What if you prefer your monsters fictional? (On violence, war, hate crime, etc as more human than monster…)

(This post originally ran at Womanist Musings. It has since been updated to reflect the comment thread from the original posting and my subsequent rethinking of this topic. As always, I am thankful for those who take the time to comment, to open up the dialogue, and to help me question/refine my own thoughts.)

I am beginning to wonder – have we become less like Frankenstein’s monster, who was horrified by his own monstrous reflection, and more like traditional vampires, who could not see their own reflection? I am in hopes the monstrous acts of violence, war, hate crime, etc will  lead us to contemplate our collective reflection in that largest of mirrors – our society – and to become horrified by our own monstrous acts (as well as our monstrous inaction).

As pointed out in a comment from Sparky (of Spark in Darkness), designating people as monsters and their acts as monstrous allows a distancing — as if what she/he/they did is profoundly Other, not human, not us, not a reflection of our society.  As Sparky points out, this shuts down analysis and allows for the writing off of certain acts as an aberration. “I hate it when we describe criminals as monsters. Because I think it is used to AVOID showing and AVOID examining. It is used as a simple closing word, a dismissal, and avoidance,” he writes. We certainly saw this phenomenon with the Abu Ghraib torture and the writing off of Lindsey England as a “bad apple,” a monstrous women.

We also see it in the labeling of Sarah Palin as a monster (as many pundits do and as one comment in the thread named her). While I am no fan of Palin, I think labeling her as a monster demonstrates Sparky’s argument. Palin is a product of U.S. culture and politics — in fact a creation that mirrors in many senses what is expected of a powerful woman. It is our society that is monstrous, evil, greedy, sexist, racist, etc — humans like Palin are the products of this, the modern Frankenstein “monsters” that SHOULD reveal to us our insanities and injustices. By labeling her a monster we instead Otherize her, discounting how she is a logical product of U.S. empire.

When I posted a few weeks back at my Seduced by Twilight blog on “What does a monster look like? someone commented as follows in the thread:

“I think REAL monsters are those that don’t look like monsters at all. The most innocent looking, quiet ones that wait in the shadows and kill young women are today’s monsters. Monsters are violent and relentless but not always obvious.”

While I agree that real monsters are scarier than fictional ones, I am intrigued about the way we use the word monster both to designate creatures of the imagination – vampires, zombies, dragons, etc – as well as to designate people who act in ways defined as monstrous, cruel, and evil.

The etymological roots of the term monster come from “monere” (to warn), “monstrum” (that which teaches), and “monstrare” (to show). As noted in this essay on monsters, “The theme of teaching or guiding is thus implicit in the etymology, with the English word ‘demonstrate’ turning out to be a cousin of ‘monster’ in that the Latin ‘demonstratum’ is a past participle of ‘demonstrare’, which means ‘to point out, indicate, show or prove’.”

These etymological roots indicate that monsters (both those we create in our fictional worlds AND those that inhabit our societies) teach, warn, show, prove, and indicate.

Though I agree with Sparky’s points that labelling some as monsters can lead to a lack of analysis, I do think that the etymological roots of the word provide us with a critical lens with which to examine today’s “REAL monsters” (as they are referred to in the above comment). The daily acts of rape and murder should WARN us that our society condones and perpetuates violence. These monstrosities of war should TEACH as that war is not the answer. The prevalence of hate crime should SHOW as that we are not in a post-racial, post-feminist, or post-heterosexist world. All of these different acts of human monstrosity DEMONSTRATE, INDICATE, and PROVE that our corporate capitalist heteronormative patriarchy breeds monsters at an alarming rate.

Those we generally consider monsters – those that kill/torture/abuse indiscriminately and repeatedly – do serve as a warning – a warning that our society not only allows such monsters, but actively creates them. Are not such monster indicating that our world breeds violence? Do they not point out that the main modes of societal organization – patriarchy, corporate capitalism, militarism – is perhaps the perfect conditions for monsters to thrive? Does not their existence – in exorbitant numbers and in all branches of society – priesthoods, schools, sports, government, media, etc – PROVE that we may be creating more monsters than we can slay or contain, let alone eradicate?

I am focused on such so-called REAL monsters for reasons close to home. Last month, a 17-year-old female from my town was raped and murdered while jogging alone in a local park. This past weekend, on Easter Sunday, the attendance secretary from my son’s school was shot in her home, as was her husband, by a disgruntled neighbor who decided the best way to solve their long-standing disputes over a parking space was with a shotgun.

I am also focused on such REAL monsters due to a slew of hate crimes on the campus where I teach – crimes that have largely been ignored by campus administrators as well as the local media.

I know that such incidents are far from unique. I know such monsters lurk in every neighborhood, on every campus, in every corner of the globe, and certainly in many governments, religious organizations, and law enforcement teams. But, somehow, the warning seems more urgent when such monstrous acts become so common as to be expected – as if daily violence, rape, murder, and hatred – not to mention never-ending war – is par for the course.

