Archive for November, 2006

crunch time

It’s that time of term again. Papers are due soon, an exam will be coming, and of course, the dreaded LSAT lurks in the distance. And, as you know, I’ve been having a bit of a tough time this term finding things to say. So, without further ado, I must forcibly remove myself from blogging until these academic projects are done. You can expect my return sometime during the second week or so of December. I’ll be around, but just not in the normal time-consuming procrastinating way as I usually am. Once again, if anyone wishes to help me out by picking up the slack with a guest post or two, please leave me a comment on this post and we can email about it. I’ve been just thrilled with the guest posts I’ve received so far, so many thanks again to Ryan, Craig, Matthew, Ballgame, and Marc Andre!

I think if I announce this departure to the world, somehow it will force me to do my work instead of chat with you guys, which believe me, I would far prefer.

Til December!

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on rape

I just had a shouting match with my parents, who are lovely people, but have VERY different views on most things than I do. As a result, I have to vent a little bit, because it seems I am unlikely to change their minds. Maybe, instead, I can find some solidarity here, or even better, change someone else’s mind.

Rape is never, ever, ever, the victim’s fault. No matter where she is. No matter what she is wearing. No matter how drunk she is. No matter where she is walking. No matter what time it was. No matter who she has slept with. No matter how she is talking. No matter how she is acting. No matter her age. No matter if she has taken a self-defense class. No matter if she is a sex worker. No matter what race she is. No matter if she fought back or did not fight back. No matter if she screamed or not. No matter if she carried mace or not. No matter if she was on a date. No matter if she was sleeping in her bed. No matter if she left her window open. No matter if her door was unlocked. No matter if she is married to her rapist. No matter if she has slept with her rapist before. No matter. It is never, ever, EVER, the victim’s fault.

(All of this of course applies as well to male victims of rape, and children. I used “she” here mostly because it was easier than typing “she/he” for everything, and also because the majority of rape victims are indeed women.)

The blame for rape lies with rapists. Putting all this attention on women and what women should do to avoid rape obfuscates the plain and simple fact that people should not rape other people: Not women. Not men. Not children.

Our criminal justice system supports rape. The majority of rape – or “sexual assault” as it is called here in Canada – cases end in a stay. Around 1/4 are found guilty. 80% of those found guilty are given PROBATION. That’s right – no time served. So, tell me, what message does that send to society? Seems to me to say, loud and clear, that rapists get away with it, are not punished, and that victims’ suffering, both physical and mental, doesn’t matter. Combine this message with the mass marketing of women’s sexuality and bodies as objects to be used and discarded that pretty much every product you can buy puts out there. Nice picture we paint of our women, isn’t it? Nice picture we paint for rapists.

This is a rape culture, a violent culture. Victims are blamed, told what they should have done, told how they brought rape and violence upon themselves, told that they are ruined forever as a result of rape. Rapists are sent home. This message has got to stop. Good people like my own parents believe that victims share equal responsibility for what happens because of their own “stupidity” in putting themselves in danger. How can we ever change this mindset if our own legal system doesn’t support us? If our own parents feel this way about victims of rape? How can we put the onus of rape back where it belongs – on rapists?

I’m going to say it loud and clear, once, twice, a hundred times if I have to.





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Hi everyone! I’ve got another guest post for you, from one of my readers, Craig, over at [Insert Witty Title]. (We’re actually doing a post trade, so I submitted to him an edit of a post I did over here about women in math and science careers (that was an interesting process, editing a post I had already written, and incorporating some stuff from the comments to make it even more clear. If you want in on that discussion, go visit Craig’s blog!) He’s a science guy, and likes explaining science-y stuff to people who don’t have a background in science. Perfect! I thought, I sure could use some of that, since science totally overwhelms me. Maybe if I’d had a science teacher like Craig, I wouldn’t have dropped science classes in grade 10!



