Showing posts with label feminism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label feminism. Show all posts


what i'm reading: hunger by roxane gay

During the Ontario provincial election, after a hack from the Toronto Sun drew attention to an unpopular view that I had expressed some years earlier, I was the object of right-wing attacks by email and on social media.

Many of these wingnuts referenced my weight in various disgusting ways. This shocked me because, although I am overweight, I'm not unusually heavy, not large enough to be remarkable. No matter. Total strangers mocked me for being overweight, using a whole slew of pejoratives and curse-words. I had never experienced that before.

I confess that even though I couldn't possibly care less what trolls think of me, each time this happened, I felt a brief pang of humiliation and embarrassment. I've always been impervious to right-wing bullying; if anything, I wear it with pride. But these taunts hurt, if only for a split-second. I wish this weren't true. I'm embarrassed to admit it.

I thought of this experience as I read Roxane Gay's powerful book, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. I imagined what it might be like to feel that humiliation and embarrassment all the time, multiplied a thousandfold, day in and day out, year after year. To experience this so often and so typically that you come to expect it and imagine it, even when it might not be happening. I tried to imagine the psychic cost.

Gay makes it easy to imagine and to empathize, as she lays bare her thoughts and emotions in a way few memoirists dare. She lays open her heart to the reader. Even more than that. She opens a vein. Few writers allow themselves to be so vulnerable, so emotionally naked. It's impressive, and sometimes painful to read. I felt that Gay is asking us to bear witness. That's not comfortable or easy to do; it's not supposed to be.

Hunger and Gay's unsettling candor is not just about her weight. It's about why she first began to overeat, to build an armor between her and the world. When she was 12 years old, Gay survived an extremely brutal rape -- a gang rape, in fact, organized by someone she loved and trusted. The circumstances surrounding the assault -- who the perpetrator was, and Gay's relationship to him both before and after the attack -- add even more layers of horror.

Overwhelmed by shame and self-blame, Gay never told her parents. For a long time, she never told anyone. Her isolation amplified her feelings of worthlessness, and set her on the path of an extreme eating disorder.

Gay is a committed and informed feminist. Yet she carries an overwhelming hatred of her body, and an almost elemental self-blame and self-hate.
It would be easy to pretend I am just fine with my body as it is. I wish I did not see my body as something for which I should apologize or provide explanation. I'm a feminist and I believe in doing away with the rigid beauty standards that force women to conform to unrealistic ideals. I believe we should have broader definitions of beauty that include diverse body types. I believe it is so important for women to feel comfortable in their bodies, without wanting to change every single thing about their bodies to find that comfort. I (want to) believe my worth as a human being does not reside in my size or appearance. I know, having grown up in a culture that is generally toxic to women and constantly trying to discipline women's bodies, that is important to resist unreasonable standards for how my body or any body should look.

What I know and what I feel are two very different things.
I think most of us can relate to a gap between what we know and what we feel. Much of Hunger resides in that gap.

Gay writes about how her size and her self-loathing impact everything in her life -- travel, dining in restaurants, shopping, public speaking, exercise. And of course, her relationships. In short, she writes about what it's like to be very fat in a fat-phobic world -- and by extension, what it's like to be a woman in a world where the female appearance is relentlessly policed and judged.

Some of the best pieces in Hunger focus on reality television, the weight-loss industry, and the culture of celebrity fat-shaming. I'm no stranger to this material, but Gay's analysis is trenchant and bracing.

Her writing is spare, and it is blunt. Where it shines the brightest -- and paradoxically, where it's most difficult to read -- is her analysis of the aftermath and enduring effects of the rape. Throughout, she connects her private struggles to the larger public sphere.

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body is an important book, both deeply personal and staunchly political.

If you're interested but don't think you'll read it, here are two very good reviews: The New Yorker and The Guardian.


this week, give 15 minutes of your time to defend human rights #write4rights

Are you writing for rights? I almost gave myself a pass this year. I'm living out of a hotel room and I don't have easy access to a printer, and... what the hell? I'm one of the most privileged people on the planet. Surely I won't skip Write For Rights because it's a bit inconvenient!

On December 10, 1948, the newly-formed United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the first document of its kind in history.

Every year, on and around December 10, people who have human rights use them to help others whose human rights have been violated or negated.

Here are the 2018 Write For Rights cases. Notice anything different?

Join me and thousands of others.

Join the biggest human rights event on the planet.

By giving 15 or 30 minutes of your time, you can join thousands of others who believe that all humans have rights, no matter who they are, where they live, and what they believe.

The right to peaceful protest.

The right to inform others.

The right to be free from torture.

The right to not be arbitrarily arrested and imprisoned; the right to a fair trial.

The right to express their sexual orientation and gender identity.

The right to worship in any faith and the right to not worship.

The right to organize a union.

The right to refuse military service.

The right to live free from involuntary servitude (slavery).

The right to be free from sexual violence.

Read: Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

What you can do.

Think you don't know how to write a letter defending human rights? Take a crash course.

Want to know more about Amnesty? Here you go.

Here are the 2018 Write For Rights cases.

Write because an issue resonates with you.

Write because you've been to a country and you feel solidarity with its people.

Write because you're angry.

Write because you're horrified.

Write because the world breaks your heart.

Write because you believe in something.

Write because it works.

Write because it feels good to help others.

2018 Write For Rights case are here.

This year, all the Write For Rights cases are women. Write because you are a woman, or because you love a woman, or because you believe in a woman, or all three.


how the media (invisibly) props up capitalism and other hidden biases

I recently read these somewhat old, but still relevant, letters to the New York Times Book Review.
Cost of the Crash
To the Editor:

In his review of “Crashed,” by Adam Tooze (Aug. 12), Fareed Zakaria asserts that “the rescue worked better than almost anyone imagined.” He notes there was no “double-dip recession” and growth returned “slowly but surely.” But this misses what was the major criticism of the “rescue.” It merely hit the re-set button — keeping the big banks solvent. Meanwhile, the stimulus did little to put people back to work. It was not the double-dip recession that critics feared but a long sluggish recovery that failed to affect the majority of the people.

For example, it took six years (2009-15) for the unemployment rate to return to the pre-recession number. The share of income received by the top 1 percent had been 23 percent before the recession. After falling to 18 percent in 2010 it jumped back to 22 percent by 2015. Meanwhile, as late as 2015, the bottom 99 percent of the population had only recovered two-thirds of the income they had lost. Zakaria should have added a few words to his assertion that the rescue worked: It worked for the top 1 percent, not for the rest of us.


The writer is an emeritus professor of economics at Western New England University.

To the Editor:

Fareed Zakaria’s review of Adam Tooze’s “Crashed” is an approving account of an approving book. But what was “saved” was “the economy,” not humans.

Yes, the government and others acted to prop up banks. But humans lost twice: Houses and savings were savaged, while banks, their executives, and the rich, as usual, won. And in a further irony, they used taxpayer money to save “the economy” and the banks. Yes, some of it was repaid from those financial institutions, using money deposited in them by humans.

And the endless greed spawned by free market capitalism and lax regulations, which created the crash in the first place, gets mentioned simply in passing.

These letters brought to mind some concepts that I enjoyed thinking about in library school information school. There were many exercises in illuminating hidden biases and assumptions. In academia-speak, this was sometimes called problematizing or contesting, but I like to think of it more plainly as making the invisible visible. This book review reinforced the dominant view of the economy; the letter-writers challenged the underlying assumptions of the review.

When something is everyday ordinary, commonplace, accepted as normal, it becomes invisible. How can we discuss and analyze, and perhaps challenge, its influence? First we have to make it visible.

Gender roles are the perfect example of this. From the colour of a baby's room, to the toys they play with, the stories they see and hear, and a million other data streams, humans are taught gender roles and expectations. Sure, this has loosened up a bit for some segment of society, but in the overall scheme, it is still largely true. Expectations of gender roles are as invisible as the air that baby breathes. We are thoroughly indoctrinated from the moment we are born. If we want to challenge gender roles, we first have to name the many ways those roles are taught and reinforced. We have to make the invisible visible.

This in turn leads me to think of something Allan and I talk about a lot: how anything progressive or leftist is labeled "political" -- and declared inappropriate in many settings -- while pro-government and pro-military displays are thought to be natural and not political. Military displays at sporting events: neutral. Sitting down during the national anthem: political. Honouring "fallen heroes": natural. Honouring anyone who is a vocal opponent of war: political.

Once you are aware of these hidden biases, you see them everywhere. In one iSchool project, I had to choose a classification system, describe it, then use a different method to classify the same things, and show how assumptions and biases were transformed through the use of a different classification system. I analyzed the way clothing is classified by L.L.Bean, and proposed a gender-free alternative.

