Category Archives: Feminism

The Future of Writing; Or, Paranoid Thoughts on the Future of Discourse

I am so, so delighted that Indira has revived the blog!

As Indira and I met through feminist activism, it seems appropriate to relaunch apparatchicks with a meditation on wtf has been going on in the feminist blogosphere of late.

It all started with Olivia Munn, a new member of the Daily Show cast. Jezebel proposed that she was not qualified and, what’s more, that The Daily Show was a shite place to work if you were a woman. The Daily Show women employees retorted. The internetz fluttered. Then, Emily Gould wrote the mother of all responses, suggesting that the Jezebel column was merely a manifestation of a disease plaguing feminist blogs the world over. The article is appropriately entitled “Outrage World,” and it identifies an Internet culture in which suggestions/accusations/ideas intended to get the blood boiling are favored over sophisticated thinking; ad revenue generated by many page-views is the goal, and writers have to up the ante in order to get the views. She writes:

It’s certainly important to have honest, open conversations about the issues that reliably rake in comments and page views—rape, underage sexuality, and the cruel tyranny of the impossible beauty standards promoted by most advertisers and magazines… But it may just be that it’s not possible to have these conversations online. On the Web, writers tend to play up the most jealousy- and insecurity-evoking aspects of controversy…It’s just how the Internet works.

So, if she’s right, and I think she is, how depressing is that? Ultimately, Gould’s argument is an economic one; she is suggesting that journalistic or ideological integrity can’t win on the Internet, since more thoughtful, less zealous writing wouldn’t get the page views needed to make $$$ at a for-profit media company. For several reasons, this bodes poorly for the future of discourse, the foremost reason being that journalism’s final frontier is the Internet. So, as long as someone needs to make money off your words, and reasonableness must be sacrificed for coveted revenue, what does this mean for the future of writing-and of ideas–in general?

Pardon me if I sound like I’m all on some apocalyptic shit; you must understand, I regard the Internet with a mixture of awe and fear, much like peeps regard their gods. And I know, like people know of their gods, that the Internet is a Force capable of bringing massive good (a savior) along with the bad (a flood). But let me just focus on the bad for a sec.

Indeed, I have often pondered the way Internet communication (e.g., chatting), writing (e.g., blogging), etc, will change the way we conceptualize the world. It seems that Emily Gould has isolated at least one instance of how the business of writing online churns and condenses complicated topics into base and uncouth bylines, and eventually, dollar billz.

Don’t say I didn’t warn ya!

–anna, from her underground bunker

Pitchfork Continually Surprised by Talented Women

pretty, pretty princess who you might be sorta interested in, i mean, if you like chick singers, dude

by anna

Like many music enthusiasts in the world, I have a love/hate relationship with Pitchfork. My most exhilarating encounters with music criticism occurred while reading Brent DiCrescenzo’s outrageous (yet emotionally stirring!!!) reviews while I was still in high school. Pitchfork has informed the way I conceptualize music; it created the first paradigm for richly informed, detailed, obsessive music criticism, thereby driving the blurb-driven snark machines of Rolling Stone and Spin into the bitter, bitter dirt of irrelevance.  Also, Pitchfork has contributed to my vision for a blog like this one, in which I deconstruct a Beyonce single in like 1000 words.

Back in 2005, DiCrescenzo wrote a column chronicling various indie prototypes created in Pfork’s reviews, among them an intellectual female artist known as “The Stef,” and the freak-man-boy known as “The Sloth.” In it, he describes Pitchfork writer’s analyses (both underlying and upfront) of women musicians:

Specifically, writers paint Fiona Apple and Cat Power’s Chan Marshall as hormonally capricious victim-savants and read all their lyrics like Psy.D parents unlocking a daughter’s pink diary, while Devendra Banhart’s jabberwocky skews as fecund genius.

and later…

When convenient, male songwriters slip into omniscient skin to amuse and illuminate, while female songwriters meddle in their first-person emotions, unable to escape the black hole of their romantic astrology. Naturally, emotional analysis always overshadows technical musicianship in Stef reviews.

In other words, reviewers focus on the emotional qualities of women artists’ work, while they are more generous with men, granting them agency over their identity.