Infinity is Quite Big

Infinity is one of those concepts that everybody gets in theory but nobody really thinks about too hard. Personally I find infinity very hard to visualise, but that desn’t stop me from trying. Almost without fail I struggle for ages and then just for one horrible second almost manage to grasp how big everything is; for one moment everything else in life feels painfully insignificant and comically small. The feeling always slips away again quickly.

I’m going to try and make everybody feel like that today, using this:


No, not just a cat: A picture. In fact this picture is 50 by 50 pixels in size, greyscale, and (believe it or not) will make for a really good demonstration of how big numbers can actually go.

When you display a greyscale image on your computer it actually shows only
256 shades of grey. Bearing that in mind lets ask an interesting question: How many different 50 by 50 pixel greyscale images can my computer possibly show?

Not that many, right? It’s such a small picture, there can’t be that many different combinations, right? Wrong!

The answer is actually approximately 10 followed by 6020 zeroes, or more precisely, this (click for big number). This is an absolutely overwhelming, mindblowing number. Looking at a page of digits doesn’t even begin to get over how stupendously large it is, it’s nearly impossible to visualise.

To give us some sort of perspective, imagine if each of our tiny greyscale photographs were printed out and piled on top of each other. The resulting stack would not fit on the Earth, or in our solar system, or our galaxy, it wouldn’t even fit inside the entire Universe, not by a long shot! It would, in fact, need this many (click again for another big number). Universes to contain the stack of images. Quadrillions and quadrillions of Universes needed to hold just that one patch of light.

To ground us a little bit, lets do exactly the same thing again with this picture:


Yes, there is a picture there, it is 5 by 4 pixels in size and has only two colours, black and white. How many of these could there possibly be? Following the same method as before we can calculate that there are 1048576, or just over a million.

I have far too much spare time and went out and made every single one of these million pictures, then mirror imaged them so they look like space invaders. Here are one million space invaders (beware, web browser destroying 6.8Mb png lies beyond that link), here is a tiny fraction of that image:


No repeats, nothing missing, this is every image that could possibly be taken from our hypothetical 5 by 4 pixel black and white camera. Even this little patch of 20 pixels is pretty much mindblowing.

One final thought to leave you with — If you multiply these results up to everything else in life: Every pixel on your monitor and television, every photograph in your house and every image you’ve ever drawn then suddenly reality feels (at least to me) terrifyingly large and at least a little bit more incomprehensible.

So next time you’re bored and feeling like you’ve seen it all before, just remember our quadrillions of Universes and millions of space invaders, and remember exactly how much you haven’t seen.

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OK, so everyday I get hits on this site from people looking for a feminist analysis of the hit TV show, Grey’s Anatomy. I guess they end up here because I have the show linked in my sidebar and, well, I write about feminism. Since Grey’s Anatomy is my new favourite TV show since the untimely death of my true all-time favourite, Alias, and in keeping with Ballgame’s post about feminism in film, I thought I’d give them what they come here looking for.

First: why I love Grey’s Anatomy.

  • I tend to generally like medical TV shows (I’ve been watching ER for as long as it’s been on TV)
  • I love Ellen Pompeo, she’s totally cute and I loved her in that movie, Moonlight Mile, with Jake Gyllenhall, who I also love
  • I also love Sandra Oh, I think she is a comedic genius
  • Patrick Dempsey is… dreamy
  • Isaiah Washington floats my boat
  • smart dialogue
  • good friendships
  • an ethnically mixed and representative cast of characters in positions of power and status

Is the show always realistic? I don’t know, I’m not a surgeon. Hell, it’s a TV show for christ sake, it’s meant to entertain us. What I think it does well is show the competition and determination and dedication that medical professionals have in order to get where they are, and it also shows us the massive egos involved. 🙂

Next, where does the feminist critique come in?

For starters, the show has a lot of female characters, all of whom are doctors – surgeons in fact. Surgery is a difficult specialty, and very competitive. These women are portrayed as smart and strong, dedicated and deserving. One is Jewish-Korean. One is from a trailor park and put herself through medical school by modelling underwear. One is Hispanic. One is Black. They are all kind of a mess emotionally. None of them hold a top administrative position. Two are attendings, and one is a chief resident and oversees the interns.

