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 norms...to 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.


Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Vagina dentata: revisiting Teeth

Mitchell Lichenstein’s 2007 cult-classic, Teeth, recently celebrated its tenth birthday. The film is polarizing for many reasons, when I first tried watching it a few years ago I didn’t make it through the whole thing because I simply didn’t think it was a good movie. The film’s pacing is sporadic, the acting is spotty at best, and movie feels amateurish. Recently I watched the film in its entirety when it popped up on Netflix. Looking back, I now realize that I originally failed to appreciate that the film was worth more than the sum of its parts and that it was accomplishing something truly unique.

Teeth is a black-comedy/horror film following the cleverly named Dawn O’Keefe, a teenager who preaches abstinence largely due to her curious case of vagina dentata. Vagina dentata is exactly what you probably think it is, her vagina has teeth. Despite the film’s plot alluding to the centuries old folklore surrounding vagina dentata, I originally dismissed the idea as a ridiculous fiction constructed to explain the film. It wasn’t until watching the film again recently that I bothered to look up vagina dentata and realized the film’s concept is based on real folktales. As the film suggests, historically the myth of the toothed vagina involved suffering women who needed the help of a male hero to break their curse. In Teeth, Dawn flips these myths on their head.

Teeth opens up with a toddler-aged Dawn sharing a kiddie pool with her step-brother, Brad. Brad exposes himself to Dawn and asks to see what her genitals look like. The next thing we see is Brad crying out in pain, holding out a bloody finger. The insinuation here being that Brad stuck his finger inside Dawn’s vagina and was bitten. The film then fast-forwards to a high-school aged Dawn leading a discussion on virtues of celibacy with her religious abstinence group. Throughout the first third of the film we see Dawn and her friends, outspoken about their beliefs, repeatedly mocked by their peers for their message. Dawn’s parents also don’t understand why their daughter is big on abstinence. We also find out that Brad, Dawn’s step-brother, grew up to be an abusive young man with incestuous fantasies.

Throughout the film we see allusions to how our society treats sex. Dawn and her friends represent one extreme end of society, an abstinent segment which speaks of the immorality of pre-marital sex and warns about damnation to those who break the rules. The school administration presents views not far removed from Dawn’s. In one scene, Dawn is sitting in a high school sexual education class where penises are on open display but all textbook depictions of vaginas are covered with patches. When a student expresses his confusion on the matter, Dawn comes to the teacher’s defense citing that vaginas need to be hidden because, “girls have a natural modesty.” The majority of Dawn’s peers represent the way that the majority of teenagers exist in our society. These students aren’t celibate but they clearly hold misogynist ideas about sex and are desperately misinformed about their own bodies, especially the women. Brad represent another extreme segment in society, the ultra-misogynist segment that’s a constant threat to women. Brad’s room is completely covered by posters of naked or near-naked women, he insists on anal sex with no eye contact, he dehumanizes his girlfriend by trying to make her eat dog food, and he repeatedly sexually assaults Dawn.

I understand the complaints of feminist critics, like those cited by Bella Artiquez of BitchFlicks. It is a little odd to have a feminist hero who doesn’t understand the first thing about her body and is repeatedly taken advantage of by nearly every male she comes in contact with. Dawn is victimized in the film’s first scene by Brad when he sticks his fingers in Dawn’s vagina. She is victimized by a boy in her abstinence group who she trusts when he forces himself on her. She is victimized by her gynecologist who invasively prods her genitals. Even when she finally has sex that is comparatively pleasant, it’s only after she’s been drugged and with a boy who clearly doesn’t respect her in any way. Like Artiquez, I don’t think that any of this should be held against Dawn when it comes to deciding how we view her. It isn’t her fault that she lives in a society that degrades women, that even the men that she trusts end up betraying her, and that neither her parents nor her teachers have taught her the first thing about healthy sex and female anatomy. In fact, I believe all of this makes Dawn even more of a compelling feminist hero. She suffers greatly in a way that countless women suffer on a daily basis yet by the end of the film she flips the script and embraces her “curse.”

After biting off the penises of a few men accidentally, Dawn realizes that she can control her condition. Sick of being taken advantage of, Dawn starts by ripping off the penis of a boy who drugged and raped her. Soon after she turns her sights towards Brad. After taking care of Brad we see Dawn essentially disappear into an unknown future with unknown objectives, the only thing clear being that she’s done being taken advantage of is no longer afraid of using her condition as a means of revenge and self-defense against men. Her condition becomes empowering rather than debilitating.

It is only now, ten years later, that I’ve been able to appreciate Teeth for the value of what it accomplished. Wesley Morris of the Boston Globe puts it nicely;
"Teeth" runs on a kind of angry distrust toward boys. It doesn't think a lot of them, in much the same way certain teen comedies and horror films don't think highly of girls. The reversal is a lot more satisfying to watch, both as a laughing feminist critique of horniness and as a gleeful inversion of the vagina dentata myth.
The film subverts not only horror-genre norms but more broad film norms. As Morris already pointed out above, in Teeth it’s men for once who are disposable. As another viewer points out, it’s also noticeable how Lichenstein had no problem portraying multiple bloody severed penises while showing very little female nudity. This certainly isn’t a norm in film as penises are almost never shown while female nudity is common.

