"The women of Bikini Kill let guitarist Billy Karren be in their feminist punk band, but only if he's willing to just "do some shit." Being a feminist dude is like that. We may ask you to "do some shit" for the band, but you don't get to be Kathleen Hannah."--@heatherurehere

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Prime of Life

I recently started rereading Simone de Beauvoir's Prime of Life, one of her series of autobiographical works. It's thoroughally enjoyable, and though it mostly reads more like a travel biography, her existentialism and feminist philosophy are infused throughout. It's wonderful to hear her talk about Sartre travelling with her almost as an afterthought, because here was a woman who simply loved to travel the world because it was a big part of learning.

It's also a rewarding book for those of us who are approaching 40 and beyond, I think, because Beauvoir used her feminism and her existentialism in the way she saw what growing older is like--the ways in which feminism informs how our roles tend to change (as well as cement themselves) as we grow older and the way in which existentialism can help one appreciate life more as one approaches death. We always choose--that's sort of the existentialist motto, and we're constantly choosing our gender roles as well, even (and especially?) as we grow older.

Beauvoir is a huge influence on my feminist thinking, though strangely not so much directly for The Second Sex. Mostly I think her view of existentialism encourages feminist thought, and not only in the ways that The Second Sex proposes (For me, the Second Sex mainly points out that one is made, not born a woman (or man!).) Her view of existentialism, as somewhat opposed to Sartre's, is that our connectivity to others is fundamental. Whereas philosophers since Descartes have proposed "I think therefore I am," Beauvoir (I'm paraphrasing, of course, and oversimplifying) says something along the lines of "I think, therefore we are." We are fundamentally connected to others existentially; we have language, we are social. And we make choices constantly which inform the choices of others and are at the same time informed by the choices of others. Yes, existence and what it means is ours to choose--we can't avoid that, under her existentialism--but that doesn't mean that the choices are wholly ours to choose. We don't choose in a vacuum; rather, we choose in a social context, among others, influenced (but not caused!) by others, and all the while influencing others along the way.

It seems to me that lots of what feminism can be sprouts from this sort of thinking: the ethics of care, antifoundationalism, theories of social knowledge, and even (though Beauvoir would argue against this) some flavors of postmodernism.
Just some preliminary thoughts. Perhaps I'll have more on Beauvoir and her life (and how it informs my own feminism) later.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Domestic Bliss

A short little post about division of household labor during The Holidays:

This year I spent a lot of time during Xmas with some friends. It strikes me today, the day after, that it was quite a relief to be in a place where the division of labor along gender lines was practically (though not completely) invisible. Everybody did some cooking, everybody did some cleaning, everybody did some taking care of the little kid.

In the past, with Xmas with The Family, there is always an uncomfortable amount of men sitting around doing little while women (and me, usually) went around doing little cleaning up tasks (though I'll have to admit that my stepdad, who loves to cook, also is very good about cleaning as he goes), or doing the dishes at the end of the meal.

This isn't an intricate examination of division of labor along gender lines--rather, it's an expression of happy-stuff when I realize that I wasn't reminded of this division incessantly this holiday, which is a relief.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Sexism (and Classism) related to - Male Violence

Violence in the United States (at least) includes commonly:

1.) Male vs. Male Violence - gang violence as well as much fighting among men that doesn't involve gangs,

2.) Suicide - particularly in high school age children involving both males and females

3.) Threatened killings of multiple individuals in high schools - such as the Columbine Tragedy

4.) Child Abuse which involves both men and women

5.) Rape and sexual abuse - most commonly Males against Females

6.) Domestic Violence - most commonly Males against Females

A. Male vs. Male violence often seems to get less attention than it otherwise might warrant. This seems to me to relate to the fact that Poorer Men are disproportionately affected by it. It is pretty rare for gang problems to relate to Middle-Class White Boys! Class issues seem most important here.

B. Suicide issues particularly in high schools are getting increasing attention because it seems to be a middle class issue which affects our children who are seemingly "normal". Class seems important here. I'd guess that more girls than boys are visibly affected, but it's not a Gender issue generally.

C. Threatened Killings in high schools is a scary and interesting issue. It is nearly always White Males directing violence at others. Often the others are more teenage Girls. The media do not focus on the "White Male" angle of things and rarely focus much on where Sexism is clearly predominant here. Sexism is clearly an issue here. Failing to look at the "White Male" part of this seems to relate to both Classism and Sexism.

D. Child Abuse issues involve both women and men. Women are the more common abusers however men probably commit more abuse in proportion to how much they do in the raising of children. This is a difficult issue to discuss in a few words.

E. Rape (Sexual Abuse) and Domestic violence are issues where Sexism seems very, very, very important. Classism seems much less important as an issue here. Wealthy women are victims of domestic violence and White Men with Power - are certainly common as abusers in a way that they'd be much less likely aggressors in Male on Male violence. Rape and Sexual abuse most commonly are acquaintances, not strangers who may be upper-middle class people.

I try to imagine such issues reversed - where Middle Class (and Working Class) Men were in need of shelters and other support services in huge numbers because of violence directed at them predominantly by Women.

Where Men - were the Victims - we'd most likely have an "epidemic" which needed an end to it. It would be "fought" and become a rare problem, because as a society we couldn't afford the losses it causes.

I think that we have a similar denial in the U.S. on the psychological effects of War - and the current War in particular - on our soldiers (both Male and Female). In the latter case we have political issues invading the picture complicating things. People might question war more if they knew the true costs it has on us. Perhaps in this case - we also have the flip side of Sexism - where the feelings of Men (there are more Male soldiers than Female soldiers) in particular are minimized.

To me Sexism and Sexism Only - allows domestic violence and rape and other sexual abuse to continue to terrorize and otherwise affect in deep ways the lives of so many (mostly) women year after year, decade after decade. We say that such violence is: "wrong", yet our actions to eradicate it do not make a dent in it in ways similar to how cigarette smoking has been dealt with as a "health epidemic".

Male on Male Sexual Violence particularly in prisons is also an important issue. Its effects are minimized perhaps in part because poorer and more marginalized men are disproportionately affected by it.

Such violence and the threat of it is an epidemic. It gets in the news and then disappears. The womens' lives go on being seriously hurt.

We may take about how Women are now earning more and more in relation to Men and similar. We are lagging in the areas of violence however.


Wednesday, November 29, 2006

New Male Pill

Years ago a partner of mine suggested that if I were as serious about not having children as I say I am (I am), and if I were as serious about feminism as I say I am (I am), then I would go ahead and get a vascectomy. I looked into it, and found that the expense at the time was more than I could afford, being without health insurance. And yet, years later, when my health insurance would cover at least part of that operation, I hesitate. Why? Likely in part because I'm acting from a place of (perceived?) male privelege. That is: I can't get pregnant.

It's more complex than that, of course, but she had a point, really. I can, of course, always wear a condom, but when in a closed relationship of some sort, both partners might not want that if there are other options. Up until now, as far as what men can do, condoms and/or vascectomy were the only options. (This is leaving out the fact that not all sex is penis-in-vagina intercourse, which is an important fact.)

It's looking more and more like men will have more options soon regarding contraception, and I just don't see how that can be a bad thing, at the outset. The newest news I've read (be sure to check out the article, if only to see the cheesy stud-taking-a-pill picture) is that there may be the possibility of a new pill which keeps a man from ejaculating, and may even be taken just hours before sex, with the effects wearing off in a way that a hormonal-based pill can't. It's interesting to me that the article at least touches on conceptions gender-based inequality when it comes to contraception:
Experts believe it could transform family planning by allowing couples to share the responsibility for contraception - a role that traditionally falls to women.

The new contraceptive is likely to appeal to women who are uneasy about the female Pill's ability to raise the risk of strokes, heart attacks and potentially-fatal blood clots.

I like the way the article puts this, actually, because it points to the fact that, in the near future, the impetus for contraception may in fact be 'more' on the man than on the woman--perhaps not as regards consequnces, but as regards who ought to be taking the pill; if men have a simple, non-hormonal based option, then it seems like the responsibility will more fall upon them, given various potential health problems regarding the sorts of contraception choices women have.

And, all-in-all, it seems to me that, when it comes to contraception, more choices is always going to be good.

(This discussion also leaves to the side the fact that it has seemed more important to come up with a safe, easy, 'comfortable' male pill than it has been to come up with something similar for women; it may be that biology may limit these possibilities somewhat, but it's likely that sexism has played a role there too.)

(Hat tip to Feministing)

Looks like Dave's intuitions were spot on, at least according to one article which quotes various doctors as being pessimistic about men wanting to use such a method of birth control:
"Whatever medication this is going to be, it's not going to influence the sperm," notes McGuire, citing the reported lack of hormones. "It's going to influence the ability of the sperm to get into the prostate to be released during ejaculation - and dry ejaculate is not preferable."

"Not a great idea," agrees Fisch. "The ejaculate coming forward is a significant part of a man's sexuality.