The men on the show are handsome and smart. The chief of surgery is black. The next in line for his job is also black. The guy who owns the bar across the street is gay and his partner is Asian. A couple of them are assholes. But all of them are portrayed as having a sensitive side, being good guys who just act out sometimes.

One of the main relationships on the show is between Meredith, played by Ellen Pompeo, and Derek (AKA McDreamy), played by Patrick Dempsey. Here’s how that went: boy meets girl, they fall in love. Boy just happens to be girl’s superior at work. Boy was married all along to Mrs. McDreamy, girl dumps boy, girl pines after boy while he tries to work out his marriage, boy still loves girl, girl meets a new boy, boy gets jealous, boy and girl have sex, boy leaves Mrs. McDreamy, boy and girl are still messed up emotionally but want to give it a try. So, the one with the power in this relationship? The boy. He also holds all the cards in his marriage because his wife cheated on him and he feels that gives him moral superiority that allows him to be kind of an asshole to her. He lied to Meredith about being married. And she has to deal with accusations of sleeping her way to the best surgeries and claims of favouritism, while he just gets to do what he wants. But, he’s just so darn dreamy! With the floppy hair and the dimples, he is oh-so-hard to resist. I should note that Meredith is quite often referred to as the Slutty Intern, especially this season since she slept with McDreamy once after knowing he was married. hmmmm.

Another big relationship on the show is between Cristina (Sandra Oh) and Preston Burke (Isaiah Washington). Once again, he is her superior at work. She is the one who is vulnerable to criticism and accusations of using her sexuality to get ahead, while his sexuality or morality is never put on display or questioned in any way. Currently, Burke is having difficulty returning to full ability after a shooting accident last season, and Cristina is covering for him so he can maintain his image of ultra-egoiste, powerful, best in the world heart surgeon. Now she’s getting in trouble for covering for him and keeping his secret. She is making sacrifices that could really cost her and put her in an even more vulnerable position so that he can maintain his super-masculine image of the brilliant doctor. hmmm.

Then there’s Izzie, played by Katherine Heigl. She’s beautiful, blonde, smart, sweet. She bakes for relaxation. She grew up in a trailer park and modelled lingerie to pay for school – which posed a problem for her when her fellow interns found out about it. She reclaimed that situation by stripping down in the locker room in order to shame the asshole who was giving her a hard time and spouting my favourite line of the entire show thus far: “Yes, I have breasts! God, how can anyone practice medicine with these?”Last season, Izzie gave that asshole, Alex played by Justin Chambers, a chance and carried on a sexual relationship with him for a time. She was somewhat redeemed when she fell in love with one of her patients and he asked her to marry him. Too bad he died. hmmmm.

Then there’s poor old Mrs. McDreamy, Addison, played by Kate Walsh. The whole truth about her when push comes to shove is the fact that she was: a) married to Derek and b) had an affair with his best friend. Oh, and she happens to be a talented neo-natal/obstetric surgeon. Whenever an intern gets the chance to work with Addison, the situation is referred to as being stuck on “gyne patrol”. hmmm.

Last, there’s Miranda Bailey, played by the brilliant Chandra Wilson. She’s tough, strong, dedicated, private. She has a husband and a new baby, but she is just as determined to be the best damn surgeon around as she ever was. She is the supervisor of all the interns – what do they call that, chief resident I guess. She wields the power she has, and is a force to be reckoned with. She is judgemental of Meredith and Cristina for sleeping with attending surgeons. She has a strong sense of what’s right and what’s not and that is definitely out in her books – she’s demonstrated that by riding Meredith’s ass. She has no power over McDreamy, but she did chastise him for his inappropriate relationship with Meredith. She is the kind of moral centre of the show – and the show’s only mother. Tough disciplinarian, but caring bedside manner. hmmm.