The film remains controversial to this day with people still debating whether the film is actually any good to whether Dawn should be seen as a feminist hero or not. In the lead up to writing this post I came across a recent article by Sirin Kale of Broadly. In her article, Kale shares a conversation she had with Teeth’s producer, Joyce Pierpoline. Pierpoline mentions how people become visibly uncomfortable when she mentions she produced Teeth. She mentions how while pitching the film, she was turned down my almost every studio, with one her managers advised her against sharing the script as men run the industry and they had no interest in a film like Teeth. Even after the crew secured funding for the film, actually creating the movie continued to be difficult. A film commissioner showing the film crew potential locations refused to work with the crew as soon as he read the script. He even went as far as to warn the location managers that the film was pornographic. Additionally, the studio executives forced the filmmakers to present the film as a pure horror movie in the same vein as movies like Saw when the filmmakers wanted to present it as a black comedy. If I was still on the fence about whether I considered this film valuable or not, reading Pierpoline’s comments certainly settled it. Much like Dawn, this film was battered and abused along the way nevertheless it persisted and we’re all better off for it. Regardless of whether this film is technically a “good” film or not, it is incredibly valuable for the conversations it provokes and the norms that it subverts.

Monday, November 27, 2017

When the "good guys" are the harassers

Over the past few months, the media has exploded with claims of sexual harassment made by victims against men in positions of power. The allegations range in severity, from molestation and sexual assault of minors to unwanted sexual advances and "butt-grabbing." Regardless of the details, many of these allegations had common themes running throughout: men abusing their professional, social, and personal power; and victims staying quiet, fearing retaliation, harm to their careers, public shaming, and damage to their reputations.

The tidal wave of sexual assault allegations has not been relegated to one party or industry. The accused come from a variety of careers and political affiliations. As someone who identifies as more politically liberal, this has forced me to contend with my own discomfort as I discovered that many public figures I trusted and respected had acted so terribly. It's easy, even validating, to believe and accept that men like Donald Trump (serial misogynist) and Roy Moore (serial crazy person) have committed acts of sexual assault and sexual harassment. It stings to hear such accusations leveled against Al Franken and John Conyers, Democratic stalwarts and proponents of causes and ideals I identify with and care about. I will admit that even the accusations against Louis C.K. hurt a bit. I was subscribed to his email list and watched all his comedy specials multiple times... but lord knows I'm certainly not laughing now.

I am not the only one dealing with these mixed feelings. In conversations with friends and family, I have heard others express disbelief and even make attempts to justify and mitigate the conduct of these men and others.  These pained responses seem to reflect the cognitive dissonance we are all experiencing... how can a "good guy" have done this?

This cognitive dissonance is playing out in the media as well, as prominent women publicly (and I would argue, clumsily) defend these men. For example, on Meet the Press last week, House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi spoke in support of John Conyers. In doing so, she inadvertently checked boxes for multiple tactics sexual harassers use to undermine their victims and the accusations against them. Pelosi attempted to bolster Conyers' credibility at the victim's expense, portrayed Conyers as the true victim, minimized the severity of Conyers' conduct, and highlighted Conyers' otherwise respectable history of supporting women.

The women of SNL made a similar effort to defend Al Franken. Thirty-six women who worked with Franken at SNL while he was on the show issued a public statement, lightly condemning Franken's behavior as "stupid and foolish" but nonetheless going on to say that none of them had ever experienced sexual harassment from Franken and that Franken "treated each of [them] with the utmost respect and regard." As The Stranger's Anna Kaplan so aptly put it, "All 36 women who were involved with producing the show anywhere from the top down signed the letter to show solidarity and support for him because of how they personally interacted with him. However, maybe one of the most glaring realities that has come out of the past six weeks is that people you think you know, maybe aren’t exactly who you thought they were."

If the #metoo campaign showed us anything, it is that sexual harassment is a pervasive aspect of American culture (regardless of race, class, age, or political affiliation) that has touched a tremendous number of lives. It's only realistic to anticipate that even people we like and love (not just public figures but people we actually know) may have engaged in reprehensible conduct. 

So how should one respond when someone you like and respect is accused of sexual harassment? What is the appropriate way to balance your care for the accused with your concern for the victims? An article recently published on Bustle.com outlined seven productive and empowering steps people can take:

1. Listen to the accuser
2. Laud the survivor for coming forward
3. Don't center your response on your relationship with the harasser
4. Talk to the harasser
5. Offer the harasser actionable advice to improve their conduct
6. Critically evaluate your relationship with the harasser
7. Focus on receiving information rather than merely reacting to information

I strongly identified with this strategy. In following these steps, one can show compassion to the victims of sexual harassment while also recognizing that it's possible (even helpful) to maintain a relationship with the accused. In fact, by standing in solidarity with accusers, and offering honest and critical feedback and advice to the harassers (either in person or in the public sphere), individuals have a valuable opportunity to contribute to ending a culture that condones and encourages such behavior.