What if the need for Women’s History Month became a thing of the past?

Just as the (ironic) goal of women’s studies is to do away with the need for women’s studies, so is the goal of women’s history month to be able to do away with the need for a “special month” set aside for women’s history. Just as gender (and the intersecting issues of race, class, sexuality, ability and so on) should be a part of academic studies generally, so should women’s history be included in EVERDAY curriculum.

As noted in a post I wrote last year, maybe we should make June “White Male History Month” and make the REST of the year about all-inclusive curriculum. (Note: I picked June as it is the end of the school year and I think it is high time white males came last for once. I think it is also important to point out that I am referring to the normative conception of white-maleness here — or middle to upper-class, Christian, heterosexual, able-bodied, right leaning, “properly masculine” white males who must, of course, like sports.)

Sadly, though, we still need a month set aside to remind teachers and others to honor important women past and present. As the joke goes, “If February is Black History Month and March is Women’s History Month, what happens the rest of the year? Discrimination.”

This year, the theme for National Women’s History Month is Writing Women Back into History. As noted at the National Women’s History Project website, “The history of women often seems to be written with invisible ink. Even when recognized in their own times, women are often not included in the history books.”

To do my small part to rectify this history that is too often rendered invisible, I will be posting sporadically throughout the month about women who need to be written (back) into history.

Happy Women’s History Month everyone – and here’s to a day when all people’s history is included all year long!

What if…? Short Takes 1/21/10

1. As detailed by Cynthia McKinnery here, what is happening in Haiti will likely promote justification for turning increasing US militarization of Haiti (a trend with precedent, as noted at HaitiAction here). She reports that the US military, with echoes of Katrina, have turned away planes trying to deliver humanitarian assistance from “CARICOM, the Caribbean Community, Médecins Sans Frontieres, Brazil, France, Italy, and even the U.S. Red Cross.” As she warns,“All of us must have our eyes wide open on Haiti and other parts of the world now dripping in blood as a result of the relentless onward march of the U.S. military machine.”

2. In more great writing on Haiti, Renee of Womanist Musings examines the phenomenon of “the people of Haiti continually being referred to as looters.” As she writes, “The idea that these people are looters is ridiculous when you consider that Western nations have had no problem stealing from them for centuries.” In another echo of Katrina, this language frames people of color as “looters” and fortifies the positioning of white westerners as the saviors, or, as the infamous copy from below maintains, as the “finders.” Kind of like how white people “found” all the land the now occupy as theirs…

3. In more Haiti news, the wonderful Naomi Klein shares how the Haiti disaster is only partly natural, detailing how the entrenched poverty in Haiti is far from natural and how corporate capitalism has played a big part in impoverishing this and other nations. Check out the clip here.

4. One of my favorite blogs, Shakesville, posts thought provoking quotes of the day regularly. Check out this one:

Guided by our values, we endeavor to have our products used wherever precision aiming solutions are required to protect individual freedom.”—From the website of Trijicon, a gun sight manufacturer with “a $660 million multi-year contract to provide up to 800,000 sights to the Marine Corps, and additional contracts to provide sights to the U.S. Army,” which inscribes “coded references to New Testament Bible passages about Jesus Christ” on its rifle sights.

Wow, quoting Jesus on rifles? What a concept!

What if PETA joined forces with AFEW (Animals For the Ethical Treatment of Women)?

PETA, or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, has an ugly habit of sexualizing women in its campaigns (as in their latest ad below). Thus, I am suggesting they need to take on the message of a group just formed by my dog and cats– AFEW, or Animals For the Ethical Treatment of Women.

Here are my cats, suffering from headaches after viewing the new Christian Serratos image:


MeOWWW, my head hurts now.

As female felines who love fur, they nevertheless were insulted by the suggestion that sexualizing women is ok (Madeline, the one on the right, named after Roald Dahl’s feisty feminist character) was further appalled that the picture was an obvious attempt to advertise for the New Moon release, while Matilda (on the left) felt the woman pictured could really use a sandwich…

As for my dog Eloise, this is what she looked like before seeing the latest PETA ad:


Happy go lucky!

This is her after, sad and pensive and wondering why a group that claims to care about all animals does not care about female human animals…


So sad...

Capitalizing on female nudity is a norm for PETA, as regularly and brilliantly noted by Renee of Womanist Musings. As she writes of PETA, “exploiting women is their stock and trade.”

Posting a number of their ads, including ones of women in cages and wrapped in saran and labeled as meat, Renee asks:

What more evidence could possibly be needed of PETA’S willingness to exploit women to send their message about animal cruelty. It says that they believe that the only purpose women have in this movement is to supply the tits and ass.  These images are demeaning and reductive.

The ethical treatment of animals is a very important cause, but so is the ethical treatment of women. Commodifying and sexualizing women’s bodies (even when said women are “willing” participants) is not something I can support. I love animals – human, dog, canine, feline, etc – but I don’t agree that the end justifies the means in PETA’s case. They need to find better ways to spread their message – ways that do not rely on the unethical exploitation of women.