Too bad no one ever heeded his words over at the magazine. Despite Pfork’s “Best New Music” section featuring a larger proportion of women-led acts than perhaps ever before, the language of the reviews stirs in me a reaction similar to that of feminist bloggersresponses to The New Republic’s recent profile of Sonya Sotomayor. (That’s a whole ‘nother controversy, but one that revolves around the reading of a female subject through a lens of motherhood and unhinged emotionality.) Do a close, or fuck, a distant reading of some of these reviews, and all the acceptable feminine identities are neatly rolled out in a matter of four goddamn sentences, then the woman artist in question will be shoved into each and every niche, until she is a sex symbol, a princess (!!), a mother, and an earth-goddess.

So, czech out the latest example, from the review of St. Vincent’s Actor.

Annie Clark, the musician otherwise known as St. Vincent, projects an aura of eerie perfection– beautiful, poised, good-humored, and well-adjusted to a degree uncommon for rock performers, let alone ordinary people. She’s clearly not oblivious to her disarming qualities. On the covers of both her albums, her wide eyes and porcelain features give her the appearance of a cartoon princess come to life, and in the songs contained therein, she sings with the measured, patient tones of a benevolent, maternal authority figure. The thing that separates Clark from any number of earth mother Lilith Fair types, however, is her eagerness to subvert that effect. Her album covers may showcase her pretty face, but her blank expression and the tight framing leave the images feeling uncomfortably ambiguous. Her voice and arrangements are often mellow and soothing, but those sounds mainly serve as context as she exposes undercurrents of anxiety and discomfort hidden just beneath a gorgeous façade.

Clearly, St. Vincent has an authoritative presence; but the critic here qualifies her assertive vocal tendencies as “maternal,” for no reason I can tell other than Ms. Clark has a woman’s voice. And, Lilith Fair? I don’t hear much 90’s lesbian music going on here; St. Vincent is more akin to those indie musicians pushing the classical envelope. Again, the only thing I imagine would conjure such a comparison would be her womanly voice.

Also, she’s a pretty pretty princess.

If Dicrescenzo is arguing that critics assume an insulting lack of agency on the behalf of women artists’ identities, this review pats St. Vincent on the back for being shifty; she has stealthily avoided all the traps pfork has set up for her.

Behold:

With that in mind, the album is perfectly titled, as Actor proves St. Vincent as an artist capable of crafting believable, complicated characters with compassion, insight, and exacting skill.

“Thanks, guys! I am capable!” I’m certain that’s what Ms. Clark was thinking when she read that.

You know who else is capable? Bat For Lashes’ Natasha Khan. Check out the last sentence of the recent review of Two Suns:

Not only does Khan hold her own, there are moments when she holds his, too [on the song The Big Sleep]. That she’s capable of doing so is evidence enough that we should be paying attention.

Apparently Pfork needs a lot of proof from the women artists they review. I find it uncanny, not to mention lazy, that these two reviews end almost identically. Furthermore, the fact that Khan “holds her own” with a man is supposed to prove to us we can pay attention now? Thanks for the permission.

Then again, I am relieved that the critic even came to that conclusion, given his best efforts to totally undermine the seriousness or aesthetic worth of Bat For Lashes in his opening sentence:

Natasha Khan likes pretty things: fur, gold, melody, the moon, feathers, things that sparkle, chords that resolve.

The thing I am most shocked about is the weird lack of awareness running through these articles. Aren’t these music critic dudes at all sensitive to the potentially cringe-inducing usage of words like, “capable” or “pretty” or “maternal?” Didn’t these hip young men ever take a gender studies class? Don’t their girlfriends get annoyed with them? Have they ever talked to a woman?

I am not proposing censorship, I am proposing a little sensitivity. I am delighted that women artists are being reviewed favorably by Pfork, but I won’t be satisfied until they apply the language they use in reviews of dude bands/acts to the womenfolk.

A GOOD BLOG COMIN YOUR WAY!

Here in Chicago, there is a team of us starting a website and quarterly magazine called “Wisecrack: Feminism & Comedy.” Already we’re on the first page of google when you type “feminism & comedy” into the search engine, which shows the kind of void we are filling here.

Our website is currently under construction but should be up by next Wednesday. It is:

wisecrackmagazine.com

For now, you should check out our blog, which features articles by me and Indira along with numerous posts about things relating to feminism & comedy:

wisecrackzine.blogspot.com

Check them out and please keep your eye on us! We’re up and coming!

-anna

ps, we also have a twitter.

Feminism and the Philosophy of Relativity

by anna

Not too long ago I read Katha Pollitt’s “Learning to Drive,” a collection of essays and memoirs by The Nation columnist and prominent feminist.