Although, I, too, wonder exactly how the pill may work--and, to get graphic, exactly what it would be like to orgasm without ejaculating--talk about 'the ejaculate coming forward is a significant part of a man's sexuality' cracks me up, and strikes me as one person's opinion that may not jive with the larger male population.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Relational Autonomy

False Dichotomies
Among the good discussions that we've had here (in my opinion, of course) at FA have included some interesting takes on what it means to be an individual chooser in a world full of other individual choosers, and how gender and gender inequality intersects with the concept of agency. In a discussion about what men might want to do in order to help create safer-feeling spaces for women (and others) in the world, it was remarked more than once that whomever is feeling unsafe, it is that person's choice to feel that way, or that person's choice to walk down a particular street, or that person's choice to walk down the street any way he wants, regardless of how that might or might not make others feel. Further, for some, the mere suggestion that we are not completely autonomous, rational agents seemed to imply some sort of slippery-slope argument where nobody is then responsible for anything. Eric, for instance, said:
To say that our social circumstances affect our choices to such a huge extent that we are not REALLY individual rational agents, but people limited by our social contexts that the choices are made for us, is to imply that there really isn't such a thing as choice to begin with.

I tried to point out that there was a false dichotomy at work here, between the idea that we are autonomous, atomistic rational agents and the idea that we are mere autonoma, compeltely created by our environment with only 'external' input and no input, so to speak, from the individual. But it can be a tough idea to get one's head around--if the choices we make are affected by our environment, indeed, if the very individuals that we have become isn't simply a matter of individual choice, then what happens to the notions of rights, to the notions of individual autonomy, to choice?

Feminism and the Ahistorical Self
arielladrake, another commentor, points us the way, by first also noting that the dichotomy is lame a false one, but also pointing to the way that feminists may conceptualize agency and autonomy:
Because, for most feminist theory, and phenomenological conceptions of the subject, it's not a case of 'individual rational agents' and 'choice doesn't exist' as the only two options. Because the idea of the individual rational agent in philosophy *is* predicated on this idea of an asocial, ahistorical, transcended subject. And, quite frankly, that's bollocks, because it fails to understand the reality of people. It's the people clinging to this that proclaim any criticism of this fundamental modernist flaw must mean that we are all completely determined and have no choices whatsoever.

But while I knew (and agreed with) various feminist conceptualizations of why ahistorical, atomistic selves aren't very good reflections of people in the world, I hadn't run across any theorhetical frameworks provided by feminists which would help to reconceptualize individual choosers, taking into account feminists' various critiques (except, perhaps, some understanding of the ethics of care, which seemed to me to be useful, but narrow in scope) until I ran across the notion of relational autonomy.

How Relational Autonomy Works
Relational autonomy isn't a simple concept, from what I've been able to glean so far, but we can understand it as consisting of two main conceptual arugments: First of all, 'autonomous' agents can only learn to be autonomous agents from within a social setting. Dr. Elizabeth Sperry, in her paper "Foucauldian Power, Relational Autonomy, and Resistance Through Friendship," points this out clearly and succinctly:
Relational autonomy theorists contend that autonomy is fundamentally social in nature. Far from requiring a complete independence from others, autonomy is made possible only thanks to forms of dependence and interaction with others. First, in our society potentially autonomous agents are constructed as such only through extended periods of dependency on others, usually in family settings. Indeed, insufficient or ineffective nurturing during childhood makes more difficult the attainment of autonomy in adulthood. Certainly others must provide food and shelter in order for young children to be able to attain autonomous adulthood. But young children are not merely physically dependent on others; they must be taught language, various behaviors, the rudiments of self-control, the concept of values, the resources of their culture, and the possibility of relations with others. The development of autonomy is thus not possible in the absence of social relations, including relations of dependency.

So, autonomy, if it exists at all, must develop from within social systems of interactions with others.

But that's not the only place that autonomy relies on relationships with others. The second main point of relational autonomy is that autonomy itself relies on interactions with others to provide the necessary 'raw materials' for decision making. As adults, being social is intextricably intertwined with being autonomous. Sperry explains this clearly:
Second, adult autonomy is maintained in relationships with others. It is difficult to imagine a would-be autonomous agent successfully maintaining her sense of self in the absence of all human interaction, not only because the psychological costs of absolute loneliness would be immense, but because an agent continues to work out her sense of self through social interaction. Linda Barclay notes that “our ongoing success as an autonomous agent is affected by our ability to share our ideas, our aspirations, and our beliefs in conversation with others. It is unlikely that any vision or aspiration is sustained in isolation from others.”21 We rely on others for emotional support, for intellectual interchange, and to supply the context in which many of our own projects can be pursued. Autonomous agents have various goals and desires—to publish a book, to maintain a healthy marriage, to invest wisely for retirement, and so on—which require cooperation from others. Additionally, each of us continues to alter our sense of self and our life plan in response to the input and actions of agents around us.

Finally, the self’s own concepts and values are made possible through social organization. This differs from the developmental point that we learn our culture’s language, concepts, values, and available life plans in early childhood socialization; the claim here is that these elements themselves are culturally created and sustained. The very words and meanings we use to reflect on our preferred path of individual self-development are “constituted by social practices,”22 as is the value of reflecting on our own self-development. Social practices are necessary for autonomy in that they produce its raw matter.

As Sperry goes on to explain, it isn't that we are cut off causally from others that can make us autonomous, or some innate quality that we possess, but rather it is the actual reflection on our environments that help to create autonomous beings. So, to go back to our original discussion about men and their possible responsibilities for behavior simply walking down the street in a sexist society, we might frame it this way: The men who do reflect on the fact that they live in a sexist society and make their decisions with that in mind are being more autonomous--not in the sense of being cut off from others causally, but in the sense of creating a self that makes decisions about itself taking into account others who are outside of itself--than the men who pretend that we're atomistic, that each of us is an individual chooser with no (or little) regard to the input that we recieved as we grew up, or the input we constantly recieve now as adults.

And What Does All of this Have to Do with Feminism?
To bring it back to the topic of this groupblog more explicitly, it's important to note that the entire concept of relational autonomy has as its roots the feminist criticism of the self as an ahistorical, causally atomistic sort of thing--which in part leads to a rejection of overly simplistic conceptions of self, free-will, and, as it turns out, autonomy.

[[edited out 'lame' per ariella's suggestion]]

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Street Signs and Stick Figures

I'm a bit late on this one, but apparently a community within Madrid has voted to replace street signs that currently feature traditionally male-ish, 'blocky' stick figures with some stick figures sporting skirts, ponytails and ribbons. There has already been lots of discussion about this at Feministing, Pandagon and Shakespeare's Sister.

The Stick Figure
It's claimed by some of the commentors that a stick figure is a 'genderless' sort of representation. I think this is one of those ideas that is touted as 'common sense' which doesn't really match up to the way the world is, or our daily experience in that world. First of all, there is the problem of whether we can currently see people, or representations of people, as 'genderless'. This makes me think of the automated computer-voiced announcements for incoming and outgoing trains on the BART train system here in the SF bay area. There are two distinct voices, one that I think most people would categorize as 'male' and the other as 'female'. It's hard to imagine a voice that one didn't put into one of those categories, even in the case of the voice being completely a computer generated sort of thing.

Gender and visual cues can be just as difficult to separate out, I think, though it is much more complex. One commentor says that a stick figure doesn't have a 'male' gender assignment because you don't see a swinging dick there in the picture--as if that were how one would represent a man with a stick figure. There are also women commenting who think that the stick figure isn't male or female--but I wonder how many of them would walk into a bathroom with a stick figure that was skirtless (so to speak). Men, of course, would not often walk into a room marked with a stick-figure-with-skirt...because that's not gender neutral--it indicates a women's restroom. So, I think that those who are advocating that the stick figure is gender neutral are ignoring the day-to-day workings of things.

Which is not to say that the stick figure couldn't be gender neutral. A stick figure could be a gender-neutral sort of signifier, but it doesn't happen to be, given the preponderance of men-as-norm in our conceptual reality.

One can see that it isn't gender neutral when we then try to 'genderize' the 'neutral' stick figure. If it's neutral, how do we show that it is masculine? One suggestion (and something that was done in Germany for a while, apparently) is to put a top hat on it. In a strange way, this would probably work--in what culture do women wear top hats? (Although I suppose it could be confusing in a girls-only bar.) But what else would signify it as 'male'? I think it's telling that it's much easier to 'genderize' the stick figure as female--we can add a ponytail, a skirt, long hair, or even, as one commentor suggested, boobs; that it's easier to provide the stick figure with a more explicit gender in the case of representing women shows that the man-as-norm conceptual reality is a pretty strong sort of thing. We can't as easily dress the stick figure as masculine because masculine is the default, conceptually. At least that's part of the reason why.