Not all public responses to harassment claims have been tone-deaf and inept. One example of a great response came from Sarah Silverman, a comedian and close friend of Louis C.K. In her statement, which ran before an episode of her show on Hulu, she followed some of the steps outlined above. She recognized that it hurt to hear about the things Louis C.K. had done, but also unequivocally stood with his accusers:
 “He wielded his power with women in f—ed up ways, sometimes to the point where they left comedy entirely. I could couch this with heartwarming stories of our friendship and what a great dad he is, but that’s totally irrelevant, isn’t it? Yes, it is. It’s a real mindf*ck, because I love Louis. But Louis did these things. Both of those statements are true. So I just keep asking myself, ‘Can you love someone who did bad things? Can you still love them?’ I can mull that over later certainly, because the only people that matter right now are the victims. They are victims and they are victims because of something he did. So I hope it’s OK that I am, at once, very angry for the women he wronged and the culture that enabled it, and also sad, because he’s my friend. But I believe with all my heart that this moment in time is essential. It’s vital that people are held accountable for their actions, no matter who they are. We need to be better. We will be better. I can’t f—ing wait to be better.”
Suffice it to say, I can't wait either.


Why college fraternities are bad for boys too

Recent exposé documentaries like The Hunting Ground, have shed light on the sexual assault epidemic that has gripped college campuses across the US. Although there is no clear profile of what a sexual predator on campus looks like, statistics have shown that fraternity members are three times more likely than other males to commit rape. This is a startling figure.

In 2014, a BBC correspondent spoke to students in Boulder about the problem. Nearly all those interviewed blamed ‘frat’ culture for encouraging and justifying sexually predatory behaviour amongst their members. Significantly, no spokesperson from any fraternity or Greek Life organisation in Boulder was willing to comment publicly on the issue.

However, one frat member, Edmund, volunteered to give the BBC reporter “the other side to the story”. Edmund defended fraternities, arguing that they are often scapegoated when it comes to incidents of sexual assault. He accused the media and wider student body of misinterpreting fraternity culture. Instead Edmund insisted that college fraternities are “founded on Christian values”. 

When asked about specific instances involving fraternity members, Edmund expressed the opinion that girls who dress in what he called “extremely provocative clothing” and who drink excessive amounts of alcohol at a party are “setting themselves up for a hook-up of sorts”. Edmund was also critical of the affirmative consent requirement under American law, arguing that it means, in reality, that a boy needs a girl’s permission to “unbutton every button on her shirt”. Evidently then, Edmund believes that legally no girl should be allowed to refuse her consent if a boy wishes to undress her. That, to say the least, is a very interesting viewpoint - assuming, of course, it fairly represents what fraternities believe in! 

As far as I see, then, public statements by frat members such as Edmund - and the general frat organisation response (or lack of it) to student and media attacks on Greek life - make it easy for feminists to view fraternity culture as a threat to women. Yet, from what I’ve observed, there seems to be just as good a case for regarding fraternities as a threat to boys as well. 

One aspect of certain fraternity cultures that is gaining increasing public attention is the custom of hazing. Hazing is, apparently, a not uncommon feature of college fraternity initiation. The practice often involves physical violence, sexual coercion, forced alcohol consumption or degrading or dangerous “pranks” such as compelling frat initiates to eat vile food mixtures. All this is seemingly done in the name of tradition and “brotherhood”.

In the US, hazing is known to have resulted in the deaths of 70 male students since 2000. Notably, that figure does not include episodes dismissed as “accidents”. But what is more unsettling is the fact that alcohol and hazing related deaths now appear to be on the increase, despite the banning of such “rituals” in many states. The accounts of these deaths make deeply disturbing reading.

The BBC recently told the story of 19 year old Tim Piazza, a student of Penn State University, who died on 4 February 2017 after taking part in a hazing event for the Beta Theta Pi Fraternity. CCTV surveillance showed that Tim was given at least 18 drinks in the 82 minutes before he fell 15ft down the steps of the fraternity house’s basement. Shockingly, 12 hours were allowed to pass before his “brothers” decided to call emergency services. Medical reports found that Tim had suffered a fractured skull and irreversible traumatic brain injuries. His spleen had ruptured in multiple places, causing extensive internal bleeding and haemorrhagic shock. As a result, 26 fraternity members are now facing charges for involuntary manslaughter. Moreover, since Tim’s death, three other frat members at different US universities have died – two in the last couple of weeks. 

Understandably, stories like those of poor Tim and other victims, have led some colleges to ban hazing and Greek Life altogether. It remains to be seen whether that measure will be successful. Personally, I’m sceptical. Why? Because, to my mind, if boys as well as girls are to be properly protected, we need to recognise, above all else, that hazing is an unavoidable consequence of “hyper-masculine” environments. I know that, even in Irish colleges for example, where there is no such thing as fraternities, hazing still occurs in certain exclusively male clubs and societies. 

It seems, then, that, whilst prohibiting hazing and Greek life is certainly something that all universities should consider doing, it will probably not be enough, by itself, to protect students. We need equally to face the fact that the promises of friendship and camaraderie that fraternities and other exclusively male organisations offer is a great illusion. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t believe that facilitating young men, at any level, to found their closest friendships on extreme physical and mental abuse is good for them, or for women. Indeed, if this is how boys are encouraged to behave towards those they are meant to call “brothers”, how can we expect them to treat girls with any greater decency?

