Friday, December 29, 2017

Queering Religious Danzas

Growing up Catholic in Mexico was magical: I was surrounded by images of Saints and figurines of Mary’s various apparitions; templos (churches) were smoky with the cleansing scent of copal incense; and there was always an occasion to tell someone “felicidadez” (congratulations) since my familia celebrated each family member’s Patron Saint in addition to their birthdays. Even today my mamá pleasantly surprises me with a “felicidadez!” text message in mid-October in honor of my Patron Saint—the Saint after whom I’m named.

But Catholicism in Mexico is also magical because it is an amalgam of Santería, folkloric practices dating to pre-Hispanic times, and official church doctrine. Today, many Catholic Mexicanos devoutly venerate unofficial Saints, like La Santa Muerte, Malverde, or el Niño Fidencio, alongside canonized Saints. Yet, nothing comes close to the love and reverence that Catholic Mexicanos have for Our Lady of Guadalupe, who first appeared to Juan Diego, a native peasant, in December of 1531. Since them, Catholic Mexicanos have found ways to honor La Morenita (a term of endearment for Our Lady of Guadalupe) for Her divine intercession in human affairs.

As a child, my mamá would dress me up like Juan Diego every evening from December first through the twelve in honor of La Morenita. We would also join the daily peregrinación (pilgrimage) from the town’s main entrance to the templo in the town square. There, in a 18th century baroque templo, fit for royal coronations, we paid tribute to La Morenita.

As I got older, I stopped dressing up like Juan Diego and instead partook in some danzas (folkloric dances) to honor Her. Today, I’m no longer religious but I still identify as Catholic because Catholicism is an important part of my mestizo heritage. Indeed, I doubt any other symbol facilitated the cultural colonization of Mexico’s indigenous peoples through the “gospel” of mestizaje than La Morenita's image. [Mestizaje is analogous to the US’s metaphor of the “melting pot.”] Still, I continue to revel in rituals honoring La Morenita, especially the queer elements that pervade the spectacle of danzas.

I was delighted to discover that the growing immigrant population from Copándaro, Mexico, brought their regional danza to my hometown of Oxnard. Like other danzas, the Copándaro danza is done in honor of La Morenita, and consists of several characters. Hernán Cortés, Mexico’s conquistador, is played by a masked dancer completely dressed pink. La MalincheCortés's native lover and translator, is the sole female character. She's often referred to as la chingada (the fucked one) for having betrayed her fellow native peoples. Several other male dancers represent various pre-Hispanic tribes.

The danza begins with Cortés hopping from one native tribe to another, attempting to locate la Malinche, killing various tribes along the way. Only when Cortés finds la Malinche in the last remaining tribe, do the fallen tribes rise to celebrate Cortés's and la Malinche’s joint return, and, ironically, the conquista (Mexico's conquest). That said, it’s difficult to trace the danza’s "true meaning" since each iteration performs "the myth of originality itself,and the original remains "an ideal that no one can embody" or perform. (See Gender Trouble, by Judith Butler.) In other words, each iteration of a danza is a copy of a copy, of a copy... for which no "true" original exists. A task further complicated by the additions each group of danzantes makes to their danza. In Oxnard, for example, danzantes added Halloween-esque elements to allow broader participation in the danza.

Yet, as the danzantes pay homage to Our Lady of Guadalupe, what is "true" is that the danza is a queer spectacle of sorts. First, there's the apparel. A man fully dressed in pink hops around other men wearing long capes, white lace aprons, and head pieces with colorful threads of ribbon that simulate long hair. The added Halloween-esque elements amplify the cross dressing since anyone can wear a male or female mask. Second, the danza is primarily a dance among men: the apron-wearing male dancers shuffle from side-to-side, waiving flower covered paddles as they wait for the man dressed in pink to weave aroundreally, dance withthem as he searches for la Malinche. Thus, the danza temporarily suspends the strict gender roles the Catholic Church promotes, by creating a space wherein men can cross dress and engage in homosocial behavior, while machismo lurks in the background. This reflects Sedgwicks’s triangularization schema of desire, wherein men’s desire for homosociality is mediated by a female presence, here La Morenita, who prevents the men’s homosocial behavior from becoming homosexual behavior. (See Between Men, by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.)