Skirts and Ponytails
I also think that this 'simple' act of changing the street signs points to the relative complexity of dealing with deeply-rooted sexism. Given that in our culture stick-figure representations are not gender neutral, but rather represent the male-as-default conception of representations, how do you change things? Well, if it were easy, you'd wave a magic want and have the deeply-rooted sexism go away--then perhaps you could just use some stick figures which would be gender-neutral. But, given the lack of magic wands in the world, you'd want to do practical things that may raise awareness and maybe even change some people's minds. One way to raise awareness of the male-as-default is to change the male-as-default stick figures to not-male-as-default stick figures. But this ain't easy, really. Dressing up the stick-figures reinforces traditional gender stereotypes, to some degree, and when you're trying to (in part) bring awareness that those stereotypes aren't universal traits 'found in nature' (i.e. some men have ponytails and some women don't wear skirts), you've got your job cut out for you.

I wonder if changing a sexist society necessitates doing so in a couple of stages. First, we change the signs to ponytails and skirts, and then we eventually go back to the stick figures, once we change lots of other stuff such that the stick figures are, then neutral?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Reproductive Rights

Not sure what the etiquitte for cross-posting is to be here at FA, but here's an excerpt from my own blog, detailing some of a panel on the history and future of the fight for reproductive rights that I went to last night. Not a lot of insight, but just some disucssion about how the evening affected me. It seems somehow appropriate to post at least some of it here, nonetheless.
I should say that I'm not much of an activist. One reason is probably some laziness. Activism is work, and lots of it, generally. Another reason is that I don't see myself as either a leader or a follower--I don't feel comfortable in either role--and lots of what has to happen to get things done, at least the way things are now, requires one to be one of these two things, or both, which I don't do well either. Sometimes I lament this side of my personality, the side which talks the talk but, in some ways, doesn't walk the walk.

Of course there are all sorts of ways to walk the walk. I try to walk the walk in my personal life. And I think that talking the talk (to belabour the metaphor) is walking the walk, in many cases. I think, for instance, that, while Feminist Allies hasn't caused a lot of change in the world or even changed a lot of minds, it has (so far) been a great learning experience for me, and (I daresay) for at least a few others. Theory, meet action.

Still. I'm not a marcher. Or a joiner. I don't have a dynamic personality along the lines of the personalities that I saw on the panel last night. But, as a good friend once pointed out to me, it may be enough to be thankful that there are such people, even if I never aspire to become one. I can do what I can do; I don't have to do what they do.

And there was something remarkable about sitting in the same room with these four women (plus the people in the audience), about feeling the leadership sort of emanating from all of them (albeit in various forms) as they spoke and answered questions.
The panel was pretty amazing. Elizabeth Creely from BAACORR moderated the discussion. She had quite a task, I think, and had an appropriate amount of reverence for the speakers without making the panel too formal for those of us listening to identify with both the speakers and the ideas they were examining. The first speaker was Patricia Maginnis, who was part of the "Army of Three" in the fifties and sixties--women who not only helped other women find ways to get safe abortions, but violated federal law (and placed themselves in danger) in order to do so. It was amazing and insightful to hear what she had to say about her own beginnings and the beginning of the reproductive rights movement in California. Plus, it's always nice to hear somebody bash the Catholic church in appropriately delightful ways. The thing that struck me most about Patricia was the strength of her anger toward people who think that they can limit reproductive freedom in the various ways that they have, and continue to do. Her anger was unbridled, sincere, and somehow not righteous in the negative sense; plain inspiring, really.

Next up was Ruth Mahaney, who has done great work for reproductive rights in Indiana (among other places). She had a lot of great things to say about how it is that things can get started, with a group of women sitting in a room together talking about (say) abortion; how the connections can form and a movement can build simply from doing one of the things the religious right has tried to shame women (and us all) into not doing--talking about abortion. Ruth had a practical-ness about her that made me think that, if I ever were going to become more of an activist/leader, her example would be what I modeled my own activism on. While she was an eloquent speaker, the doing of things seemed to be part of everything she talked about.

Finally we got to hear from Norma Gallegos from Radical Women. Norma was recently doing work trying to keep abortion available for women in Jackson, Mississippi. She was, frankly, the most inspiring to me. She kept returning to the ways that reproductive rights intersect our other civil rights, and reiterating that loss of reproductive rights are tied to losses of other civil rights. She also kept pointing out the intersectionality of feminist thought--that these issues aren't just issues around abortion and repreoductive rights; they are issues of race and class and gender, too, and should be addressed as such.

I think this may be key to developing a culture in which reproductive rights are respected; once people begin to see the connections, it seems like it will be more difficult to not advocate for reproductive rights--unless one is also willing to give up other civil rights. Norma seemed to have taken on the 'larger picture' part of all of this head-on, which I don't think is easy to do. When you're aware that your struggle isn't just against right-wing nutjobs but also the very centers of our current economic and political systems (i.e. capitalism), it could be daunting. She seemed decidedly not daunted.

Years ago, when talking to an organizer at SFSU regarding the teacher's union, I found myself trying to point out that I wasn't so sure that actual, physical meetings between people were necessary for political movements. Technology, technology, technology was my cry. Email lists. Bulliten boards. That was a way to connect with more people, more easily. But I now see that it's a false dichotomy. Sitting in a room with people who are activists (or proto-activists) is galvanizing. There's something about our social-ness that kicks in; it's motivating in a way that reading any number of feminist political blogs just can't be; there's a place for all of it, of course, but I was reminded last night that sitting in a room with people is likely a necessary component of causing political change.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


Please go out and vote today (that is if you haven't done the absentee ballot thing, which I highly recommend!). And if you're a CA voter, remember to vote no on prop 85.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

I Reinforce Gender-Roles

Though all these abstract discussion are fascinating, I'm attempting to Jeff's wish that we continue to discuss what feminists can actually do to help. Time for another personal anecdote:

I speak Japanese. Not fluently, but well. And I have taught Japanese in a variety of formats and contexts--most lately an actual classroom course. And in those classes, I have consciously, knowingly, treated boys and girls differently. And it is beginning to bother me.

You see, Japanese speech contains, on the whole, a lot more information about the status of the speaker and the addressee than English. There are actually separate conjugations--different tenses, in essence, of verbs--for formal and informal situations. There are at least a half dozen words meaning "I". There is the generic "I", the youthful masculine "I", the reserved and ladylike "I", the girly-exuberant "I", the course and macho "I". Simply by choosing a pronoun with which to refer to oneself, one chooses a station in life.

There are, as in any language, many subtly different ways to say the same thing, some more certain, some more hesitant, some more aggressive, some more passive, some more direct and some more circuitous. There are tiny little sounds that attach to the end of a sentence; some make a statement an affirmative declaration, others, a request for confirmation.

Japanese-speaking men and women speak, in effect, different dialects of the same language; there are many words reserved exclusively for female use, and some for male. (There are more for females; as in all cultures, one has to work harder to be feminine, while masculinity is the default) The same goes for certain sentence structures.

It should come as no surprise that female Japanese is more hesitant, more flattering, more deferential,and more self-deprecating than male Japanese.

What can I do about it? A major goal of my teaching is to help students not only be able to understand and communicate ideas--many already grasp vocabulary and syntax from self-taught textbook sessions or copious anime fandom-- but to help them be culturally fluent in Japanese--to convey not only the appropriate facts, but the appropriate feelings, and the appropriate mannerisms. I strive to teach my students to speak Japanese as a Japanese person would speak it.

I teach my students to speak in a gender-appropriate. I have even, on occasion, "corrected" my female students by suggesting ways in which their speech could be made more feminine. I would never, as a general rule, tell my female friends they need to be more "ladylike' but as a language teacher I have done so without even thinking about it.

I do explain what I am doing and why, and allow students to speak as they chose. But I definitely encourage students to conform to gender roles. I have reasons for doing this-- knowing how is, to my mind, part of learning the language "correctly", is a necessity for fluency is you define fluency as "speaks in a fashion not distinguishable from a native speaker"

This all seems to make sense to me, and yet when I apply the same logic to domestic affairs, the result is repulsive. The ideal solution, I suppose, would be to teach both ways of speaking and encourage students to choose carefully, and as much as I can , I do. But class time is limited, and students remember what I make them practice; for the students who are not motivated enough to study gender issues on their own, I am forced to make the choice for them. Making my students speak submissively seems like a great injustice.

On the other hand, teaching my female students to speak in a way that will mark them some combination of outlandish, rebellious, and ridiculous if they visit Japan isn't a great choice either.


Friday, November 03, 2006

Agency and Feminist Philosophy

Burden of Proof Tennis
I've been struggling a bit with this groupblog lately. It seems that a lot of what we do is spend time defending the very notion of what we're doing. Rather than exploring what men can do as feminists, we seem to tend to be asking the question and then spending a lot of time defending the very fact that we think these are good questions to be asking.

Not that we shouldn't have to defend our ideas, mind you. It's just that it seems that the burden of proof is always placed on us. I think the problem of on whom the burden of proof is placed is a difficult problem--when Geo talks about how girls play and how boys play, is it up to him to justify his assertions in a way other than anectdotally, or is it up to, say, Eric to justify his opposition to those ideas? Probably a combination of the two, of course, but still, 'burden of proof tennis,' where we bandy back and forth with "prove it!" doens't seem to be very desirable.