Friday, November 24, 2017

Pride & Folsom: Revisiting Sexual Practices

A few years back, I attended Folsom Street Fair (Folsom) in San Francisco. It’s an event that aims to “uniteadult alternative lifestyle communities with safe venues,” while raising funds for charities. I've described Folsom to my friends as a NC-17 version of the larger Pride event that takes place about a month before Folsom. But that’s an oversimplification. While SF Pride (Pride) brands itself as “a celebrationof diversity,” the diversity it celebrates is distinct from and privileged over the diversity Folsom embraces.

Admittedly, I enjoy Pride because it celebrates sexual and gender diversity. And what kind of self-hating joto would I be if I repudiated an event that welcomes other press-on nail wearing queers with open arms! Yet, I find Pride politically stifling because it doesn’t acknowledge that folks are stigmatized and shamed not only based on their gender or sexual orientation, but also their sexual practices. Instead, Folsom is relegated the heavy lifting on that front.  

Attending Folsom is a visceral reminder that homosexuality is a recent social construct, a product of modernity. Indeed, homosexuals haven’t existed throughout history, even if there have always been individuals who’ve engaged (exclusively) in homosexual sexual behavior. Only until homosexuality became an identity, could individuals identify themselves as gay. Today’s Catholic Catechism offers a glimpse into this slippery distinction: the Church welcomes homosexuals, but repudiates and admonishes against homosexual sexual practices. Under this “love the sinner but not the sin” logic, individuals who are exclusively “homosexuals” and would, perhaps, only engage in homosexual sexual practices are “called to chastity.” Notably, the church categorizes homosexual sexual practices as “sins contrary to chastity,” alongside masturbation, and pornography. Folsom, too, harkens back to a time when the preeminent problem wasn’t folks’ sexual or gender identities, but rather their sexual practices.

The last time I attended Folsom, I went with a small group of friends. It was a packed event. We had to jostle about the crowd to see each exhibit, each of which is meant to be educational, and pleasurable for the instructors/participants—and some spectators. There were exhibits on BDSM, Shibair/Kinbaku, pup play, wrestling, latex/rubber play, among others. On that day, Kink.com, a fetish porn studio that promotes consent, accountability,and inclusiveness in adult entertainment, dominated the main stage. My friends and I were immediately captivated by the spectacle of a naked, leashed and handcuffed, white man in his 30s, and on his knees, being humiliated by a petite brunette wearing a pencil skirt and stiletto heels. She demanded that the man call her “mistress” throughout the performance, and that he lick her heels as she walked him across Kink.com the stage. She also asked the hundreds of spectators and passersby to add to the man’s humiliation by collectively having them shout “bitch” at him several times throughout the performance.

My friends and I were amused and puzzled by the events unfolding on stage and rippling through the audience. Were onlookers mere spectators or extras in a porn scene? Were onlookers partaking in a sexual act by contributing to the leashed man’s humiliation from which he derived sexual pleasure? Besides blurring the line between intimate and public acts, and the acceptable and the fetishized, Folsom reminded me that the social progress associated with sexual practices among consenting adults has not kept pace with social progress in the gender and sexuality fronts. It’s not surprising, then, that Folsom is a smaller event that even some Pride attendees would call perverted.

In short, while Pride embraces all sinners, it doesn’t do nearly enough as Folsom does to subvert the sins against which Pride attendees continue to be judged by. And what does this mean for sexual progress: Should the right to fuck whomever we want be at the expense of fucking however we want?

The "Motherhood Penalty"

Because of the normative conceptions of what a “normal” family looks like and what a “normal” mother is (e.g. SNAF-encoded households), women are faced with a two-fold set of obstacles that inhibit them from reducing the wage disparity between men and women. The first obstacle is the unequal distribution of labor within the private sphere, which burdens mothers with a disproportionate amount of household chores (the “second shift”). The second obstacle is the culturally perceived tension between what it means to be an “ideal worker” and what it means to be an “ideal mother” (the “motherhood penalty”).

As stated by Dorothy Edith Smith in The Standard North American Family: SNAF as an Ideological Code, SNAF is a normative conception of the family as a legally married couple sharing a household. Within this household there are distinctive roles for both the adult male and adult female. The male participates in paid employment to fulfill his role as the primary breadwinner of the family, whereas the female may or may not participate in paid labor.

Under the ideological code of SNAF, it is not necessary for the female to make income, because her primary responsibility is to take care of the husband, child, and household. As such, her potential income is merely viewed as supplementary.

As a result, women who take work outside their household duties are not viewed as standard, and are considered to be deviating from the normal structure of the nuclear family. Because of the primary identification of women as mothers and being primarily concerned with the rearing of children, the burden of caring for the child is placed entirely upon the mother.

Additionally, a mothers formal identification with caretaker often times lead into their decision to not pursue professional careers, which directly contributes to the unequal pay between men and women. The most frustrating aspect of this dilemma is that women feel the need to choose between either marriage or work, whereas men operate under the assumption that they can have both. Namely, because they do not have to be burdened with the household affairs

Shelley J. Correll in Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty, argues that in addition to workplace discrimination based on sex, mothers face an additional penalty because of their status characteristic as mothers, called the “motherhood penalty”. This occurs because the salient feature of “motherhood” is a devalued status characteristic in the eyes of prospective employers, due to the perceived tension between the normative conceptions of “ideal mother” and “ideal worker”. What it means to be an “ideal worker” is the ability to devote endless amounts of hours to one's work, whereas what it means to be an “ideal mother” is to devote oneself entirely to her family and children.

