Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Beyoncé's Feminism

Let me start by saying that I neither love nor hate the music and performances of Beyoncé. I'm not even familiar with them. Couldn't give the title of a single song off the top of my head. (I don't listen to a lot of pop music except what I catch on the radio while driving whenever I'm bored with NPR.) Being neither a fan nor a hater, I'm in a good position to dispassionately evaluate the approach in which Beyoncé has promoted feminism as of late, and the media response to her approach.

If you haven't seen the performance, here it is, and I recommend watching it. I just did, and first and foremost it is 14 minutes of mesmerizing vocals and choreography. During part of the song Flawless, words defining and advocating feminism from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (an African writer also known for her TED talk) flash across a giant screen. You can read the full lyrics of the song which include Adichie's statements in verse 2 here.

Editor of the Federalist Mollie Hemingway lays down pretty typical conservative spin on this, claiming that Beyoncé's performance at the VMAs proves "feminism right now is an incoherent mess of double standards." Hemingway's reasoning is that Beyoncé's hyper-sexual performance is at odds with feminist objections to the objectification of women. The problem is, even if one finds the sexual segments of the medley too bawdy to be in good taste, the performance doesn't read as objectification. The gist is clearly that the woman is being sexual assertive and seeking her own sexual gratification as much as that of her partner. The most sexual part of the entire performance is followed up by the voice of Adichie (and her words projected on the backdrop), commenting, "We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way boy are." Beyoncé is certainly an exhibitionist, but that she does it for her own gain and pleasure is made explicit. 

Megyn Kelly who interviews Hemingway snarkily comments, "But she's okay with 'Bow down bee-otch" (her mis-pronunciation proving that Kelly hasn't actually watched the performance or know those lyrics in their full context.) The line "bow down bitches" is chanted as a challenge to other women to acknowledge, value, and be inspired by Beyoncé's ambition and success that goes beyond the domestic sphere. Again, the lyrics from Adichie in the song read, "We raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men." Oh, those pesky details getting in the way of Hemingway's and Kelly's conservative spin. 

Hemingway makes a judgmental comment about Beyoncé as a parent in this article, saying: 

I mean, it wasn't totally usual in that Beyoncé's toddler child was in the audience to witness all this dry-humping and simulated getting down, but other than that, your typical Beyoncé. 

I am perfectly comfortable with either of my toddler children watching this performance, because first of all, they wouldn't even understand the most sexually explicit lyrics (and by the time they do understand, they'll be mature enough to process it), and in case anyone hasn't noticed, we live in a culture that is absolutely saturated with sexually suggestive images of women. Does Hemingway never notice billboards or magazine covers featuring women in provocative outfits giving bedroom eyes to the viewer with their lips suggestively parted that are everywhere? At least in Beyoncé's performance the glittery butts are attached to professional dancers who are not just on display for us to gawk, but actually engaged in an impressive dance routine. 

The biggest problem with Mollie Hemingway's criticism of feminism is that what might appear as an incoherent mess can be pretty quickly sorted out if one bothers to take a close enough look.

I'm not going to go into details that anyone can look up on Wikipedia, but I can put this particular performance in some context. After all the major successes of what is often called first wave feminism (voting and property rights) and second wave feminism (reproductive rights, equal opportunity in jobs and education, changes in attitudes regarding gender roles) we entered into an era where feminism is suffering from its own success. Some leaders in the movement thought the next big fight should be against abuses of women in the sex industry (sometimes dubbed "anti-porn feminists"), but there was backlash against those leaders because some anti-porn feminists allied with religious conservatives, and also because it could be perceived as an attack on women who work in the sex industry, including those who enjoy and make a good living off their work. Thus we had the birth of sex-positive feminism, which emphasizes women's sexual freedom as a fundamental to the goals of the feminist movement.

While there are still anti-porn feminists, it is clear that sex-positive feminists are winning that war. Beyonce's uber-sexually titillating performance juxtaposed with the feminist label is nothing new. Candida Royalle is a former porn actress who produces and directs pornographic films for couples and which specifically aim to appeal to female sexual desire. Feminists Against Censorship is an organization in the UK whose mission is to prevent censorship, particularly of materials with sexual content. Hell, just check out sex-positive feminist Annie Sprinkle's website.

