Archive for September, 2006

Somedays, it is difficult for me to sit quiet in class. Somedays, it is not. Sometimes that is because I simply don’t have anything to say, sometimes it is because I don’t know where to begin. Sometimes, it is because I can’t help but to speak up about something that has moved me, inspired me, revealed itself to me, or pissed me off. Today was a day like that.

In one of my gender and women’s studies classes today, we were talking about Andrea Dworkin. Now, some of you may know that Andrea Dworkin was a radical feminist writer who was involved in anti-rape and anti-pornography work. She is perhaps the most controversial and hated feminist of all time.¬† She was the one for whom the word “feminazi” was invented. While I don’t always agree with what Dworkin has written (you can read many of her works online here), she wrote and spoke with great passion and conviction and was dedicated to her work in ways that I can only imagine, considering the vicious personal attacks she endured, including the pornographic “political” cartoons and slander she was the subject of in magazines like Playboy and Hustler, which she fought against in the name of women’s equality. I read Dworkin when I need to remember why I am a feminist, because she cuts to the heart of patriarchy. I admire her strength and dedication, and I am grateful for the work she did in the face of great adversity, work of which I am the beneficiary.

Today, a young woman in my class, who likely calls herself a feminist, referred to Dworkin and her colleague, Catherine McKinnon (for whom I also have great respect but with whom I do not fully agree) as man-haters.

She then proceeded to talk about Dworkin’s personal relationship with John Stoltenberg – the two were married, apparently, or were at least life-partners, read what he says about their life together here – saying “that must have been a lot of fun” (presumably she was talking about poor innocent and defenseless Stoltenberg and how Dworkin would not have made a “good” wife).

I just can’t put up with that kind of shit, you know? So I put up my hand and politely reamed the girl out for assuming a heterosexist definition of marriage and sex and for conflating radical feminism with misandry. Without people like Stoltenberg and Dworkin, the concept of marriage could not have ever been redefined to include same-sex relationships. Legal changes can occur as a result of social changes. Same-sex marriage is one example.

I am so sick of all the fights between various camps of feminists. I don’t know why we can’t take what is good from a theory and make it work for us without completely villifying the people who helped construct that theory. I have no problem admitting that I find fault in the work of McKinnon and Dworkin – but I also have no problem admitting that these women did ground-breaking work that has supported women’s efforts to achieve equality.

Feminism has been a movement of social change that has evolved over time. More women can call themselves feminists today than ever before, because feminism has changed from an upper-class western white women’s movement to a multicultural, multiracial, multisexual, ecofriendly, multireligious, cross-class, all-access movement. Feminism as a body of work includes lesbian theory, bisexual theory, disability theory, postcolonial theory, critical race theory, class theory, ecological theory, legal writing, historical writing, literature, film, music, art, poetry, sociology and anthropology, and feminists are all shapes, sizes, genders, ethnicities and nationalities. Yet, with all these multitudes of differences, we all call ourselves “feminist”. There is something there that unites us all, across national, political, sexual, racial, accessible, economic, and social boundaries.

Why is it so hard to remember that unifying force? Why is it so hard to come together? Why is solidarity so hard to come by in this movement?

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feminism 101

Lately, I’ve been finding some MAJOR misconceptions about feminism out there in my internet surfing. I’m talking, REALLY REALLY MAJOR. I know that “feminism” as a social movement is highly political, but I’ve been really surprised at some of what I’ve seen lying about in cyberspace about feminism and feminists. So, I’m going to post a couple of links here, to a couple of feminist bloggers who have kindly opened the floor to questions from people about feminism. The questions they have received have been, mostly, genuine and earnest, as have their responses. If you have ever had a question about feminism, I encourage you to read these posts/threads through.

Molly Saves the Day

Amanda at Pandagon

Normally, I *think* I try to answer people’s questions and comments with respect and candour (save for a couple of times when I felt particularly antagonized/vilified/annoyed). But, I know there are lots of people who surf my blog and do not comment (hello out there!), and perhaps some of these folks might feel intimidated by a lack of academic lingo or just general background knowledge about what I’m talking about. And so, I’m going to follow suit with my feminist blogger fellows, and offer to answer any question you might have about feminism.

One caveat: if you’re asking, don’t be disingenous, and be civil. I will answer in good faith and with civility if I feel you are asking in good faith and being civil. Otherwise, please don’t bother: this is not an invitation for anti-feminist/misogynist trolls to slam feminist ideology. If you persist, be warned: I can give as good as you’ve got, and if things get out of hand, I will simply apply universal comment moderation to this post, your comments won’t get through, and you’ll have wasted all that energy.