What if ‘Q’ was a true color?

I went to see the True Colors concert in San Diego last night. It was fabulous. Joan Jett and Cyndi Lauper were the highlights for me. (Damn if I have not been listening to Jett’s “Crimson and Clover” over and over and over today…) Both Lauper and Jett are fabulous performers with excellent voices. Why oh why are they overshadowed (then and now) by the likes of the not-too-vocally-talented (re: Madonna)?

Despite the great music lineup, the emcee of the night, Carson Kressley, was far from stellar. Damn, I wish it would have been Rosie!

One thing I noticed in particular about Carson’s stints trying to fill the time between musicians was his failure to ever mention the Q word. Seeing as his fame was made on “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” I imagined he might at least throw in the Q with his repeated use of the acronym LGBT.

Of course, “Queer Eye” was hardly queer–more like mainstream gay assimilationist–but at least the tour itself could expand its focus to include a queer perspective. Instead, most of the comments made throughout the evening seemed to be focused towards the ‘gay community’ or ‘gay rights.’ What about transgender issues and queer politics?

Kressley in particular traded in familiar jokes reinforcing the gay/straight binary insinuating “if your straight, you won’t get this joke,” or, “this one is for the gay bottoms.” Call me queer, but I don’t see the benefit (or humor) in constantly reifying this binary. Heteros can be ‘bottoms’ too (as can every other sexual stripe) and I don’t see how enforcing a gay/straight split is any different than a black/white or female/male one. Jokes like these that act as if you are either in the “gay club” or you are not are likely to annoy allies and other sexual creatures who think the parcing out of sexual identities into distinct categories is problematic all around. This is where queer needs to come in.

Queer theory is far more politicized than ‘gay rights’- and it is, I think, a lens that the True Colors tour needs to adopt. As Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore argues in the introduction to That’s Revolting: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation*, the ‘gay assimilationist’ stance is threatening to normalize LGBTQ politics. In the same book, Dean Spade uses the phrase “LGBfakeT movement” in order to emphasize that trans issues are included only nominally. Seems Spade’s coinage could be extended to LGBfakeTsilencedQ as of late…

So, Cindy, I love you, and the show was phenomenal–your comments about the importance of inclusion were illuminating and uplifting–as was your voice- but might you consider adding queer into the mix next time around? And Carson, since you are known as a “queer eye,” how about living up to the title and showing some queer theory know-how rather than mere fashionista flamboyance?

* Sycamore, Mattilda Bernstein, ed. That’s Revolting: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation. Brooklyn: Soft Skull Press, 2008.

What if one is not born, but rather becomes, a non-feminist?

As Simone De Beauvoir, in The Second Sex, notes, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” But, in the case of feminists, I think they are actually born and then ‘unmade.’ I doubt girls are born feeling they are ‘naturally defective’ as Aristotle argues they are. Likewise, I doubt boys are born feeling they are the superior sex. Rather, one is ‘made’ into a woman (and distanced from being a feminist) via a constant onslaught of messages that define one as the Other. One is ‘made’ into a man via living and breathing in a society that perpetuates male privileges. (for more on male privilege see here and here) Thus, this making into ‘woman’ and ‘man’ is societally constructed and maintained.

Bodies do not come in only two varieties although we like to act as if they do. Nor do they come in only feminine-women and masculine-men versions. If we did not learn before we even left the womb that woman are the secondary sex, perhaps we would not have to talk about ‘click moment’s’ with feminism because we would all still be feminists!

Although I am a card-carrying social constructionist, I think being a feminist may be one of the most natural identities – perhaps that is why they try to beat it out of us so hard! Is it such a stretch to think that humans might be born feeling they are not better or worse than any other human but equally deserving?

I have long joked that I was born a feminist as I can’t recall any one click moment, but a series of battles, arguments, and feelings of “what the f is wrong with this world” as I grew up. From questioning the unfairness of class inequality and the exploitation of migrant workers during elementary school (I lived in a migrant farming town divided along class/color lines) to wondering why I wasn’t supposed to play with ‘those Mexican kids,’ I was already flaunting my feminism cred in grade school. I refused to have a different curfew than my brother in high school – didn’t seem to me just because you had a penis you should get to stay out later. To the dropped jaws of my college professors, I wrote feminist essays in every single class, asking why anthropology acted as if the world was made of men only, why literature focused on DWMs (dead white males), and why psychology acted as if the female brain was substandardly different. To the chagrin of my family, I balked at the suggestion that mothering was more important than an academic career and refused to buy into the ‘women are meant to nurture’ crapola that culture hawks at us all the time.