There is a middle ground between the extremes of Andrea Dworkin who wrote "No woman needs intercourse, few women escape it." and Camille Pagilia, who justified "certain forms of rape" as "what used to be called unbridled love."

I suspect that most feminists, such as myself, fall in this middle ground. I wouldn't label myself an "anti-porn feminist" because I think porn, while often a shady, manipulative and degrading (to both men and women) industry, can and often is produced under ethical conditions. Similarly, I'm also not against legal prostitution across the board, but I am deeply concerned about how any form of prostitution - legal or otherwise - is run and regulated, given the abuses common to that industry.

While I'm totally cool with Beyoncé's hyper-sexual VMA performance as the act of a particular artist in the appropriate venue for such a performance, I am disturbed by the omnipresence of images of women displayed in a cheap, narrow, and generically titillating fashion for the real purpose of making a quick buck. Context matters. 

This issues are not black and white. They are not simple. Of course there will be endless debate within the feminist movement. That doesn't change the fact that issues of inequality exist and call out for research and thoughtful discussion followed by plans of action. Feminism is the social movement that specifically addresses issues of sexual inequality. And, gee, sorry if that gets complicated because the world is complicated. When Mollie Hemingway dismisses feminism as meaningless, she undermines the work of grassroots feminists who are working to achieve and maintain sexual equality.

I do think some of the liberal, feminist response to Beyoncé's VMA performance is rather over-enthusiastic. 

Jessica Bennett wrote in Time that Beyoncé has "accomplished what feminists have long struggled to do: She’s reached the masses." She goes on:

Universally loved, virtually unquestioned, and flawless, the 33-year-old entertainer seems to debunk every feminist stereotype you’ve ever heard. Beyoncé can’t be a man-hater – she’s got a man (right?). Her relationship – whatever you believe about the divorce rumors – has been elevated as a kind of model for egalitarian bliss: dual earners, adventurous sex life, supportive husband and an adorable child held up on stage by daddy while mommy worked. Beyoncé’s got the confidence of a superstar but the feminine touch of a mother. And, as a woman of color, she’s speaking to the masses – a powerful voice amid a movement that has a complicated history when it comes to inclusion.
Oh, yes, it is totally refreshing and exciting for sex-positive, third-wave feminists to see a successful, talented, black woman taking ownership of the feminist label in the expressive languages of R&B, hip hop, and soul. But how much of what Bennett writes is hopeful hype? Clearly Beyoncé is a talented artist and super-celebrity, but when it comes to the shifting socio-political landscape with regards to women's equality, is she taking us in a new direction, or really just part of a tide that was already moving that way? 

Amanda Marcotte writing for Slate, remarks: 

Having dismantled the idea that feminists are just ugly wannabes during her performance, she might as well clean house by smashing the notion that feminists hate men or are somehow not maternal.
Oh give me a break. There are plenty of self-declared feminists out there who are, while not as stunning as Beyoncé, perfectly attractive, happily married, and mothers, so as far as I can tell, the accusations from assholes like Rush Limbaugh that feminists are "ugly" and "man-haters" should have been laughed into oblivion the moment he said them. And yet they weren't. Stereotypes of feminists as ugly, bitter man-haters took hold and continue to thrive.

Those who perpetuate or who eagerly accept those stereotypes will not be moved to change their minds by Beyoncé. Like Mollie Hemingway, conservatives are mocking the idea of Beyoncé as a feminist, using her VMA performance as proof that feminism is contradictory and meaningless, and then just for good measure, shaming Beyoncé for being, as Megyn Kelly puts it, skanky

What Amanda Marcotte suggests is that feminism needs a ridiculously gorgeous performer who wears scantily clad clothing and dances and sings in a manner that would rival the greatest stripper act in its ability to titillate the average straight man in order to refute the stereotypes of feminists as ugly man-haters. But we don't, and we never did.

Fans of Beyoncé who are totally ignorant of feminist history and current issues and grassroots action might take an interest in it because of her, but I doubt we're suddenly going to see a surge in feminist activism or a big bump in the percentage of people labeling themselves "feminist" any time soon

Indeed, what good does the trendy rebranding of the "feminist" label do to achieve actual equality of the sexes? Lauren Duca writing for Huffington Post points out that Beyoncé championed feminism in the midst of an award show rife with old-fashioned sexist behavior. She writes:
The VMAs are like a petri dish for all of the misogynistic crap in the music industry: It is the reality of refusing to accept women as legitimate artists and reducing them to sexual objects boiled down into a handy two-hour television special.
Duca concludes that Beyoncé's efforts are futile unless the label and definition of feminism she promotes are taken into action. 