And, as Molly says, I do not claim to represent all feminists in all their various forms.

so, here’s your chance to ask anything you’ve ever wanted to know about feminism. I’ll do my best to answer. Have at it.

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playing with skin

WordPress has loaded up some new skins. I am going to try a couple new ones out for a couple of days. The last one I had was called Connections. This one is called PressRow. I kind of like the layout of this one, and the image in the header is kind of neat, with the books. This theme also lets me customize the header, so I could insert the same image I had before, of my eyes. There is one more I might try out. I’d like your feedback please! Which skin do you prefer? Which header?

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(warning: I am in a rotten mood. I have a splitting headache that won’t go away. I got about 4 hours of sleep. I have been reading Andrea Dworkin. This might be a bit ranty.)

So, last week I went for a pap smear. I know, nobody wants to hear about this stuff. it’s private, it’s about icky girl stuff, whatever. The attitude towards women’s bodies is ridiculous in our society. Women are taught to loathe our own bodies, and knowledge about our bodies is held in a monopoly by a male-dominated elitist field of doctors. I resent that I have to go for a procedure once a year in which my doctor is inspecting my insides. it seems like such a violation of personal space. This is the only thing that genius doctors have come up with to determine whether or not I have abnormal growths on my cervix. Prying open a woman’s vagina with steel instruments, shining a light inside her body, poking her cervix with swabs, putting hands inside her vagina. And all the while, we are told to relax, submit, don’t tense up, just breathe.

I’ve written a bit about how pregnancy and childbirth has been completely taken out of women’s hands and placed into a medical sphere here and here. What was once a matter for women to know and share, what was once a communal event for women to bond together, has become full of beeping machines monitoring this and that, machines that take pictures of women’s uteruses, and surgical procedures that determine primarily fetal health. Lately more women have been undergoing caesarian sections by “choice”. Andrea Dworkin calls this a surgical fuck, penetration of a scalpel as violence against the woman’s deepest privacy, to maintain the intactness of the vagina for the sexual pleasure of men. (I’m not saying I agree, but it’s something to think about.) What used to be women’s knowledge about women’s bodies has become knowledge about women’s bodies held captive¬† by a male-dominated elitist profession and industry, and women have to pay to gain access to that knowledge – incomplete knowledge based on the study of male bodies (and largely male bodies already subjected to discipline through the military or prison systems or concentration camps, and whose presence in these systems has often been subject to determinative social forces such as poverty and racism) that has discredited the traditional knowledge of midwives and doulas and women who practice herbal medicine who were burned at the stake and hung and thrown over cliffs in burlap bags with their hands and feet tied and called witches. The medical profession has been a large proponent of biological essentialism (the idea that men and women are fundamentally different based on biological differences that are largely arbitrary), and yet still they have refused to study women’s bodies specifically in order to properly diagnose and treat ailments and disease in the female patient (thankfully, this has finally partially changed, but only recently: women were excluded from participating in medical reasearch trials by the NIH and FDA until 1994; read about it here). The male body is the standard, the normalized and accepted standard of biological knowledge. Female bodies are deviant from this norm, and are of interest only in how they can be managed and disciplined out of their “natural” and unruly state and into the better service of patriarchy, largely through breeding and sexual service. Women have been treated by the medical field like cattle, of use to breed and work. Use women’s bodies as much as possible before they are of no further use. Keep them from being able to control their own bodies, their own sexuality, their own pregnancy – it is not their bodies, those bodies belong to men; it is not their sexuality, their sexuality is in service of and in relation to male sexuality; it is not their pregnancy, that child belongs to the father, so much so that he (or less desirably, she) will be given his name, but only until she becomes the property of a husband who may own and use her body for his purposes. More recently, the left has encouraged women to control their unruly bodies to avoid pregnancy and to avoid menstruation, so as to be more desirable and fuckable to men- all in the name of freedom, sexual freedom, freedom of expression of desire – but of course women’s sexuality and sexual pleasure is still defined in terms of male sexuality and male sexual pleasure. Witness the overwhelming research into drugs to increase male libido and virility, and the comparative lack of research into increasing female sexual desire and pleasure. This is because the male orgasm is what matters; the female body is submissive, receptive, a vehicle for male sexual pleasure; the female orgasm only exists to cement an emotional bond and endear her partner to her so she will be more receptive and submissive for him. All of this has legitimized male domination.

