to grapple with feeling a contradiction between pursuing rock climbing and the many other ideals and identities that I hold dear. And now here I am–here we are– discussing race, gender, and class in rock climbing.

And it feels good. Really good. Even though it’s uncomfortable and difficult. Because I don’t feel like I need to ignore or hide the fact that I think about and experience these contradictions, and what’s more, I’m seeing that there are so many people out there who are supportive of talking about it. And my partner, who has been climbing and dealing with this for much longer than I have, gets to heal a bit from her earlier discouragement with discussions like this in the online climbing community.

I submitted the link to Melissa Sexton’s article Ashima and Obe: Should We See Race/Class/Gender on the Rock?”  to Climbing Narc because recent discussions made me feel like there were people in the climbing community who were ready and willing to talk about it. I was also ready to see people be defensive and assert that there’s no race/gender/class on the rock, and I actually agree with that–those delicious moments of just climbing are part of why I love it. So I understand why Guidoprincess said this:

I think the reason many people, including myself, find this offensive is that we turn to climbing exactly to avoid worthless BS like this. While many other public forums are full of this ìracial landscape navigationî nonsense, climbing is a pure activity where everyone can just chill the f*ck out.

Read the rest of this entry »

GLG Weekly Round-up: Race & the Media

In activism, race, violence, Weekly Round-Up on May 4, 2012 at 10:13 am

It has been a rather quiet week on GLG (mostly because we are having an in-person GLG reunion over here in Oregon) and we shall be back in full force next week. But, in the meantime here are some links on race & the media. Have a great weekend!

From Adrienne K. of Native Appropriations:
http://nativeappropriations.blogspot.com/2012/04/johnny-depp-as-tonto-im-still-not.html

Not from this week, but a great post from Herman Gray on Flow TV on race, space, and the media:
http://flowtv.org/2012/03/gloved-hands-pressed-uniforms/

From Thea Lim at Racialicious:
http://www.racialicious.com/2012/05/02/a-historical-guide-to-hipster-racism/

Also from Racialicious, Arturo Garcia on Ashton Kutcher in brownface (WTF!):
http://www.racialicious.com/2012/05/03/half-baked-popchips-and-ashton-kutchers-brownface-fiasco/#more-22466

From the Nation, a great post on Race, Racism, and Millenials:
http://www.thenation.com/blog/167590/race-millennials-and-reverse-discrimination

Lastly and importantly: race, violence, transphobia, and activism for Cece McDonald.
http://supportcece.wordpress.com/about-2/background/

Rebound: 30 Rock’s Live Show & Why Misogyny is not Funny

In feminism, misogyny, race on April 27, 2012 at 12:10 pm

Phoebe B.

Last night, 30 Rock did a live episode as a shout-out to the pleasures and pitfalls of live TV. As a bit of a TV nerd, I was pretty pumped about this phenomenon—particularly with Amy Poehler’s guest appearance (I love you, Leslie Knope!), Troy from Community as a young Tracy Jordan (Yes!), and Kim Kardashian as, well, Kim Kardashian. But in the first segment of the show and the first flashback to NBC’s early days, 30 Rock did an entire schtick making fun of domestic violence. It seems to me that violence against women, and domestic violence more generally, is simply not funny.

The skit, supposedly a Kraft comedy hour, featured Jack and Liz as a 1950s married couple. Jack comes home from work and starts comically threatening his wife with quick one-liners. Their back-and-forth banter is made up of his threats and her rebuttals. He says that he is going to shoot her in the face and to take her outside and feed her to the dogs—the list goes on. Liz’s character naturally has a comic response to each threat: “That’ll be first time you’ve ever taken me out to dinner,” she responds. While this bit might be a riff on the Honeymooners, it highlights the misogyny of TV past and present but doesn’t really appear to critique it.

A few minutes later, Jenna invokes Roe v. Wade in order to assert her right to choose to have her marriage proposal from Paul on live TV. The joke, at least for me, fell flat in a moment where a woman’s right to choose, and her control over her body, are actually under threat. Other jokes, as Sarah pointed out last week, create humor at Liz’s expense. In the sketch about Jamie Garnett as a reporter, Brian Williams as himself and Jack as a news anchor cannot comprehend that Jamie is indeed a woman reporter. A female reporter, it appears to them, is absurd. They even suggest sending a search party for the missing male Jamie Garnett. Granted, the news was male-dominated for some time and this brand of sexism is likely not too far from the truth. However, once again it seems like Liz is the butt of the joke.