Beyonce isn't just hot in the sense that she turns on most men (and no doubt a lot of women, too.) She's hot in the sense that she's known and adored by the general public. She has reached the apex of popularity. It's called pop culture for a reason. Feminism is not hot. It's not popular. So those devoted to the feminist cause and the feminist label are getting a huge charge out of it being adopted and promoted by such a hot celebrity. That's great and all, but I'm skeptical that it goes any deeper than that. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Sin in the Secular Age: Smoking and Obesity

The Judeo-Christian concept of sin is an offence against capital-G God. It is going against His will or plan for us human beings. Some sins are considered minor (venial sins), others are major (mortal sins), but any type of sin carries with it not only consequences in this life, but in the life hereafter. Unless, of course, the sinner is sufficiently repentant, and in the cases of some religious sects, adhering to the correct faith.

We who hold a secular worldview today scoff at the concept of sin, and for a few good reasons.

First, while many behaviors traditionally regarded as sinful do harm (such as lying and stealing) others are not necessarily harmful and might even be beneficial to a person's well-being (such as having healthy sexual relationships outside of marriage.)

Second, inherent in the concept of sin is an additional punishment for supposed misdeeds. It is not enough that lying carries the risk of being caught and not trusted in the future, or that those who steal risk trial and punishment by law enforcement. There must also be the threat of either extra time in purgatory, or eternal torment in hell.

Third, the concept of sin tends to glaze over the reasons behind peoples' misdeeds and focus on punishment. Sin easily goes from being a verb (something a person capable of good or evil has done) to the noun sinner (a person whose fundamental nature is wicked.) When this happens, anger, righteousness and condescension trump humility and compassion. Punishment is emphasized over prevention or more constructive ways to modify harmful behaviors.

The thing is, these problems with sin are not exclusive to those of Judeo-Christian faith. Just as many people of faith emphasize compassion and forgiveness over self-righteous judgement, many secular people have adopted a sort of secular concept of sin.

One example of this is rising premiums on health insurance for smokers. The trend began a few years ago, and the Affordable Care Act does nothing to stop it.

All the problems with sin are present: These measures punish all smokers, even those who smoke in moderation and/or who suffer from no health problems directly connected to their smoking. It adds punishments in addition to the possible ill-effects of smoking (which disproportionately impacts those with lower income, who I might add are those more likely to smoke and have more difficulty quitting.) And instead of addressing the root causes of tobacco addiction and finding non-punitive ways of helping addicts who want to quit do so, it simply punishes them, hoping that these additional punishments will be the deterrent that finally works.

Let's look at a second, similar example: The rising cost of health insurance is driving many companies to pressure obese employees to meet arbitrary weight-loss goals and into participating in often humiliating weight-loss programs. Again, the Affordable Care Act does nothing to stop this discrimination against the obesity in the workplace.  

And again, all the problems with sin are present: These measures punish all (and only) obese people, regardless of any individualized assessment of their health and lifestyle, and while ignoring those who are thin but unhealthy for other reasons. It adds punishments in addition to the possible health problems that disproportionately impact many obese people (not to mention the social discrimination obese people face because they are outside mainstream measures of attractiveness.) Instead of addressing root causes of diseases correlated with obesity (such as diabetes and heart disease), it burdens and shames an entire class of people, hoping that will change their behavior and that those hypothetical changes will yield desirable outcomes.

Smokers and the obese do not need more arbitrary consequences from employers and health insurance companies. Either they are perfectly happy with their behavior choices, or they are not and already have enough motivation and challenges for modifying their behavior. In the case of the former, bug-off because we all have our personal indulgences which are nobody's damn business. In the case of the latter, people need encouragement when and from whom they request it.

While all of our day to day choices will never be 100% in line with our personal goals and values, we can always strive toward personal improvement. The benchmarks are different for different people based on circumstances. Not everyone's values are identical nor should they be. Knowing how much a person smokes or drinks or how much he or she weighs does not give a measure of how hard he or she is working toward personal improvement.