Theory, Anyone?
That said, I think this is where discussion of theory can often be helpful. Being a person who almost has an MA in philosophy (but doens't!), I am suspicious of theory-without-practice, and sometimes suspicious of theory in general, especially when it uses obfuscating technical language. But I think that there is a place for theory, and I think conceptual discussions are at bottom one of the ways that we understand how we understand the world. And, of course, 'the world' includes all of the things that we might want to understand better as men who support feminism.

For example, I wonder if a discussion of feminist conceptions of agency might shed some light on where I'm coming from in the discussion (or debate, depending on your point of view!) on the moral implications of simply walking down the street in a society where sexism exists in spades. I think that the place that a lot of people come to that discussion from is informed by conceptions of the 'rational agent'. This conception, whether one recognizes this explicitly or not, comes handed down from a long tradition. From the Standord Online Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Two views of the self have been prominent in contemporary Anglo-American moral and political philosophy — a Kantian ethical subject and homo economicus. Both of these conceptions see the individual as a free and rational chooser and actor — an autonomous agent. Nevertheless, they differ in their emphasis. The Kantian ethical subject uses reason to transcend cultural norms and to discover absolute moral truth, whereas homo economicus uses reason to rank desires in a coherent order and to figure out how to maximize desire satisfaction. Whether the self is identified with pure abstract reason or with the instrumental rationality of the marketplace, though, these conceptions of the self isolate the individual from personal relationships and larger social forces. For the Kantian ethical subject, emotional bonds and social conventions imperil objectivity and undermine commitment to duty. For homo economicus, it makes no difference what social forces shape one's desires provided they do not result from coercion or fraud, and one's ties to other people are to be factored into one's calculations and planning along with the rest of one's desires.

This is, basically, the subject that Eric and Malachi are invoking, I think, and the subject that a lot of us seem to have in mind when discussing morality. This subject supports the notion of the individual as importantly separate from whatever social forces help to shape him or her. This subject makes choices in various contexts, but the choices are always completely and utterly their own--the context affects them, but that (somehow, magically, in my mind) isn't seen as affecting their choices, except in ways that they also choose.

Lots of verisons of feminism take issue with this sort of conception of self and agency:
Feminist philosophers have charged that these views are, at best, incomplete and, at worst, fundamentally misleading. Many feminist critiques take the question of who provides the paradigm for these conceptions as their point of departure. Who models this free, rational self? Although represented as genderless, sexless, raceless, ageless, and classless, feminists argue that the Kantian ethical subject and homo economicus mask a white, healthy, youthfully middle-aged, middleclass, heterosexual MAN. He is pictured in two principle roles — as an impartial judge or legislator reflecting on principles and deliberating about policies and as a self-interested bargainer and contractor wheeling and dealing in the marketplace. It is no accident that politics and commerce are both domains from which women have historically been excluded. It is no accident either that the philosophers who originated these views of the self typically endorsed this exclusion. Deeming women emotional and unprincipled, these thinkers advocated confining women to the domestic sphere where their vices could be neutralized, even transformed into virtues, in the role of submissive wife and nurturant mother.

While this theorhetical analysis of the self and agency isn't exactly the discussion that we were having about walking down the street, I think it informs the discussion in a huge way. I think it is no accident, for instance, that it was suggested that it is irrational for women to feel threatened while walking down the street. And this word is used without a mind to all the baggage that comes along with it, as if it were an untterly objective claim, as if there's nothing more to be said after you point out that somebody is being irrational.

I think part of what is going on in the discussion is that I have a different conception of how agency works than the traditional Adam Smith-ish/Kantian model; I have a feminist conception of agency. In coming posts I will try to sketch out that conception in more detail.

If anybody is still reading, what do y'all think about the idea of including more in depth conceptual analysis, more theory, here at Feminist Allies?

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Pandagon Response I posted

We men are going to have to do an incredible amount of work with other men and boys to bring about substantive change. Probably we are going to need to do it out of self-interest as killing, injuring and intimidating other males (and being killed, injured and intimidated by other males) is more likely to be important to us than “helping women” (not that this is right!).

At the same time we find it very hard to work together towards substantive change! One need only look at small girls and small boys to see the beginnings of what I see as a core part of the problem. Group play among girls is much more cooperative and consensual than among boys.

As men we “bond” with other men talking of sports and women. Homophobia (including among Gay/Bi Men) and Classism both add to our difficulties working together. Though we spend time with other men, we don’t really talk and share in the ways that many women do with each other.

We have a peculiar sort of: “Attention Deficit Disorder” where we see Our Present Reality as the world around us. AIDS wasn’t an issue for the Het men of my generation (I’m 55) because we “weren’t getting it”). Fathering issues aren’t our issue until we become fathers (and then we are overwhelmed with our responsibilities and have little time to work to change things).

In the end we will need to work from self-interest to change our worlds around us. None of this is meant to minimize the incredible work that women do and have done!!! Feminism teaches us a lot!

Patriarchy and Classism will hopefully help motivate more men to do more! At the present time we are a teeny tiny fraction of men. Until we become a significant minority of men it will be hard for many efforts of Feminists to succeed in many, many areas.

I try to imagine a world where Domestic Violence and Rape were killing and maiming mostly Men and wonder if it would be tolerated? At the same time, how can we kill and injure each other as we do currently? Obviously, poorer Men and Men of Color in particular are disproportionately those who are hurt and killed.


Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Carnival of Feminists

The 25th Carnival of Feminists is up at Philobiblon.

Feminism Contextualized

As often happens in the ol' world of blogs, response to a comment or to comments often turns into a bit of a lengthy comment itself, which one may then turn into a post. I like that this happens--I think that in some ways it means that a conversation may be happening, which, for me, is one of the main goals of this groupblog.

Roots and Continuums
In the comments on my post about responsibility, context, and the feminism of walking down the street, it became apparent that my flavor of feminism, that the way to which I came to feminism, informed my view there in ways that may be important to point out. I may have mentioned this before, but I came to feminist theory from philosophy. (I came to feminism from various places, but the theory part of it showed itself first to me in philosophy classes.) Feminist theory that is rooted in philosophy has as one facet a strong thread of anti-essentialism and dichotomy-busting. That is, the notion that there is an 'essential nature' of women that is different from the 'essential nature' of men is strongly contested--and in the philosophic feminist stuff I tend to like, that part of a larger argument against essentialism in general. And along with the anti-essentialism comes the bursting of a lot of the bubbles of dichotomies--man/woman, strong/weak, mind/body, etc.: All of these have been called into question by feminists like Simone de Beauvoir and bell hooks, to name just a couple off the top of my head.

And for me, what often replaces the dichotomies are continuums. So, instead of being either wholly determined or completely of free will (to take a philosophic example), there is a continuum of free will and determinism, and we may find ourselves at various points along that continuum at various times. Similarly, regarding being held responsible for how our actions might affect others, even when walking down the street, we may be held more or less responsible (rather than either completely responsible or not responsible at all).

I think continuums reflect the complexities of reality, and, to be less grandiose, of day-to-day life, better than dichotomies. And this is informed by, and further informs, my preferred flavors of feminism.

Now, on to the responses proper to Eric's comments.

Continuum of Responsibility
I appreciate your comments, but we're still missing each others' points, I think, so I'm going to take a slightly different tach, and use the concept of a continuum of responsibility to discuss your further points. The notion of a continuum of responsibility is given as a contrast to the notion that we can always make hard and fast judgments regarding responsibility, along the lines of "I am completely responsible for X" or "I am compltely not responsible for Y". I think it's helpful to think of those two statements as limiting cases which never completely hold for beings that interact with other beings. So, now on to your points, given that conception. I'm not going to make an argument for this position here--I think it's a conception that comes from a good deal of what I've said so far and, hopefully, will get fleshed out more in my responses to you.

Shin Kicking
"However, there is a different between suffering for my actions. I kick someone in the shins and they feel pain, and interpreting my actions to be something they are obviously not like walking down the street minding my own business and saying nothing, or doing nothing to you."

Yes, there is a difference, but it's not that shin-kicking implies ultimate responsibility (though it implies a lot) and walking down the street minding your own business (and that will mean different things, depending on who you are and what street you're walking down--my point about context) implies no responsibility at all. I think that it's easier to ascribe responibility to the shin-kicker than to the 'neutral' walker-down-the-street, of course, but both are to be held responsible to some degree for their actions. So, while there is a difference between the two, it is a difference in degree, not of kind. Take the guy who is 'neutrally' walking down the street, except that every once in a while, he will pretend to kick somebody in the shins, to make them flinch. We would hold him responsible for that. Then there's the guy who walks just a little too close to you, so you have to veer off a bit. We'd hold him responsible for that. I'm claiming that, as we go down the line, there can be multiple facets of responsibility, and that it's not cut and dried. And, to return to the example from the previous post, I think that even somebody who thinks they are being 'completely neutral' ought to be held responsible for his (or her!) actions, expecially given the context of a society that is sexist toward women, a society that contributes toward violence against women in myriad ways--given that context, I think men don't have the option of walking down the street in an absolutely 'neutral' way.