Accordingly, in the eyes of employers, mothers are not ideal candidates for employment and are discriminated against for their status as a mother. When evaluating a candidate, Correll argues that employers judge “performance capacity” upon two criteria: competence (ability) and effort (commitment). Mothers are viewed as lacking in both criteria due to the aforementioned conceptions of mothers.

Structuring her experiment around these ideas, Correll’s lab experiment showed that when all other status characteristics were held constant, (e.g. race, class, gender) whereas “motherhood” was made salient, the results confirmed the hypothesis of the motherhood penalty. Mothers as opposed to non-mothers were hired at a lower rate, were offered lower starting salaries, and were also less likely to be considered for promotion. Also, in support of the SNAF-encoded nuclear family, fathers were offered a higher initial salary as opposed to non-fathers, probably because of the belief that fathers should be the primary bread winners and support the family financially.

Thus, we can see how the cultural beliefs of the normal family serves as an obstacle in the fight against unequal wage distribution between men and women. Primarily by i) restricting women from participating in the workplace because of being overburdened with work in the household and ii) facing real and material consequences for being labeled as mothers.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The 'feminist' trend AW17

Whether you’ve a lifetime subscription to Vogue, or dress in a burlap sack and couldn’t really care less about fashion, New York Fashion Week post-Trump was of particular import. Almost overnight, the makers and wearers of haute couture, who rarely concern themselves with the struggles of mere mortals, adopted a political agenda. From Tommy Hilfiger to Calvin Klein, apparel appeared to become the new vehicle for social change. Designers printed bold statements on t-shirts, blouses, sweaters, even on underwear, denouncing some of Trump’s most divisive executive orders, from the immigration ban, to the 'wall', to cuts to Planned Parenthood funding.

The plight of women, however, seemed to be a hot topic for many designers to capitalize on. The Nepalese-American designer Prabal Gurung wrapped up his AW17 collection with a display of printed t-shirts proclaiming ‘Nevertheless, she persisted’, ‘Girls just want to have fundamental rights’ and took his final bow sporting a t-shirt splashed with ‘This is what a feminist looks like’. The American designer Adam Lippes unfurled signs reading ‘Adam Lippes stands with Planned Parenthood’ and ‘Girl Power’ outside of his show. I had a feeling Maria Grazia Chiruri’s ‘We should all be feminists’ début as the first female artistic director for Dior would be the overture to this feminist ‘trend’ of 2017. Chiruri drew inspiration for this simplistic design in her Spring 2017 collection from the influential feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

With a price tag of $710 for a printed cotton t-shirt, can we really all afford to be feminists? While I understand and appreciate the awareness many of these designers are attempting to create around feminism in a post-Trump landscape, it’s the disturbing anti-feminist trickle-down effect of many of these designs that I see as problematic.

While many luxury designers may escape scrutiny of their production methods since their garments are costly, created by hand and tend not to be produced in bulk, it’s the much-loved and familiar high-street brands harbouring more ominous secrets. Type in ‘slogan tee’ or ‘printed tee’ into the website search bars of H&M, Forever 21, Topshop, Urban Outfitters, Nike, Primark and many, many more fast fashion brands. One thing becomes apparent. The trend for feminist apparel is no longer confined to the catwalks of New York Fashion Week. ‘Feminism is for everyone’, ‘Revolution♀’, ‘Girls supporting girls’, ‘Fight like a girl’, ‘Equality’ and ‘Girl power’ were all popular buys. Yet somehow I doubt that by buying an overpriced ‘Power to the girls’ t-shirt (that you can frankly make yourself), will put an end to the sexism that is endured in this world. If anything, you may be contributing to the problem.

The 2015 Netflix documentary ‘The True Cost’ is an exposé of the many environmental and social injustices that are borne out of the $3 trillion fashion industry. When we look at the price tag on a t-shirt or a sweater, we’re often blind to the hidden cost behind the perceived bargain we think we’re getting. We often don’t see the many, many hands that have touched these garments. The hands that are being forced to work in inhumane factory conditions because they have no better employment alternative, with little to no workers’ rights, being paid well below a living wage, often forced to forfeit their families, health and sometimes even their lives as we saw in the case of the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh. And all for what? So we can buy cheap clothes to satiate some innate desire, only to discard of them when the next trend comes rolling in?

America only makes about 3% of its own clothes, meaning garment production is frequently outsourced to impoverished countries so desperate for the work supplied by these goliath corporations that their governments routinely hold down workers’ wages to prevent companies finding a cheaper alternative and relocating. While it’s clear that the garment industry, the most labour dependent industry in the world, doesn’t solely exploit women, but men and children too, one cannot deny that women in these impoverished countries are hit the hardest by these working conditions, with women making up over 85% of the workforce.