I think this hidden bias thing should be a regular wmtc feature, for capitalism, and for war. Or maybe it already is?

(Whoo-hoo, I'm blogging again!)


congratulations to the people of ireland! #repealedthe8th

While this blog was offline, an amazing and incredibly important thing happened: the people of the Republic of Ireland affirmed the human right to control our own bodies.

In a referendum to "Repeal the 8th" -- so-called for the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland, which gave equal legal status to women and embryos or fetuses -- the overwhelming majority of Irish people voted yes to repeal the total ban on abortion.

For me, the way this happened was almost as important as the result: it was a true grassroots organizing campaign. Person to person, street by street, town by town, Irish people talked and discussed and declaimed and debated. The vote was overwhelmingly in favour of repeal: 66.4% voted to repeal. With this, Ireland has at last "stepped into the light".

One of the most touching details of the #RepealThe8th campaign was #HomeToVote, which saw Irish citizens living all over the world traveling to Ireland to cast their vote to repeal. Reading #HomeToVote posts on Twitter had me weeping with pride and joy.

Can I tell you how proud I am to know someone who was part of this historic moment? I lived some of the excitement and tension vicariously through my friend and former Haven conspirator.

The good folks at Abortion Support Network caution that it will be a while before abortion services are actually available in Ireland. Laws must be written and enacted, services must be set up. Travel to England will still be necessary, so donations and assistance for the journey are still very much called for.

The other caveat: Northern Ireland. Although Northern Ireland is part of the UK, abortion services have been banned there throughout, and repealing the 8th Amendment didn't change that. But it's coming. It's definitely coming. Freedom to Northern Ireland: you're next.

Ni saoirse go saoirse na mban: there is no freedom until the freedom of women.


beyond #iwd: fight for women by opposing privatization

Visit We Own It for all the facts on privatization.
When public services are privatized, everyone loses -- except, of course, shareholders of a private company, who increase their wealth with our money.

But did you know the pain of privatization hits women disproportionately harder? As this excellent article by Jane Stinson in Canadian Dimension says:
Privatization is not gender-neutral. It threatens advances toward women’s equality in the labour market and in the home.

In the labour market, privatization usually means lower wages for women workers, fewer workplace rights, reduced health and welfare benefits, no pension coverage, less predictable work hours, more precarious employment, a heavier workload and generally more exploitative working conditions.
In addition, in a society where women are still the primary caregivers for both children and the elderly, when services become both scarcer and more expensive, women's burdens grow -- often while their wages are shrinking. This is also a direct impact of privatization.

Here's a terrible, typical example. When the province of British Columbia privatized support services in health care, thousands of women lost their jobs, and those who were still employed saw their wages cut by almost 50%. Naturally, services were greatly reduced, which by definition increases poverty and isolation among seniors and people with disabilities.

The UN found that privatized education "exacerbates gender discrimination."

The International Journal of Political Economy found that privatized social security impacts women twice as hard as it does men.

Canada's National Network on Environments and Women's Health found that water privatization leaves "women – especially Aboriginal women – disproportionately making difficult choices about where money is spent, having to choose among food, shelter, and safe water." Fifty years ago, the very concept of privatized water would have seemed unthinkable. Today, it is a struggle between life and death -- a struggle that hits women much harder than it does men.

Let's make International Women's Day more than a hashtag. The fight for quality public services is the fight for women's rights and gender equity. Many thanks to the good folks at We Own It for making this connection visible!


rotd: thank you celina caesar-chavannes for speaking out on body-shaming

Today's Revolutionary Thought of the Day is very unusual, in that it belongs to a member of government. This thought should not be revolutionary. It should not even need to be uttered. Nevertheless, it is and it does.
It has come to my attention that there are young girls here in Canada and other parts of the world who are removed from school or shamed because of their hairstyle.

Mr. Speaker, body-shaming of any woman in any form from the top of her head to the soles of her feet is wrong.

Irrespective of her hairstyle, the size of her thighs, the size of her hips, the size of her baby bump, the size of her breasts, or the size of lips, what makes us different makes us unique and beautiful.

So Mr. Speaker I will continue to rock these braids. For three reasons. No. 1, because I’m sure you’ll agree, they look pretty dope. No. 2, in solidarity with women who have been shamed based on their appearance.

And No. 3, and most importantly, in solidarity with young girls and women who look like me and those who don’t. I want them to know that their braids, their dreads, their super-curly afro puffs, their weaves, their hijabs, and their headscarves, and all other variety of hairstyles, belong in schools, in the workplace, in the boardroom and yes, even here on Parliament Hill.

Celina Caesar-Chavannes, Member of Parliament for Whitby, Ontario


in which old photos make me think things

I've been scanning some old photos -- some of Allan and me through the years, others with my siblings at various ages -- and have been posting them on Facebook. This experience has led to two insights. The thoughts themselves aren't new, but this walk on memory lane has recalled and reinforced them.

Insight number one: my self-image was extremely distorted throughout my life. 

I thought I was fat and ugly. Yet there is evidence that that was not the case. I am now overweight, but that's a different story. This was a girl well within a normal, healthy weight and size range, thinking she was seriously overweight.

It was no surprise that many of my female Facebook friends related to this. We came up with the following list of reasons. The reasons are not ranked in order of importance; it's a big mix, a preponderance of evidence, as the legal phrasing goes.

1. Media. We are constantly barraged with images of what is supposed to be beauty perfection; most are completely unrealistic.

2. Friends and peers complaining they are fat, often people who are thinner than us.

3. Thoughtless comments from parents or other relatives.

4. A parent who constantly diets and talks about their size and/or weight.

5. Clothes manufactured with unrealistic size standards.

6. A sibling who was praised for her appearance, while many of us were praised for intelligence, cultivating the belief that a girl could be intelligent or attractive, but not both. Shorthand for this: I was "the smart one", she was "the pretty one".

7. Well-intentioned compliments about weight loss. ("You look great! Have you lost weight?")

Most first-world women have struggled with issues caused by a negative self-image, to varying degrees. It feels like part of being female. It can ruin lives. And it most certainly prevents us from leading happier, more fulfilling lives.

And I don't doubt that this is the case for men, too, perhaps for different reasons.

Insight number two: the future is unknown.

My first trip to Europe was in 1982. I graduated university, then spent the summer working to save money for the trip, and went with a female friend. We had open-ended air tickets and no idea how long our money would last.

I had dreamt of going to Europe, especially Paris, all through my teenage years. The art history courses I took in university fueled this into an obsession.

When I finally went, I ran around at high speeds, trying to see as much as I possibly could. I was sure this would be my only opportunity to travel in Europe, ever. I don't know if I actually verbalized this, but it was always my assumption, a constant. I could not foresee how it would be possible, what kind of life I might lead that would allow me to go to Europe more than once.

My trips to Europe so far:
1982: Brussels, London and day trips, Amsterdam, Paris and day trips, Rome, Florence, Venice, Lucerne (with NN)
1985: London and West Country (with NN and on my own)
1993: Paris, Chartres, points throughout Provence, Naples, Salerno, Rome, Florence, points throughout Tuscany, Venice, Verano, Bologna (with Allan)
1998: London, some West Country and Wales, Paris (with Allan)
2011: Ireland (with Allan)
[Sometime in here I made a rule that anytime we went to Europe, we would include Paris.]
2013: London, Paris, and points throughout Spain (with Allan)
2014: Paris, Giverny, Rouen (with my mother)

And of course this omits any non-European travel, itself a substantial list (although never nearly as long as I'd like).

My point is not how much I've travelled. My point is that we don't know where our lives will take us.

I had many life goals and fantasies that haven't come true, of course. Most notably, I am not a well-known author of young-adult novels. But the list of Things I Have Done That I Never Thought I'd Do is much longer.


rtod: we only want the earth

On the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, these Revolutionary Thoughts of the Day are brought to you by the great Irish socialist, James Connolly.
The day has passed for patching up the capitalist system; it must go. (1910)

This speech, from 1897, is recreated in the excellent Ken Loach film "The Wind that Shakes the Barley":
If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain. England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs. England would still rule you to your ruin, even while your lips offered hypocritical homage at the shrine of that freedom whose cause you had betrayed. Nationalism without Socialism – without a reorganisation of society on the basis of a broader and more developed form of that common property which underlay the social structure of Ancient Erin – is only national recreancy.

