Tag Archives: feminism

Collective Liberation Simplified

Power has a tendency to centralize, and the more it does, the more the working class (the 99 percent) faces economic exploitation, political disenfranchisement, and social inequality–difficulties that can be broadly classified as “oppression.” They’re all linked. Different groups within the working class (men, women, people of color, immigrants, scapegoats-of-the-year) face these issues in different ways, but we all face them.

Some people face multiple forms of oppression at once. They might be at the intersection of racism, sexism, or any number of things. They teach us intersectionality: that is, is the understanding that everybody’s oppression is connected.

Fighting any one thing at the expense of another is bound to fail. That’s why we should never be too busy with our own liberation that we fail to lend a hand in someone else’s. When we do, we are working toward collective liberation.

Any questions? Read these next.

“The Combahee River Collective Statement”

and

“Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy” by Andrea Smith

and

“Refusing to Wait: Anarchism and Intersectionality” by Deric Shannon and J. Rogue

 

Politics and art (again)

The topic of politics and art came up recently in a Facebook debate, and I had some perspectives to share. Rather than overwhelming my friend’s Facebook wall, I’ll share them in this post. Here are a few of the assertions made:

“Censorship, even self-censorship to abet a political agenda, is anathema to art.”

“Mixing politics and art doesn’t do art any favors.”

In this post, I’ll start by generally considering the concepts art, politics, and self-censorship. Then I’ll put it in the context of the feminist movement and finish up with a work of political art by Frida Kahlo.

Art

There’s no defining the term art, but as a rough start I’ll say that it is something produced by people that speaks to the soul of those who receive it. (Except that nature makes art, too.) Art is created in a social context. It’s made many times–first by the creator, and then by the person who receives it.

Art is made for art’s sake, as self-expression, as commerce, as politics, or for any number of reasons. What makes it art? That it transcends those conditions of production and becomes something that speaks to the soul.

Art is shaped by culture, and in turn, it shapes culture.

Politics

There’s no defining politics either. In the Facebook discussion, everybody was using the term without agreeing on its basic definition, which in my opinion derailed the whole conversation. My own definition of politics is broad and expansive and stems from the feminist movement. That definition is so widely used that ignoring it will inevitably lead to confusion and pointless arguments.

The personal is political. There’s a world of meaning in that statement. When a publicly elected official can pass a law legislating what a woman may or may not do with her womb, the personal is political.

Politics, to me, is everything having to do with the power dynamics of human relationships. And as such, it’s an integral part of art.

Therefore, the assertion “mixing politics and art doesn’t do art any favors” makes no sense to me. It’s like saying “mixing salt and ice cream doesn’t do ice cream any favors.”

 

Art and social movements

For every broken human institution we’ve ever had, there’s been art to back it up. To justify it, to put it in a positive light. Our culture is the water we swim in, the air we breathe, and it is inevitably reflected in our art.

Then maybe a social movement comes along, intending to change the institution. Struggle ensues, and you’ll see resistance art. This is true for any social movement–feminism, civil rights, communism, or the push for democracy in the late 1700s.

For every social movement against a human institution you’ll have two kinds of art: that which strengthens the institution and that which resists it. They’re both political. There are those who believe in a third kind of art, that which remains neutral. I’m skeptical. Sometimes the people who say that just don’t see the air we breathe.

At the very least, whenever there is a struggle to change our social, cultural, economic, and political circumstances, art situates itself somewhere in the struggle. Maybe it’s actively building a wall against change. Or throwing rocks against a wall, or up in the picket lines fighting and getting tear gassed. It could be standing on the wall trying to simply observe–a risky business. Or sitting down and having a beer with the people who don’t want anything to change, feeling innocent. Perhaps, instead, it’s throwing pies at somebody. No matter what, though, art is somewhere.

And art has power: to change our hearts and minds, to change our culture, to start a revolution or to glorify a king.

Art, politics, and self-censorship

Because art has power, there will always be people making demands of it. Do this! Don’t do that! At some point, those demands rise to the level of censorship. Maybe the artists face execution for their work, or the loss of a job. This is terrible for art (at least until whoever is in power gets deposed).