I work with two plastic surgeons. They are both male. Nice guys, really, both very nice. Not at all like that show. The majority of the patients we see are female. They come to these men for appraisal and revision of their bodies. They come because they are unhappy with their bodies for some reason. I’m going to put it out there and say society, which is male-dominated and has specific requirements regarding women’s bodies and physical appearance, is the reason women are unhappy with their bodies. These men look at the women’s bodies, tell them what they think is wrong with their bodies, and suggest ways of cutting them open (among other things) in order to change what they say is wrong with their bodies. Our clinic has a waiting list of women who are interested in coming to be appraised by these male doctors and cut open to correct their perceived bodily flaws. They pay to be appraised and told what is wrong with their bodies by these male doctors. They pay to have what these male doctors decide is wrong changed by these two men. They are cut open. Flesh is cut away. Fat is sucked out. Implants are put in. They are sewn back up. They sometimes have complications, mostly not. They are given pain medication (the dosage of which is based on scientific studies of mainly male bodies, because women’s bodies screw up study results, what with their freaky hormones and all, and anyway women are unreliable study subjects because they are either mothers or potentially pregnant). They have scars. One of these doctors I know for certain (I don’t know about the other one) has performed surgery to minimize the size of a black person’s nostrils, making the nose appear less “ethnic”. Both doctors I work for are white. Doesn’t this all seem just a bit unbalanced here?

I don’t mean to demonize the doctors I work with, they are both fine people. Their jobs reinforce patriarchy through the physical alteration of women’s bodies so as to adhere more closely to patriarchal standards of feminine beauty. They are handsomely rewarded for this work by the capitalist patriarchy.

Women have been taught by the medical system to find their own bodies repulsive and their bodily processes as both natural and disgusting (or at the least inconvenient). Witness menstruation. Women are taught from day one to hate their period: the curse, it’s called. Periods are a pain in the ass; they are messy and inconvenient and gross, we are taught. We must never touch menstrual fluid, we must never mention menstruation – we should pretend that everything is “normal”. We should use tampons for maximum discretion, and those tampons should be tiny so nobody sees. Tiny tampons, of course, must be changed more frequently, so this keeps women tied to the bathroom. Tampons absorb menstrual fluid right int he vagina, before it ever leaves the body. This is the best thing, we are told, because they we can pretend that our periods don’t really exist. Never mind that tampons leave behind traces of whatever fibre they are made of inside the vagina when they are removed, traces that the body must work harder to cleanse. The vagina is self-cleansing, but cleansing tampon fibres requires more production of vaginal mucous, so this means more vaginal discharge. Tampons are generally bleached to appear white and clean, just to remind you how dirty and red menstrual fluid is. That means traces of bleach is right up against the mucous membrane, which absorbs everything at a quicker rate. Do these chemicals play a part in increasing menstrual flow? It’s hard to tell. For many many women, these chemicals mean increased cramping and head and body aching during use. There is also the risk of toxic shock, a potentially fatal condition. When I was younger, women were encouraged to change tampons frequently to avoid this syndrome. Now, women are encouraged to leave tampons in overnight and up to 8 hours. All of this, and tampons contribute greatly to environmental damage. Tampons are pushed because pads are bulky and messy; you have to look at your menstrual fluid; they aren’t as clean.
There are wonderful alternatives available to pads and tampons. The Diva Cup and the Keeper are menstrual caps that sit just inside the vaginal opening and collect menstrual fluid. They can stay in for 12 hours. Once you get used to them, they don’t leak. They are made from either latex or silicone, so no weird chemicals are leaching into the blood stream and causing aches and pains. These are great options that are resusable so better for the environment, and are convenient and easy to use. Many women find these methods gross because they actually have to insert their fingers into their vaginas to insert and remove the caps, which means touching both the vagina and menstrual fluid itself. Both are deemed dirty and icky and gross by our society, and so this psychological barrier keeps many women from using these alternatives, despite the fact that they are so much better. This period-aversion has also led to the use of birth control hormones to prevent menstruation, as I mentioned earlier. Rachel at Alas did a couple posts about this earlier this year. If you’re interested, go read the debates there.

what do you think about the monopolization of knowledge of women’s bodies by the medical field?