"If that causes you or anyone to "suffer", then the responsibility is no longer with me. That's like saying I am responsible for a Schizophrenic walking down the street alongside me and screaming out loud that, "I am the evil monster from the Abyss and I want to hurt him or her!" When we look at it from this angle, we see quite clearly I have no resposibility for that interpretation. There is no innate value in my actions that should cause them to react like this. In fact, the entire interpretation may rest completely with the person's mental illness. They may point to the next person that walks by them and deride them the same way."

You don't have a lot of responsibility for this person, in this example--but I'd still say you have some. You may be able to choose, for instance, to ignore him or stare him down; you may choose to cross the street after hearing him berate somebody else. Sure, you aren't the sole cause of his laments, but you are a cause, and inasmuch as you might be able to lessen his struggle without causing yourself too much pain (i.e., crossing the street), I think you have a responsibility to. That you're not the main cause of his laments doesn't mean you're not contributing to them, or that you might be able to contribute less to them.

(Oh, and...probably not the best analogy, by the way, because you're (inadventantly, I'm guessing) comparing women who are feeling cautious about men walking down the street to schizophrenics. I know that wasn't your point, but it sort of came off that way to me.)

Actions "In Themselves"
"Because there a difference between "actions done to a person" and "actions that are in and of myself ". So I guess I don't care how people feel, react, or care about my actions in themselves. My concern and my responsibility begins when the action is directed towards someone, and not at a concrete inanimate sidewalk that my feet happen to be pounding against with each step that someone might interpret at happening towards them."

This is exactly the way of thinking that some flavors of feminism want to rail against--while there may be a difference in intent regarding any action, that doesn't mean that some actions are (wholly) either 'done to a person' or 'in and of myself'. That is a false dichotomy. In this world, we are surrounded by others (usually and often). Whether we intend to affect them or not, we affect them. So, there are few (if any) actions which don't effect anybody but oneself. From my point of view, my responsibility begins by simply being a social animal, not when I intend to affect others. I think this is the nature of our social reality. To be clear, that doesn't mean that I am ultimately and absolutely responsible for anybody else's reactions to my actions--they, too, live within a social world where their actions fall along the continuum of responsiblity, and as such they have some responsibility for their reactions to the actions of others. But that others have some say in how they react to me doesn't mean that I have no responsibility for how I act in the world--for how I might affect them, intentionally or unintentionally.

There's much more to respond to in Eric's comments, but I'm going to leave it at this for now, as the post is getting pretty long, and I have a responsibility to our readership (and to my fingers) to keep things bloggish and readable. :)

Monday, October 23, 2006

I'm very busy

... with college applications.

Thus, the lack of blogging,

Sincerest apologies.

Monday, October 09, 2006

On Victims and Victimizers

Cross-posted to my blog

There is a discussion in the comment thread on a recent Feminist Allies post about discussion of men as victimizers (in violent situations) without acknowledging that men are victims too, Daran makes the point that there is a lot of talk of men-as-victims with an addendum of "but they're men, so they're also perpetrators," with the implication that male victims of violence are somehow less harmed than female victims because of the latter group's lower tendency for violence. I don't know that this argument is especially common, but I have seen it made, or at least implied. Building a dichotomy of aggressors-vs-victims suffers from a glaring flaw: in fact only a very small proportion of the whole population of our societies is made up of people who are only perpetrators of injustice, or only victims, or neither: a patriarchical society maintains state because both women and men support and perpetuate it.

There have been discussions in various feminist spaces of "patriarchy hurts men too," but this is a difficult subject to deal with seriously because it is so often used by MRAs, rape apologists and other distasteful characters to justify the status quo, attack people trying to address real wrongs, or undermine female victims of violence, especially sexual assault and rape. Still, there is a lot of good argument to be made in "PHMT" discussions, such as the idea that part of the reason there is so much violence around is that violence is built into the societal male ideal, and that gender roles are set up such that much of this violence is directed at other males. So I want to make clear before going any further that in discussing male victims of male-perpetrated violence and the harm that patriarchy does to men I do not aim to belittle female victims or imply that the fact that men are harmed somehow reduces the harm done to women. If anything I say comes across that way, please point it out to me.

Promotion of Aggressiveness and Violence

Boys are encouraged to be violent in the games and sports they play. Television shows and movies geared toward boys almost invariably involve violent conflict, and violence and aggressiveness is exalted in myriad other ways. Throughout adolescence boys are taught in various ways, explicitly or subtly, that they can use violence and aggressiveness to advance themselves. The way to win in various games and sports is to be the most aggressive, the strongest, and so on. Likewise, the way to get ahead in one's career is often deemed to be through aggressiveness and dominance. This has been going on for as long as society can remember*, so that it has become normal for conflict resolution to be aggressive. If someone wants someone else's resources, violence is probably one of the first options they think of (whether they'd seriously consider it or not).

Gender Roles and Aggressiveness

So we have a society that promotes aggressiveness and violence in men, while promoting submissiveness in women. This is supposed to get conforming men into positions of prominence, while making conforming women attractive as wives. Thus men are set up as the ones who accomplish things and who occupy the important positions in society, while women are a sort of support class. This is related to what people refer to as "andronormativity": the tendency to act as though men are the ones who make up society, while women are "alsos," in the sense that "there are also women." Women, in this view, are a peripheral class**. So when women are in the workforce or otherwise taking part in society and "doing man stuff" they are expected to act in the same dominating and aggressive ways as men, since this is seen as the expected behaviour of those in positions of importance.

Gender Roles and Violence

Since society says that aggressiveness is a good way of dealing with resource attainment and conflict resolution, it is not surprising that violence is directed both at men and women. There are some differences between inter-gender violence and intra-gender violence, but overall they are very similar, especially in their cause: promotion of aggressiveness and violence as an effective tool to further one's goals. This is a direct product of the patriarchical societies that exist today. That aggressiveness and violence are not only encouraged against women but also against men is not in spite of patriarchy but because of it.

Just as gender roles are often harmful to a man when he is expected to live up to some difficult or distasteful ideal, so are they harmful when another man takes his gender roles too much to heart and attacks those he deems susceptible to or worthy of exploitation. Part of those gender roles is "take what you want." This leads to sexual violence when "what you want" is sex or sexual dominance, and it leads to street crime when "what you want" is drugs, money, or whatever else. So why are men not the only perpetrators of "take what you want" crimes? Because that attitude is more than just a part of a gender role: it's part of what one does to get to a position of prominence, regardless of gender. It just so happens that getting to a position of prominence is also part of a gender role: that is traditionally something that men do, not women. A female mugger is as much of a breach of gender lines as a female CEO, after all.

Victim Gender

So when a man is mugged, whoever is mugging him is doing so because they see it as acceptable to dominate another person in order to get what they want. Sometimes the motivation is dominance itself: there are people who attack strangers simply for the fun of attacking them. The same patterns are seen in situations where women are attacked: either the attacker wants to get something tangible from the victim (possessions or sex) or they want to exert dominance over her. All these forms of violence stem from the same philosophy: "To get ahead, you must be aggressive; take what you want, when you can." and this philosophy is entrenched in and intrinsic to patriarchy and any other system that encourages the exertion of power over those who have less of it.

* It is true that other animals, including primates, use violence to get what they want, and there is surely some of that in what we (as a species) do. But it is also true that we actively encourage violent behaviour, especially in boys, above and beyond any biological inclination we might have. So as a species that continually works toward suppressing and changing its instinctual programming, it seems quite a stretch to blame biology alone for our violence.

** The same thing is seen in studies of race, sexuality and other fields: issues are examined as though dominant class X is the default, while other classes are variants or deviancies.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

No Neutral Ground and The Blindspots of Privilege

In some recent comments, PaleCast once again does us all a favor by giving us some stuff to chew on -- I find the amount of stuff that PaleCast says that I want to give some thought about to be pretty amazing, given that we disagree a good deal of the time (it's tough to find people who disagree intelligently and in a way that makes it fun and interesting to continue discussions).

PaleCast's comment was directed at a post that revolved around possible obligations of men toward women in sort of day-to-day walking down the street contexts, but I want to crib something he said and use it to make a larger point, because I think that PaleCast inadvertantly commits something of an error that we are all liable to commit from time to time: Imagining that there is a 'neutral' way of being, as regards gender inequalities (or race inequalities, or inequalities around sexuality, etc.).

PaleCast frames the debate about what men might be obligated to do day-to-day in this way:
It's not that simple. As I said in my previous post, I see at least three options:

1. Actively hurting the woman, or trying to scare her (wrong, obviously!)
2. Going about your business and ignoring her (neutral)
3. Doing something deliberate to appear more non-threatening (good)

Hence, I disagree with your dichotomy of "intimidate" vs. "respect." Intimidating, bullying, or picking on someone implies intent. If the man ignores the woman and goes about his business, he isn't doing anything wrong, and any feelings of fear she has are 100% her problem.