In that context, I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment:

“Censorship, even self-censorship, is anathema to art.”

However, I don’t agree with this one:

“Censorship, even self-censorship to abet a political agenda, is anathema to art.”

To me, it’s only censorship if the artist is at risk of execution or loss of ability to get a job, or if a censor has the power to stop the work from getting out in the world. There’s a high bar, and for good reason. Censorship is terrible. We shouldn’t weaken the term.

By the same token, it’s only self-censorship if the artist limits or changes their work as a result of these kinds of repression.

Anything else is whatever the artist chooses to do with their art, which is their own business. If they want to change or limit their work to abet a political agenda, they can do that. Call it self-regulation, or editing.

People can even demand that an artist change or limit their work, and it’s not self-censorship. People make demands on art all the time. But art’s going to do whatever it does.

Art, censorship, and feminism

Feminist authors are often told their works are “too political.” We’re repeatedly told, by workshop reviewers and editors, that we should change or limit our literature. Or we’re not told that: our work is just dumped into the slush pile, because its political sensibilities offend.

We’re asked to change or limit our work. We are often rejected by fiction markets because we don’t conform to prevailing notions. I could call that censorship, but I’m not going to. I set the bar high, and it applies equally to both sides of the debate.

The feminist movement has gained in power, and people with feminist sensibilities have our own publishers and publications. We’re everywhere: writers, editors, publishers, reviewers, and on awards committees. We’re even approaching 50% representation in some of these areas, though we have a long way to go.

Now that we’re here, we’re making our own demands. We’re saying, “Artists, we want the world to be different, and your art is part of that. We want you to stop perpetuating obnoxious stereotypes. Or even better, could you take our side in this struggle we’re having just now?”

The demand itself–this is not censorship.

Art, feminism, and backlash

In the field of fantasy and science fiction, as in all the other fields of art, feminism has encountered a backlash. No surprise there. Part of the backlash is asserting that feminist fiction has politics, while good fiction does not. A lot of the people who believe that politics and art can be separated are really referring to politics that violate cultural norms. The politics that validate them go unnoticed.

Another part of the backlash is the accusation of “political correctness.” This accusation, ironically, is used to silence a demand. We want our culture to change the way we use language, especially the way members of oppressed groups want people to refer to them. These are not unreasonable demands. If somebody is calling me a b**h or a c**t, I would ask them to stop.

However, I don’t have the power to make anybody stop using words. I don’t have the power to enforce censorship. I don’t want that power, either. I want the power to effect social change as one member of a democratic debate.

 

The work in question

The work in question was “Five Signs Your Story is Sexist–Against Men.” This article considers five stereotypes: male heroes with no relationships, fathers that are distant or judgemental, men that are divided into winners and losers, male consent that’s disregarded, and feminine men who are mocked. And it offers suggestions for how to fix fiction that has those stereotypes.

I don’t agree with all the advice in there. In some places it overstates its case and makes political statements I don’t agree with. Nobody should take its proscriptions and follow them blindly. At the same time, I was so happy to see a feminist article that talks about how stereotypes hurt men, and to tackle them as an element of craft.

In no way does this article privilege politics over art. Feminist politics are all about the nature of human relationships, which is a proper subject of art.

So I don’t see this work as any less legitimate as another article on the same blog, “Five Characters That Are Too Powerful.”

I have disagreements with both articles, and I’d happily participate in a lively debate about them. But one thing they both do well: they start a fascinating and productive conversation about craft.

Art, revisited

All art is created, distributed, and remade in a social, cultural, economic, and political context. It takes politics as its subject and it makes proscriptions. And if it’s really good art, it transcends politics, proscriptions, and context. Take this painting by Frida Kahlo, “Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick.” It is overtly political, and it leaves us face to face with the unknown, watching and wondering.

frida kahlo marxism-will-give-health-to-the-sick

Frida Kahlo, “Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick” – from fridakahlo.org

 

Steven Moffat’s work is more complicated

I read with great pleasure a post by Jack Graham on the multiple failings of Steven Moffat, showrunner for Doctor Who. Though a devoted fan of Doctor Who, I also enjoy shredding it to bits on the grounds of politics, gender, and race. It gives my brain something fun to do. I’m in agreement with Graham’s closing remarks:

The people in power, the privileged, deliver something, and instead of saying “thanks boss”, you say “not enough – do better.”  Moffat has a harder time pleasing everybody because more people are politicised and vocal about stuff like sexism.  The neoliberal feminism of a privileged ‘ally’ isn’t good enough for them.  And that’s as it should be.  Be reasonable, I say.  Demand the impossible.