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This summer, I read a piece that knocked my socks off. It is called “Writing Bodies on the Nation for the Globe,” by genius feminist writer Zillah Eisenstein (2000, Women, States, and Nationalism, S. Ranchod-Nilsson and M.A. Tetreault, eds.). This piece was so complex and challenging for me, as it presented a lot of ideas I hadn’t considered before. The piece argues that nationalism is highly racist and sexist and leads to and reinforces gender and race oppression. I thought this piece deserved some attention here in light of a recent discussion here sparked by my thoughts on the 5th anniversary of 9/11.

Firstly, Eisenstein presents “the nation” as a complete fabrication, an invention, mythic, unnatural. The nation, she argues, is not representative of the people living within its borders. “Nations are constructed through psychic identities that institutionalize ‘difference.'” Nations are presented as homogenous constructions of ideology, and this is simply false. The nation betrays the diversity of its citizens. Moments of nation-building (like 9/11) are used as tools to reinforce this ideology through gender, sexuality, and race. Nations are constructed primarily as female – the motherland – and this makes female citizens into the mothers of us all. Race is used as a means to unite nations, sometimes in terms of securing a place in the global marketplace, sometimes in terms of driving out unwanted groups through ethnic cleansing. Ethnic cleansing has created more refugees than ever; the new “others” in western discourses. When nations take out policies against immigration and refugees, closing its borders to specific immigrants or immigrants in general, this sends a message not just to outsiders that they are not wanted because of their motherland/mothertongue/nationality/ethnicity; this sends a message to marginalized groups already within the nation’s borders that they are not homogenous enough, not wanted, not to demand too much for themselves because they are lucky to be citizens already. When policies are proposed to reduce or eliminate social programs for “illegal aliens” – a term that in itself is sorely problematic because it conceptualizes undocumented immigrants as non-human, and makes documented immigrants of the same ethnicity less stable as citizens (one piece of paperwork away from being non-human) – legal immigrants are stigmatized. Borders do not just keep enemies out, they keep national hatreds in. Nations require both an inside and an outside – borders go both ways, yet they build a privilege against diversity that becomes problematic in multi-cultural populations. Many nations have been built on conquering – in canada, the conquered have primarily been our native populations; in america, the conquered have been native and mexican populations and black slaves from africa. But the rhetoric is about unity – the “united” states – and not everyone has the same narrative, the same access to the benefits of citizenship, yet the liberal discourse promises the “american dream” to everyone.
Nationalism is replacing democracy. Nationalism, Eisenstein argues, is a disguised form of racism, and democracy becomes a tool for nationalist racism to flourish through “freedom of speech” that allows freely spoken hatred – this “freedom” is a freedom of the speaker, not a freedom of those spoken about. When nationalism creates images and rhetoric of homogeneity in its population, marginalizing on the basis of race, gender, and sexuality, the freedom of marginalized groups to speak back against hate speech with speech of their own is compromised, because their speech is not as powerful and valuable as that of the dominant group. Hate speech is one-sided; how is that “freedom”? “equality”? Outsiders in a nation cannot use freedom of speech to challenge the inside ofthat nation; their speech is rejected.
Language about nations is largely highly gendered. We talk about the “mother” or “fatherland”, the “mothertongue.” Nationalism is often spoken in terms of family, headed by a masculine figure, and embodied as a woman. The patriarchal family unit is privileged in nationalistic discourses. The feminine is mother, nurturer, caregiver, in this family, and so the nation’s women are mothers of all the children of the nation. This makes women particular targets in ethnic cleansing regimes as warring groups rape and impregnate women, forcing them to literally be the mothers of a new fantasmic nation of their own design. The women themselves get lost in these violent acts; ethnic cleansing/genocidal rape is seen as worse than “regular” rape, partially because the crime has men as the intended victims as well as the raped women: genocidal rape is meant to eliminate a population of people, not just eliminate the woman. And here, of course, “people” includes the most important citizens: male citizens. At the same time that victims of genocidal rape are forced to be mothers to a new nation, they are eliminated as the mothers of the old nation, used to break apart the national family. And this fiction is legitimized along racial lines but it plays out on gender lines, normalizing gender violence by leaving it unnamed. Male-male rape in war is not mentioned because it destabilizes the very idea of gender central to nationalism. And, of course, in all of this ideology about the patriarchal family unit, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans people are completely invisible, because sexuality is invisible.

these are some of the challenging concepts presented in Zillah Eisenstein’s work. I found these ideas very exciting and stimulating; the piece sent my head spinning. Post-colonial feminist thought is similar in many ways, but I hadn’t read anything specifically about nationalism before this piece. I hope to read more of her, and others’, work on this topic. I think it is a fascinating and important body of work.