I was particularly struck by a few lines, something I have consistently mulled over during my past years as a feminist activist, and something I believe worthy of all feminists’ consideration:

“These days anything is feminist as long as you ‘choose’ it … no matter how dangerous or silly or servile or self-destructive it is.”

This was quoted last week in Linda Hirshman’s article for Slate,  “Crazy Love, Crazy Choices.” Hirshman, in her characteristically assertive manner, took the hard-line on how women should act when they find themselves in abusive relationships. She was responding to Leslie Morgan Steiner’s new book Crazy Love, which chronicle’s the author’s experiences with an abusive husband.

To be precise, Hirshman says, “The current love affair with understanding stops feminists from calling victims on taking responsibility for their own well-being.”

I know Hirshman is very controversial and comes across as a tad intolerant (especially when it comes to her commentary on women’s career issues). But what I admire about her is her willingness to take a strong, unequivocal position on certain issues. However, her ideas can sometimes look like Stalinism to feminism’s current “anything goes” policy.

But what both Pollitt and Hirshman have responded to in some form or another is the relativity of popular feminist thought. To rephrase both Hirshman and Pollitt, I think what they are objecting to is the idea that “if a woman makes a choice, it’s right because a woman made that choice.” This idea is intellectually lazy, a tautology, an emptiness at the hole of feminist thought.

Feminism no longer is a united ideology; feminists can hardly agree on common goals, much less a common system of thought that might guide us to a better philosophy. We don’t need angry judgment against women from feminism, but we do need more dramatic guidelines to help us figure out where we’re going. We are becoming an umbrella party for all liberal causes; I would like us to remain potent and strong, with focused, marked criticisms and policy proposals for our society.

As Hirshman’s utterances were pretty much a condemnation and judgment of one woman’s actions in regards to her abusive husband, let me just distance myself and say I still don’t know how to approach that topic. I do think the victim has a responsibility to take care of him/herself, but I also don’t think we can universally declare that the abused party is wrong and stupid when they do not to leave their abusers.

I know feminism has distanced itself from the world of black and white moral thinking, and for good reason. Certain types of old logic are contrary to feminism and women’s progress. But in our efforts to destroy old categories, it seems we have destroyed a lot of other things too, among them the ability to come up with a coherent ideology. More on this later.

Star Trek: The Feminist Generation

I look concerned because I do not want to be dismissed.

I look concerned because I do not want to be dismissed.

The XX Factor, Slate’s feminist blog and one of the Internet’s foremost feminist blogs, recently ran an interesting analysis of the show Battlestar Gallactica, and asked if the show is indeed as feminist as it is purported to be. The post veers off from Battlestar and does a spot-on critique of women’s role in the genre of science fiction. However, I’ve got a bone to pick with their mention of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which seems to me an all-too-quick dismissal of the show based on the attire of Deanna Troi.

To fans, this show is simply known as TNG, and I will refer to it as such here on out. I think now and will think forever that TNG is the most politically progressive thing ever shown on television. For those who have not had the pleasure of watching it, please understand that TNG is not about shooting lasers at aliens or fantastic battles in space (well, most of the time). The show is a sincere study of the questions of the universe, including but not limited to: What is being? How do we define humanity? What is the ultimate goal of human existence? It grapples with the delicate balances of interpersonal relationships. It examines the role of humanitarian intervention and asks how best to proceed with interplanetary diplomacy with concern for cultural difference. In short, this show is deep.

As for its take on gender, an old friend once pointed out to me that all the main women characters have jobs that could fall into a stereotyped category, such as care-giver (doctor) or feelings-examiner (counseler).

And as XX points out, Deanna is quite scantily clad, at least in the first season (she is wearing a rather 60’s looking mini-dress), but this omits the fact that Tasha Yar is the CHIEF OF SECURITY in the first season. That’s right–a woman is the pre-Warf head of security! And she’s not just a man in a woman’s body–she can be sexy if she wants to and her toughness is derived from escaping the rape gangs on her civil war-torn home planet. One of the most feminist episodes has to be “Code of Honor” (although, unfortunately, this episode is rather racist, employing stereotypes of macho tribal cultures to heighten our sense of the Enterprises’ progressive attitudes toward gender).

When the macho leader of the planet arrives on the Enterprise to discuss giving the Federation a much-needed vaccine, he becomes enchanted by Tasha Yar’s strength. He explains that on his planet, women aren’t in positions of military power. So he kidnaps Tasha and plans to make her his lover. On the macho tribe planet, Tasha goes to battle with leaders lover (and financier) and she TRIUMPHS with weapons she’s never even practiced with before! Jean Luc Picard politely explains to the leader that where he is from, people believe women are just as strong and smart as men. Other characters snicker about the barbarism of a people who could possess such an antiquated attitude.