Today, I frustrate my children’s teachers (and my students) by asking them to stop saying ‘you guys’. I hunt down principals and tell them they need to put a stop to the use of homophobic language on the playground. I annoy gym instructors by asking them to change their music selections (call me crazy, but I don’t like to work out to songs glorifying gang rape.) I call out people for their sexism, racism, able-ism, body-hating, xenophobia — and guess what? They don’t like it. I am ‘too opinionated.’ I need to ‘mellow out.’ “Do you always have to talk about feminism” they whine. Well, yeah. It’s like a religion. I live and breathe it every day. It is like nourishment – I would starve without feminism.

There are so many definitions of feminism that I love, it is hard to pick just one. Many of my favorites comes from The Feminist Dictionary by Paula Treichler and Cheris Kramarae.

I agree with Nawal el Saadawi’s claim that “as a radical feminist…you should oppose imperialism, Zionism, feudalism, and inequality between nations, sexes, and classes.” Feminism is not just about sex/gender but about all forms of social inequality and oppression/privilege.

I also like Peggy Kornegger’s description of feminism as “A many-headed monster which cannot be destroyed by singular decapitation.” Guess what crazy feminist hating trolls? You can’t kill feminism! It’s a hydra – as soon as you cut of one head, another will grow back. This ‘multiplicty of feminisms’ is another thing I love about feminism. There are so many varieties feminism puts 31 flavors to shame. From anarcha-feminism to eco-feminism to womanism to third wave feminsm to radical feminism, each flavor has something yummy. Try them all, pick one, or rotate! Hell, get a quadruple cone of feminism and delight your feminist taste buds!

The Combahee River Collective’s argument that feminism must be “actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression” and seek to develop “integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that major systems of oppression are interlocking” is another classic. The intersectional approach to feminism is one flavor I cannot live without – it’s my mainstay.

Charlotte Bunch’s argument that feminism is “an entire worldview or gestalt, not just a laundry list of ‘women’s issues’ is another favorite of mine.” As Bunch argues, “Feminst theory provides basis for understanding every area of our lives, and a feminist perspective can affect the world politically, culturally, economically, and spiritually.” Yes, it certainly can. And once you re-place your feminist lenses stolen from you by the culture/society/history/institutional white supremacist heteronormative imperialist patriarchal matrix that defines ‘reality,’ you will never look at the world in the same way again.

See, you were born a feminist, we all were, and if haven’t already done so, please find your way back.

*This post was inspired by a call at The Feminist Underground for feminism definitions and musings. Thanks for the inspiration Habladora!

Published in: on June 19, 2008 at 11:29 am  Comments (11)  
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What if you had to cast your ballot for either the white trollop or the black baby mama?

Well, if you did, you would obviously base your vote on Michelle’s original recipes verses Cindy’s plagiarized ones (cuz cooking is one of the main things women are good for besides opening their legs, popping out babies, and housework).

Or, you might consider their fashion know-how. But, how to weigh up Cindy’s Vogue pose in size zero jeans verses Michelle’s violet sheath dress? As Caren Bohan reports at Yahoo News, Cindy and Michelle are “both known for an elegant sense of style, lending glamour to their husbands’ campaigns.” Well, thank goodness for that. What is more important in a first lady than lending style and glamour to her supportive role as presidential arm candy?

For those of you who like a ‘traditional first lady,’ you may wish to cast your ballot for Cindy, a former rodeo queen and cheerleader who knows how to be properly submissive – or, as Bohan puts it “McCain’s deferential manner puts her in the company of more traditional first ladies such as Nancy Reagan and Laura Bush.” However, if you like good home-cooking alongside your deference, Cindy may not be your choice – at least not if what has been dubbed “Recipgate” is any indication of her cooking know-how. It seems Cindy’s “elegant and healthful offerings” were in fact lifted from the Food Network website. Oh well, should we expect a millionairress to get her nails dirty in the kitchen? Perhaps it should be enough that she is blonde haired and blue eyed (and did not ‘insult’ stay at home mothers as Hillary supposedly did some years ago with her infamous “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas” comment*).

No, Cindy seems to know her place, at least if the Times Online has it right:

Cindy McCain, now 53, claims she has no interest in policy making – “I am not the legislator in this family. He is” – and that she intends to keep busy running her charities and her family’s company.

Ah, thank goodness. Wouldn’t want her pretty little head getting all muddled up in politics. However, you may want to take Cindy’s apparent heavy handedness with the makeup into account before you make your final decision. According to John, she “plaster(s) on the makeup like a trollop.” John also calls her a “cunt,” so, despite her rodeo queen cheerleading looks, she may not be the model first lady after all. (for more on John’s use of the c word, see Jill’s post at feministe “Yes we cunt”)

As for Michelle, well, if you are looking for more of an Eleanor Roosevelt of Rosalynn Carter style first lady, she might be your woman. However, if you like a woman who keeps her mouth shut, Michelle isn’t the lady for you. As the Times Online notes,

At the beginning of the campaign, Michelle Obama had confessed that her husband was a mere mortal with sloppy housekeeping habits who was “stinky and snorey” to cuddle with. Her frank, only half-joking criticism was emasculating, critics said, and she quickly gave up that line.