This recalls what I recently posted: yoko ono was right.
The worker is the slave of the capitalist society. The female worker is the slave of that slave. (1915)

And from Connolly's poem "Song of Freedom," 1907.
“Be moderate,” the trimmers cry,
Who dread the tyrants’ thunder.
“You ask too much and people fly
From you aghast in wonder.”
’Tis passing strange, for I declare
Such statements give me mirth,
For our demands most moderate are,
We only want the Earth.


(un)happy equal pay day

Today is Equal Pay Day in Ontario. Why? It's the day that, if you're a woman, your earnings have finally caught up with what men were paid the previous year. Women doing the same or equivalent work still earn, on average, 30% less than their male counterparts.

The higher up the food chain a woman works, the greater the gap in pay.
Ontario’s highest paid women earn an average of 37% less than the highest paid men, translating into a whopping $64,000 less in annual average earnings.  “Over the course of a working lifetime, these pay gaps can grow into a mountain of lost earnings,” says Cornish. “For instance, a middle-income woman could find herself earning, on average, $315,000 less than men over a 35-year period. The highest paid 10 per cent of women could earn an average of $2.24 million less than highest paid 10 per cent of men over a 35-year period.
The Canadian Centre of Policy Alternatives has collected the data and done the rigorous study. No further study is needed. What we need is action.


my feminism includes trans people. all women need to listen to each other.

The continuing liberation of transgender people is a marvel to behold. We are witnessing history, as trans people and their issues become part of the mainstream. From Chelsea Manning to "Transparent" to Laverne Cox, and of course Caitlyn Jenner, transgender people and issues have never been so front and centre. I don't do celebrity gossip so I don't know anything about the lurid lead-up to Jenner's coming out, but when the woman who cuts my hair asks me what I think about transgender people, I know something big is going on. There is more than one out trans person in the larger circle of my own life, something most of us never could have said throughout human history.

Of course the Vanity Fair cover reflects the reality of most transgender lives the way the Cosby Show reflected most African American lives. This New York Times article is a good wrap-up of where things stand - and where they don't - in the mainstream.

Naturally I consider myself an ally of trans people, as I would for any people asserting their own humanity and equality. For a feminist, a socialist, and someone who identifies as LGBT, this defines "no-brainer". So I find the current clash between different schools of feminist thought and the trans movement very sad - although predictable, and I think, temporary.

Apparently there are people who call themselves feminists who actually believe that trans women are not "real women" and should be excluded from the movement. That attitude is bigoted, offensive, and dangerous. As a general rule, anytime you agree with the anti-woman, anti-abortion, anti-gay crowd, you might want to re-assess.

There are also feminists who feel that some of the language - and the policing of that language - around trans issues denies the reality of their own lives, and denies the struggle of women's own liberation. When they have stated this publicly, they've been accused of transphobia.

Abortion access organizations - small grassroots networks that help low-income women who want abortions - have changed their language to be inclusive to trans people. Instead of referring to "women who need abortions", they now say "people who need abortions". A transgender person in any stage of transition might become pregnant. If that person identifies as a man, he may also be a rape survivor. He deserves care that treats him with dignity and respect.

In the abortion-rights movement, not everyone is comfortable with this. I know from personal conversations that some felt pressured - even bullied - into making this change, rather than educated and supported. That's not the road to inclusion, either.

Katha Pollitt, writing in The Nation, asks "Who Has Abortions?".
I’m going to argue here that removing “women” from the language of abortion is a mistake. We can, and should, support trans men and other gender-non-conforming people. But we can do that without rendering invisible half of humanity and 99.999 percent of those who get pregnant. I know I’ll offend, hurt and disappoint some people, including abortion-fund activists I love dearly. That is why I’ve started this column many times over many months and put it aside. I tell myself I might be wrong—it’s happened before. “Most of the pressure [to shift language] comes from young people,” said one abortion-fund head I interviewed, whose fund, like many, has “Women” in its name. “The role of people in our generation is to give money and get out of the way.” . . .

From the perspective of providing care, I understand it. “The focus should be on access,” NYAAF board member Rye Young told me over the phone. The primary purpose of abortion funds is to provide immediate financial and other help to individuals in crisis, whom funders usually know only as voices on the phone. If wording on a website makes people feel they can’t make that phone call, that’s not good. We women have had enough experience with being disrespected by healthcare and social-service providers not to wish that on anyone else. Does presenting abortion as gender-neutral need to be part of that welcoming procedure, though? The primary sources of abortion data in the US—the CDC and the Guttmacher Institute—don’t collect information on the gender identity of those who seek abortion, but conversations with abortion providers and others suggest the number of transgender men who want to end a pregnancy is very low. I don’t see how it denies “the existence and humanity of trans people” to use language that describes the vast majority of those who seek to end a pregnancy. Why can’t references to people who don’t identify as women simply be added to references to women? After all, every year over 2,000 men get breast cancer and over 400 die, and no one is calling for “women” to be cut out of breast-cancer language so that men will feel more comfortable seeking treatment. If there was such a call, though, I wonder what would happen. Women have such a long history of minimizing themselves in order not to hurt feelings or seem self-promoting or attention-demanding. We are raised to put ourselves second, and too often, still, we do.
The column was vilified as transphobic and hateful. Pollitt was attacked on the internet as if she were Fred Phelps. Did most of the people tweeting and re-tweeting read the column in question? Were they seeing the full context?

This response was more helpful. In "Cisgender Women Aren’t the Only People Who Seek Abortions, and Activists’ Language Should Reflect That", Dr. Cheryl Chastine points out that the claim "99.999 percent of those who get pregnant" are cisgender women is not unlike an era that thought gay people were extremely rare - or, I would add, a culture that claims there are no gay people within it.
Feminists like Pollitt who argue against inclusive language assert that because “99.999 percent of the population” seeking abortions are cis women, it is inaccurate and inappropriate to use gender-inclusive language. So how many trans people are we really talking about? It’s more than 0.001 percent. Suppose you time-traveled back to the 1950s and asked the average physician how many of his or her patients were gay. They would probably respond, “None” or, “Maybe one or two.” It’d be easy to conclude, therefore, that 99.999 percent of all people were straight, so there’d be no need to include any forms of non-heterosexual orientation in language or activism. Assuming the proportion of non-heterosexual people has stayed roughly constant, though, our 1950s physician likely did have a number of gay, lesbian, or bisexual patients. The doctor simply took them to be heterosexual. They may have even presented themselves as such, out of a legitimate fear that the physician would behave prejudicially toward them.
Excellent article. Helpful. Calling Katha Pollitt a bigot on Twitter, not helpful. (No need to point out that uninformed bashing on Twitter is the norm. I'm aware.)

Another piece that was trashed as transphobic was Elinor Burkett's essay, "What Makes a Woman" in the New York Times. I can understand that. I was uncomfortable with some of it, too. At the same time, much of that essay resonates with me.
Do women and men have different brains?

Back when Lawrence H. Summers was president of Harvard and suggested that they did, the reaction was swift and merciless. Pundits branded him sexist. Faculty members deemed him a troglodyte. Alumni withheld donations.

But when Bruce Jenner said much the same thing in an April interview with Diane Sawyer, he was lionized for his bravery, even for his progressivism.

“My brain is much more female than it is male,” he told her, explaining how he knew that he was transgender.

This was the prelude to a new photo spread and interview in Vanity Fair that offered us a glimpse into Caitlyn Jenner’s idea of a woman: a cleavage-boosting corset, sultry poses, thick mascara and the prospect of regular “girls’ nights” of banter about hair and makeup. Ms. Jenner was greeted with even more thunderous applause. ESPN announced it would give Ms. Jenner an award for courage. President Obama also praised her. Not to be outdone, Chelsea Manning hopped on Ms. Jenner’s gender train on Twitter, gushing, “I am so much more aware of my emotions; much more sensitive emotionally (and physically).”

A part of me winced.

I have fought for many of my 68 years against efforts to put women — our brains, our hearts, our bodies, even our moods — into tidy boxes, to reduce us to hoary stereotypes. Suddenly, I find that many of the people I think of as being on my side — people who proudly call themselves progressive and fervently support the human need for self-determination — are buying into the notion that minor differences in male and female brains lead to major forks in the road and that some sort of gendered destiny is encoded in us.

That’s the kind of nonsense that was used to repress women for centuries. But the desire to support people like Ms. Jenner and their journey toward their truest selves has strangely and unwittingly brought it back.
I, too, feel that much of the discourse around trans issues reinforces gender stereotypes. We've struggled against these stereotypes, and we've spent a lifetime asserting our right to be women and to be people, even as we reject them. So it can hurt to hear women, whether cis or trans, embrace these stereotypes and define their womanhood and their personhood through them. This is what I took from Burkett's article.