What I first notice here is that PaleCast does explicitly acknowledge that there may be more options than these three (i.e. "at least three options"). So, even if we take his framework to be something workable, we might allow that there are all sorts of gray areas between the three possible ways of being, and that we probably move between them all depending on the contexts.

But I think the basic framework as it stands is flawed -- and I think that people may want to frame things this way because (in part) they are blinded by their privilege. The problem isn't just with #2, as my post title might imply. I'll get to 'being neutral' in a second.

Regarding intentionally causing harm through intimidation, or intentionally causing good things through being non-threatening: I can, of course, decide to try to be more or less intimidating, and I will have varying degrees of success, depending on the context. That is, if I decide to be more intimidating but I have just been put in a maximum security prison, I'm not likely to be able to pull it off much, but if I decide to be more intimidating and I'm walking into a kindergarten class, there's more of a chance I'll be able to carry out my intention. I think that the context plays at least as important a role in the case of one trying to be intimidating or trying to not be intimidating as does one's intentions. Context counts. Intentions counts. But they alwasy both count for something.

Going About Your Business
I think the idea that as we 'go about our business' day-to-day we are affecting others in both intentioned and unintentioned ways can be sort of intimidating--at least for me. If you think about it too much or too often, it can feel sort of overwhelming. On the other hand, you might also develop an overwrought sense of your importance in the world--thinking that you have some influence on that woman you're walking behind might, if you're not careful, lead you to think that you have more influence on her than she has on herself or some such. One trick is, of course, to recognize both that you do have influence just by walking down the street, even if you believe you're acting 'neutrally', while at the same time recognizing that your influence isn't absolute any more than anyone else's.

Getting back to the importance of context--I think it applies just as much in the case of when one thinks one is acting neutrally as it does when one has other intentions. The fact that context is so important, combined with the notion that intent is also important, pretty much does away with the idea that one can be neutral, even doing something so seemingly innocuous as walking down the street. When you make your way through the world, you are, first of all, making your way through a world of other people; you are also in a world that affects you through various means--including, for instance, structured gender roles. And those structures are important. They're just as important (if perhaps not as obvious) as the structures I would face if I were put in a maximum security prison--to act neutrally there means something different than acting neutrally in a kindergarten class, which means something different from acting neutrally walking down the street (and it depends on which street! what time of day! who's walking around you!).

Going out on a limb here--I think that women understand the impossibility of neutrality in the world better than men sometimes might, and I think that is in part because of the experience of privilege that men have. Men can more easily think that they can walk neutrally through the world, while women have a better hold on the reality of the situation, because they have more often been the recipients of the negative consequences of the fact that 'netural' is a context-specific concept (in some places at some times, for instance, the 'neutral' position on adultery is that women can be stoned for it, just as a horrific example).

Friday, October 06, 2006

Foley - and Related Issues

I find the entire Foley "Scandal" bizarre and a good example of how crazy sexual/gender politics are. While the "Scandal" may benefit my political interests, it's not "good" in of itself.

Here we apparently have a closeted Republican - who par for the course, champions right-wing values outwardly to keep his position including being a supposed "champion" for children and homophobe - so hypocritical - yes.

Now he's tarred and feathered, but the issues of abusing children and abuse in general will in the end get little attention.

When will we as a society treat:

a. The abuse of children, particularly by men - focussed upon men
b. The rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment perpetrated by men as well as:
c. Domestic Violence perpetrated by men as

"normal" behavior that is not acceptable in a similar way to how homophobes make clear how to them gay/lesbians aren't "ok" as people.

The Normal Behavior is that we have Gays, Lesbians, Transgendered persons among us and they are "normal". Foley should have been "ok" as a Gay Man, with consent adult male partners (similar to his apparent primary partner in Florida).

None of this means that Men are bad people. What is "bad" is that we don't deal with the societal problems we have and really try to work seriously to end them. We are lost in the moment in "scandal". Similar statements could be made related to Racism as well. The two aren't opposed to each other!



Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Of Race and Gender - A Slightly Different Perspective

I'm 55 years old. I'm White, Jewish, from an upper-middle class background. My partner is 43, Black, having grown up Christian and converted to Judiasm many years ago, also upper-middle class in background. Over the 4 1/2 years we've been together I've slowly learned a little of what being Black is to my partner and how different her life experiences are in some ways.

She isn't "every Black person" which is important, while being Black is extremely important to her.

For B - being Black - is almost always more important to her than being female. White People see her Blackness and respond to it much more than her being Female. She sees significant differences in White and Black Feminist (Women). Separatism seems much less prevalent to B. Having a child-free world is much less likely, though one may personally not have children.

(There is an Afro-Centric upper-middle class world which B doesn't identify with. IF she did, she'd not be with me - a White Man.)

Often there is a feeling that as a Black Person she doesn't want to identify as different from other Black people. Men and Children are important. When seeing another Black Person in a predominantly White environment usually both people will acknowledge the other Black Person's presence. This is, of course, "foreign" to me in a sense, though I can understand a part of it.

Translating and "passing" are also important. Having a "responsibility" to be "normal" among White people and in a sense being responsible for their feelings when together is a burden I don't face. Translating is a Survival Skill. I have no survival skills.

I will never (emotionally) understand the importance of hair in the life of B and many Black women. Natural hair vs. extenders, straight verses kinky hair and many other issues are foreign to my life experiences. Perhaps my numbers aren't exactly right, but I think that roughly 13% of USians are Black and they spend approximately 70% of the total monies spent on hair products.

For B there are issues being around certain "White" environments while it is far less important in other circumstances. Where she feels "power" issues or snobbery it is significant.

Having two bi-racial sons is very important to B. Her sons face potential pressures that she won't face being Female. (Other pressures she has felt being female of course). Her sons aren't "Ghetto" and will be trampled in some predominantly Black environments while facing issues of not being White. Fortunately their worlds are frequently very diverse!

In understanding or trying to understand it is important to recognize how rude treatment or being ignored can sometimes be seen as blatant racism, however frequently situations are far more ambiguous. Is the other person having a bad day or seeing a White Friend and reacting to their friend rather than to Race, Gender, body size or being assertive.

I'm only a "beginner" where it comes to understanding racism in many ways. I remember my 19 year old son asking me questions related to B's Blackness - and "how Black people are" when he first met her. Life isn't so simple! We each are individuals.

I hope that some of this is Helpful! Thanks!

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Feminist Fiction

What is feminist fiction? Before I even begin, I recognize that this could mean two things: in essence, overt and covert feminist fiction.

"Overt" feminist fiction would be fiction of which feminism is a primary theme. Stories by and about women challenging and overcoming gender roles, and the discrimination they face. Tamora Pierce, or Mercedes Lackey, in fantasy, for instance.

My stories aren't like that. My two biggest projects were conceived before I identified feminist, and they're full of other themes and characters. There is, in some sense, not "room", I sometimes feel, to address injustices suffered by women when I'm busy telling an epic of kings and thrones, dragons and magic swords. And yet that in itself is the height of male privilege--assuming that only male experience is important enough to grace my pages.

And so, it seems to me: shouldn't a feminist writer--a writer who believes that men and women are equal, that gender roles are oppressive, and so on--shouldn't such a writer write fiction that is in some way informed by that sensibility? Presumably, a feminist writer should NOT imply that traditional gender roles are a good thing. A feminist writer should NOT lazily exploit negative stereotypes of women.

And yet, in trying to formulate the requirements of feminist-acceptable writing, I found myself in a quagmire. Because the demands of story, of fantasy, and of reality so often conflict.

Stories about kick-ass female heroes are clearly feminist. Does that make stories that are NOT about kick-ass female heroes anti-feminist? Obviously not. What if the story features kick-ass male heroes, but no female heroes? Maybe it *is* anti-feminist. What if the shortage of female heroes is caused by an oppressive society? Feminist? What if the author fails to make this point explicitly? Anti-feminist?

How about relationship dynamics? Is a story anti-feminist because it depicts unequal relationships? Clearly not. What if it depicts them favorably? What if the (male) main character has an unequal relationship? Has unchecked male privilege? Aren't characters supposed to be true to life? And yet, if the protagonist is presented as an admirable man, a moral man, isn't it harmful to show this paragon of virtue blithely exercise male privilege?

Even heroes are allowed the occasional character flaw or petty moral failing. But does it count as a flaw if most readers don't recognize it as one?

Furthermore, because I write fantasy, I am halfway between writing life as it is and life as it should be, which makes the matter of responsibilities unclear. The writer of historical fiction is safe. He will not write about female knights because there are no female knights. But in writing fantasy, I am responsible for the world I bring to life. There may never have been female knights--but there were never fearless dragon-slaying knights of any kind, and never any enchanted swords. Why, if I am to invent a King Arthur and his round table, would it *not* have women in it?

So, What say you all: To make a long question short:

What responsibilities does a writer who calls himself "feminist" take on, in terms of the types of stories, characters, and plotlines he may use?