But the Copándaro danza is not the only danza that temporarily queers the space around it in the name of religion. In other Mexican towns, performers pay homage to La Morenita and other Saints with the danza del torito (dance of the little bull). This danza includes several hyper-sexualized female characters, who are usually played by men. (See here, and here.) Throughout the danza, each character attempts to tame the torito but none is successful. The female characters, for example, try to do so by seductively dancing for the torito—and the audience, but they fail. At times, the danza even morphs into a comedy drag show, where cross dressing men liberally parody lascivious females. Yet, the danza remains a performance in honor of a holy, canonized figure.

My work is not intended to judge danzas, danzentes, or their motives. Rather, I seek to draw attention to a cultural practice that, perhaps unwittingly, queers otherwise conservative Catholic spaces and ceremonies by permitting men to cross dress and engage in homosocial behavior. Indeed, had I not found my way to the States, I probably would have found a queer safe-space in religiously motivated danzas. The irony!

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The benefits of a feminist legal education

After having taken a number of feminism courses in my undergraduate years as a part of my sociology degree, I figured it was only fitting to take feminist legal theory in law school. I was excited because this course offered an opportunity to take a class that did not seem like a traditional law school class but one more similar to my undergrad sociology classes. In the end the course was everything I hoped it would be, a chance to have conversations about very interesting topics without having to worry too much about the legal analysis, bar exam preparation, etc. Now that the course is over I find myself asking what the value of the class was other than providing a healthy mental break from the monotony of law school courses.

Before jumping into a discussion of the value of feminist legal theory I think it is important to define what feminist legal theory even is. The best definition I could find was provided by Leslie Francis and Patricia Smith, writing for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. They write:
"Feminist philosophy of law identifies the pervasive influence of patriarchy and masculinist norms on legal structures and demonstrates their efforts on the material condition of women and girls and those who may not conform to cisgender understand how legal institutions enforce dominant gendered and masculinist norms." 
This seems like a good place to begin. While Leslie Francis and Patricia Smith were defining "feminist philosophy of law," the same definition applies to what feminist legal theory is. At least from my limited experience, the course was a critically reflective look at the way our society is structured and the way the judiciary, executive, and legislative branches of government legally justify patriarchy. This is immensely valuable the law is limited but powerful in terms of what it can do. As aspiring lawyers it is essential that we learn to deconstruct the law critically in order to do better in shaping the legal landscape of tomorrow.

One of the aspects of law school that I have a love-hate relationship with its length. Three years of school is great because it offers us the chance to find good jobs and start earning money sooner than other professional fields. This convenience comes at a great cost, it means we have a really limited time to learn the ins and outs of procedure, professional responsibility, legal research and writing, and specialization in a certain field of law. In this rush to learn how to follow the rules and be competent attorneys there is hardly enough time to deconstruct the law. There is little to no time to stop and wonder why certain aspects of the profession are the way that they are, to question whether there are better alternatives. In this crazy three year rush, patriarchy is reinforced. Unsurprisingly, the legal professional is one that has been historically shaped by white men and our current legal customs are the legacy of that. From what women are allowed to wear and how they are allowed to speak to sexual harassment in the workplace and the lack of female law firm partners, patriarchy is alive and well.  In the face of all of this, the value of feminist legal theory should be obvious. Any opportunity to exam and question in the law is valuable.

Feminism classes are clearly valuable in my eyes but this is still not a widely accepted viewpoint. While more and more people are seeing the value of feminism classes, it is still more popular to dismiss these types of courses as fringe classes for radical men-hating women. As Anna Diamond describes, this is the case for many reasons including misconceptions about what feminism is, misguided beliefs that we are in a "post-feminist" society, and doubts as to the real-world value of feminism classes.

It is ironic that one of the most popular reasons why people discount feminism classes is that they think those kinds of courses have nothing to offer them or they they think those courses are only meant for women. One of the reasons why I think feminism classes are essential is because of their intersectionality. As Ms. Diamond describes it, "Intersectionality tells us that there is no singular experience for women because of the way gender works in conjunction with race, ethnicity, social class, and sexuality." Indeed feminism does touch upon all of these topics and more. By creating the avenue to think critically about other aspects of society, which are undoubtedly relevant to everyone, feminism classes truly are classes that everyone could benefit from.