Burkett also asserted that Caitlyn Jenner has benefited from male privilege most of her life, and that privilege comes into play now. I agree with that, too.

The fact that some of Burkett's essay resonated with me doesn't make me transphobic. My observations come from my own reality. I've had my own struggles to define myself and accept myself in a sexist world. My journey is different than that of a trans woman, and I'm sure in many ways it has been infinitely easier, but it is still my reality. Any cis woman finds herself agreeing with this essay needs space to assert this, without being accused of a bigotry that isn't (necessarily) there.

Trans people have every right to demand inclusion. But inclusion gained through silencing discussion is not really inclusion at all: it's separatism. At a certain stage in a movement, separatism may be what's needed. But for the road ahead, I hope to see us aim for understanding and solidarity - among all feminists, all LGBT people, and all allies.

These types of conflicts within and among social movements have a long and rich history. The second-wave feminists clashed with the pioneers of gay liberation. Going back further to the earliest days of the women's movement, in the 19th Century when women were fighting for basic civil rights, there were conflicts between feminism and the abolitionist and temperance movements. All movements have growing pains, early conflicts, and questions that can only be settled over time, through people's own lived experiences.

Experiencing these growing pains in the internet era amplifies and escalates the conflict. When someone publishes an essay, and one sentence of that essay ignites a Twitter storm - and it's reasonable to assume that many (most?) people retweeting have not read the essay, merely the offending sentence and the claim of bigotry - then there is no education. There is only noise.

I'm not equating Twitter attacks on Pollitt or Burkett with the struggles of transgender people for full acceptance and equality. I'm not suggesting cis feminists who are uncomfortable replacing the word "women" with "people" are victims.

I am merely suggesting that true inclusion is not about who can generate the most tweets - that is, who can yell the loudest. Feminists of all ages and eras have a lot to learn from this exciting wave of trans liberation. Trans women and their allies may have something to learn from previous waves of feminism. We'll only find out if we listen to each other.

* * * * *

Some good reading on this topic:

It's Time to End the Long History of Feminism Failing Transgender Women, Tina Vasquez, Bitch Media

On Trans Issues with Feminism and Strengthening the Movement's Gender Analysis, Jos Truitt, Feministing

Trans Women Are Women. Why Do We Have to Keep Saying This?, Leela Ginelle, Bitch Media, an analysis of Burkitt's essay

Who Has Abortions?, Katha Pollitt, The Nation

Cisgender Women Aren’t the Only People Who Seek Abortions, and Activists’ Language Should Reflect That, Cheryl Chastine, RH Reality Check

What Makes A Woman, Elinor Burkett, New York Times

Responses to Burkett's piece published in the Times. I'm using this because it represents multiple points of view.


action bronson, hate speech, and protest: rape culture vs. freedom of speech

As part of the NXNE concert series in Toronto, rapper Action Bronson was slated to perform a free concert in Dundas Square. Bronson is apparently known for lyrics and videos that degrade women and glorify rape. He has also bragged about assaulting a trans woman. Many people felt that this performer was inappropriate for a headliner act and a free event in the heart of Toronto.

A petition was circulated calling for NXNE to cancel the Dundas Square show. Eventually they did. Their statement says they will try re-book Action Bronson as a ticketed event in a different venue.

That seems like a good decision.

However, I was less disturbed by another misogynist shock act than by some of the reaction I read on Facebook, from friends and their contacts. It seems that many progressive people believe that what Action Bronson does should be illegal. Others believe that even speaking in support of such expression should be illegal. I find that deeply troubling.

The people in this discussion seemed not to distinguish between a hate crime and hate speech - or indeed between expression and act, at all.

Most were willing to concede that expression condoning and celebrating rape is not the same as rape itself. But because this expression contributes to rape culture, because it perpetuates and normalizes violence against women, it should be illegal.

I recognize rape culture. I resist it and I detest it. And that's one reason I believe we shouldn't criminalize speech.

Shutting down hate speech doesn't make hate go away. But it does shut down all possibility of education. It allows the speaker to play the victim. It may make our society more polite and pleasant - on the surface - but it does nothing to further a society where all women are valued as equals. And inevitably, it will be used against us.

Throughout history, laws banning or criminalizing expression have been used by the powerful against the less powerful, by the dominant culture against the minority. That's why gay literature was labelled as pornography and banned, while male-dominated, heterosexual porn flourished. It's why the Harper Government can call David Suzuki an extremist, and try to ban criticism of the state of Israel.

When speech and expression are curtailed, history shows us who suffers: radicals, dissidents, peace activists.

If we want to be free to protest and to express political views that are offensive to the powerful, we should be prepared to defend potentially offensive expression for everyone. Criminalizing any expression threatens all expression - and it threatens progressive activists most of all.

And what of fantasy? For many, erotica/porn includes bondage, simulated rape, and all manner of acts that would be criminal if nonconsensual. And of course these acts are depicted in literature, photography, video, and the like. Many people find it triggering and offensive. Shall we ban that, too? (Or is it only offensive if it subjugates women?) If we roll back that clock, all our rights are going with it.

Here is some of the Facebook conversation. Indented text is quoted from commenters. I'm quoting liberally in order to not quote out of context, with my own comments below.
If he wrote that song for an individual, and sent that video to them in the mail, it would be considered a hate crime. So what's the difference between that, and releasing his song to the public? The fact that it's not targeted to an individual? His hate is targeted towards the entire female gender. I think we're talking bullshit loopholes and technicalities here.
Protection of public expression is much more than a technicality. If an individual is targeted - threatened, harassed - that is a crime. (Although not rape. Still not rape.) But we distinguish between those private, targeted actions and public expressions - songs, movies, books, poetry, video. In my view, people must be allowed to express whatever they want in those forms, and not do so in fear of arrest.
Hate speech impedes on people's right to live a life free from worry of abuse. You can't be pro freedom of anything if you support hate speech because it prevents people from having certain freedoms - one of those freedoms is the right to feel safe. Bronson's lyrics are hate speech and add to the pre-existing rape culture problem that is plaguing our society. Bronson also publicly admitted to assaulting a trans woman and misgendering her. THIS IS AN ACT OF VIOLENCE. He's a white man whose violent, misogynistic lyrics and music video imagery specifically target women of colour. . . . The KKK are still allowed to have their say, and operate under the guise of "freedom of speech" and look what's happening! You have cops who are KKK members on the Ferguson police force spreading their views and encouraging whites to shoot up innocent black kids by constantly portraying them as thugs. They get away with it because the media has done everything in its power to instil anti blackness into the minds of whites and non-black people of colour.

The freedom to protect hate speech under the guise of freedom of speech only benefits and serves the white rich cis straight able bodied man. They do not suffer from any forms of systematic oppression.
In the society described above, which I readily recognize as reality, which hate speech is more likely to be protected, "Women are bitches" or "Death to cops"? Once certain expression is illegal, who defines and decides what stays and what goes?

Commenters also noted that the expression in question is without artistic value. That may be true, but in my opinion that is (a) subjective and (b) irrelevant. One person's erotica is another person's smut, and to someone else, it's all garbage.

Other commenters noted that speech that promotes rape culture is as bad as rape. What can I say. It takes a luxury of ignorance to express such hyperbole, and it minimizes the trauma and suffering of every rape survivor.

Some commenters mentioned the general offensiveness of the Action Bronson act. Well, freedom of expression is easy if you're raising money for kids with cancer or posting cute puppy videos. Freedom of expression is tested when the expression is most offensive. A society that values freedom of expression allows space on the fringes. A society that values conformity and politeness more than free speech narrows the field.

That's when I realize that Canadians, as a society, do not really value freedom of expression. They value a quietly polite society, where hate is ignored and so said not to exist.
A few of my classmates were having a discussion about "Game of Thrones" One of the women said "I don't like the show, it glorifies rape." One of the men responded, "what is the big deal, rape is everywhere..." The fact that those words flowed so easily from his tongue..... I am an artist, a woman and someone who has been victimized. Free speech, like art, comes with responsibilities and to abuse that freedom is demonstrating a reckless disregard for others. THAT is a crime. It is no different, in MY opinion, than knowingly getting in a car and driving while drunk.
Criminalizing speech completely shuts down the possibility of education. If we arrest the man who said "What's the big deal about rape?" we lose all opportunity for dialogue, not just with that one man, but with every person who now must suppress his or her speech in order to avoid arrest.