Responsibility and Intersectionality

Malachi asked a simple question that has led to some not-so-simple discussions: "[W]hat else can a man do, either with strangers or friends, in order to be as nonthreatening as possible?"

Among the various topics of discussion that came up from the question and its answers were comments and questions about the various ways we might weigh responsibilities according to gender. Among the various comments, it was suggested that men have no obligation to help make women feel safer--that it's up to the women themselves, and only the women themselves, to make this happen. It was also suggested that what we are obligated to do and what we might do out of kindness may be two different things. Lots of opinions were offered across the spectrum as well. In general, it looks like men doing things like crossing the street, whistling/humming, or similar sorts of things isn't a big deal for a lot of men to do, but that some men feel put out that anybody suggests they ought to do it.

I think the discussion was helpful, though not only in the ways that Malachi perhaps intended. Instead of (just) suggestions about what men can do to help make women more comfortable walking down the street, we ended up in a discussion about whether or not men ought to care that women may not feel safe walking down the street. To echo one of the commentors, it just seems strange to me to have to figure out whether or not men ought to be trying to help in the ways Malachi has suggested...it seems cold to think otherwise. And for the most part, I do think that most of the resistence to such suggestions run along the lines of "...but men aren't responsible for how women feel," a position which I think ignores the complexities of the concept of responsibility in a world where we interact with lots of other people.

One comment in particular, though, brought these complexities to the fore, for me. Z said:

"This is the type of conversation that makes me feel like I need to teach my sons (Who would be black/ HIspanic) to just avoid women and white people all together if they have to whistle and hum, cross streets, and jump through hoops to avoid scaring women and white people. What if they run into another white person or woman on the other side of the street?"

The Intersection of Race and Gender
Z brings race into the discussion, and I think it's an interesting way to point to the complexities of our connections to other people, and to the notions of responsibility. The reason Z's example struck me so, I think, is that I have a strong intuition that it's the white people who hold most of the responsibility for feeling safe in this context, while I have a strong intuition that it's the man who holds most of the responsibility for appearing non-threatening in an analogous context. And, as such, it's where the conceptions of gender and race intersect that my own thinking about this stuff gets more interesting (to me!).

Part of my intuition regarding the racial aspects of these situations comes from a friend of a friend who is a large black man that leads medium-sized seminars. He remarked to me once that, as a large black man, he has a choice to make whenever he enters the meeting room where his seminars are held: He can either act in a way that makes the white people in the room (especially the white men) feel uncomfortable, or he can act in a way that makes them feel comfortable. Depending on the tone of the seminar, he might choose one over the other (sometimes it helped in teaching to make people feel uncomfortable, for instance). Of course, he said, this is true of his non-professional life as well, but it's very clearly apparent to him when he's leading seminars, because he is more in control of the entire situation by virtue of being the leader of the seminar.

After talking with him about this, it struck me that it is of course very unfair that he has to make this decision--as well as the fact that the 'default' position--what happens if he doesn't decide at all--tends to be that the white people are uncomfortable around him. What a burden to have to endure, really, to have it rest completely upon you whether people are afraid of you or not (to say nothing of the situations where there is nothing you can do to make people feel more comfortable, because their racism is so entrenched or some such). The intuition that I now have from this discussion and thinking about it is that it's an unfair burden that black men (and, of course, others) carry in this regard.

(I should note here as an aside that this is the least of my friend's worries, really; as far as bearing burdens, he's got lots to carry. I am not ignorant of the fact that this problem only scratches the surface of things.)

So when I think about Z's position and Z's sons, I think: Well, nobody ought to expect Z's sons to take all of the responsibility for white people's fear--it's the white people who need to take full responsibility for their own fear. But then, how can I also say that men ought to take responsibility for the fear that women may feel?

The answer is a messy one: Responsibility is tricker and messier than I have been treating it. First off, it should be pointed out that neither Malachi nor most of the commentors were adbicating (at least explicitly) any responsibility that women might have to feel safe themselves walking down the street. I come from the deBeauvoirian school of feminism, and as such like to recognize that where women have real choices, they may also be complicit in sexist problems. As such, responsibility does fall on women's shoulders, too. I recognize that this may be controversial for some other feminists, and I also recognize the real danger that people will take this as 'blaming the victim' as if I were taking such a simple-minded approach. But the possibility of complicity, for me, points to the complexity of the notion of responsibility.

When I walk down the street, I know I'm not a rapist. But I live in a world where lots of women have not only been sexually assaulted, but have had to endure various threats that may fall short of full-on physical assault; these threats can be traumatizing nonetheless--and as such, I think I have some responsibility to help communicate my good intentions (or my lack of bad intentions) while I walk down the street. Does this mean that I have all of the responsibility for women I walk down the street with feeling safe? Nope. But I still say I bear some of that responsibility.

Now, is that fair? Nope. It sucks, for all involved. I wish I lived in a world where I didn't have to think about this because women didn't have good reasons to feel unsafe walking down the street. But here we are, in this world. So, unfair or not, I still think I have something of an obligation. And I think other men do, too.

Which brings me back to Z's sons. As men, I think they have similar obligations toward women. But as men who identify as/will be identified as black/hispanic, Z's sons have an even more complex situation to deal with--and as such they may have less of an obligation to worry about how safe women feel. And they may have less of an obligation not because they have some 'privilege' or some such, but precisely because they don't have privilege--they've got more shit to think about. They have lots of burdens to bear that I don't have--when they walk down the street; ought they be more concerned about women in general feeling safe, or more concerned about the fact that here's one more thing they have to think about as black/hispanic men? I don't think I ought to speak for them, because the complexities of identity and of what to do in the world are such that I'm not sure that being a man (and therefore, in my opinon, being obligated to do things to help make women feel safer) 'trumps' being a black or hispanic man...or what that would even mean.

What I do know is that people who offer up simple solutions in this regard--whether they say "You're no feminist if you don't whistle while you walk" or they say "Men have no respoinsiblity to help women feel safer"--are probably not offerring up real-world solutions, solutions that will tend to make the world a better place for everybody. Instead of oversimplifying things (like I was doing, I think, as regards not considering the intersectionality of gender and race in this regard), we ought to take the complexities into account--so, for me, that means that it can be the case that men, in general, have some respoinsibility to help women feel safer; but it slso means that people of color (for instance) may have different obligations in this regard than white people. It may also mean that people who are privileged in various ways have more obligations than people who aren't--class issues and heteronormativity might play a part here too.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

A Self-Indulgent Post

The discussion of LotR has reminded me of the reason I began reading blogs-- indeed, the reason I came to identify as a feminist--fiction.

Specifically, my fiction. You see, I style myself a writer. And in my fiction, I felt that I was doing women a disservice. My stories were meant to be a statement, something I could stand by, something that reflected my values. And yet, I kept wondering, in a nagging way, "Is this politically correct?

It was my writing that spurred to me to look online for feminist spaces. Spaces that could guide me in making sure that my stories featured real, admirable women. Of course, while I find plenty of feminist blogs, I quickly discovered that, amazingly enough--feminist bloggers had plenty of their own topics to cover, and were not eagerly awaiting the chance to critique the gender politics of a 16-year-olds fantasies.

I was so interested in the new vistas opened up by feminism that I cheerfully forgot my original motivation. I spent most of the past few months worrying about how feminism applied to real life.

But the nagging questions kept coming back-- Why, out of a dozen major characters, are only three female? Why have I yet to write a story with a female protagonist? (I have two outlined, none written) Why are the women falling all over my hero. (In fairness, he's the subject of many a male admiration-crush as well) Why, with two-score characters who comprise the casts of two complete story arcs, are they all heterosexual? All traditionally able? Why, in my avoidance of one negative female stereotype, do I play into another?

I intended this to be a short little post. Obviously, I failed. I've put off airing these questions because I couldn't figure out how to phrase them, how much of myself to reveal. Because I'm blogging anonymously, and some people would recognize the content of my books. Because these are personal issues that may not be of interest to everyone.

If people want to see more-- if they want to discuss the specifics of this character or that--I'm willing to write it. Perhaps I'll start another blog, and link it here. Of course, in so doing, I'd be tempted to out myself, since this would be much more convenient with my own email address. Perhaps I'll write about it here, though I'm hesitant to use this group-blog as a forum for something so personal and so tangentially related to feminism.

I do have one question I'd like to leave you all with, but seeing the massive length this post has reached, I think I'll leave it for a follow-on. I'm sorry for this post's incoherence, but this is an issue I've wanted to blog for quite sometime. Eloquence never came, so I must make do with sincerity.

When Disagreement = Murder

I am just consistently amazed at news reports about how people who want to do things like educate girls are not only disparaged, but out-and-out murdered. From the Feminist Majority Foundation:
Afghan Women's Affairs Provincial Director Killed
Safia Amajan, the provincial director of Afghanistan's Ministry of Women's Affairs in Kandahar, was killed by gunman today outside of her home. There is speculation that she was killed in retaliation for her outspoken support of women's rights and her work opening schools for women in Afghanistan, according to the Associated Press and BBC News. No one has yet claimed responsibility for the murder.