The only other women we see on an ongoing basis is the Chief (James T. Pickens)’s wife, played by Loretta Devine, and Meredith’s mother Ellis. The chief had a long-term affair with Ellis, a demanding and severe surgeon who was overbearing but now has Alzheimer’s disease. The chief’s wife knew about the affair – which broke up Ellis’ marriage to her husband, who deserted Meredith – but the chief’s wife stayed. She even put aside her own desire for children so the chief could pursue his career unencumbered by familial responsibility. She just kicked him out for refusing to retire. Her role is definitely the victim/martyr/good wife, who always supports her man. hmmm.

In addition to all of this, most of these women are all beautiful and slim and have perfect hair. We never see any of them exercising and we often see them eating sweets and ice cream and things that Izzie has baked. Of course, they are not really surgeons, they are actors and their job is to present an image of perfect femininity to the world, so what else can we expect from people on TV shows. But still, unrealistic demands of femininity are perpetuated by this show.

That’s all I have to say about Grey’s Anatomy. On the one hand, it portrays strong, successful women. On the other, the men on the show have more power than the women in every situation. Art imitating life? Seems like it to me.

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Hi all,

Here’s another great guest post from one of my frequent contributors here, Ballgame. I’d direct you to his blog, but he doesn’t have one. So, I’m happy to give him an outlet for discussion here! This one should be fun, I think.


What makes a good feminist film?

I wondered about this when I realized that more than a few of my favorite films of all time were what I think could quite readily be classified as ‘feminist’, including my top pick, the somewhat obscure Plenty.

Plenty focuses on the struggles of Susan Straherne (Meryl Streep) to reconcile herself to the stifling banality of female life in postwar Britain, after a brief but courageous stint as a British intelligence operative working with the French Resistance in WWII. Straherne is clearly a profoundly flawed character, at times self-deceptive, arrogant, manipulative, and occasionally even cruel. But she’s also brilliant, sensitive, loyal, empathetic, and uncompromising, and it is through her eyes we begin to see how the hypocrisy and doublespeak of British (and by extension Western or even civilized) culture works to thwart the human impulse for true freedom, virtuous achievement, and honest relationships. Plenty is not “about” feminism, but the misogyny and sexist double standards of the time are a significant part of the frustration that lies at the heart of Straherne’s struggles, as she finds herself repeatedly playing peripheral roles to much less talented men. Straherne is torn between the necessity of living in the world as it is, and the clarity of her vision of how the world could — should — be.

Meryl Streep brilliantly embodies this complex character, and this could very well be her best role, which is saying a lot given her incredible career. David Hare’s dialog sparkles. (He also wrote The Hours, Damage, and Strapless.) The movie as a whole is just about flawless, with impeccable production values, a poignant score, and an outstanding supporting cast (Tracy Ullman, Sting, Ian McKellen, Sam Neill, Charles Dance). (There’s even a segment about British complicity in the contrived circumstances of the Arab & Israeli war of 1956 that may have seemed like an historical aside when the film was made in 1985 but which today seems chillingly prescient.)

Favorite bit of dialog: “I think I married him because he reminded me of my father. Of course, at the time I didn’t realize what a shit my father was …”

Another film that I found extraordinarily moving is Housekeeping, which is set during the same time period but in a radically different milieu: the Pacific Northwest. Christine Lahti plays Aunt Sylvie, who is given charge of her nieces long after their mother dies. The nieces soon learn that Aunt Sylvie is hardly the ideal mother-substitute which they longed for, but is in fact quite an unorthodox outsider to life. Once again, Housekeeping is not “about” feminism, but the radically different ways each niece and their aunt struggle against or embrace the feminine options they see before them is a significant subtext. Sadly, this unpredictable and extremely poignant film from the 1980s has been quite overlooked and hasn’t even been converted to DVD, though it remains available on VHS.