To cite an excerpt from H&M’s ‘sustainability’ tab on their website;
“H&M group helps to create jobs, consequently lifting people out of poverty, and contributing to economic growth and improved standards of living… About two-thirds of these jobs are undertaken by women. For many women, this is their first job that provides an income, their first work outside the home and therefore a first step to independence.”
Sounds very wholesome, doesn’t it? The reality is large corporations such as H&M or any of the brands listed above, can afford to make these grand, vague statements because they don’t directly employ the workers that end up being exploited. They can keep themselves at arms length from the 'dirty' business of factory collapses, structural defects, underpaid workers and increasingly negative health effects of sweltering, overcrowded factory floors, as their products are sourced from 'independent suppliers'. All that this shift of blame results in is avoiding any and all responsibility while at the same time reaping colossal financial benefits from cheap labor. Many of these large corporations also blocked the Decent Working Conditions and Fair Competition Act, which tried to “prohibit the import, export, and sale of goods made with sweatshop labor”, citing that it would be an impediment to free trade. The message is clear, profits before people.

With companies refusing to implement any solid legislative protection for workers, or prohibition of goods produced by sweatshop labor, all that is in place are voluntary ‘codes of conduct’ which companies can elect to undertake, and even if they don’t, or fail to see them through, they’ll face little to no punitive consequences.

I can’t help but think about the women sitting in a garment factory in Bangladesh or Cambodia, earning less than $3 a day and stitching the words ‘Girl power’ or ‘Equality’ onto t-shirts without finding the situation to be quite perverse. One poignant, yet resonating line from 'The True Cost', spoken by a female Bangladeshi factory worker lingered with me; "I don't want anyone wearing anything that is produced by our blood". We may think we’re empowering one another by wearing t-shirts with feminist slogans on them, however if they originate from a patriarchal and capitalist system in which thousands of women are forced to work in inhumane conditions for a pittance, then the irony is overwhelming.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

On MSM, Femininity, and Fags

In Dude You’re a Fag, CJ Pascoe argues that young, presumably heterosexual, men construct their masculinity in opposition to femininity and an abstract “fag” identity, a “specter of failed masculinity” embodied in an effeminate man. Extending Pascoe’s framework to adult men who have sex with men (MSM), their erotic practices suggest they too construct masculine sexual identities in opposition to femininity and feminine gay men—“fags,” a point that should concern feminists.

Given the return of Will and Grace to the small screen, one would think that MSM would embrace characters like “Jack”, a flamboyant and feminine W&G character. But sexual identities and practices remain complicated. Indeed, I use MSM rather than gay, queer, joto, etc., to reference the subjects of this piece since other descriptors carry connotations that many MSM repudiate in seeking same-sex sex. For instance, there are MSM who identify as straight and are unlikely to adopt gay or bi labels for various reasons. That is why I focus on MSM’s sexual practices vis-à-vis femininity and “fags.”

Today’s literature on men’s sexual practices suggests men’s sexuality is as fluid as women’s is thought to be. This NSFW vignette on Ric offers insight into a MSM who does not identify as gay or bi because “straight people don’t give shit” about those labels. But he does identify as a “cocksucking anal slut faggot” to his prospective suitors. Arguably, Ric strategically calls himself a “faggot” to attract straight men whose partners may not consent to fellatio or anal sex. By marking himself as a “faggot” at the outset of his sexual encounters, Ric allows his MSM partners to remain straight and masculine throughout sex. Moreover, Ric’s sexual practices suggest that “fags” are MSM who are anally receptive or willing to perform fellatio.

When other straight-identified MSM were queried about their sexual practices, their responses repudiated femininity and fag(ness). One stated, “I don’t want the effeminate ones.” Another said he identified as straight because he “likes to hunt, fish, camp, and raise cattle for a living." In other words, these MSM don’t want to have sex with nor be considered “fags.” What then of Ric’s MSM partners who had sex with a self-professed “cocksucking anal slut faggot”? These sexual practices expose the amorphous, irrational logic undergirding MSM sexual identities, which are tinged with misogyny since they are constructed at the expense of femininity, especially femininity embodied in men—“fags.”

The same outlook can be found among users of the MSM hookup app Grindr. Its users, including many who identify as gay, routinely employ describers like “masc,” “chill,” and “dude,” to convey they are not effeminate and attract other “masc” or “real men.” This suggests that MSM, irrespective of sexual orientation, place a premium on masculinity over femininity, including “fags.” Thus, Grindr enables its users to spread an insidious form of misogyny that privileges masculinity over femininity in what is commonly thought to be a progressive space. I guess gay friendly spaces are only friendly so long as you’re not a fag—so much for gay men’s progressiveness! (For more on this, see Why are Faggots so Afraid of Faggots?)

So why should this concern feminists? It’s easy to dismiss the misogyny that colors MSM’s sexual practices as only extending to MSM’s bedrooms. But feminists should be alarmed that MSM are hindering sexual equality by reifying masculine privilege in one of our most personal and valued spheres of action, the bedroom. As feminists, we must provide more nuanced critiques of erotic practices, including the ways in which gender is mapped onto erotic practices at the expense of femininity. Curtly, we will not be able to “fuck our way to freedom” so long as fucking is construed as entailing privileged masculine elements over feminine elements.

What might the first female American President look like?

Donald Trump’s victory over Hilary Clinton in last year’s American presidential election came as a huge shock to many feminists both in the US and beyond. Like many around the world, I found myself consumed by this fascinating and controversial race. Had Hillary been elected, she would have been the first female President of the US. 

