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:

cats
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:

ellie
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…

CIMG1784
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!

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.