Perhaps some of you reading this post think smokers and obese people should be further punished for their behavior, either because their transgressions deserve it, or you are convinced (despite evidence to the contrary) that shaming people actually works. If that is the case, I implore you, go hang out with the Religious Right where you belong.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Tribute to Robin Williams and Response to Rush Limbaugh's BS About the Liberal "Attitude"

 As one of millions of Robin Williams fans, I am deeply saddened by the entertainer's death. Even moreso because it was by his own hand, and especially because his suicide has sparked a stream of not only tributes, but ugly and wrong-headed sentiments in the media. One such sentiment comes from blowhard Rush Limbaugh, who said of Williams
He had everything, everything that you would think would make you happy. But it didn’t. Now, what’s the left’s worldview in general? What is it? If you had to attach not a philosophy but an attitude to a leftist’s worldview, it’s one of pessimism and darkness, sadness. They’re never happy are they? They’re always angry about something. Not matter what they get, they’re always angry. 
Okay, like most of what Rush Limbaugh says, that's pretty infuriating, so I'm taking a moment to calm down and ponder.

Nevermind that speculating about the death of someone only known to Rush through his celebrity is crass and hurtful to those who personally knew Williams (Note Lewis Black's response below. As a side note, Black wrote a thoughtful tribute for Williams for Time.)

Nevermind that depression has been well-established as a health issue, and one that is difficult to treat, opposed to a mere matter of toxic attitude.

What about this business about the Left (presumably Limbaugh means politically-engaged secular humanist liberals) having such a bleak attitude about life? We're pessimistic, dark, and sad compared to what? The theological concept that most people are destined to spend eternity in Hell? Has he never noticed that the main symbol of Christianity is an instrument of torture and execution? Never heard of valle lacrimarum, otherwise known as the Vale of Tears?

For anyone who hasn't noticed, there is a great deal of suffering in the world. Here's just one example: Over one billion people on earth live in "extreme poverty," which is defined by the UN as earning less than $1.25 a day. Extreme poverty can mean insufficient food and drinking water, poor sanitation, inadequate shelter from the elements, little to no access to proper health care, education, and opportunities to escape from the conditions of extreme poverty. Over a billion people suffering from that in the world right now. But according to Rush Limbaugh, Robin Williams was supposed to be happy because "He had everything." I guess in the world according to Rush Limbaugh, if you've got yours, there's no good reason to give a damn about anyone else.

It is clear that Robin Williams, in addition to being an talented comedian and actor, stayed informed and engaged in current issues, devoting a great deal of his time and efforts to charity work. He cared about people. It isn't hard to imagine that his concern for the homeless, soldiers on the battlefield, and victims of natural disasters might have put a damper on his enjoyment of personal fortune.

The playwright Jean Racine famously said, “Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel.” Of course all people do both, and so at times we can laugh at the pain and absurdity in life, but not always. 

Sometimes those who laugh the most also cry the most, because that which allows them to so cleverly tap into what is humorous also forces them to more intensely face the darkest aspects of the human condition. Today I read a joke on this theme:  

Man goes to doctor. Says he's depressed. Says his life is harsh and cruel. Say he feels all alone in a threatening world.

Doctor says, "Treatment is simple. The great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go see him. That should pick you up.

Man bursts into tears. "But doctor.....I am Pagliacci"

When interviewed on Inside the Actor's Studio, James Lipton asked Robin Williams if heaven exists, what would he like to hear when he gets there (watch the video below.) Williams concluded his witty response by saying that it would just be nice to know there's laughter in heaven.

I don't know about heaven (or hell for that matter), but there's certainly a lot of laughter to be found in this life, not least because of the gifts of one comedic genius.

Thank you, Robin Williams, for all the light you brought to the world with your spark of madness.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

I Need Feminism (And So Do You)

Perhaps you have seen some of the Women Against Feminism tumblr that went viral some time ago. 

Most of the messages fall along the lines of being angry at the personal being politicized or a reaction to individual encounters with self righteous, anti-man, or otherwise extreme feminists. 

Okay, I get that. When I was an undergrad I was turned off a bit by feminism after encountering several batshit insane feminists who did and said horrible stuff, such as squirting male supporters at a Take Back the Night march with pee-filled squirtguns or holding up signs saying, "All men are potential rapists." 