Ultimately, I found feminist legal theory to be a thrilling class that I very much looked forward to. As is typically the case with these types of courses, the class could be a bit of an echo-chamber. What I mean by that is that in general the class tended to agree on most subjects. While this did not hamper conversation, it does mean that the people who would probably benefit most from speaking about these kinds of subjects were not in the room. Nevertheless, the class was a valuable experience. If anything, I believe that classes such as these should be required of all law students the way professional responsibility and legal research and writing are. Perhaps then we could begin to think critically about the profession we are going into instead of being forced to conform to archaic customs.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Rosy toesy

About a year ago I came across a pair of pink Adidas shoes online that I immediately knew I needed to have. I've always been a bit of a sneaker aficionado, commonly known as a "sneakerhead." People are a part of the sneakerhead culture for a variety of reasons. Some people like to collect as many shoes as possible with no intention of ever wearing them, some want to have the most expensive sneakers on the market, some like to collect only rare sneakers, etc. I've always been the type to only buy shoes I know I'd like to wear. Part of the appeal for me has been wearing shoes that I like but don't see too many others wearing. It makes wearing the shoes feel more personal, like a form of self-expression. When I saw the pink Adidas with the white stripes and a rose on each tongue, I knew I wanted them! I gave little thought to the fact that the shoes were rose pink, a color that most boys don't wear.

I've only worn the shoes a handful of times since I purchased them, mainly due to it being hard to pull off pink shoes without the right outfit. I've noticed, however,  that I've received a large amount of comments about the shoes for the amount of times I've worn them. I certainly have more expensive shoes, ones that are more flashy and well known, yet these receive the most attention. While I always suspected that the color of the shoes had something to do with catching people's attention, I wasn't completely sure whether that was the main or only reason. Recently another student made note of my pink shoes and suggested that I consider writing a blog post about them. After giving it some thought, I agreed given the amount of attention they'd gotten.

When my dad noticed my pink shoes, he made a sarcastic but friendly comment in Spanish along the lines of, "Look at you, with your pink shoes!" When one of my professors noticed my shoes, she said, "Wow nice shoes! Owning the pink, I like it." About a half-dozen of my peers have stopped me to comment on my shoes, all of them positively. I've even had a few strangers come up to me and tell me they like my shoes. Pleasantly for me, every comment I've received has been generally positive. Why is it that my pink shoes have gotten so much attention? They're certainly a little flashy and unique, I've yet to see anyone else wearing them. I suspect what gets people's attention more than anything is the color and the rose on the shoes. I wonder, would a woman in these shoes get as much attention? What if the shoes were red instead of pink? What if I removed the rose from the tongue?

All of this got me thinking about the origins of why we attach genders to certain colors. This Jezebel article states that pink was actually meant to be for boys, quoting from 1918 Ladies Home Journal, "The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl." The article goes on to say that pink and blue became much more strongly reinforced as gendered colors in the 80's when manufacturers saw an opportunity to make money by selling new baby supplies to parents who previously had a child of the opposite gender. I wasn't surprised in the slightest to discover that money was the motivating factor behind something as ridiculous as attaching gender to colors.

I wish I could say that I bought these shoes because I wanted to make a statement about masculinity or that I wanted to subvert gender expectations. Truthfully, I bought the shoes because I thought they were cool, attention-grabbing, and I had an Adidas coupon. I knew I'd get comments about the shoes due to the color, but getting comments on the uniqueness of your shoes is something a sneakerhead looks forward too. Thinking more deeply, there's something more important at stake. I came across this Huffington Post article while preparing to write this blog post. The article is written by the mother of a then five-year-old boy who loves to wear pink but is forced to put up with adults who question his choices. While I've had the pleasure of wearing pink shoes and enjoyed the positive feedback, there are clearly many others who have been unable to do the same due to societal restrictions. While I may not have originally had a feminist statement in mind when purchasing the shoes, I look forward to the day when someone asks me why I'm wearing pink shoes. I'll be sure to ask them why not, and explain that pink isn't just for girls these days, in fact it never was.