The sexism and racism in much of TV history, and in the present, are the underlying jokes in most of these sketches. But the sketches are not really overtly critical of past, or current, sexism and racism. The jokes, perhaps, aren’t over the top enough. They hit far too close to home. Indeed, they feel plausibly offensive rather than like meta-parodies about how offensive TV history actually is. Perhaps the jokes that tried to point out past misogyny and racism (Jon Hamm’s blackface, for example) needed more of a twist in order to function well as critiques. And Kenneth’s comment that present NBC is a whitewashed landscape was not funny because it’s true (at least for this viewer). I see you pointing at the misogyny and racism of television, 30 Rock, but I feel like you only reiterated it rather than questioning or challenging it.

Read the rest of this entry »

Rebound: HBO’s “Girls,” Media Madness, and Screen Shots

In advertising, HBO, race, Rebound, Television on April 18, 2012 at 10:55 pm

Phoebe B.

I have been reading Girls reviews, critiques, and commentary for the last two weeks. And I can’t remember the last time there was SO much media hype for a single show, which inevitably comes with a media backlash. There has been a lot of great commentary here, including discussions of the problem inherent to the show’s universal title (from Kristen Warner) for a show clearly about a specific demographic: white, straight, educated, and privileged young women living in New York on their parents’ dime. This critique happens to be one I wholeheartedly agree with. But, there has also been a lot of misogynistic and bad commentary. And, while I didn’t particularly love the pilot, I didn’t hate it either. It was, like many a pilot before it and I imagine many a one after it, just fine.

However, what is not fine is the backlash from the Girls writers’ room, including Dunham’s “it’s not my fault” defense of the show’s whiteness. And the show is blindingly white. The only exceptions are the former intern turned publishing house employee who wants a Luna Bar and Smart Water, who is Asian, and the crazy old man at the end, who is Black, and I’m quite sure that Hannah (Dunham) passes ONE other Black man on the sidewalk in Brooklyn (right?) early in the episode. This is weird for a show with a claim to realism. I mean, I was recently in New York and in Brooklyn and it didn’t look like the white vacuum world of Girls. But whatever. The problem, rather than this not-realistic-NYC, is that Dunham proclaims her innocence as to the exclusion of people of color from the show—odd for a show that everyone else, and she’s not correcting them, seems to think that she has complete creative control over. This presumption of innocence, as Kristen Warner notes in her post on Girls (linked above), is particular to white women. That Dunham can insist on her lack of responsibility emphasizes that she is blithely unaware of her white privilege at the same time that she mobilizes that privilege.

Then, today! Today, Lesley Arfin (one of the Girls staff writers) tweeted this:

“@lesleyarfin: What really bothered me most about Precious was that there was no representation of ME.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Gender/Play: The Problems, Promise, and Pleasures of Video Game Crossplaying (part 2)

In body politics, gender, race, technology on April 17, 2012 at 6:56 am

brian psi

Earlier, we looked at some of the problems with ‘crossplaying’ gender, or taking on an identity that is not yours in video games. Next, we will look at some of its promise.

 Play

One of the more beautiful aspects of games is that since their worlds are created from scratch, they need not follow the rules and conventions of the non-virtual world–its culture or even its physical laws. In Dragon Age 2, anyone’s Hawke, regardless of gender, can romance any of the game’s four romanceable npc’s, regardless of their gender. Specific categories of sexual identity, therefore, are not necessary in the game’s fictional universe and may not even exist within it: sexuality is in fact just the performance of sex, which can and does occur between any two willing participants. Comments made to your character about your romance(s) are mostly limited to your partner’s perceived fit based on their personality and backstory. At one point, my lady Hawke engaged in a casual three way encounter with Isabella, a female human pirate, and Zevran, an elven male assassin. Note the other npc’s reactions: bemused, but really pretty muted (video shows male Hawke, sorry!):

In terms of gameplay mechanics, male and female bodies are equal. Game developers do not code differing baseline statistics (for physical strength, or the ability to take hits, for example), so a female warrior is just as effective as a male one. Games therefore already realize the potential for a fundamental equality–and more importantly I think for us, the acceptance of equality as an idea–in ways that the nonvirtual world does not. Samus Aran is the great bounty hunter, and FemShep saves the universe. By creating worlds that espouse this vision, and allowing us to explore them and consider their implications, games are usefully utopian.