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well, I finally finished the paper I was writing from the class I took last month. Whew! Am I ever glad to be done with that one. I had gotten to a point in researching it that I simply didn’t want to actually WRITE it. I knew what conclusions to draw. I knew the theoretical connections to make. but I just didn’t want to do it anymore. its’ not even that I didn’t find it interesting any longer; I did, I still do find the topic very interesting, and I’m sure I will re-read some of the research I did for it. But, gad, it made me tired. So, I excuse myself from Feminism Friday for the second week in a row, but promise to write something tomorrow instead, and it should be interesting, I’m reviewing a piece for my post that blew my socks off this summer about nationalism and feminism. call it Feminism Friday on delay. Hell, if I was late handing my paper in, I can be late with FF!!!

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Many mornings, I listen to CBC (Canada’s national radio and television broadcasting network, government subsidized, excellent programming, non-partisan and unbiased news reporting etc.) – I like a show called The Current, which discusses, you guessed it, current events. Two mornings ago as I drove to work, I listened to the broadcast that has led to this post, about a man named Rufus Hannah who became entangled in a video series called Bum Fights. Has anyone heard of this video series? I hadn’t before this show. Please take a few minutes to read a brief summary or listen to the broadcast here. (Click on the link for Listen to The Current: Part 1. I really encourage you to listen rather than read; the program runs a little over 20 minutes.)

In short, the producers of the Bum Fights series (I refuse to provide a link, but it is easily found through Google on the web) claim to be raising awareness for poverty and homelessness. In reality, they pay homeless people small amounts of money to humiliate themselves, injure themselves or do dangerous things that could easily get them injured, and goad them into violent acts with one another. The homeless people they target are typically not only in the desperate position of not having shelter, but are also in the grips of addiction, making the entire concept of consent a real problem. Rufus Hannah is featured very prominently in the videos, but has now gotten clean and off the streets, and he has sued the producers of these videos and won. However, the videos of his image are still being sold for profit, displayed as samples on the internet, and pictoral images of Mr. Hannah are displayed on the website and reproduced on merchandise such as T-shirts. Some of the things Mr Hannah was paid as little as $5 to do include running head first into plate glass windows or milk crates, being stuffed into a shopping cart and pushed down a flight of concrete stairs, and picking violent fights with other homeless and addicted men, sometimes causing them and himself fairly serious injuries. Rufus is referred to on the web site as the Stunt Bum.

I was so angry and upset and overwhelmed and devastated by hearing about this that I sat in my car and cried as I listened to it. (I like to think I’m pretty tough, but I’m really not.) These videos have broken my heart. What the fuck is wrong with people? I will never understand how someone could exploit and abuse other people in this kind of way, and why on earth anyone would be interested in watching it. I know that this kind of exploitation is nothing new, it has been going on for thousands of years, but I just can’t understand it, no matter how many of these horrible things I am exposed to. The show included a couple of other interviews as well, one with a homelessness advocate whose name I can’t recall. He said (paraphrasing) that these videos normalize the humiliation and abuse of the homeless and makes the homeless sub-human, and that if videos like this were being made of any other marginalized group, there would be a huge public outcry about it and it would stop. And I could feel his indignation. But, I realized as I sat there, there are videos like this out there of marginalized groups and nothing is done to stop it: pornography (the Girls Gone Wild videos jump to mind). (I should add that the couple of clips I watched on the website for these Bum Fights videos also featured women in various states of undress, usually in hotel rooms. I wonder what that has to do with the cause of homelessness, exactly.) Pornography does to women exactly what this man described – normalizes female sexuality as something to be exploited for male pleasure and removes women’s humanity.

I don’t want to turn this into a discussion about pornography, I don’t think I’m ready to go there just yet, but I drew that conclusion as I was listening to the program. Mostly, though, my heart was broken for this man, Rufus Hannah, and the other homeless men (I’m not sure if homeless women were included in the videos), who were so obviously exploited and coerced into these horrible humiliating situations for someone else’s profit. Why are we willing to sell each other out like that? What part of the human condition am I not understanding here? What the fuck is wrong with people? And most importantly, what can we do about it?

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