The genius of the show is that the characters’ beliefs are so far beyond thinking of the world in terms of gender difference that it demeans the very idea of sexism. It boldly goes into a new future, where debate is no longer even necessary; it just takes gender equity (the idea AND its practice) for granted, as though it is now and ever shall be the truth. Which it should be.

Too bad Tasha is portrayed by terrible, humorless actor Denise Crosby (who, after being kicked out during the first season, mysteriously returns a few years later to play a Romulan [who turns out to be Tasha Yar’s daughter in a parallel universe, or something like that]). ANYWAY! If you’ve seen nearly every one of the 178 episodes, explaining the plot begins to be a problem.

TNG also tactfully avoids sex and romantic entanglement beyond the PG-13 rating. All characters prioritize their careers above romance, including the women. Women are also to be observed in the highest ranks of Star Fleet, thank you very much.

Finally, the beloved Deanna Troi, though something of a sensitive, new age 90’s stereotype of a person, is a lovely character who derives strength, wisdom and even power from her emotional prowess. We are supposed to value her for her mind and her more stereotypicall feminine characteristics, which I think is unusual today. The sung heroines of the hour are often ones who just act like men. In later seasons, Deanna even decides to train in order to captain the ship, if need be. She learns all the technical stuff women aren’t supposed to learn and even trains in combat, all while maintaining her rather feminine mystique.

In other words, TNG is not sexist, but a nuanced portrayal of a team of characters. Most of the time.

-Anna

The Slumdog Millionaire and His Damsel in Distress

My come-hither eyes are asking for help.

My come-hither eyes are asking for help.

Indira had asked me to do an Oscar prediction round-up, but I had only seen one of the movies featuring a nominated-best actress (that being the depressing Frozen River) and I hadn’t seen Frost/Nixon, Benjamin Button, or The Reader. I really fell down on the job this year…or maybe I was just watching awesome movies that weren’t nominated for Oscars, like Gran Torino, Cadillac Records, and Synechdoche, New York.

But I did see Slumdog Millionaire. Certainly I found its fairy-tale qualities enchanting, its cinematography breathtaking and its heart big and bursting, but I also found it naive (regardless of Boyle’s & Tandan’s stylistic intentions) and–at risk of sounding like an uptight feminist–offensive to the capacities of women.

Like all fairy tales, there is a woman (Latika, played at her oldest stage by the gorgeous Freida Pinto) who must be rescued from some evil villain. As a young girl, Latika first appears melancoly but plucky; in her adolescence she is resigned but wise and world-weary as a brothel-worker, and as her full-grown self she is helpless and apparently lacking in slumdog street smarts.

But perhaps I am just playing my role as the Western feminist, in which I underestimate the limited social mobility for a woman like Latika in Mumbai society. Maybe she really doesn’t have many options available, least of all an option to be brave and self-sufficient, and it would be foolish and insensitive to insist that she inherit these traits.

But the whole film is one fantastical and serendipitous event after another; and if Jamal can overcome his lowliness, why can’t Latika? Argh.

The movie presents three different models for getting out of slums.

Model A: Be Cunning and Display Disregard for Morality

Salim is an archetype Americans recognize; he follows the gangsta narrative of get out the ‘hood, get money, get paid.  Doesn’t matter what/who gets in the way.

Model B: Pull Yourself Up By the Bootstraps

I recall a Colbert Report episode in which Stephen is dictating a list of gifts he will provide for the young people of today. He says he will provide boot straps, by which the recipient will pull themselves up. I attempt to approximate his strange and hilarious syntax. In any case, poor Jamal is doomed to the old Protestant archetype of work, work, work to earn.

Model C: Be Beautiful and Hopefully Someone Rich Will Marry You

The last model clearly requires the least agency. Latika suffers her fair share under the tyranny of her gangster/pimp/ring-leader crime boss. And I know it would be easier to get killed than it would be to run away from her cruel husband. But still… it is disappointing that in a film so rich in the unreal that Latika falls deeper and deeper into her fate without pulling very hard in the opposite direction. If the movie is all about the dichotomy of “slumdog” vs. “millionaire,” she is doomed to slumdoghood, while her compadres reached for a milli. Why is this?

In the end though, I am glad this movie won Best Picture. It has started an interesting debate about poverty, realism, and Danny Boyle, and also sheds a little light on one of the biggest slums in the world.