These rape-culture thoughts don't go away, but they remain unchallenged. All the arrest teaches is forced conformity. As much as "what's the big deal about rape" pains me deeply, I would rather that thought be expressed openly - I would rather see an atmosphere cultivated where people are free to express any thought - so those thoughts can be challenged, examined, and potentially changed. Perhaps the person who expressed the thought would not be changed, but some listeners to the debate might be.

There is also the very huge issue of who decides what speech is criminal. In our society, it will usually be people like Stephen Harper.
but I think if enough people boycott and protest against his music, it will send the message that this type of hate speech is not tolerated.
Boycott and protest? Absolutely! We should, and we must. But if the expression is declared illegal and banned, we lose the opportunity to protest. We lose a huge opportunity for education. Plus the speaker becomes the victim. The only thing we gain is not having to hear something - but those thoughts are still in the person's brain and heart. The hate hasn't gone away.

* * * *

Update. Some of the people involved in one of the several conversations that led to this post feel they were misrepresented, even ambushed. I believe they think I participated in the Facebook conversation as research for my own writing. This is being characterized as deceptive and hypocritical, and contrary to my own principles of free speech.

The reality: after the discussion on Facebook, I had more to say, but - not wanting to use someone else's Facebook page as my own soapbox any more than I had already - I went to my own venue to continue writing.

This post reflects nothing more than my desire to express myself further. People often leave one venue to discuss ideas further elsewhere, both online and in person. It's not unusual, and certainly not duplicitous.

The opinions quoted and referred to in this post are culled from several different Facebook threads. The indented quotes were copied and pasted directly from one thread, but I found those opinions echoed many times over in many places.

I note, too, that one friend retracted her call for Action Bronson to be prosecuted for hate speech, and felt my blog post should reflect her changed opinion. I note that most people who I saw expressing this opinion did not similarly retract it.

I am inviting the parties who believe themselves misrepresented in this post to explain themselves further in comments. We'll put all their comments through moderation, and of course all wmtc readers will be free to respond.


the courage and compassion of dr. willie parker, the last abortion doctor in mississippi

"The Pink House", the last abortion clinic in Mississippi.
The owner painted it pink so it would stand out, in defiance.
I've thought a lot about heroes, that tremendously overused word, about who my heroes are and why I love them. Moral courage, as you may know, is my highest value. Now, reading this story in Esquire about Dr. Willie Parker, the last abortion doctor in the state of Mississippi, I realize there's another ingredient shared by all my heroes: an abundance of compassion.

Dr. Parker, a committed Christian, embodies both physical and moral courage, refusing to run despite the knowledge that others who tread this path have been murdered. Dr. Parker fills a vital health and social need by performing abortions in Mississippi. But he does more than that. He offers compassion (along with education) to every patient.

Dr. Parker not only wants women to decide for themselves whether and when to bear children. He wants to help free them of the guilt and shame that they've internalized from the surrounding anti-abortion culture. He is very smart, politically; he understands what really drives the anti-abortion movement.
One result: In 2012, America's teenage girls had an average of thirty-one births per one thousand. In Canada, the number was fourteen. In France, six. In Sweden, seven. The difference is that those countries promote contraception without shame. "So it seems like if they want to reduce abortion, the best thing to do would be to support contraception—but they're against contraception, too, because contraception and abortion decouple sexuality from procreation. That's why I think religious preoccupation with abortion is largely about controlling the sexuality of women."
This is a tremendous article, which Esquire released online in advance of the print edition, because of the recent court ruling blocking a Mississippi anti-abortion law. I hope you will read it in its entirety: The Abortion Ministry of Dr. Willie Parker, by John H. Richardson.


some thoughts on emily bront?'s wuthering heights

Cover of 1943 Random House
edition with woodcut illustrations
Emily Bront? published Wuthering Heights in 1847, under a pseudonym. Bront? died the following year, at age 30. It was the only book she would ever publish.

How did an isolated young woman, a parson's daughter from a remote area of Yorkshire, who never married, rarely left home, and hated travel, come to create this story of ferocious passion and violent revenge that would shock her contemporaries, and enthral audiences into its second century?

The existence of Wuthering Heights is one of the great arguments against that wrongheaded advice to writers: "write what you know". (Remember this the next time someone tells you that Shakespeare couldn't have written his plays, because he was working-class, and had never been to Italy.) How did Bront? create it? With her talent and her imagination.

* * * *

Wuthering Heights is one of my most beloved novels; sometimes I think it is my favourite book of all time. I've just finished watching the 2009 adaptation from PBS's Masterpiece Classic, and it's my pick for best "Wuthering Heights" film.

I know the original 1939 film, with Lawrence Olivier and Merle Oberon in the lead roles, backward and forwards; I'd seen it several times before I ever read the book. I love that movie like an old friend, and it's a decent rendition of the novel in many ways. It is Olivier, after all. But it's greatly limited by the Hollywood standards of its era.

There's been a slew of film adaptations through the years. A 1992 version with Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche had me diving for the remote, but most I haven't bothered with. On this page, the keeper of the Wuthering Heights flame online reviews several with her own specific standards. For me, this 2009 two-parter was the best. I don't need to see another.

* * * *

To say Wuthering Heights was scandalous in its day is an understatement. It was shocking. People detested it; at least one critic called for it to be burned. When the writer's identity was revealed (posthumously), the firestorm only grew. This was written by a woman?? The book became one of the most shocking pieces of English literature of all time.

Emily Bront? hadn't created a proper Victorian heroine who would select her proper gentleman. No Jane Austen here. Bront? created one of the great anti-heroes of all time, the passionate, jealous, bitter Heathcliff, dark both in features and demeanour, driven by passion and revenge. In Catherine, Bront? created a strange wild-child of a heroine, a woman whose attempts to shoehorn herself into social conventions would lead to hatred and despair, trapping multiple generations in Heathcliff's powerful vengeance.

Title page of same edition.
I found this (and a similar
Jane Eyre) in London, in 1985.
Victorian audiences were shocked by the depictions of sexual love and of vicious cruelty. But the true scandal was that Bront?'s work challenged classism and racism, the subjugation of women, religious hypocrisy, and the entire moral structure of its times.

In one sense, Wuthering Heights is West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet: why is this love forbidden? And because society says it is, terrible things happen.

But those terrible things happen because Heathcliff won't accept his fate, and bends his entire life to a single-minded pursuit. Wuthering Heights is about forbidden, cross-class love, about thwarted passion, but above all, it is a story of revenge.

* * * *

Nineteenth Century British literature was my thing in university, and along with Bleak HouseWuthering Heights was for me the best of the best. I remember to this day a lecture in which my favourite professor, Elaine Scarry, presented the structure of Wuthering Heights as a mandala: concentric circles that take the reader closer and closer to the centre, preparing you for communion with the godhead, then gradually take you out again, releasing you step by step from the spell. The godhead, in this case, is the passion of Heathcliff and Catherine. If you diagram the novel, you may be surprised to learn how little you actually see the lovers together. It's as if their passion can only be looked at indirectly, and for short periods of time. The reader will be blinded by the light, or scorched by the heat.


child sexual abuse in context: soraya chemaly asks, "are children supposed to document their abuse?"

Soraya Chemaly places Dylan Farrow's claim in the context of rampant child sexual abuse, and the persistent myth of false rape claims.
Dylan Farrow is in a situation that thousands deal with every day. In general, people want to look away, muttering some variant of "he said/she said." But, that phrase implies an equivalence where we have a gross imbalance, because "he" is more trusted, virtually always, in every capacity, than "she."

There is a substantial body of research documenting our preference for thinking of men as more competent and moral. Researchers who studied gendered speech patterns found that people expect different kinds of lies from men and women and that women are considered more trustworthy, unless lies include another person, in which case, confidence in the veracity of what women say plummets. . . .

That everyone "knows" girls and women lie about sexual assault is a dangerous and enduring myth. A survey of college students revealed that the majority believed up to 50% of their female peers lie when they allege rape, despite wide-scale evidence and multi-country studies that show the incidence of false rape reports to be in the 2%-8% range.

Yes, there are false claims, but they occur in roughly the same numbers as false claims for other crimes. As the Equality for Women's Charles Clymer pointed out recently, based on FBI and Department of Justice information, "The odds of the average straight man (the target group overwhelmingly concerned with this) in the U.S. being accused of rape are 2.7 million to 1."

The chances of actually being sexually assaulted?