But then I realized that there are a lot of dipshits in the world, and a few dipshits don't invalidate an entire movement that brought women property rights, the vote, reproductive rights, education and employment opportunities, and shifted the mainstream perception of women in society to the point where we can now easily be accepted as leaders in any industry. 

Knowing the broad history of feminism, which is the history of the movement for women's equal rights, I see how much I and every other woman of my generation has benefited from it. I simply cannot allow the heroism of people like Susan B. Anthony and Betty Friedan be overshadowed by the foolish behavior and ideas of the powerless and downright absurd feminist fringe. Every movement has crazies on the edge. Doesn't mean we sensible folks should stop associating ourselves with noble and necessary battles. 

Issues of racism still exist and need to be dealt with even if some activists do or say dumb things in the name of anti-racism. We don't stop fighting animal cruelty because of idiots who break into research labs to free mice. The short-sighted degradation of the environment by companies seeking only profit is still a serious issue even if a few idiots sabotaged trees, injuring innocent loggers. 

Many feminists have created our own memes in response to the anti-feminist tumblr campaign. The first photo in this blog post is my own response. I decided to be all serious, even though my favorite response - Confused Cats Against Feminism - employs humor. 

I included personal details from my life because as a white, educated, middle class American woman I'm supposedly the type of woman for whom women's equality has been fully achieved. And I did sort of feel that way for a long time (with much gratitude to all the feminist pioneers who fought to get the society I live in to be so great for women like me by the time I came of age.) 

Then I had kids while living far from family support (have to stay put, too, 'cause hubby's good-paying job with benefits is here) and realized that my husband's job pays too much for us to quality for any subsidized child care, but doesn't make enough that we can actually pay for any kind of day care. So I did what most of the moms (and some dads, but way more moms) I would soon meet in play groups did - I quit most of my jobs and stay home with the kids. I network like crazy to do babysitting trades for when I do work. I pay much less into my own social security since I work less, so let's hope my husband doesn't die or become disabled or divorce me before he retires. I'll probably be fine (cross fingers) but this is not a secure position to be in. Spending almost every waking hour either watching kids, doing housework, scheduling my and my kids lives, or working on my actual career (which is obviously now part time) - I do start to resent how financial vulnerable I have become, despite how hard or how many hours I work. 

When I head on over to the National Organization for Women's website and see how much they are fighting for "caregivers", for the first time in my life I don't just feel grateful for feminists of the past. And I don't just feel supportive of feminism for women in poverty or foreign countries. I feel like part of feminism here, today, still is for women like me. Despite all my privilege (and I'm not denying that I have tons of privilege) in some ways I have been disadvantaged. I'm not whining about it. Like I said, I'll probably be fine. I'm lucky enough to have enough people in my private life to keep me afloat even if the worst happens. But my class advantages don't negate my disadvantages as a women, specifically a mother. 

(Of course even if feminism wasn't benefiting me personally, shouldn't I still support it for the sake of the all other women in the world who need it? Abandoning the movement just because I got mine already seems rather shitty.) 

So I'm just sick and tired of reading "anti-feminist" memes and sentiments on my facebook feed, often by women who are not only obvious benefactors of past feminism, but who are smart, articulate, and exactly the sort of women needed to maintain the women's rights movement. My advice for anyone who doesn't think feminism is necessary or relevant anymore, please take a look at how women, especially mothers and female heads of households are disproportionately represented under the poverty line, look at how wages for women drop after we have kids, and then seriously tell me that we don't need a women's rights movement in America anymore. 

And some people think feminists have no sense of humor!
That's just in America. In some nations women can't even drive a sick child to a hospital without a male escort. This is often in countries where women used to have that right, but lost it. Because rights can be lost - look at Iran. Look at Afghanistan

Feminism isn't something we champion when we need it and abandon once we've achieved everything we personally needed. As long as we women are the incubators of the next generation of humans, we are all vulnerable to gender roles enforced by law or social norms that might put us at serious disadvantage. 

Women  today who do enjoy equality, who have power and influence, who don't feel victimized, are in the best position to help maintain rights achieved and speak out for the most vulnerable and most harshly victimized. It isn't about being anti-men (I don't know how feminism can be called anti-man when so many self-declared feminists such as myself are happily married to men!) It's simply about equality for women.