Despite the disappointment that some liberals and feminists felt at the result, it seems to be largely taken for granted among women I meet that there will be a female (liberal or conservative) in the White House someday. This has led me to wonder what kind of future female President would prove a good role model for women both in America and around the world. 

As an Irish person who, before August of this year, had never been to the US, I cannot claim to be an expert in American politics. My perspective therefore is merely that of a respectful “outsider looking in,” and is based on experience and knowledge of my own country, Ireland.

In Ireland we can claim some pedigree when it comes to women Presidents. Two of our last three Presidents have been females, Mary Robinson (1990-97) and Mary McAleese (1997-2011). Of course, unlike America, Ireland is no superpower. Our international profile could never equal that of the US. Irish Government also works differently to here. Our Presidents are more figureheads than politicians, with the political role kept separate and played by the Taoiseach (Prime Minister). This is very different to America where the President combines both the figurehead and political functions. All this makes comparisons between the two offices neither easy nor always reasonable.

Nevertheless, I feel that Ireland’s two past female Presidents merit at least some consideration as good role models for feminists and any future, aspiring American woman President. Both Robinson and McAleese played pivotal roles in transforming Ireland into a more liberal, peaceful and inclusive society. In their own different ways, too, each showed examples of compassion, courage and sincerity that, to my mind, ought to resonate with all women. 

On a personal level, I initially came to admire Robinson because she was the first Head of State of any country to visit my own native West Belfast. This was an area whose people had been devastated by the Irish ‘Troubles’ of the 1960s to mid-90s and which had become deeply embittered by decades-long marginalization and repression. In the teeth of establishment outrage, Robinson went into West Belfast and publicly praised the spirit of its long suffering community. She also, on her visit, met with and shook hands with the community’s then infamous elected representative, Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams. It was a vital and key first step in the Irish peace process.

Likewise, Robinson challenged traditional Irish nationalist shibboleths by becoming the first Irish President both to visit the United Kingdom and to meet, at Buckingham Palace, a British monarch, the present Queen Elizabeth II. On foot of this, she welcomed senior members of the British royal family, most notably the Prince of Wales, to her official residence in Dublin, Áras an Uachtaráin. These were bold moves that dramatically changed the face of existing Anglo-Irish relations.

For me, though, the most compelling example Robinson gave us of a great female Presidential role model came in 1992. She was one of the first world leaders, at that time, to highlight publicly the horrors of famine and genocide in Somalia and Rwanda. After personally visiting, over 3 days, thousands of sick and dying refugees across the region, a visibly tearful and shaken Irish woman President stood before the press cameras and famously declared:- 

“I’m sorry that I cannot be entirely calm speaking to you, because I have such a sense of what the world must take responsibility for.”

Her words and demeanour on this occasion shamed the West into action and led to the first concerted international humanitarian response to the Somalian and Rwandan crises.

Robinson’s successor, Mary McAleese, during her time in office, worked tirelessly to address issues of sectarianism and violence in the north of Ireland through an openly declared policy of “building bridges”. Picking up the mantle of her predecessor, McAleese invited Britain’s Queen Elizabeth to make a first ever state visit to the Republic of Ireland in 2011 – a move that initially discomfited some Irish Republicans but ultimately helped open a new door - not necessarily of agreement - but certainly respect and understanding between them and the British Royal Family. 

Early in her Presidency, McAleese also incurred the wrath of the then powerful, male dominated Catholic hierarchy in Ireland by accepting communion in an Anglican church. Although a devout Catholic herself, McAleese saw the move in the context of Ireland’s long history of religious conflict. For her, respecting and representing Irish people of different religious traditions was a core, and hugely important, responsibility of her office. 

It was a similar sense of duty that impelled McAleese, as President, to call for the complete deconstruction of homophobia in Ireland. In a broadcast from Áras an Uachtaráin (Ireland’s equivalent to an Oval Office) McAleese endorsed the Irish LGBT rights campaign and praised campaigners for working to bring fully to fruition the country’s founding Proclamation that “all the children of the nation shall be cherished equally”. In 2010 she signed into law the state’s first legislation recognising the validity of same sex relationships (civil partnerships). Within 5 years of this, attitudes to LGBT people in Ireland had changed so dramatically that the country, by popular referendum, voted to amend the Irish constitution to allow for same sex marriage. The extent of the shift in Irish social attitudes that McAleese helped bring about is no better testified than by the appointment, just last June, of Ireland's first openly gay Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Leo Varadakar. It is an extraordinary change in a country formerly dominated by the Catholic church.

It seems to me, then, that in order to become a great role model for women in the US and across the world, the first American woman President should consider becoming a transforming President, at least in the spirit of Robinson and McAleese. Ireland is, of course, a tiny country. But perhaps women from even a great country, like the US, who aspire to great political office, like the American President, can sometimes look towards a small country and draw some inspiration? Perhaps too, that first American woman President, when she takes office, might be able to connect, in some way, with the thoughts of Mary Robinson, after she was elected Ireland’s first woman President:-
“I must be a President for all the people, but more than that, I want to be a President for all the people. Because I was elected by men and women of all parties and none, by many with great moral courage, who stepped out from the faded flags of the Civil War and voted for a new Ireland, and above all by the women of Ireland, mná na hÉireann, who instead of rocking the cradle, rocked the system. And who came out massively to make their mark on the ballot paper and on a new Ireland.”