1 in 3-to-4 for girls (before they turn 18)
1 in 5-to-7 for boys (before they turn 18)
1 in 5 for women
1 in 77 for men
Chemaya also makes the connection between the myth of false rape accusations and the push for anti-abortion measures such as waiting periods: laws and customs based on the idea that women cannot be trusted. It's very worth reading; major trigger warnings for survivors. Here.


dylan farrow and woody allen: a feminist, a rape survivor, and a woody allen fan weighs in

Wmtc friend and reader Dharma Seeker writes:
Some of my discussion groups have been blowing up since Dylan Farrow's open letter to actors in Woody Allen films. My brain is muddled trying to sort out the various issues. I'd love your thoughts and hoped you might blog about it, although if you've not read it yet Dylan's open letter should come with a trigger warning.

If the allegations are true, does that mean that actors have a moral obligation to boycott his films?

Do movie lovers have a moral obligation to boycott his films?

Where do we draw the line that separates the personal failings (to put it mildly) of the artist and appreciation of the art they produce?

I really would love to know your thoughts. I don't want to "support a pedophile" but I can't help thinking it's not that simple. I know you and Allan love Woody Allen films, your enthusiasm for them actually put me on to them. In particular I love Whatever Works and Vicky Christina Barcelona. I've yet to see Blue Jasmine but as you may know Cate Blanchet is nominated for an Oscar for her role, so she seems to be taking a lot of heat for working with him.

Which brings me to my next question... why do so many conversations seem to center around shaming women for working with him? There are already a dearth of good roles for women actors. Why is it ok, in some people's minds, for Larry David to work with Woody but it's not ok for Dianne Keaton? It reeks of patriarchy. To her credit Dylan Farrow did call out a couple of male actors as well. ...

If you feel it's something you'd be comfortable weighing in on I'd love to know what you think, because I respect your opinions and also because you are such a huge fan but also because of your perspective and experience with the subject matter.
I was glad to get Dharma Seeker's email, because it has moved to me to write about this. As she says, it's a natural topic for me: I'm a Woody Allen fan who is also a feminist and a rape survivor. So far I've pushed the topic to the background of my thoughts. The only way for me to fully examine my thoughts and feelings on any subject is to write about it. So here I am.

For reference:

An Open Letter From Dylan Farrow, published by The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof. I did not find this triggering, as the story is completely dissimilar to mine, but survivors of incest and child sexual abuse may find it so.

Choosing Comfort Over Truth: What It Means to Defend Woody Allen by Jessica Valenti in The Nation. I include this as representative of what I've read from many feminist writers.

The Woody Allen Allegations: Not So Fast by Robert B. Weide, who made a documentary about Woody Allen, writing in The Daily Beast. I suggest reading this story, rather than reading about it.

• I believe Dylan Farrow. Why would I not? She is a survivor of sexual abuse and she is coming forward, very publicly. In doing so, she helps all survivors, everywhere, and, I hope, she helps herself, too. Every time a survivor comes forward, she or he must be believed. Dylan Farrow is no exception. Because her perpetrator is a famous person, her public statement is amplified millions of times over. I hope this has turned out to be a positive thing for her. I imagine it is also a burden, but I hope it is more liberating than confining.

• I believe Dylan Farrow, and when she says that Woody Allen's success has felt like a personal rebuke, I must believe her, because those are her feelings. No one can deny how another person feels. I not only believe her, but I can understand it. I can imagine it.

• When Dylan Farrow rebukes actors for working with Woody Allen, I disagree with her. She is absolutely entitled to feel that way, of course, and perhaps I would feel that way if I were her. But in our professional and working lives, we cannot examine the inner lives of our employers and colleagues and decide where and with whom we will work based on our discoveries. If people are judging female actors more harshly than male actors on this issue, that's the usual sexism at work. But neither male nor female actors owe a debt to abuse survivors, to be paid in the form of turning down work.

• Dylan Farrow rebukes Woody Allen's fans, and although I can imagine where she's coming from, I disagree with her there, too. I have been watching Woody Allen films since the 1970s. I love many of them, am indifferent to some, but my opinions and feelings are already part of me. I can't delete them from my brain because of something Woody Allen did. Dylan Farrow's disclosures are disturbing. But I don't experience art based on what I know or don't know about the artist.

I was talking about books with a friend from the library. I mentioned I had re-read Ernest Hemingway's For Whom The Bell Tolls before I went to Spain, and how much I enjoyed it, how it made me appreciate Hemingway in a whole new light. My friend said, "I won't read anything by him. He was a bad person - a womanizer, a drunk, a disloyal friend." She had read The Paris Wife, a novel based on Hemingway's relationship with his first wife, and now she will not experience the man's art.

Let's leave aside the fact that The First Wife was a novel; in this case, it doesn't matter if the novel was 100% factual or not. I was amazed that someone would choose not to experience art because of something they know about the artist. The implications of this are enormous - and absurd. Shall we lay bare every artist's life story, examine their motives, their worldview, their moral code, pass judgment on them, then if we find the artist to be upstanding moral citizens, read their books, see their plays, view their paintings? I don't subscribe to a stereotype of the artist as outside the bounds of morality, but neither do I set myself up as judge and jury. When it comes to art, I'm not there for the artist's personal life. I'm there for the art. An artist may choose to infuse her work with morality, but the personal moral code of the artist is irrelevant.

• At the beginning of Choosing Comfort Over Truth: What It Means to Defend Woody Allen, Jessica Valenti tells us straight off that she has never seen a Woody Allen film. Her parents shunned Allen's movies because of his relationship - which she puts in quotes - with Soon-Yi Previn. Personally, if my parents had told me not to watch a director's films, I'd be trying to rent, borrow, or download as many of his films as I could. But Valenti has chosen to respect her parents' judgments. She sees Allen as a pariah, and she sees his defenders as either abusers, liars, or tools of patriarchy.

I read Valenti often, and I often agree with her, but from this piece I read: "My parents told me not to watch these films because they were made by a bad man", a statement both juvenile and useless. What purpose does boycotting Woody Allen films serve? Who does it help?

When Valenti writes--
Because no matter how much we know to be true, patriarchy pushes us to put aside our good judgment—particularly when that good judgement is urging us to believe bad things about talented, white men.

I believe...that people are skeptical of abuse victims because “the truth and pervasiveness of sexual violence around the world is overwhelming. Why would anyone want to face such truth?” I also believe that deep down people know that once we start to believe victims en masse—once we take their pain and experience seriously—that everything will have to change.
-- I agree with her.

However, there are two aspects of her column with which I disagree. One, she claims:
Or, as one of Allen’s friends did in a shameful article for The Daily Beast—we simply insinuate that the protective parent is just a slut, so how can you believe anything she says anyway?
I read Robert Weide's article in the Daily Beast. I don't understand why Valenti would misrepresent an article that we can all read for ourselves, and I don't know how she comes up with her analysis of the story. Weide actually praises Mia Farrow for her undeniable talent and her humanitarian work. He does mention Farrow's relationship with Frank Sinatra, when Farrow was 20 and Sinatra was 50, but that is a fact, not an accusation. Weide mentions Farrow's other relationships (Andre Previn, etc.) but how is that slut-shaming? Unless Valenti is engaging in some kind of reverse sexism or prudishness, I don't know why facts about Farrow's relationships would disturb her.

More importantly, though, I note that Valenti's parents kept her safe from Woody Allen's movies not because Allen had abused Dylan Farrow, but because of his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn. Valenti segues seamlessly from Soon-Yi Previn to Dylan Farrow, as if they represent the same issue. I find this disturbing.

• I understand that many people find the age difference between Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn hideous and disgusting. This, in my opinion, is a bias; it has more to do with social norms than with anything inherently wrong with the relationship. I also understand people think that Allen and Previn committed an act of treachery and betrayal against Mia Farrow. And I have no doubt that from Farrow's perspective, it seemed that way. But facts are facts. Woody Allen was not Soon-Yi Previn's parent, or guardian, or custodian. Note I do not say, and I am not implying, the qualified "he was not her real father". I am not distinguishing between adoptive and biological. Allen was not her father at all. He was her mother's boyfriend, and while that may seem to many as a crime, it is not child abuse. And Mia Farrow, who did have a relationship with Frank Sinatra when she was 20 and the singer was 50, should know that. I think we all should know it.

• Conflating Woody Allen's relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, now a married couple of 17 years, and a sexually inappropriate relationship with the young Dylan Farrow is unfair and a bit ridiculous. One is consensual, but outside social norms and distasteful to the prudish. The other is child sexual abuse.

• People claim that the age and power difference between Allen and Previn, and Previn's age when they first became involved, negate the possibility of consensual sex. I find that insulting to young women. Teenage girls can make up their own minds about whether and with whom to have sex. They may make mistakes, but that doesn't mean they can't give consent.