I also agree with mostly everything Graham says in his post. For instance: “In Moffat’s show, women are overwhelmingly defined by their traditional gender roles or bodily functions.” Yes. That’s very annoying. Also: “I think the reason that lots of people think Steven Moffat’s version of Doctor Who is sexist is because it repeatedly acts and sounds sexist. Yes. I agree. And: “Moffat’s repeated tendency to have him cosy up to rulers, presidents, kings and queens, bosses, presidents, etc., is quite revolting.” Good point, and a disturbing departure from Classic Who. Finally: “He makes Doctor Who safe for neoliberalism.” Whoa . . . hadn’t noticed that, but now that Graham mentions it. . . yeah. A lot of Classic Who is about the rebels beating the empire, and I miss that.

At the same time, though, under Steven Moffat’s direction the show has done some remarkable things with both gender and politics. Here are five things (out of many) I’ve absolutely loved:

1. In “The Beast Below,” an authoritarian is deadlocked by a moral dilemma it can’t solve. It uses a fake kind of democracy to enforce the status quo: those who dissent are thrown into a pit to be eaten. The status quo relies on everybody forgetting the underlying societal injustices. What ultimately solves the problem? Amy Pond forcing the queen to abdicate.

2. Male domesticity plays a key role in the show. Most dramatically, in “Closing Time,” the plot resolution hinges on the bond between a father and his baby.  For example, Rory is the one who wants to settle down and have a baby, and Amy is the one who wants to put off her wedding in favor of having adventures. Rory has a nurturing occupation (nurse).  And Rory’s father is shown doing household chores. In short, men are moving beyond their traditional gender roles.

3. Shows often revolve around women’s issues of every sort. What saves the day in “The Doctor Dances”? A recognition of the plight of unwed mothers during World War Two.

4. Finally, the power dynamics between men and women are complex. The flirtation between River Song and the Doctor, which spans Seasons Four through Seven, is all about power. They’re engaged in a struggle for domination that lasts four seasons, and that they both clearly enjoy. She has power no other companion has ever managed: she can drive the TARDIS and she knows his name. And, although he apparently traps her in an artificial reality at the close of her story, she reappears inexplicably in a disembodied/embodied state.

5. The TARDIS got sentience under Moffat’s watch. She got to tell her own story and explain the role in his adventures that she’s always had. Sweet.

There’s such a wild abandon of creativity in Moffat’s work. It’s stretching in new directions all the time, and it’s offending and delighting people of every political persuasion. Art does that! So, while I’m perfectly happy to criticize him until I’m blue in the face, I’m equally happy to celebrate him.

But not just him — the show, and all the many writers who craft the characters and situations. It’s easy to oversimplify and place the criticism and celebration on him, which does everybody else a discredit. I’ve just started going back to my favorite episodes and seeing who wrote them, and my life is all the richer for it.

Update on June 15th, 2015

I neglected to mention that I found Jack Graham’s post through Philip Sandifer. It was a response to a post of Sandifer’s that I just got around to reading, “The Definitive Moffat and Feminism Post.”  Good stuff in there.

Here’s a quote:

Yes, the Moffat era of Doctor Who is sexist. Because it’s television made in a sexist society. But it has things to say about that society, and they are not kind things. I genuinely fail to understand anybody who claims that the Moffat era is sexist in excess of background radiation. This is a show that’s repeatedly telling girls that they can be as cool as the boys, that the boys don’t always know better than them, and that love and independence don’t have to be antagonistic qualities for women. It’s a show that tells rape survivors that it’s OK to not be defined by the terrible things that happen to them. It’s a show that says that women aren’t done being sexy once they get a grey hair and their first wrinkle, and that tells the Doctor off for thinking otherwise.