Friday, December 1, 2017

On becoming a feminist

I started Feminist Legal Theory with little more than the tentative knowledge that I was in fact a feminist. I believed in equality of the sexes, yet I was blissfully unaware of the nuances behind such a broad-brush belief. I stoked my belief with an immature and uncritical motivation; entering into the legal profession I didn’t want my salary or job security to fluctuate or fade away due to the apparent ‘misfortune’ of not being born male. I realize now how sheltered and inward-looking my motivations for being a feminist were. How they had been propagated by my privilege that I was blithely unaware and unappreciative of.

I never made the mythical correlation between feminism and ‘man hating’, but I was aware that many others had. I never viewed feminism as an ongoing feud between men and women, but I was also aware that many others had. Speaking frankly these societal biases against feminism and many more hindered me in exploring and expanding my sense of the movement and the identity. In many ways I was scared to outwardly establish myself as a feminist, so I hid in silence behind these stereotypes. So, answering “yes, I am a feminist” to the corresponding question we were asked on the very first day was an important moment for me. It was probably the first time I had uttered the words “I am a feminist” to a group of people and not be met with sniggers, eye rolls or ignorant comments. It was the first time I felt it was ok to be a feminist.

We started off the semester with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie telling us ‘We should all be feminists’. From her I learned that I don’t have to be apologetic for my femininity, and that many lessons of gender I internalized while growing up can actually be unlearned. I learned that we must also raise our sons and daughters differently because we currently confine boys to the hard, small cage of masculinity while simultaneously teaching girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. Although I was unfamiliar with her work, when I watched Roxanne Gay’s ‘Confessions of a bad feminist’ it really resonated with me. I can relate to her journey through feminism and see logic in her simplistic yet powerful proposals for a more functional and co-operative society. That there is also an onus on men – especially straight white men – to say no, to protest and speak up against inequality “until more of us are invited through the glass ceiling and we are tokens no more”.

From Judith Baer I learned what role the law can play in the sameness/difference debate; that both gender-neutral and gender-specific laws can promote sexual equality, but also that “sexual equality does not lie in women’s valorization of care but in women’s breaking up the male monopoly on justice and giving up the female monopoly on care”. Adding to this, Catherine MacKinnon taught me that sex equality is something of an oxymoron and that considering gender as a matter of sameness and difference covers up the reality of gender as a system of social hierarchy, as an inequality.

Anti-essentialism taught me that there is no generic woman, or feminist for that matter. It taught me to look outside of myself and my own experiences and contextualize them, as well as appreciate and be respectful of the experiences of others. It taught me perspective. That there’s more to feminism than simply possessing a uterus. As a straight, well-off, white woman from a country that’s not exactly teeming with diversity, I had a lot to learn from studying race, class and sexuality under the feminist lens. Although I admit, I may have been reticent during some of these classes, I can only excuse this as a form of respect for others, because in reality I cannot assume to know the struggle of being marginalized because of my colour, class or sexuality on top of already being marginalized for my gender. It imparted on me a consciousness of inclusivity while also reminding me that I need to use what privileges I’ve been given in life to the benefit of others in any way that I can.

Discussing sexual assault, although deeply distressing, highlighted the ominous almost tangible presence that these transgressions command in all of our lives; from our college campuses, to our workplaces, to our homes, to our schools and churches, even to Hollywood. We witnessed a barrage of sexual assault claims made against some of America’s most loved household names, and as a corollary to that, we witnessed the predictable victim blaming and the pointing of fingers in the wrong directions. The only silver lining I could glean out of this was a hope, that movements such as the #MeToo campaign would act as landmark moments in the demonstration of societal misogyny and really encourage other women to speak up from the shadows they have been relegated to and to share their stories. This is so that in years to come, we won’t need to have a hashtag on twitter to make people sit up and listen to what’s already being said.

My blog posts, although random.. sometimes maybe even abstract, were nevertheless periods of self reflection. Having little to no knowledge of feminist theory itself, I decided to write about what I knew. That ended up being gender quotas in politics, ballet, corsets (weirdly enough), the Magdalene laundries of Ireland and fashion. I wanted to try and highlight the sexism that often pervades in areas you’d never think of, while also expanding my knowledge in areas I thought I already knew a lot about.