Friends have told her to tone down her remarks and play up her patriotism, but she has an angular style that is difficult to subdue.

Ugh, difficult to subdue? Doesn’t sound like she deserves to don the Nancy Reagan role.

In all seriousness, the reporting tactics cited above should cause a national gag reflex. How is it that “recipegate” can be news? Who gives a flying fig what recipes these women (or their partners) fancy? Does your lemon shortbread know-how translate into how soon you will bring the troops home? Do those size zero jeans signify your dedication to mitigating world hunger? The stereotypical sexism is abhorrent here, too. When do you ever hear about a candidate’s husband’s cooking acumen or fashion know-how? Bill was perhaps the first male partner to garner so much focus due to his former presidential status. Needless to say, he didn’t do a Vogue photo shoot or wax poetic about his love of baking down-home meals.

In the latest battle of what Maureen Dowd calls “the sulfurous national game of kill the witch,” it seems the media has definitely decided Michelle is the wicked witch and Cindy is, if not the princess, at least the good witch. In fact, the attacks against Michelle are coming so fast and furious that a new blog named Michelle Obama Watch dedicates itself to tracking the media onslaught against her. Unsurprisingly, no such blog is needed for Cindy as she is not only a POWP (person of white privilege), but she is also a ‘properly submissive’ wife (at least according to the media).

Michelle, on the other hand, has opinions and states them. She does not defer to her spouse or act as if he is master of the domain. She is intelligent, erudite, well-spoken, and confident. She is, in other words, human (rather than a mannequin sidekick ala Nancy or a smiling robot ala Laura). Yet, as Cara at the Curvature writes, “Any candidate’s wife who doesn’t stand a polite ten paces behind her husband and keep her mouth shut except to smile gets this sexist shit. When you add race into the mix, it all gets multiplied, and we’re watching it happen right now.” Yes, multiplied into what Angry Black Bitch dubs “Fox baby mama fucktuptitude.” It is apparently ok when Fox calls black women ‘baby mama,’ but the term whitey is somehow deeply offensive. (see Jill’s post at feministe for more on this racist double standard)

In fact, the negative stereotypes surrounding black women are so pervasive that Diary of an Anxious Black Woman suggests Michelle’s dreadful double sin (she is a woman and she is black!) could undermine Obama’s campaign:

Obviously, there seems to be a certain kind of cognitive dissonance that takes place in which black women, regardless of who we are, cannot be separated from the main stereotypes that abound about our bodies. That has been our “burden of representation.” Michelle Obama, an Ivy League graduate, professional lawyer, respectable wife and mother, and potential First Lady, is somehow reduced to the “baby mama”/”video ho” that is currently in heavy rotation and circulation. This image is so thoroughly ingrained in our culture as the antithesis of the “All-American Girl/Woman/Lady” that it really could undermine Obama’s chances at winning the presidency – yes, more undermining than any scary black man image that has been in circulation.

So, it doesn’t matter if Cindy cut and pasted her recipes from the Food Network, it doesn’t matter about her shady tax returns or her practice of stealing drugs from charity. It doesn’t matter she demeans herself by standing by a man who calls her a cunt. What matters is that Michelle has black skin. That, in and of itself, makes her suspect in our white supremacist society.

Moreover, it doesn’t matter what these women have or have not accomplished because in the eyes of the mainstream media, they are suspect merely because they are women. As the sexist onslaught against Hillary made patently clear, our society is far from post-feminist. If our society had taken on the equality messages of feminism, women would not be focused on as the cookie baking wives of candidates (as in Parents magazine’s presidential cookie bake off contests) nor as the witches who shouldn’t be running in the first place.

I still wish I could vote for Elizabeth Edwards, Cynthia McKinney, Maxine Waters, or Cindy Sheehan for president–and I don’t give a flying toss whether they can bake a crunchy oatmeal cookie. I would prefer, however, that they did not wear size zero jeans. (I have a preference that people who eat regularly run the country – food does the brain good — ok, so some brains need more than food to run, but all brains, even those of the very tiny reptilian variety (ala Bush) run better with food).

So, as you go about your daily business of deciding which politicians deserve your vote, I hope you will also make note of (and complain about) the sexist and racist worldview the mainstream media offers you, even if you do like cookie recipes.

What if George Bush paid for gay weddings?

Yesterday, thanks to California’s legalizaton of gay marriage, a Mountian View couple used Bush’s economic stimulus check to pay for their wedding. You see, Bush believes in ‘the sanctity of marriage,’ (code for “I am a homophobic,” “I want your homophobic votes,” or, “I am gay and don’t want you to think I am gay”) so it is wonderfully ironic that the anti-gay marriage Bush helped to pay for a gay wedding. I hope it was camp as hell.