My tangential conclusion

Let’s end with a youtube video from the Chameleon Circuit, “Big Bang Two,” and a picture from the video. (Why? Because I like it!)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jsFleDHX3G4 

big bang two

“I am a man”

“I am a man,” writes Ursula Le Guin in her book the wave in the mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination. She doesn’t mean it literally; instead, she’s making some potent observations on the past and present of Western culture.

She goes on. “Women are a very recent invention. I predate the invention of women by decades.” I love this! She’s telling a tall tale that makes us look at the world with fresh eyes and laugh at it. It’s the sugar that makes bitter truths go down.

“So when I was born,” she continues, there actually were only men. People were men. They all had one pronoun, his pronoun; so that’s who I am.”

She’s not, however, a particularly successful man: “I can’t write my name with pee in the snow, or it would be awfully laborious if I did.”

Le Guin goes on to explain all the other ways she fails at being a man, and then points out that she’s not much good at being young either, and suggests that perhaps she might as well start pretending that she is an old woman. “I am not sure that anybody has invented old women yet; but it might be worth trying.”

Of course she isn’t a man; she is an old woman, and a mighty fine one at that. If I’m ever fortunate enough to become an old woman, and I can pull it off half as well as she does, I’ll be happy. I hope she stays an old woman for a long, long, long time.

But I do resonate with what she says. I’m a man too. A feminist man. I became a feminist boy at the age of ten, when I read Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series and identified so strongly with George, the girl who insisted on being called a boy. George believed that boys were better than girls, and by being a boy, she was better than a girl.

Feminist discourse was right there with me, for quite a while. Women could be as good as men, but only by becoming like them. I didn’t see a separate and worthwhile female identity for a long time — or rather, it’s come into focus only slowly, as I stay home, do housework, and raise kids. I have to keep reminding myself that my work is valuable and important.

(That means it’s time to take an intermission from this blog post and listen to Carole King singing about The Enchanted One.)

Okay, that’s better. Anyhow, I’m gradually coming around to the concept that I might be a woman. Dresses — no. Purses — no. Lipstick and eyeshadow — no. Girls’ night out — you bet! Listening to the Verity Podcast — absolutely! Favoring books by woman — yes! It seems my gender changes as my activities change. Maybe that’s my superpower.

I absolutely loved what Ursula Le Guin had to say about women at the 2010 Winter Fishtrap gathering, themed “Learning From Women.” She was uncomfortable with defining what a “woman” was, and pointed out that women are required to learn how to be men, but the same is not true in reverse. A proposal went out that we might honor the men in the audience by letting them be honorary women. Well, that was mind-blowing!

Okay, now, I’ve managed 548 words without talking about Doctor Who, even though I’m really, REALLY excited about Doctor Who right now. We just saw an episode where a woman, Clara, played a man, the Doctor. She did it flawlessly. Why, she’s as good as a man!  Who knew? (Or you could look at it another way: the role of Doctor turned out to be gender-neutral and to fit a man or a woman equally well.)

So how come, I wonder to myself, how come I didn’t get all excited about seeing a woman Doctor, but instead wrote a blog post all about the man, and what he’s thinking and feeling? That question is right up there with, “Well, I’m a feminist, so why am I taken with this quite patronizing and patriarchal character?” Also, “If the role were to be played by a woman, would I like it as much?”

Another question: when I watch the show who am I identifying with? The female companion or the male Doctor? The answer is both, and that sometimes it’s one more than the other. When I first started watching the Doctor Who, I identified most strongly with the female companion, Zoe. She was about my age, and a good student, and she got to one-up the Doctor intellectually from time to time. I also identified with Liz Shaw, Jo Grant, Sarah Jane, Nyssa, and Ace.

Right now, though, I’m mostly identifying with the Doctor, as played by Peter Capaldi. And I’m doing it whenever he has a difficult choice to make or an ethical question to consider.

Curious.

canyonlands graffiti2

Feminism on the home front

I was at the table with my husband, seven-year-old daughter, and nine-year-old son, and I decided to broach the topic of feminism with my daughter, basically so I could talk with her about Doctor Who and blogging. So here’s what I said. (Names have been changed for privacy purposes.)