• There do seem to be some unusual issues and inconsistencies around the sexual abuse of Dylan Farrow by Woody Allen. I don't think it's wrong to look at those with clear eyes. Refusing to look at possible circumstances doesn't further the cause of survivors of sexual abuse. I believe what Dylan Farrow writes, but I can still read Robert Weide's column and wonder how the two fit together.

• When revelations about Allen and Soon-Yi Previn first surfaced, some co-workers of mine said things like, "He is so sick and twisted. Just look at his movies, you can tell what a freak he is! This just proves it." If there are people who see Woody Allen's movies as evidence of freakishness or sickness, I can only imagine that their view of the human condition is so narrow and constricted as to admit very little outside their own experience.

If, like Valenti or my friend who won't read Hemingway, one chooses not to experience a person's art because of the artist's choices or moral code, that is one's right, of course. But to state or imply that people who do otherwise - people who will continue to enjoy Woody Allen's movies - are somehow complicit in child sexual abuse is to wrap oneself in a cocoon of moral judgment that is both convenient and self-righteous.

The implication that the next time I watch a Woody Allen film I am standing with abusers and betraying survivors doesn't stand up to scrutiny. What other films shouldn't I watch? Is there a list of morally pure directors I can refer to? What about musicians, architects, painters? And, remind me, how does boycotting Woody Allen help survivors?

Of course Dylan Farrow can't stand to see her perpetrator celebrated and feted, and her pain dismissed as ambiguity or lies. But for viewers - or non-viewers! - to sit in judgment of actors or other movie-viewers, as if the decision to not watch a movie is something more than a personal choice, as if that choice bestows some sort of moral superiority... give me a break. And conflating Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn with Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow is, at best, fuzzy thinking. At worst, it's sexist, paternalistic, and insulting.


what i'm watching: not love, but crap, actually

Tonight I tried again to watch "Love Actually", and once again am left shaking my head in disgust (at the movie) and disbelief (in its popularity, among people who ought to know better). Why does everyone love this movie? Why is it hailed as the great ode to love and romance and a beloved holiday-season classic? It is not romantic. It is not funny. It is crap.

I should start by saying that I didn't want to see "Love Actually". The presence of Hugh Grant alone is enough to drive me away. But so many people - people I respect! people with brains and thoughtful opinions! - said that they liked it. One smart man said the movie had "all the markers of a movie I should hate," but he ended up thinking it was wonderful. All right, then. I'll give it a go. Costs me nothing. Wrong!

Tonight I tried a third time to watch the film (the first two tries unsuccessful), so that I could tally (a) fat jokes, (b) older male bosses drooling over too-young subordinates, and (c) moments of intrusive, manipulative soundtrack, but I lost count and gave up. This is a movie so heavy-handed - and with so little respect for its audience - that it must break out into loud, sweeping Romance Music every time Feelings Are Present. Did you hear that? That there's the sound of Feelings! Get it, didya, huh? Here it comes again, listen to the Big Music, kiddies, Feelings again!

Feelings of some kind, but not love. Love is not present. Hardly ever. One would-be lover after the next can't tell the difference between love and lust. Nothing wrong with lust. I'm all for lust. But this is supposedly a movie about love. And no romantic comedy worth two hours of your life confuses the two.

Christopher Orr, in The Atlantic, calls "Love Actually" "the least romantic film of all time". He writes:
I think it offers up at least three disturbing lessons about love. First, that love is overwhelmingly a product of physical attraction and requires virtually no verbal communication or intellectual/emotional affinity of any kind. Second, that the principal barrier to consummating a relationship is mustering the nerve to say “I love you” — preferably with some grand gesture — and that once you manage that, you’re basically on the fast track to nuptial bliss. And third, that any actual obstacle to romantic fulfillment, however surmountable, is not worth the effort it would require to overcome.

Begin with the elevation of physical attraction over any of the other factors typically associated with romantic compatibility: similar likes and dislikes, overlapping senses of humor, shared values, what have you. Grant falls in love with McCutcheon the first time he speaks with her — “Get a grip,” he chides himself moments afterward — when essentially the only thing he knows about her is that she accidentally uses profanity a lot. (Charming? Sure. Evidence of a soul mate? Unlikely.) Firth and Moniz, meanwhile, fall in love despite not sharing a word of language in common. Moreover, the movie telegraphs very clearly that the moment when Firth really falls for Moniz is when he watches her strip down to her underwear.

The film is a considerable outlier among romantic comedies in its rigorous conviction that people don’t even need to learn anything about each other to confirm their initial attraction.

The pattern is repeated throughout the film.
Some of the supposed romances - like Grant's - are merely ridiculous and non-credible. But others are downright disgusting. Alan Rickman lusts after his beautiful and sexually available assistant. He buys expensive jewelry for the object of his desire, which his lovely and age-appropriate but same-old-same-old wife Emma Thompson finds in his pocket. Thompson marvels, thinking Rickman wants to re-kindle their romance... until she finds a Joni Mitchell CD under the tree. Rickman is well pleased with himself for remembering that his "cold English wife" "still" listens to Joni Mitchell, even though her clothes look like Pavarotti's hand-me-downs, and why are we following this story? Where is the love, actually?

Another supposedly romantic plotline sees a man stalking his best friend's wife, because... because... because she is so hot! Back to Orr here.
Creepiest of all is the storyline involving Lincoln and Knightley. Why is he so desperately in love with his best friend’s bride? Well, it’s not the result of any conversation they’ve had or experience they’ve shared, because the movie is at pains to note that he’s barely spoken to her and he goes out of his way to avoid her company. Indeed, the video tribute to her bridal radiance that he records at her wedding makes pretty clear what it is about her that so captivates him. (Hint: not her mind.) And he, too, like Neeson, ultimately suggests that the only way he will ever get over this love of his life is by hooking up with a supermodel. I’m barely scratching the surface of what’s wrong with this subplot—the movie’s worst—which somehow manages to present the idea that it’s romantic to go behind a friend’s back to ostentatiously declare your everlasting love for his wife. But let’s not get off track.

This is the point at which defenders of the film will reply, reasonably enough: So what? In movies beautiful people always fall in love with other beautiful people! What’s wrong with love at first sight, anyway? Which are both fair responses, as far as they go. But Love Actually is a considerable outlier among romantic comedies in its rigorous conviction not only that people fall in love without really knowing one another, but that they don’t even need to learn anything about each other to confirm their initial attraction.

This is not some abstruse or esoteric component of high-end cinema. The core of most romantic comedies — the core, for that matter, of most romantic comedies written and/or directed by Richard Curtis — is one form or another of mutual exploration between potential lovers. Some movies do it well and some do it poorly, but almost all at least make an effort to do it. The protagonists bicker their way into love (27 Dresses, Sweet Home Alabama, Something's Gotta Give ...). The guy gradually persuades the gal that he’s worthy, or vice versa (Groundhog Day, Knocked Up, Working Girl ...). One helps the other overcome a foolish obsession with a Mr. (or Mrs.) Wrong (The Wedding Singer, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, While You Were Sleeping ...). The free spirit teaches the control freak to let go and embrace life (Along Came Polly, Pretty Woman, The Ugly Truth ...). Opposites discover that they are attracted (Two Weeks Notice, Notting Hill, Maid in Manhattan ...). Etc., etc. My point is in no way to suggest that these are all good movies. (They’re emphatically not.) Rather it is to point out just how far outside the ordinary it is that none of Love Actually’s fated couples spends any meaningful time getting to know one another at all.
And let's not even start on the sexism. Maybe it makes sense in a movie where lust is mistaken for love that women are portrayed exclusively as objects, and anyone whose bones aren't visible in an off-shoulder top is fat-shamed, and a woman who takes care of her mentally ill sibling will die alone because all that nurturing gets in the way of sex, and fathers tell their creepily mature 11-year-old sons that the only way to get over the death of the great love of your life is by having crazy sex with a supermodel.

So maybe all that hideous sexism is to be expected. But it's still disturbing. For the low-down on that, read this skewering review at Jezebel.

Perhaps the only honest line in the entire film is Joni Mitchell's rich contralto singing, "I really don't know love at all." You don't suppose Richard Curtis is commenting on his own film?


what i'm watching: ken burns' "prohibition", an excellent documentary

This week we finished Ken Burns' excellent documentary "Prohibition," and I recommend it highly to everyone who enjoys history. Most of us know at least something about Prohibition, especially how it failed, but I'd bet that much of this film will be eye-opening.

And, if you aren't a regular viewer of Ken Burns' documentaries, this three-parter could serve as a wonderful introduction to his signature style. It's on US Netflix, on PBS, and probably at your local library.