I have to say that Feminist Legal Theory is the first class I’ve taken in law school where I’ve actually learned something about myself. I started off with little more than a notion that I was a feminist, not really knowing what it entails, and have had my mind significantly broadened. I’m by no means the finished article, yet I’ve been given the tools to be reflective, engaged in and analytical of modern day feminism. Like Roxanne Gay, I started off as a very very bad feminist, and I may still be a bad one now, but I’m going to try my best to be a better one if that’s any consolation.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Can fraternities really be reformed?

In my last blog, Why college fraternities are bad for boys too, I suggested that prohibiting hazing and Greek life is certainly something that all universities should consider doing.  Prohibition is not a new or radical idea. Some American colleges have already taken that step.  Major American news outlets, like Time magazine and the New York Times, still publish reviews calling on all colleges to get rid of fraternities for good. Indeed, there were even attempts by some university presidents to close fraternities as far back as the mid-19th century.  Although frats have managed, by in large, to ride out these storms, serious questions continue to dog them.  This must mean that something, somewhere is still rotten at the heart of the system. So would reform, rather than abolition – which I suggested – really be the more practical answer?

I suspect that Greek Life institutions would probably resist reform as much as abolition. But if reform was their only choice, supporters would, no doubt, still endeavour to retain what they regard as the system’s most worthy features.  No doubt they would point to the sense of “brotherhood” fraternities aim to engender or, as noted in my previous blog, Greek Life’s supposed “Christian” ethos.  They would certainly highlight the amount fraternities donate to charity - presently estimated at $7 million annually.

Yet scratch below the surface and one finds something fundamentally unsavoury in fraternities’ interpretation of these ostensibly laudable values. Remember, college fraternities were originally invented by rich young white men to isolate themselves from their middle-class peers and to gain some autonomy from college regulation. Nowadays the national study body is more diverse than when the system first started. What hasn’t changed, though, is the pride fraternities take in remaining both independent of campus authority and exclusively male. The fact that higher income and white students are still more likely to join fraternities also means that membership remains overwhelmingly white and upper-middle class. If you are poor or a woman you need not apply. Self-evidently, college fraternities’ concept of “brotherhood” and “Christianity” is deeply at odds with that espoused by the namesake of this law school!

Of course, we have fraternities’ charitable giving. Many good causes undoubtedly benefit from this. My question, though, is whether fraternities’ philanthropic work could be just as easily done on a greater scale by other corporate, religious and student organisations that are not exclusionary, sex-segregated clubs built around binge drinking and hazing. I doubt, for example, that the Salvation Army has ever beaten any of their volunteers to death or left them to die of alcohol poisoning with their hands zip-tied after an initiation! 

Equally fraternities charitable giving must also be viewed in the context of their overall wealth and how they utilize it.  It is estimated that fraternities and sororities own over $3 billion in real estate and take in $150 million of tax-free revenue each year.  Much of this fortune is used, for instance, to help members gain positions of authority on campuses. This, in turn, aids them in continuously securing scholarships and awards. Post-college, frat alumni maintain close ties to the frat.  Many provide donations back to their organisation and help newly graduated “brothers” find employment – thus perpetuating a cycle of social exclusion through the passing of assistance from one wealthy alumni generation to the next. 

Frats further look after themselves through sophisticated trade organisations and a political action committee, FratPAC, which, in 2013, succeeded in killing a piece of desperately needed (but bad-for-business) anti-hazing legislation in Congress.  That alone would make anyone wonder why an institution - that purports to be charitable - would deploy its resources in such a self-serving way rather than on, say, more meritorious pursuits such as combating homelessness, hunger, poverty or disease? 

In considering the feasibility of reform we should also never forget that the frat organisation responsible for the death of Tim Piazza (see my previous blog) was supposed to be a “reformed” fraternity.  In fact, it was considered a “model” one “reflect[ing] a national perspective on best practices”.  It had strict behavioural guidelines, a no-alcohol policy, live-in adult supervision and video surveillance.  Despite the university’s zero-tolerance policy regarding hazing and Pennsylvania state’s outlawing of such behaviour, the investigation found that fraternity members engaged in sexually humiliating practices and regularly threw parties fuelled with over $1,200 worth of alcohol. This stubborn disregard for campus or state regulation displayed by Beta Theta Pi takes us back to one of frats’ founding traditions and essential purposes - to offer privileged young men a space where they can be free from any form of external regulation or civilised code of conduct.  All Greek life activities are ultimately directed towards that goal.