“Jenna, do you know what feminism is?” I asked.

“No,” she said.

My mind went blank for a minute. How do you explain this to a seven-year old? It’s not possible. I oversimplified.

“Well, it’s a lot of things, but basically it’s the idea that a girl is as good as a boy and a woman is as good as a man.”

“Then I’m a feminist!” she said proudly.

“I am too,” I said.

“And I am too,” said my husband.

My son Ryan, who had been listening intently, said,

“Well, I haven’t decided yet.”

We didn’t challenge that or browbeat him. I’m glad he’s honest. This will be one of many, many conversations about respect for women, I’m sure.

But my husband said, “Well, it’s also about the rules for what women can do and what men can do.”

I said, “Right. Women can wear women’s clothes and men’s clothes. Men can only wear men’s clothes. That’s not fair.”

My husband said, “Right, and men aren’t allowed to have long hair!”

Jenna said, “But you have long hair!” and pointed to him and laughed.

Finally I brought the conversation back to Doctor Who and some blog posts about the Bechdel test. I said, “So there are a lot of feminists blogging about last week’s episode of Doctor Who. Clara and Emma kept trying to talk to each other, and the Doctor kept interrupting them.”

Jenna said, “But did Clara interrupt the Doctor?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Well, that’s fair then!” she said.

This Chick Digs “Chicks Unravel Time”

I dig it. Chicks Unravel Time, ed. Deborah Stanish and L.M. Myles, brings in a mad collection of feminists – fans, authors, artists – to take a look at every season of Doctor Who. And what a look! They give close examinations to everything from the use of stock music in Season 5 in Classic Who to David Tennant’s bum in Series 2 of New Who. (We women like every aspect of the Doctor, apparently.)

Here are a few shout-outs to essays that ringed a bell for me.

In “Guten Tag, Hitler,” Rachel Swirsky asks some pointed questions about the Doctor. As a child, Swirsky asked her mom if her family was safe from such persecution because they did not practice the Jewish religion. No, said her mother. So this episode takes on highly personal significance for Swirsky. She asks the very reasonable question of why the Doctor didn’t try to save the Jews from Hitler. “The Doctor,” she writes, “doesn’t save people from the all-too-real horrors of trenches and machetes. He rescues them from malfunctioning robots.”

In “Identity Crisis,” L.M. Myles writes, “[Patrick] Troughton’s not merely good as the Doctor, he’s the best.” Thank you, L.M. Myles. I’ve never heard anybody say that before, but I absolutely agree. She writes: “His performance combines humor, compassion, intelligence and mystery in a way that’s still unmatched by any other actor to take on the role” and “[his] whimsy and apparent uncertainty in his own abilities makes him a very different sort of hero.” Yes, and yes. Troughton is panicky as often as he is triumphant and out of control as often as he is successful. I love it. Who wants a hero who has everything handled?

In “The Women We Don’t See,” K. Tempest Bradford looks at Season Thirteen, companion Sarah Jane Smith, and all the other women . . . who weren’t there. “For most of this season, the Doctor travels alone with Sarah Jane – and in half the stories, she’s the only women we see, with the exception of extras and background people. This erasure is as glaring as the stereotypes we get when women do eventually show up.” I remember watching this season for the first time. And the second. And the third. And not noticing that omission.

In “No Competition,” Una McCormack argues that Season 26, with Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor, is the best season ever. She writes, “Season Twenty-Six contains a magic combination of complex storytelling and satisfactory realization that, to my mind, is never quite matched before or since.” I agree it’s pretty darn awesome. Sylvester McCoy and his companion Ace are some of my favorite characters. McCormack writes: “Ace grows up, and Doctor Who grows up with her. Again and again, the season imagines women as heroes of their own narratives, as authors of their own stories.” Yeah. What she said.

In “Ace Through the Looking-Glass,” Elisabeth Bolton-Gabrielsen covers that story arc that Ace should have had, if the show hadn’t been cancelled. I didn’t know this, but Ace was supposed to train to become a Time Lord.