Of course, realizing this vision in ways that make for useful change in the nonvirtual world will require more and better visual and written representations, especially of female, LGBTQ and nonwhite characters. It is too early to be too optimistic, but in some very small ways, this is already happening. Recently, a couple of sports games, officially licensed properties of male professional leagues, have begun to allow the creation of female players to compete in them. These changes were driven by female fans of the sport and games, who, forced to crossplay as men, asked the companies (who had to ask the leagues) to allow for the creation of female athletes. As a result, you can now make female rinkwarriors in EA’s NHL 12  and golfers to play The Masters in their Tiger Woods PGA Tour.  Hopefully, baseball and the other sports will jump on board, too.

Performance

Gamespace, that virtual universe that can be entered and exited at will, can serve as a safe space to try on identities one is unable to in the nonvirtual world. Take this widely disseminated post from earlier this year, by blogger and Gamespot manager Kristen Wolfe. In it, she recounts an experience at her store in which a teenager buys a game and controller for his younger brother. The younger boy insists on getting a game with a female protagonist (Wolfe helps him choose 2008’s sci-fi/urban traversal title Mirror’s Edge), and a new “girl color” controller. The boy’s father is incensed, and tells his son get a zombie survival game instead. Eventually, older brother stands up to dad, explaining that it is his money and present, and that little brother can get whatever he wants. Read the rest of this entry »

Gender/Play: The Problems, Promise, and Pleasures of Video Game Crossplaying (part 1)

In body politics, gender, race, technology on April 16, 2012 at 7:59 am

brian psi

Check out Part 2 of this series here.

Preface

James Cameron’s monsterpiece Aliens opened in the US in 1986. That same year, in Japan, a playing card company re-establishing itself as a consumer electronics giant released a game for its still new Nintendo Entertainment System called Metroid. The game dropped the next year in the US, at about the same time Aliens gained a larger audience with its release on videocassette. The two are forever intertwined for me, and not just because of how much the atmosphere, music, and creatures of Metroid reminds me of Aliens (not accidentally), or the fact that they were, at the same time, my favorite movie and favorite game.

It’s mostly those characters. By now, the bad-assedness of Private Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) and Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is well documented, affirmed, and granted. But the other franchise, as successful in its own way if less mainstream-famous, also featured a resourceful, tough-as-a-railgun protagonist in bounty hunter Samus Aran. Wearing a full suit of power armor, constrained by mid-80’s 8-bit graphics, the fact that Samus is also a woman was not apparent while playing the game. This was not advertised by Nintendo, and the game’s manual used male pronouns, essentially keeping her secret from the game’s (mostly) male players. Tantalizingly, the page where Samus and ‘his’ mission is described concludes by saying Samus’ “true form is shrouded in mystery.”

Defeating Metroid took players dozens of hours, as they were required to find a number of secret weapon stashes and learn the patterns of a handful of difficult boss monsters. But those that learned the tricks and replayed the game (including myself) discovered that Samus’s pre-credits salute to the player changed based on how quickly they were able to finish. Five hours or less, and Samus removed the red space helmet, revealing for the first time that he was… she.

This was groundbreaking. Female game protagonists were largely unknown at this time, mostly relegated to quickie tie-in games designed to capitalize on various girl’s toy crazes, or occasionally feminized versions of male characters like Mrs Pac-Man (1981)—never in a AAA action title marketed on back covers of Uncanny X-Men comics. But then it happened that some players, even more skilled, got ever faster. They learned that if they defeated the game in under an hour, Samus’ armor disappeared altogether. She would stand waving back at her operator… in a pink bikini:

Samus undergoes two transformations. Before she takes off her helmet, she is mostly identity-less, intrinsically identifiable because beneath the helmet ‘he’ is mostly the player’s vague projection. Once she unmasks, this projection is shattered, and the made/male-in-one’s-own image is replaced: the confident and resourceful alien ass-kicker is actually a woman. This is surprising, and for its time, incredibly progressive: Ripley would be proud. But in the second transformation, the player’s projection is replaced with something very different: the ass-kicking heroine becomes the ass-revealing reward for player competence. (Years later, metagame rewards would come to be called achievements or trophies). The dual nature of Samus’ transformation exposes a tension that will run throughout the piece below. Specifically, that ‘crossplaying’ gender too often serves to confirm the same harmful ideologies which reduce the bodies of others to objects of desire (or, sometimes, revulsion). But it also produces potentialities: the promise of surprising, often radical re-imaginings of the ways we understand—and are bound by—concepts like gender, sexuality, and identity. Read the rest of this entry »

Weekly Round-up: Arizona & the Ban on Ethnic Studies

In activism, Education, Ethnic Studies, race, Weekly Round-Up on April 13, 2012 at 12:04 pm

The Arizona Unified School District is axing its Mexican-American studies program, thanks to the support of (and made possible by) AZ Governor Jan Brewer. The AUSD is blaming financial shortfall, but that seems to be quite the lie. The entire debacle is bad news bears, to put it mildly. So, here are a few links on the situation in the Southwest.

From Racialicious:
http://www.racialicious.com/2012/04/11/tucson-school-update-board-fires-award-winning-mexican-american-studies-director/#more-21764

From Huffignton Post:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/11/anger-reignited-over-ariz_0_n_1418876.html

From the Crunk Feminist Collective:
http://crunkfeministcollective.wordpress.com/2012/01/27/white-womens-rage-5-thoughts-on-why-jan-brewer-should-keep-her-fingers-to-herself/

From The Daily Show:
The Daily Show

To stay up-to-date on what’s going on in Arizona:
http://saveethnicstudies.org/

Mad Men’s Terrifying “Mystery Date”

In gender, Mad Men, race, Television, violence on April 12, 2012 at 8:39 am

Sarah S.

This most recent episode of Mad Men initially stumped me. It linked its many plots with a theme of sexual violence against women that, at first, seemed heavy-handed and obvious. Yet after contemplation I think it might represent one of the smartest episodes to date. Mad Men makes a lot of hay out of gender relations in the 1960s, leading to a lot of smug pearl clutching over how far we’ve come; “Mystery Date” (season 5, episode 3), however, resonates because it reveals how far we have not come in certain respects, and the way that threats of sexual violence still keep women in check.

The episode begins with Peggy’s (Elisabeth Moss) friend Joyce (Zosia Mamet) sashaying into the office with pictures of the recent nurse murders in Chicago, “unsuitable for publication.” The responses range from horrified fascination from most of the team to revolted contempt from Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s newest hire, the marketing prodigy Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman). Ginsberg, however, takes his disgust and translates it into an ad pitch for Topaz pantyhose that involves a single-shoed Cinderella running in a panic from a dark, looming castle while a stranger chases her. When he finally grabs her, he’s handsome, but it doesn’t matter because her face indicates that she wants to be caught. Topaz eats it up, and Don (Jon Hamm) is annoyed at Ginsberg for going rogue with his vision, but everybody thinks it’s a great idea for a commercial. The nurse murders remain a theme throughout the episode, coloring every interaction we see. But the linkage between the “Cinderella” commercial and the violent rape and murder of nine nurses highlights the disturbing relationship that America has to controlling women. (Note: I’m breaking this up mostly by sub-plots rather than chronologically to get at the main themes and points.)

The theme continues after Don, sick with a bad flu, runs into an ex-lover on the elevator (much to Megan’s [Jessica Paré] annoyance). He goes home sick for the day but the woman, Andrea (Mädchen Amick), shows up at his apartment. Don hustles her out but she returns and, Don being Don, they have hot sex. Afterward, Don tells her this is the last time but she sasses him back, pointing out that he’s too twisted to say no. In a rage, he throws her to ground and strangles her, finally shoving her body under the bed before passing out. We discover, of course, that he hallucinated the whole thing in his fevered state. This twist stands out as particularly heavy-handed and opaque. Are we meant to view it as a Freudian peek into Don’s psyche, the legacy of a violent father, or, rather, to contrast “bad girl/slut” Andrea against “good girl/wife” Megan and see that Don believes entirely in such dichotomies? He certainly has a history of mistreating “bad” women (i.e. every meeting of his affair with Bobbie Barrett [Melinda McGraw]) although his track record with “good” ones isn’t very impressive either. Read the rest of this entry »