While I am somewhat of a sucker for weddings and romance (there is that female social conditioning kicking in again), I have never bought into the ‘sanctity’ of marriage. As a child, I vowed I would never marry. (This then changed into “I won’t get married and have kids until I am really old” – by the way, I defined “really old” as 30 at the time.) In high school I recall many arguments with my mom where my constant refrain was “a marriage license is just a piece of paper.” I do understand marriage brings all sorts of privileges, but I don’t agree with marriage privilege anymore than I agree with white privilege. If you want to get married, fine. But, it shouldn’t include over a thousand legal privileges (for a great series of posts on marriage privileges, see Fannie’s Room.) Nevertheless, I can see why people in love (regardless of their genitals and what they like to do with them) want to get married. For this reason and others (such as equal access to institutions, flawed though they may be) we should celebrate today’s decision. If we are going to keep this defective institution, we need to give everyone the opportunity to take their flawed part in it! However, that doesn’t mean we can’t keep questioning the validity of the institution itself.

Yesterday’s ruling made me think of the classic 1996 essay by Ian Barnard, “Fuck Community, or Why I Support Gay Bashing.” In the piece, Barnard questions the ways in which the notion of a ‘gay community’ has rendered those who do not fit ‘gay norms’ invisible. Barnard, noting how ‘gay’ has come to be represented by middle-to-upper class white (and usually male) homosexuals, argues this idea of a monolithic gay community needs ‘bashing’ as it goes against queer theory’s destabilizing of heteronormativity. In a sense, this ‘gay community’ is homonormative – ie, you need such and such an identity to fit into the LGBTQ club. Yet, this homogenizing of LGBTQ culture and identity goes against so much of what LGBTQ stands and fights for.

Angry Brown Butch wrote a great post yesterday speaking to this normalizing of queer identity. In “Why this queer isn’t celebrating” she writes:

…the marriage equality movement is largely predicated on the notion that us queers are just like “everyone else,” meaning mostly white, mostly middle-class or up, gender conforming monogamists. You know, the non-threatening queers. The rest of us should apparently find a nice closet to go hide in for a while, lest we threaten the rights that are apparently meant for the more upstanding, respectable members of the LGsomeotherlessimportantletters community.

Her post also refererneces a piece by Toby Beauchamp, Steven Blevins, Abigail Boggs, Cynthia Degnan, Benjamin D’Harlingue, Cathy Hannabach, Christopher Jee, Tristan Josephson, Liz Montegary, and Kara Thompson that reads “While legal marriage benefits some, this ruling does not grant full equality for all LGBT people.” As their op-ed makes so many excellent points, I want to include an excerpt of it (but please see the full piece at Angry Brown Butch here):

We are also concerned with the state’s use of marriage as a coercive tool. For example, the current U.S. welfare program provides economic incentives to promote marriage, in some cases offering extra benefits to single mothers who marry their child’s biological father, even if this relationship isn’t desired or beneficial. Welfare benefits that limit parenting and relationship choices demonstrate that for many people – regardless of sexual orientation – marriage is not the key to social justice. While some LGBT people celebrate state-recognized relationships, many of us are wary of increased state control over our sexual lives.

We support the personal and spiritual meaning that marriage has for many, but question whether fighting for marriage as a state-run institution is the best strategy for queer liberation more broadly. We urge the networks formed through the same-sex marriage struggle to continue working in the service of all marginalized communities. Following the work of projects like Queers for Economic Justice and beyondmarriage.org, and scholars and activists such as Lisa Duggan, Richard Kim and Nancy Polikoff, we advocate the following: Instead of linking state benefits like healthcare, housing and welfare to marital privilege, they should be detached from marriage and available to all, regardless of marital or citizenship status. Rather than furthering the norm of two partners acting as a single economic childrearing unit, we argue for a movement that embraces multiple meanings of family, and recognizes that marriage and domestic partnership are not always optimal or desired choices. Finally, we believe we can better serve marginalized communities by fighting against all state regulation of sexual and gender choices, identities and expressions.

As the writers above argue, marriage should not be a “coercive tool.” It should not privilege some at the expense of others. Marriage should not be about “state control” and gender/sexuality/relationships should not be the purview of “state regulation.”

Thus, while the legalization of same sex marriage is a victory of sorts, it should also give us pause. As we are celebrating the marriages of couples who have been waiting over half a century for the legal right to marry, we should also remember those people who are not ‘homonormative’ enough to be poster-people for the ‘gay community’ and same-sex marriage. Here’s hoping that some men in bridal gowns, some transgender queers, and a variety of other ‘non-normative’ LGBTQ people that choose to wed use Bush’s economic stimulus check to say “F you” to the ‘sanctity’ of marriage.

In celebratory honor of yesterday’s ruling, I will include the oft circulated but still very funny 10 Reasons Why Gay Marriage is Wrong List:

1 Being gay is not natural. Real Americans always reject unnatural things like eyeglasses, polyester, and air conditioning.

2 Gay marriage will encourage people to be gay, in the same way that hanging around tall people will make you tall.

3 Legalizing gay marriage will open the door to all kinds of crazy behavior. People may even wish to marry their pets because a dog has legal standing and can sign a marriage contract.