I did know that the early movement against alcohol was deeply rooted in the early US women's movement. Women's anti-alcohol groups, especially the Women's Christian Temperance Union - which still exists! - were the first women to speak out publicly about domestic violence. In the pre-Prohibition United States, the saloon was a male-only domain. Men drank away their family income, then came home and abused their wives and children. Organizing against alcohol was a way of asserting women's and children's rights to live free of abuse. Some amazing feminists drove the women's movement forward through the fight against alcohol.

However, one thing I didn't know was that incredible feminist organizing was also instrumental in getting Prohibition repealed. The "Prohibition" film introduced me to Pauline Sabin, a wealthy New York socialite who used her formidable organizing, fundraising, and speaking skills to leading the movement for repeal. (The repeal movement was also fueled by the Great Depression, as the return of legal brewing, distilling, and winemaking would return millions of Americans to employment.) Another terrific woman you'll meet is Lois Long, who wrote what surely must be the godmother of "Sex and the City", for The New Yorker, under the pen-name "Lipstick".

Here's something else I didn't know: the temperance movement was also deeply rooted in religious and anti-immigrant bigotry. White, Protestant, rural Americans who had been in the country for a few generations sought to curb the behaviour of Irish, Italian, and German immigrants who lived in the teeming cities and gathered in saloons and beer halls. After all, those immigrants were dirty, vulgar, Catholics! The extent that Prohibition equalled anti-Catholic organizing may surprise you.

And, like you, I knew something about the unintended consequences of Prohibition - the speakeasies, the bootleggers, the violence. But I had no idea how widespread it was - how much money was involved, how completely corrupt the whole system was, how many deaths it caused. There was considerably more alcohol being sold and consumed during Prohibition than before or after it. And the attendant crime - politely referred to as organized crime or racketeering, but more properly called gang violence - was beyond anything I had imagined.

Canada figures in this story, of course, from the supply side, but alas, the country gets only a brief cameo. The film doesn't mention the Bronfman family, founders of Seagram, who amassed their first fortune as bootleggers, or Hiram Walker's distillery, conveniently located in Windsor, a very short, bribed boat ride from Detroit, or the many Canadian border towns that thrived off the Prohibition trade.

The parallels to the criminalization of marijuana are obvious, but I saw another contemporary parallel. The Prohibition movement could have been much more successful had it been more flexible. During the movement for Repeal, "wets" gave "drys" many opportunities to amend the Volstead Act to make it less extreme, while still leaving strong restrictions in place. The "drys" refused to compromise. For them, it was full Prohibition or nothing. And because of that, they commanded little popular support. This reminded me of the current anti-abortion-rights movement, hell-bent on alienating potential allies with their extremism.


faludi: corporatist pseudo-feminism vs radical change for women and all working people

I would like to draw your attention to an excellent article by Susan Faludi in The Baffler: Facebook Feminism: Like It or Not.

Faludi contrasts the corporatist, individualistic, me-first, privileged, self-centered, pseudo-feminism of "Lean In" with the collective, cross-class activism of some of the original feminists: the "Mill Girls" of Lowell, Massachusetts, who fought for human rights and labour rights for all women. Describing the links between feminism, class struggle, the labour movement, and even the abolitionist movement, Faludi demonstrates how all oppression is interconnected, and how only collective solutions can affect change. She shows how an effective women's movement most be anti-capitalist and anti-corporatist, too.

Faludi dissects and deconstructs the Facebook-based "Lean In" and its corporate partners, peeling back the cheery, self-help facade to reveal the status quo underneath. It isn't pretty.
Lean In Platform Partner Wells Fargo: In 2011, the bank reached a class-action settlement with 1,200 female financial advisers for $32 million. The sex discrimination suit charged that the bank’s brokerage business, Wells Fargo Advisors (originally Wachovia Securities), discriminated against women in compensation and signing bonuses, denied them promotions, and cheated them out of account distributions, investment partnerships, and mentoring and marketing opportunities.

Goldman Sachs (whose philanthropic arm, the Goldman Sachs Foundation, is a Lean In Platform Partner): In 2010, former employees of Goldman Sachs filed a class-action suit against the company, accusing Wall Street’s most profitable investment bank of “systematic and pervasive discrimination” against female employees, subjecting them to hostile working conditions and treating them “like disposable, second-class citizens.”

Lean In Platform Partners Mondelez and NestlĂ©: In 2013, an Oxfam investigation in four countries where the two companies outsourced their cocoa farms found that the women working in the cocoa fields and processing plants that the companies relied on “suffer substantial discrimination and inequality.” When women at a cocoa processing factory demanded equal treatment and pay, the investigation noted, all of the female workers were fired. The same companies that “put women first in their advertisements,” Oxfam concluded, “are doing very little to address poor conditions faced by the women who grow cocoa.”
And so on. Lean In's message to women confronted by institutional barriers and the absence of social supports: try harder. Join a Facebook group. Believe in yourself. If it isn't working, you haven't tried hard enough.

Faludi contrasts this with an inspiring history lesson.
In 1834, America’s first industrial wage earners, the “mill girls” of Lowell, Massachusetts, embarked on their own campaign for women’s advancement in the workplace. They didn’t “lean in,” though. When their male overseers in the nation’s first large-scale planned industrial city cut their already paltry wages by 15 to 20 percent, the textile workers declared a “turn-out,” one of the nation’s earliest industrial strikes. That first effort failed, but its participants did not concede defeat. The Lowell women would stage another turn-out two years later, create the first union of working women in American history, lead a fight for the ten-hour work day, and conceive of an increasingly radical vision that took aim both at corporate power and the patriarchal oppression of women. Their bruising early encounter with American industry fueled a nascent feminist outlook that would ultimately find full expression in the first wave of the American women’s movement. . . . .

The Lowell factory owners had recruited “respectable” Yankee farmers’ daughters from the New England countryside, figuring that respectable would translate into docile. They figured wrong. The forces of industrialization had propelled young women out of the home, breaking the fetters binding them to the patriarchal family, unleashing the women into urban areas with few social controls, and permitting them to begin thinking of themselves as public citizens. The combination of newly gained independence and increasingly penurious, exploitative conditions proved combustible—and the factory owners’ reduction in pay turned out to be the match that lit the tinder. Soon after they heard the news, the “mill girls”—proclaiming that they “remain in possession of our unquestionable rights”—shut down their looms and walked out.

From the start, the female textile workers made the connection between labor and women’s rights. . . . The mill workers went on to agitate against an unjust system in all its forms. When Lowell’s state representative thwarted the women’s statewide battle for the ten-hour day, they mobilized and succeeded in having him voted out of office — nearly eighty years before women had the vote. Mill women in Lowell and, in the decades to come, their counterparts throughout New England threw themselves into the abolitionist movement (drawing connections between the cotton picked by slaves and the fabric they wove in the mills); campaigned for better health care, safer schools, decent housing, and cleaner water and streets; and joined the fight for women’s suffrage. Sarah Bagley went on to work for prison reform, women’s rights, and education and decent jobs for poor women and prostitutes. After a stint as the first female telegrapher in the nation (where she pointed out that she was being paid two-thirds of a male telegrapher’s salary), she taught herself homeopathic medicine and became a doctor, billing her patients according to her personal proviso, “To the rich, one dollar—to the poor gratis.”

Increasingly, the mill girls were joined in these efforts by their middle-class sisters. Cross-class female solidarity surfaced early in Lawrence, Massachusetts, after the horrific building collapse of the Pemberton Mills factory in 1860, which killed 145 workers, most of them women and children. (The mills in Lawrence would later give rise to the famously militant “Bread and Roses” strike of 1912, in which female workers again played a leading role.) In the aftermath of the Pemberton disaster, middle-class women in the region flocked to provide emergency relief and, radicalized by what they witnessed, went on to establish day nurseries, medical clinics and hospitals, and cooperative housing to serve the needs of working women. By the postbellum years, with industrialization at full tide and economic polarization at record levels, a critical mass of middle-class female reformers had come to believe that the key to women’s elevation was not, as they once thought, “moral uplift,” but economic independence—and that cross-class struggle on behalf of female workers was the key to achieving it.
You may imagine that the obstacles faced by working women in 2013 and those faced by female factory workers 150 years earlier is an apples-and-oranges comparison. They have more in common than you think. So do the solutions. Read the essay here.

The story of the Mill Girls is one of my favourite pieces of history - women's history, labour history, and the history of radical people's movements. So for me, Faludi's essay contained an amazing bonus: I learned that there is a Lowell National Historic Park! It preserves the historic mill buildings and celebrates the work of our radical foremothers. I had never heard of it before. I hope to make a visit within the next year.