Kissing Jessica Stein is probably more of an ‘LGBT flick’ than a ‘feminist’ one, but deals with relationship and (admittedly rather idealized) career issues from a distinctly feminine perspective. It’s an exceptionally well-written look at two women who become involved that is alternately moving and outrageously funny.

I’m tempted to add the original Alien, given that female action film leads were still a relative novelty back in the late 1970s when it was originally released (outside of cartoony works). But I’m very interested in knowing what everyone else thought were strong feminist films, particularly from those released the last couple of years.

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… try this!

 Snow Days

(in honour of the season’s first flurries, currently falling outside my window!)

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I think it’s time. I think I can get back to it now. It’s been a while, but I think I’m ready. This might be long…
I talk a lot on this blog about the social construction of gender. But, what does that really mean? It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, especially for this one course I’m taking, the History of Sexuality. It’s mostly based around Michel Foucault’s book of the same name (Vol.1), and some of the myriad responses to it. Foucault wrote another couple of volumes in this planned series of 6, but didn’t get to them all before his untimely death. Vol.1 is definitely the most widely-read, and serves as an introduction to ideas he wanted to later expand upon in the rest of the series. I’ll probably pick up the others at some point, but this first one is fascinating.

The main point of the book is that sexuality, and in particular homosexuality, is historically and discursively constructed. He argues that as forms of disciplinary control rose up in society (things like medicine, prison, school systems, and the church), sexuality became something rigid and binary. In the 18th century, a discourse about sex and sex acts had begun with the christian pastoral tradition that emphasized talking endlessly about sex in order to find out the TRUTH about oneself. Sexuality was placed at the core of one’s identity, the most private secret self one has, and so it began to be that what one did sexually was constitutive of who one was. Confessing this truth was paramount, whether to one’s priest or one’s doctor, and the regulation of sexuality began, whereby people began to be treated by their doctors and psychiatrists, prosecuted by the law, and children monitored in schools and at home, for their sexual behaviour. The word ‘homosexual’ was coined in the late 1800s by a psychiatrist, and ‘heterosexual’ followed some decades later (after WWI). And so here we are, with a discourse about sex that has created two sexualities and privileged one over the other. I’m not sure when bisexuality became part of the mix, but today almost everyone identifies as one of homosexual, heterosexual, or bisexual, and holds that label to be something natural that lies at the very centre of their identity and tells the deepest truth about them.

(That’s not all Foucault has to say in this book, but that is the main argument from which all others flow, and that’s as much as I want to talk about today to inform the rest of this post.)

So, what can we think about this argument? It’s pretty convincing to me. The ramifications of this argument are pretty deep and interesting for me, and spread beyond sexuality to other classifications of identity. I think we are all comfortable with the idea that class is socially constructed – when we speak of someone being ‘born poor’, we don’t mean it in a biological sense, but a social one. But what about other determinants of identity? How about disability – socially determined? I would argue a resounding ‘yes’ – if the environment was right, including ramps and low access tables and desks and public transportation that easily accomodated wheelchairs or walkers, would anyone really be disabled? Obviously, no. What about race? Again, a definite ‘yes’, especially as studies show minimal genetic and biological differences between people of different races, and the long-held knowledge that all races of people came out of Africa. (Did you know that people of all skin colours have the same amount of melanocytes – the cells in our skin that produce skin pigment? The difference is only in how much melanin is produced by those cells.) Knowing this, can anyone really justify such bitter hatred and marginalization of non-white people? I mean, SERIOUSLY.

I want to turn now to gender, and give you an argument about the discursive nature of not just ‘man’ and ‘woman’ but also ‘male’ and ‘female’. People are much more resistant to this idea, that gender/sex is not naturally or biologically constituted – even those who are familiar and accepting of the idea that ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are socially constructed. Even in my course, where most of the students have studied gender theory before and undoubtedly come up against this argument, people had a hard time with the idea that ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are not natural categories – or at the very least, they didn’t know quite what to do with that information.