Amajan had unsuccessfully requested bodyguards and secure transportation from the Afghan government; at the time of the attack, she was getting into a taxi to go to work, BBC reports. Aleem Siddique, spokesperson for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, said his agency "is appalled at the senseless murder of a woman who was simply working to ensure that all Afghan women play a full and equal part in the future of Afghanistan."

I understand that some men think that women ought not be educated--and that this position is reprehensible in and of itself. What I don't understand is the mindset that, when you disagree with somebody, you ought to do violence to them. I mean, as a passing thought/feeling, I can identify with it--I've thought that it might be fun to meet Bush Jr. in a dark alley someday--but to actually do the violence, to go the the extreme of killing somebody because she wants to educate your daughter, I have a hard time understanding.

I know. Naive as hell; sheltered too, probably. But: How does one interact with men such as these, when understanding seems so far away?

(Note: And, of course, my inability to comprehend some of these things isn't limited to what's going on in Afghanistan; I'm still flabbergasted that the president of the US is very big on torturing people, just as a for-instance.)

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

More Carnival

And, of course, go check out the 23rd Carnival of Feminists up at Lingual Tremors. There's even a post of mine up there (thanks to whomever did the nominating--it's a privilege to be a part of the Carnival, even if a good deal of my post was cribbed from Kameron Hurley's original post).

Erase Racism Carnival

The 5th Erase Racism Carnival is up over at one of my favorite blogs, Black Looks. I think the ideas put fort in this carnival are important to feminist allies, in general, since race issues and gender issues intersect on so many levels, and so often. And I think some of the concepts and responses to people who seem antagonistic toward the idea of ending racism (!) are similar conceptually to what some of our responses ought to be to ward people who seem to be antagonistic toward the idea of ending sexism, and ending the oppression of women.

For instance, recently we've had a few people comment on a post about the oppression of women with what amounts to "well, men are oppressed, too!". The fact is, whether or not you see men as oppressed, noting the oppression of men isn't an appropriate response to analysis about the oppression of women. Which isn't to say the two are mutually exclusive--it's just that "men are oppressed too" can't be the only response to the fact of women's oppression. It doesn't get anything done. Plus, the oppression that men may or may not endure, to the extent that women don't hold the power in our society, doesn't come from women's actions, but from those of men.

One of the posters at the Erase Racism Carnival makes a similar point about the tendency of white people to respond to charges of racism with "but black people had slaves too!" Sokari introduces Naija girl's post and gives us a blurb:
A disillusioned Naija girl’s is sick of white people’s reactions to accusations of racism which is to retort “But blacks sold their fellow blacks too”. She responds in a post “Why I resent white people”. Naija Girl starts with the reason for her post and then goes on to discuss the slavery in traditional African society and the impact the European invasion had on African life.[Sokari]

that whenever we, as black people, open our mouths to talk about racism, they are quick to stifle us by bringing up the ‘But blacks sold their fellow blacks too’ card. I am sick of this attempt at a cop-out, and will now address this……..First of all, yes. Blacks did indeed sell blacks. I can hear the self-congratulatory cheers and back-slaps being passed around the white crowd now…….. What was prevalent practice in Africa was having servants (domestic slavery). Slaves were employed by kings, chiefs, and wealthy people in their houses as domestic servants. The number of slaves a man had usually determined his social status. Usually many of the slaves were captives of war. Enter the white man with goods like iron, whiskey, linen, gin, cotton and wool, offering them in exchange for slaves.[Naija Girl]

I think this speaks to us as feminist allies, and to those who chime in "but men are oppressed too" without anything else to add.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Gender Trouble in the Comics

This is actually one of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes comics...funny, I didn't remember the first two panels (click to enlarge):

C&H is strange is this respect, because it often acknowledges the sexism in the traditional gender roles that it tends to enforce--and the first two panels are a perfect example of this. You're supposed to get a chuckle at her husband's awkward thoughtlessness--but you also notice that we don't see 'mom' (do Calvin's parents have names in the strip?) coming out to join them, or remarking that Calvin better learn how to do dishes or some such. And the more I think about it, the more I can't remember that we see Calvin's mom in any other role but mother/housewife. At least we see dad at work sometimes (he gets to leave the house)--and there are his famous camping trips that mom and Calivin get dragged along, so we know he likes the outdoors. I guess mom has done some gardening, so maybe it's not part of the sexism that she's mostly the mother role--Calvin's dad doesn't get to do much other than be a dad.

Still, I think it's interesting to note that, for all of the progressive-ish-ness of C&H -- it critiques modern education, our ways of dealing with the environment, and the idea that in whatever ways we can, we ought to support keeping the positive aspects of childhood through adulthood--it also depends, largely, on gender stereotypes. And it seems to me that it didn't have to.

The princess in modern fiction

This is the beginning of what will probably become a series of posts exploring the relationship of feminism to fiction. This is something I've been thinking about for some time--as both a feminist and a novelist, I wonder sometimes what my obligations are to reconcile the two.

Today, however, I'm thinking what I, as a fantasy lover, think of as the princess syndrome--the nature of the female lead in a action or adventure story, when she is there primarily to give ris eot a romantic subplot. This psot is hardly meant to be a complete survey of entertainment, And I'm probably guilty of far too many sweeiping generalizations. So I'd appreciate it if you'd mentally append the occasional "in my experience" or other qualifier.

As we all know, a woman's worth is usually defined in terms of her value to men--and this is painfully obvious in myths and legends, and a lot of fiction as well. The female character is not only always beautiful, but usually defined almsot solely by her beauty. Any other qualities she has-- a vast inheritance, for instance, or some magical power of blessing or prophecy--also exists primairly as a means to make her more desireable. Her actual role in the story completely lacks any agency. Her lfie is ruled b ymen who order her about, sell her, use her as a reward, kidnap her, send ehr away "for her own safety," and generally act as simply a piece in the chess game played by the men. When she falls into the hands of evil, she dutifully waits to be rescued.

It's a narrative with which we're all familiar, of course, and one that we have seemingly outgrown. But while most everyone claims to support women's equality, and the most blatant types of sexism have been repudiated, I'm not sure the underlying narrative has changed.

I'm going to pick on Arwen from the LotR movies here. Now, I'm not blaming the creator's of those films; they did what they could to give her a real part while staying true to the source material. But Arwen's plight is a perfect example of what irks me about comtemporary fantasy. And because the story has two versions, it shows the change in sensibilities which I am talking about.

Remember, female characters--particularly princesses--are defiend by thier desirability. As men's taste in women changes, so do the heroines who grace film and novel.

In the book, Arwen does... well, actually, I can't remember what she does, other than show up at the end and get married. I haven't read the books in a LONG time, but to my recollection, she wasn't a whole lot more interesting than any fairy-tale princess. She is passive and beautiful, and that is enough.

But women's equality has made some headway. Women are now supposed to be smart, sexy, confident, and highly skilled. Tame passivity is out, self-sufficiency is in. In the *movie* fellowship of the ring, Arwen carries a sword, gets to make some sarcastic remakrs, and does some trick riding to save Frodo from the ringwraiths. This is what modern tastes demand-- In order ot be a worthy match for Aragorn, she too *must* be a heroic individual.

Or does she? This is where entertainers run into trouble. The success of heroes like Buffy, Xena, and Elizabeth Swann showed them that the public wants smart, capable heroines. And yet these heroines are threatening: if they don't need to be rescued, what wil happen to traditional masculinity? How will we continue to re-tell the same male-dominated plots (featuring epic confrontations of two male warriors, for instance) if the *women* get the idea that the story is somehow about *them*?

Fictional females seem to be in a double bind that real women probably find familiar-- They should be smart, but not *too* smart. Or rather, capable yet subordinate, careful never to accidentally steal the limelight from their male counterparts.

Consider the rest of LotR: Arwen, who has been portrayed as a warrior capable of starring in action flick ehrself, does *not* accompany the fellowship on its mission. Her involvement in the rest of the story is limited to lending spirutal support to her man, since nurturing *is* the noblest of female achievements. She shows up again at the very end to propvide the conquering hero with a wife--and in the process of marrying him, quite *literally* gives up her own life and identity. From immortal elven princess to short-lived consort, all for the love of a man.

Strained plotting produces this kind of thing time and again. Consider Elizabeth Swann, from Pirates of the Caribbean. She is very intellignet, skilled, and assertive, but never quite manages to escape the "princess" role. Though she has no end of clever ploys, she still gets kidnapped, taken hostage, and fought over throughout two entire movies, and the rare few times she's left to her own devices--such as when she so cleverly commandeers the ship in the sequel--her only thought is to get back to her man as soon as possible, since there was evidnetly no room to give her any goals or motivations of her own.

The lesson here is not that women have value in themselves, but that a smart slave is more valuable than a stupid one, once convinced to accept serivtude. Todays princesses are no longer to wait passively ot be rescued; on the contrary, they must always attempt to save themselves.

But not, you know, hard enough to actually succeed.