But I stand firm that the movie’s push-pull dynamic–the “slumdog” mode vs. the “millionaire” mode–does not apply very well to Latika. Even Salim, arguably the film’s biggest villain due to his Fall from good to evil, eventually redeems himself through an act of good will (that is, stalling for time and allowing Latika to escape). Other characters are pretty statically evil or statically good. It’s a good thing that the statically-good Jamal saved Latika, or she might still be making sandwiches for her stupid husband.

-by Anna

A Film Industry for Old Men

Ladies of Almodovar

As Indira and many of my friends know, I am always worried about the lack of feminine perspective in Hollywood. ‘There are no women directors!’ I wail. Indira thinks this is an unproductive way of thinking about the issue. She responds, ‘Women shouldn’t be expected to represent the experiences of other women.’ It is both unfair and unreasonable to expect that having more women in the film industry–as film company executives, movie directors, producers, or whatever–will improve the portrayals of women in film or generally make the industry more feminist-friendly.

And I’ve come around to agreeing with Indira. Suffragettes–post-temperance movement moral crusaders they were–argued that women were the guardians of America’s moral conscience. Letting women vote allows America to preserve itself from the immoral tendencies of men, they said. Nowadays some feminists still believe that electing more women to public office will improve the moral fibers of our politics, but the idea rests on the quaint Suffragette assumption that women are morally superior to men. I was assuming something similar when I suggested the film industry would be better if more women had power in it. But the truth is, if an industry is sexist, or immoral, or whatever, a fine trickle of a few more women in it won’t change the character of an institution. For reform, you need reformers, not just some women.

Still, it is useful and indeed necessary to continue examining the status quo of women (on scene and behind it) in the film industry.

For example, do you know that in all 80 years of the Oscars ceremony, only one woman has been nominated for best director? Yeah, that’s right–I checked, and no, Carol Reed (who won for Oliver! in 1968 ) is not a woman, but apparently a British knight. For your information, the one nominee was Sofia Coppala in 2003 for Lost in Translation. Likewise, no film directed by a woman has ever won Best Picture.

As for Europe, I checked the Cannes’ archives as well. Cannes awarded a Russian woman, Yuliya Solntseva, the award for best director in 1961 for the film Chronicle of the Flaming Years.

The dearth of awards for women is not just a manifestation of industry sexism; it is because there aren’t very many woman directors. There are many reasons for this, but one reason I can think of is that what is considered good in film is masculine/oriented towards men, whereas feminine/oriented towards women is marked and not considered good art by the male critics/industry at large. For a couple of examples, think of Martin Scorsese, who brilliantly examines (blue collar Italian) masculinity and the way men relate to each other in his films (I’m thinking of his masterpieces Raging Bull, Goodfellas, or even The Departed). Then you’ve got Woody Allen, who, at his best, portrays with near-scientific precision the psyche of the male intellectual. These two directors are celebrated as chroniclers of human nature and human interaction; we add no asterisk to their achievements denoting the male-oriented nature of their work, as we do for women’s or women-oriented work.

The entire film industry is a masculine enterprise, and it occurs to fewer women to go into film-making, just as it occurs to fewer women to want to be scientists, or pick up a guitar, when compared to our male peers.

The curse of the feminine marking has been noted by scholars lamenting the disparaged status of the markedly feminine romance novel. Most recently, the masculine industry bias in film was noted by a Newsweek writer angered by the vicious reviews of Sex and the City the movie.

In the same vein, one of America’s best known critics, the New York TimesManohla Dargis, recently outed herself as a feminist in her article “Is there a real woman in this multiplex?“, in which she takes stock of the film industries winners (byronic masculine existential dramas like No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood) and losers (ones led by women). This article is a must-read.

Fortunately, while I wait patiently for women directors to proliferate and creatively flower, men can make really good feminist movies. The most definitive that come to mind are Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Series, in which a group of tough women (led by heroine Uma Thurman) subvert his normal formula of shoot-’em-up tough-guy movies.

Then we’ve got Ridley Scott’s stunning “Thelma and Louise,” in which two women attempt to escape all the constraints male society has placed upon them. Unfortunately it doesn’t end very well for the rebellious duo.

Finally, my favorite director out there making feminist movies, examining woman’s lives, and commenting on gender roles, is the Spaniard Pedro Almodovar. Volver and All About My Mother are probably his two most outstanding films about the ladies.

What are your fave feminist movies?