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Airing Ireland's dirty linen

Moving to America has made me realise how proud I am to be Irish. While my migration to Davis was inherently daunting, the fear and uncertainty about being so far away from home has been tempered by the genuine warmth of those who detect even the slightest hint of my accent. In many ways, it has helped me combat the sense of feeling like an outsider.

While I consider it a privilege that the utterance of my nationality enjoys a largely positive reception, my absence from Ireland has imparted on me a large deal of objectivity in it’s assessment, particularly from a feminist perspective. The reality is, although I’m proud of certain facets of my Irish identity, as a woman I’m also deeply embarrassed by it.

Earlier last week, a New York Time’s video titled ‘The lost children of Tuam’ circulated my Facebook newsfeed. This deeply poignant video documents the discovery, and subsequent cover up of a mass burial chamber, where the remains of at least 796 ‘illegitimate’ children and infants were dumped by the Bon Secours sisters in an act of what can only be described as pure sacrilege. You see, the Republic of Ireland, since its nascence in the early 20th Century, has been ensnared and indoctrinated by the Catholic Church. The result? The systemic enslavement and abuse of thousands of unmarried mothers in ‘mother and baby homes’, otherwise known as Magdalene Laundries, which were run by four religious orders of the Catholic Church and covertly financed by the Irish State.

The Magdalene Laundries have left a gaping wound across the social and political landscape of modern Ireland. Often referred to as Magdalene Asylums, they appeared on the surface to be institutions where women were expected to work in a laundry in return for bed, board and atonement for their sins. Behind this façade a different story. The nuns that ran these laundries quietly profited off washing the linen of local wealthy families while at the same time physically, emotionally and spiritually abusing these women.

They functioned as institutions for ‘fallen women’, so firmly believed to be in the clutches of depravity for daring to, or having the misfortune of becoming pregnant outside of marriage. With contraception only barely being legalised in Ireland in 1980 (another string of society the master puppeteer Church controlled), accidental pregnancies, not to mention pregnancies arising from the abhorrent acts of rape and incest, were almost inevitable. Among these “fallen women” were sufferers of mental health illnesses as well as women with petty criminal convictions, however the vast majority of those enslaved were unmarried mothers averaging at the tender age of 23.

The short film gives a voice to some of the survivors of this particular mother and baby home in Tuam. One man painfully detailed that when his mother had gotten pregnant outside of marriage “the priest in the parish got to hear about it and told her parents that it was an awful disgrace. That she couldn’t be seen out because she’d be a bad influence”. I assure you, this was not an isolated incident. We have to remember that practically until the turn of the 21st Century, the Catholic Church ruled supreme in Ireland. A priest paying attention to a particular person or a particular family was akin to God himself sitting down with you for tea. This monopoly on society meant that a priest telling a family how disgraceful their daughter was would often garner a visceral reaction of shame and disgust, resulting in their ‘beloved’ daughter being coerced into a mother and baby home in order to escape the toxic scrutiny of the insular Irish society. Almost always the families were told the same lie; “the nuns would look after her there”.

While the government closed this particular mother and baby home in Tuam in 1961, it continued to operate similar homes across the country right up until 1996. I wouldn’t have enough space in this post to fully detail the abuses women faced at the hands of the supposedly ‘trusted’ clergy, however at least 23,000 unmarried women were put in these homes and forced to give up their infants. Whether they were starved, neglected, left to fester in their own waste, smothered, beaten or illegally bartered off to rich American families, their children were most brutally punished for being the fruits of a perceived union of ‘sin’. They were punished for the innocence of their mere existence.

I was born a year after the last laundry was shut. However, growing up in a supposed ‘post-laundry’ landscape doesn’t rid the horrors from Irish memories or consciences. In 2013, our former Taoiseach Enda Kenny was moved to tears in the Dáil while issuing a formal apology to all women whose suffering had long gone unnoticed. This apology was accompanied by a plan to provide reparations to the few remaining survivors of the laundries, with the Church so piously refusing to contribute.  However, it was not until February 2017 that the mass grave in Tuam was addressed by Kenny in the Dáil;
“No nuns broke into our homes to kidnap our children. We gave them up to what we convinced ourselves was the nuns' care. We gave them up maybe to spare them the savagery of gossip, the wink and the elbow language of delight in which the holier than thous were particularly fluent.... Indeed for a while it seems as if in Ireland our women had the amazing capacity to self impregnate”.

While State-issued apologies can do little more than affirm an injustice was committed, I struggle with the fact that my country propagated such a disgraceful, inhumane treatment of women merely because society deemed them to have "fallen". It’s a topic I can do little justice to in a blog post other than highlight its existence. However, to end almost where I began, in times such as these when I find myself marooned from home undergoing bouts of homesickness, I can’t neglect this. As a feminist, my national pride is wholly eclipsed by the embarrassment flowing from my country’s acts against women, and no number of Americans warmly telling me what percentage Irish heritage they are will ever override that embarrassment.