Can someone tell me exactly what a ‘man’ is? A ‘woman’? I’m sure you’ll know I won’t accept the answer that men are people who display masculinity and women are people who display femininity. We can simply look to not only obvious counter-examples, like transvestites, but to simple examples of people who just don’t play those roles, ‘normal’ everyday people who aren’t such extreme examples, women who don’t act in feminine ways and men who don’t act in masculine ways. It seems silly, doesn’t it, that the identity of ‘man’ and ‘woman,’ something so very basic, would be defined only by things like clothing, mannerisms, and activities – things that any person could readily adopt and display. These social behaviours are often classified as “gender” rather than “sex” – we like that distinction, right? We like to think that there is something more basic upon which we base these social arguments.

Don’t we need something more solid, something rooted in science or nature – biology, perhaps – to explain what a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’ is? Does it have to do with genitalia or reproductive organs? Chromosomes? Well, sorry, but no. Genitalia is an uncertain peg on which to rest gender/sex identity. A fair percentage of live births are intersex or have ambiguous genitalia. (numbers vary, it’s hard to tell exactly because of the nature of the problem, but one stat I read was about 1.7%.) Experts say there are 5 types of genitalia: female (vagina and ovaries), male (penis and testes), male pseudo-hermaphrodite (penis and ovaries), female pseudo-hermaphrodite (vagina and testes), and hermaphrodite (penis and vagina, with either ovaries or testes, but not usually both). Most parents, on the advice of their doctors, have ambiguous genitalia surgically altered, which can present problems later on in the form of identity crises due to imbalanced hormones or the child actually finding this information out, but some “conditions” – such as undescended testes, or the presence of both a penis and ovaries – cannot be easily detected. And this is a totally “natural” “condition” to be born with. Also, what do we do with people who have to have part of their genitalia or reproductive organs removed? Do people who have had hysterectomies stop being “women”? Do people who have had testicular cancer stop being “men”? What about transsexuals, who have surgically constructed genitalia? Where do they fall?

Chromosomes are no easier a signifier. Chromosomal variations do occur – there are, in my understanding, many combinations (NOT 2!): XO (female with Turner’s Syndrome), XX (female), XXXY and XXY (male with Klinefelter’s Syndrome), XY (male, plus two other types of XY with either complete or partial gonadal dysgenesis). So we can’t exactly count on chromosomes to be our signifier, either.

While it is true that most people born do have typical characteristics of male or female, it is also true that these categories are very much socially – and medically – constructed. This is also not really a recent historical trend – before the advent of surgical “correction” of these “conditions”, hermaphrodites were given the option of which gender they wanted to live as, or they were left alone to determine their own behaviour.

The definition of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ has changed over time. It is common in conversation: “women these days are more independent”; “men nowadays don’t want to settle down.” (A conversation I had with a friend the other day. And, by the way, she blamed the second on the first.) Interesting when you think about it, it’s so obvious that ‘women’ have changed since even just a generation ago, but we still try to define ‘woman’ in a biologically stable and ahistorical manner.

I think some of the trouble my classmates had with this concept was that they then wanted to “get rid of” or dissolve gender – they saw gender as something that didn’t really exist, and were quite upset about this. How fascinating! If we can’t pin something on biology or science, then it doesn’t truly exist! Once again the ugly habit of modern western society to put all its chips in the basket of science. At best, the role science has in determining gender is one of identifying biological trends, nothing more. Society does the rest. But that doesn’t mean that just because something is socially constructed, it doesn’t exist in a very real way that has implications for real people’s lives. And so none of this doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for solidarity. In fact, it kind of means there is room for more.
I think the usefulness in identifying the socially constructed nature of gender – and sexuality, race, disability – is that there IS nothing concrete about it, no biological destiny we are tied to. While we may not be fully free to determine the social categories to which we belong, we are free to resist them and cross borders and boundaries into other spaces – even create new spaces, third and fourth and fifth and sixth spaces by which new discourses and new identities and alliances can be formed. I find this information liberating! Don’t you?

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