I’ve saved my favorite for last. In “Maids and Masters: The Distribution of Power in Doctor Who Series Three,” Courtney Stoker takes on the power dynamics between the Doctor and his companions. She writes: “Power impacts every relationship the Doctor has, but it’s not something Who fans talk about often. We like to pretend, I think, that the Doctor’s extraordinary power isn’t important. We like to think that it doesn’t affect him or his relationships with others. We like to think that if companions are ‘strong’ enough, sassy enough, smart enough, they are his equals. But no matter how many times a companion saves the Doctor, or how many times a companion stands up to him, they don’t have his power.” The rest of the essay is a frank assessment of power dynamics in Series Three. (Can I just add, on a related note, how disturbing and gratuitous I found the maid/Master dynamic in the tenure of Martha Jones?) I loved this essay because I am always analyzing power dynamics in Doctor Who relationships. I relish every last little bit of power the companions wrest from the Doctor or that the Doctor yields to the companions. And I love all the moments when the power dynamics between the Doctor and his companions shift one way or another. Stoker asks: “Are we fans as attracted to the Doctor’s power as his companions are?” Um, yes.

I’ve picked out these essays in particular, but the others are just as stunning. Go get it! It’s available as part of a box set on the Mad Norwegian Press website.

Genderfail Sucker Punch!

Couple caveats: #1 I don’t know the whole story so I’m sure I left out important bits; and #2 that I don’t blame any individual people for this. It’s societal.

A sucker punch is “an unexpected blow” but to me holds the additional connotation that “you should’ve expected it, sucker!” When I think of a sucker punch, I think of Charlie Brown still trying to kick that football Lucy is holding.

Genderfail is Internet slang for some sort of failure to appropriately address issues of gender. To my mind it’s a sister term to “racefail,” which can be absolutely epic. For an example of racefail: “RaceFail ’09 is one of the names given to a large and tangled snarl of racism, misunderstanding, culture clash, poor behavior, and hurt which consumed several interconnected corners of fandom in early 2009.” (This is from http://fanlore.org/wiki/RaceFail_%2709)

So now I can explain how I’m using these terms in this blog post: a snarl of feminism, misunderstanding, culture clash, poor behavior, and hurt — that came as a surprise blow to me even though I really should have known better.

My suspicion is that any political organization comprising both men and women is going to have a genderfail at some point. I mean, how do you avoid it, really?

So anyway, there was a political organization. I joined it because although it was male-dominated, it had a core of feminists, and I thought that would be enough to bring real change. Then some things happened, and I went inactive. This part wasn’t genderfail, it was just your basic organizational dysfunction. (Note to self: if it takes an organization more than six months to make a new member packet, it’s time to run.) So I was on the listserv but mostly not paying attention.

Another woman went inactive after having a baby.

Meanwhile, the organization kept on doing what it was doing. Let me make a metaphor here. Let’s suppose that you have built a house, and some people have moved in. Then some more people have moved in, and it is determined that the house needs an add-on, which will take about three to six months. People get out of the way to accomodate the add-on. Maybe a couple people take temporary housing (that would be me) whereas others just move out and move on. Suddenly you don’t need the add-on, but you keep going. And it takes a year and a half, by which time other people have left. Meanwhile, next door, there is a high-rise condo going up. It is determined that the community who lives in the house will take part in the building of the high-rise condo, and about half the people go off and do that.

I guess I was waiting for the high-rise condo to be finished so I could move back into the house.

But meanwhile, back at the house, there was some bickering. Which wouldn’t have been so bad, except then the mansplaining set in, and then the resulting concerns were put down to interpersonal conflict, which was true enough, but not nearly as true as that there was a genderfail in the making.

The sucker punch is this: there were four women who could have stepped in to help, but instead, one bore the brunt of it alone.

Here’s the other reason it was a sucker punch: This house was a rebound relationship for me. The last house I was in had more women than men. It still had genderfail, and it still had racefail too.

And here’s why it was a sucker punch for the activist community as a whole: back then, when I related the genderfail to an activist from the 1980s, she nodded her head and said “Of course!”

We’ve come a long way, baby!

(Or not.)