It seems to me, therefore, that any sensible reform of Greek life institutions would need to be so root and branch that it would actually destroy the essence of what it means to be a fraternity.  This leaves only two realistic choices.  Either fraternities and sororities close voluntarily, or colleges (or even state authorities) abolish them.

I appreciate that many colleges may be reluctant to move in that direction given, for example, that 75% of donations to private universities come from fraternity alumni. But then again, isn’t decency more important than money? Isn’t protecting women from sexual violence more important than money? Isn’t the life of Tim Piazza more important than money? Indeed, isn’t all that what “brotherhood” is truly supposed to mean? 

Feminist Legal Theory and consciousness raising

As the fall semester comes to an end, and we close the book on our Feminist Legal Theory course, I find myself reflecting on the concept of consciousness raising.

Early this semester, our class watched Makers: Women Who Made America. Part of the documentary focused on "consciousness raising," a practice developed by feminists in the 1960's and 1970's. Women affiliated with radical feminist organizations in cities and college communities met together in small groups, selected a topic – such as marriage, housework, careers, sexuality, or motherhood – and took turns sharing their own personal stories and experiences on that topic. As the name suggests, this collective experience of sharing led to each woman's consciousness being raised that her experiences were not isolated or unique to her. As Rita Mae Brown, radical feminist activist, stated, women "began to understand common touch-points in each of these lives. All over America, pretty much spontaneously, almost like spontaneous combustion in college communities and big cities, these groups would develop. And what came out of it was similar problems, similar ways of being treated by the world, and often similar desires. If you were to ask a woman, she would just like to be part of the process. I'd like to have my voice heard, you know?"

Feminist consciousness raising has remained as a legacy of the radical feminist era and, driven by fourth wave feminism, has undergone something of a tech renaissance. No longer confined to in-person gatherings in community centers, living rooms, or college dorms, social platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram now serve as forums for consciousness raising on a number of feminist issues. Popular campaigns have addressed violence against women (#yesallwomen), the confidence gap between young girls and boys (#banbossy), reproductive autonomy and abortion access (#shoutyourabortion), domestic abuse (#whyistayed), the Women's March post-Trump election (#whyimarch), and most recently sexual harassment (#metoo) ... just to name a few.

The original consciousness raisers of the 60's and 70's faced criticism that their sessions were nothing more than group psychotherapy, myopia, or narcissism. Naysayers continue to complain that the consciousness raising of the social media era is characterized by attention-seeking, laziness, and mere "slacktivism" or "clicktivism" that does little to enact real change.

Of course the skeptics and cynics were, and are, incorrect. The original consciousness raising sessions nurtured a culture of activism. They created an atmosphere where the personal became political, where intimate discussions led to raucous marches and rallies, and where solitude transformed into solidarity. Topics such as workplace equality, abortion, rape, domestic violence, and women's health became less taboo largely because women found the courage to speak out together. Similarly, although social media can potentially silo its users, certain social media movements have demonstrated a power to transcend digital dividing lines and encourage public conversation that results in real world impacts. The #metoo campaign, which corresponded with the public outing of a number of sexual harassers, is a perfect illustration of what can happen when an online movement is embraced by diverse communities and results in actual social change.

It's clear consciousness raising isn't a relic of the past... it's alive and well, and not just online. Our Feminist Legal Theory course has been more than just an academic pursuit. Through our thoughtful questions and discussions, I've had my consciousness raised on feminist issues that intertwine and affect all of our lives... and now is the perfect time. Given our current political moment, where women's issues are under attack, I feel an urgency makes my voice heard on these topics and to make space for others to share.  This semester, I have constantly caught myself in discussions  saying "Actually, someone just talked about this in my Feminist Legal Theory class!" This course has given me a greater understanding of feminist history and a framework for navigating the issues under debate, and for that I am grateful.