GLG Weekly Round-up

In activism, race, Weekly Round-Up on April 6, 2012 at 11:28 am

This week, some important reads from around the web on Trayvon Martin and then a profile on Camila Vallejo, leader of Chile’s student protest movement, and a response to said profile.

From Ms. Magazine:
http://msmagazine.com/blog/blog/2012/04/03/from-emmett-till-to-trayvon-martin-how-black-women-turn-grief-into-action/

And, this is terrifying:
http://blogs.miaminewtimes.com/riptide/2012/04/heavily_armed_neo-nazis_patrol.php

“I am not Trayvon Martin” youtube video:
http://IamnotTrayvonMartinyoutubevideo

The New York Times profiles Camila Vallejo, the leader of Chile’s student protest movement:
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/08/magazine/camila-vallejo-the-worlds-most-glamorous-revolutionary.html

And Bitch observes the sexism embedded in said profile:
http://bitchmagazine.org/post/wtf-files-new-york-times-camila-vallejo-the-world%E2%80%99s-most-glamorous-revolutionary-sexism-feminism-media

Replay: Azealia Banks Will See You “L8R”

In gender, music videos, race, Replay on April 4, 2012 at 9:03 am

If you’re not already familiar with Azealia Banks, you will be soon. The rising hip-hop star has got it all: charisma, talent, quick wit, quick rhymes, and a killer name for her upcoming debut album, due out in September: Broke With Expensive Taste.

“But where did my new best friend Azealia come from?” you may be asking yourself at this very moment. “Yea, but from whence does this Lady of the Song arise, like Venus from her shell of ore?” asks your other friend who thinks he is Shakespeare, but he’s not. Your friend is weird but he means well and you are a treasure. So we’ll answer both of you with today’s music video pick, “L8R”  — a demo Banks released way back in 2010 to help draw record labels’ attention.

Sarah T.
First, let’s talk about this barbecue. I want to go to there! And I’m a vegetarian. I think Banks was doing something smart with the whole grilling meat = steamy = sexy but also = Banks in a position that’s traditionally occupied by men. At least in pop culture representations, it’s almost always men who are working the BBQ grill. Similarly, as a rapper, Banks is a woman working in a pretty masculinist field. In both cases, she looks completely in control and capable and also super-appealing. And like she’s having a grand old time.

I really enjoy the sense of playfulness in this video. There are so many fun little details — the guy who keeps the card on his lips while Banks is rapping after a fast-forward game of kiss’n’blow, the way she gets tossed into the pool and completely rolls with it, smiling and swimming and rapping underwater. The light-hearted visuals make for good contrast with her lyrical boasting, which includes the following claims: Read the rest of this entry »

Weekly Round-up: The Hunger Games & Race

In Hunger Games, race, violence, Weekly Round-Up on March 30, 2012 at 1:40 pm

Keeping with this week’s theme, here are some good reads from around the web on The Hunger Games and race. Enjoy and have a great weekend!

From Jezebel:
http://jezebel.com/5896688/i-see-white-people-hunger-games-and-a-brief-history-of-cultural-whitewashing

From Racialicious:
http://www.racialicious.com/2012/03/27/update-racist-hunger-games-fans-are-still-racist/

From the Awl:
http://www.theawl.com/2012/03/the-hunger-games-bloodless-sexless-and-not-very-hungry

From the New York Times:
http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2012/03/28/the-power-of-young-adult-fiction/more-nonwhite-characters-are-needed

From Nerdgasm Noire Network:
http://nerdgasmnoire.wordpress.com/2011/11/03/yes-there-are-black-people-in-your-hunger-games-the-strange-case-of-rue-cinna/

And, from Slate a really cool slideshow of the town where District 12 was shot:
http://www.slate.com/slideshows/arts/visit-hunger-games-district-12.html#slide_3

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