4 Straight marriage has been around a long time and hasn’t changed at all; women are still property, blacks still can’t marry whites, and divorce is still illegal.

5 Straight marriage will be less meaningful if gay marriage were allowed; the sanctity of Britany Spears’ 55-hour just-for-fun marriage would be destroyed.

6 Straight marriages are valid because they produce children. Gay couples, infertile couples, and old people shouldn’t be allowed to marry because our orphanages aren’t full yet, and the world needs more children.

7 Obviously gay parents will raise gay children, since straight parents only raise straight children.

8 Gay marriage is not supported by religion. In a theocracy like ours, the values of one religion are imposed on the entire country. That’s why we have only one religion in America.

9 Children can never succeed without a male and a female role model at home. That’s why we as a society expressly forbid single parents to raise children.

10 Gay marriage will change the foundation of society; we could never adapt to new social norms. Just like we haven’t adapted to cars, the service-sector economy, or longer life spans.

Happy marriage to those of you who choose it, and happy non-marriage to those of you who do not!

What if analogous to the term ‘person of color,’ we used ‘person of white privilege’?

It seems the more disenfranchised a group is or the more s/he differs from ‘normative identities,’ the bigger a mouthful that person will have to use to describe her/himself. When we unpack what I like to call the ‘suitcase of our identity,’ if our suitcases contain all the social positions favored by society (i.e. white, male, wealthy, heterosexual, Christian, patriotic, etc) then we get to call ourselves simple things like ‘man,’ ‘guy,’ or ‘male.’ However, the more our identity diverges from these normative categories, the more words we must string together, as in ‘bi-racial queer working-class undocumented transwoman.’

With one word descriptors like ‘male,’ all sorts of assumptions come in to play. For example, when you describe someone as a ‘woman,’ many people will assume you are referring to a white woman as white is the ‘normative category’ in our racist society. This is especially true in the mainstream media where you only here racial/ethnic descriptors when the person is not white (and especially if that person is living up to the pervasive, socially sanctioned stereotype of being a ‘criminal’ – hence the phrase ‘driving while black’).

Now, in terms of linguistic equality, it doesn’t seem fair that some identities are (assumed to be) summed up in one word, while others require a whole string of complex descriptions. Let’s call it being ‘linguistically oppressed.’ In order to counter this oppression, I suggest a first move would be to begin calling ‘white people’ ‘people of white privilege’ instead. Just as the phrase ‘people of color’ nods to the system of racism that works against all of those without white privilege, the term ‘people of white privilege’ (or POWP), would own up to the fact that white skin, to borrow a phrase from the famous “Got Milk” add campaign, ‘does a body good.’ White privilege, as Peggy McIntosh and many others have so thoroughly elucidated, bestows one with all sorts of perks. The closing points of her widely anthologized piece, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” are well worth considering more closely:

It seems to me that obliviousness about white advantage, like obliviousness about male advantage, is kept strongly inculturated in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all. Keeping most people unaware that freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people props up those in power and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already.

Although systemic change takes many decades, there are pressing questions for me and, I imagine, for some others like me if we raise our daily consciousness on the perquisites of being light-skinned. What will we do with such knowledge? As we know from watching men, it is an open question whether we will choose to use unearned advantage, and whether we will use any of our arbitrarily awarded power to try to reconstruct power systems on a broader base.

Her linkage of obliviousness to white privilege as being analogous to obliviousness to male privilege is worth unpacking further. (For a full article examining male privilege, see here.) These two modes of obliviousness seem particularly resistant to dying. In my women’s studies classes, one of the units each semester that seems to put people on the defensive most is the unit in which we examine racism and white privilege. The people of color, due to systemic racism, are generally hip to all the injustices having skin that is not white confers upon them. However, white students are most often not correspondingly aware of the privileges their skin color affords. In fact, many become highly offended at the suggestion they are privileged and attempt to list out a whole host of ways they are not privileged via reference to their class, belief system, appearance, sexuality, etc. Here, they miss the point that just because one has white skin privilege does not mean one cannot lack privilege in many other areas (it’s called intersectionality, people!). Rather, white privilege refers to the doors having white skin opens – that door might be slammed again when, say, your easy ride securing a rental lease becomes more bumpy when your landlord discovers you are a lesbian.

People also seem reticent to own up to white privilege as they seem to think doing so is akin to admitting they are racist. What many fail to realize is that NOT owning up to white privilege is in itself a racist act. By ignoring or silencing the many societal perks that white skin brings, one is participating in what McIntosh terms “unearned privilege” – a privilege which has its base in institutionalized and internalized racism.

Some POWPs will also claim they too are discriminated against, that there is ‘reverse racism.’ Not fans of being picked on for their ‘whiteness,’ they take offense when cites like Stuff White People Like try to humorously dismantle the erroneous attitude that ‘race’ refers to people of color, not to their own white selves. Yeah, cuz its funny when you make racist jokes about other racial groups, just not when they are aimed at your own white ass.

Another common reaction to an analysis of white privilege includes ‘white guilt’ – or feeling guilty because you are white. When I was lucky enough to see Peggy McIntosh speak at USD in 2006, she made some great points about this, noting that feeling guilty about racism does nothing to solve the problem. What is required to stop racism and eradicate white privilege is action, not guilt. Liza at Anti Racist Parent discussed this today in her great post “Is Privilege Offensive”:

Having privilege does not equal feeling guilty. However, owning the fact that I experience privilege forces me to open my eyes to the ways in which systems of oppression and institutionalized -isms keep others from achieving.

As McIntosh and Liza both point out, feeling guilty doesn’t achieve anything. We need to open our eyes (as Liza suggests) and then begin to take actions in our everyday lives to dismantle white privilege and call it out when we see it.

One small step I suggest is to think about how it would change our perceptions if, instead of using the term white (or caucasian), we used ‘person of white privilege.’ Now, I know this won’t catch on – can you imagine Chris Matthews or Anne Coulter describing themselves as POWPs?!? But, even thinking about this linguistic possibility is edifying. If society were forcibly reminded each day that whiteness equals privilege maybe, just maybe, this might begin to crack the fortress of racism that poisons our world.

Owning up to white privilege and working to dismantle that privilege must be a priority – not just for people of color who know all to well about having the burden of dismantling racism put at their doorstep, but for people of white privilege too. The onus to dismantle this crazy-ass ‘master’s house’ needs to be taken on by people of white privilege. So, all of you POWPs out there, pick up your activist tools, grab your social justice hammer, and own up to your white privilege if you have not done so already. There is still lots of work to be done…

*For a list of links to various other privilege lists, see this page at Alas, A Blog. Thanks also to this blog for linking me to Liza’s “Is Privilege Offensive” with this post.

What if The San Diego Museum of Man has it right?

So, I should have known given its name that The Museum of Man in Balboa Park would focus only on those with penis privilege. However, I thought maybe, just maybe, it might nod to the fact that history and evolution are not the sole domain of those with XY chromosomes.

While the museum in general acted as if women are just some crazy little blip that don’t matter on an evolutionary scale, the most blatant exhibition of this belief was in the “Footsteps Through Time: Four Million Years of Human Evolution” exhibition. The figures that were supposed to reflect this evolution were all male – apparently the four million years of human history the exhibit documents didn’t involve any women. Silly me – I thought women played a kinda important role in birthing subsequent generations…

In addition to suggesting women don’t matter, the museum also teaches that evolved humans have blue eyes and light hair. In the above-mentioned exhibit, as soon as the Neanderthal looking figures really begin to represent humanoids, their eye color switches from dark brown to blue and the hair and skin both become lighter. Does the museum realize the message this gives – i.e. those with dark eyes, hair, and skin are ‘closer to the apes.’? Talk about museum perpetuated racism.

If the museum has it right, (white) man is the key player in evolution – and man in the sense of male – not as when people pathetically claim that the term man includes women too.

The museum only includes women very rarely – and you guessed it, when women are focused on its pretty much for their wombs only – as in the replicas of different stages of pregnancy (where the female figures have no heads) or as in the pregnant mummy (who is disturbingly in a pose with her hands and feet bound).

Along with this sexist, racist view of history, we also get more messages regarding indigenous people as violent crazies who really got off on human sacrifice. While the museum does include ONE reference to the practices of human sacrifice in Anglo history, it generally promotes the idea we see in films so often – that of the Mel Gibson variety where the crazies in history are inevitably ‘non-white’ and ‘savage.’ The recent Indy film (see my earlier post) was no different in this vein, nor was The Golden Compass. All of these movies and many others play into the idea that ancient, indigenous civilizations are best known for human sacrifice and savagery, rather than for, say, their math wizardry, architectural brilliance, medicinal know-how, or environmentally friendly living.

Ah, Museum of Man, thank you for reminding me how every day, in every way, we are bombarded with messages that suggest males are superior, whites are better, and the ‘white man’ is the true mark of evolved civilization. I would hope that at a museum a more intellectual, nuanced version of humanity might have been put forward. I do realize museums have a long history of stealing cultural artifacts for their own greedy purposes, but I was hoping that as we are now around the bend of the 21st century, that these bastions of culture and history might put a more diverse, equitable spin on things. Alas, at the Cineplex (via Indy 4), at the museum (which, by the way, had a new section devoted to Indy 4 cuz, you know, it’s so true to the history of human cultures), and even in feminist book imagery (It’s A Jungle Out There*), white men are the happening archaeologists, woman are the unimportant sexualized sidekicks, and indigenous people are the savage Others.

*The imagery used in Marcotte’s books created a storm of debate and commentary in the feminist blogosphere and instigated an apology from Marcotte and from Seal Press as well as a call to girlcott Seal from WOC PhD. You can see copies of some of the images in the book here.

Published in: on June 9, 2008 at 2:08 pm  Comments (5)  
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