Archive | Scars & Class RSS feed for this section

The Parents and the Childfree Are Ignoring A Very Important Group

11 Aug

Hay que reorganizar los cuidados

(Image by gaelx used under Creative Commons license via)

 

“Now I’m going to ask you something that you officially don’t have to answer, but I’m going to ask you anyway…”

I was in the middle of a job interview, and the résumé splayed out on the table betrayed my age. I knew exactly what was coming.

“Do you have kids?” the interviewer asked.

“No,” I smiled, remembering that German law protected me from having to tell him if and when I ever planned to.

“Good,” he smiled back, glancing to the side as if afraid of being overheard. “Because I hate to say it, but employees with kids will not be able to do this job.”

It was clear to me he wasn’t being sexist or anti-family – just honest. The job in question involved shifts at all hours of the day that would change from week to week. There wasn’t any room for developing a schedule of any regularity, or for excusing oneself repeatedly during flu season. And it wasn’t the only profession I’d heard of that demanded flexibility while offering none back. This year has seen study after study reveal that childless women are heavily favored in academia and the corporate world, while men in any field face miserable stigma if they dare prioritize paternal commitments over professional ones. Parents have it so hard.

But then again, so do childless employees. Yet another study out this year revealed that middle class childless women in the public service sector face stigma and sometimes even harassment in the work place for defying traditional gender expectations. In these jobs, working moms are sometimes accommodated more readily than single ladies, leading Amanda Marcotte to complain at Slate of “women missing dates, exercise classes, and social outings in order to cover for the mothers they work with.” In New York magazine, feminist Ann Friedman argued:

Many corporations now strive for a veneer of family friendliness, so it’s not likely a woman will get the stink-eye for leaving early to catch her kid’s soccer game. Which is a feminist victory. But if a childless employee cops to the fact that she’s ducking out for a yoga class? It’s seen as downright indulgent and may even show up on a performance review.

If you’ve ever waded into the debate between childfree adults and parents, online or off, you know they tend to be rather resentful of one another. I usually find myself playing devil’s advocate to both. At this time last year I wrote about the depths of the pain self-righteous parents can inflict on others. But for every supercilious mother I’ve witnessed flaunting her offspring like Olympic gold medals, I’ve also seen huffy child-freers rolling their eyes the moment a toddler enters their field of vision, having no qualms with letting everyone know that the mere existence of a child in their presence is an assault on their personal freedom. Which brings new meaning to the word “childish.”

It’s a shame because the childfree movement has many excellent points to make about society and gender bias. Summing it all up to the inherent undesirability of children is the worst possible political tactic because no one who believes in human rights can write off an entire group of people who have no choice about belonging to that group. Would we tolerate anyone saying, “I can’t stand the elderly”? Or “There is no way I am ever going to learn to like mentally disabled people”?  And anyone who trashes someone else’s reproductive decisions in order to justify their own will never, ever convince the skeptics they need on their side. They’ll just come off as intolerant and judgmental.

And while mothers hit a wall if they insist that theirs is the hardest job in the world, I don’t think we’re going to get very far arguing that employees should have just as much right to leave work early to make it to yoga class as they do to make it to their kid’s soccer game. In the choice between work versus yoga, nothing but my own happiness is riding on the decision. Because it’s me-time. In the choice between work versus my nephew’s soccer game, someone else’s happiness is also at stake. Because it’s caregiving.

This is not to say that single people have less important lives than those with children. Nor do I intend to suggest that parenting is the hardest job in the world. (As mother and feminist Jessica Valenti pointed out in Why Have Kids?, can anyone say with a straight face that being a parent is harder than being a firefighter or an oncologist?) But those who dedicate a large chunk of their time to others in need of care should always be accommodated more readily than those who don’t. Because helping others in need—whether it’s your kids, your parents, your friend’s kids, or anyone you know who is dependent due to age, disability or illness—is work in itself. It’s often a labor of love, but it’s labor nonetheless. And usually it increases your need for me-time, while leaving you with even less time for it.

As a childless woman, I have occasionally been an unpaid caregiver and frequently the one in need of care. I’ve taken time off from work to babysit my neighbors’ toddler, to bring my nephews to the pediatrician, to pick up a friend’s daughter from kindergarten, to help organize a funeral and sort through an estate. And my parents, relatives, husband and friends have taken time off from work in order to take me to physical therapy, to check-ups and procedures, to be at my bedside before and after surgery. The ideal family-friendly workplace would accommodate any employee’s need to help someone in regular need of assistance.

And maybe if we extend the value of good parenting to the value of good caregiving, we’ll be able to have more discussions about how freakin’ hard it can be. Caregiving isn’t just about having a big heart and finding joy in knowing you helped someone. It’s about sacrifice. It’s about reading a book for the fourth time no matter how much you want to throw it out the window. Or rubbing someone’s feet to distract them from the pain no matter how little sleep you’re running on. Or missing out on parties and events no matter how badly you want to go. Or suppressing your gag reflex as the one you love spits up something absolutely gross. Or mustering the strength to decide whether you should endure the anger being vented at you because everyone needs to vent, or whether you should call your loved one out on their self-pity lest their anger become an abusive habit. Caregiving is about testing your patience until it inevitably wears thin and you make a mistake or lash out, ensuring you’ll be up the next several nights wondering whether you just scarred someone for life. Caregiving is work and, regardless of whether it is paid work, it is one of the most psychologically taxing kinds of work there is.  And some are naturally better at caregiving than others, regardless of gender.

But why is taking time off for your child’s recital more generous than taking time off for a date with a friend? Isn’t a childless peer just as valuable as a family member? Of course, but let’s not fool ourselves. Sitting through an entire school recital is a lot less fun than fine dining. (Hence the rule at Springfield Elementary: “No leaving after your kid’s part is done.”) And helping a friend through a typical young adult “crisis” like a breakup will never require the same sort of patience, empathy and thick skin that you need for helping someone through serious illness, severe injury, death or divorce. Commiserating, while still noble in its intentions, is simply saying, “I’ve been there!” and swapping sob stories within the boundaries of our comfort zone. Empathizing is forcing ourselves to stretch our imaginations and open our hearts to someone whose experience frustrates us, or maybe even scares us, because it is essentially different from our own experience. Because empathizing is so much harder, it is undeniably more noble.

Young, childless, upper/middle class adults like me will probably always be seen as the most self-indulgent because our stage in life is the least likely to involve illness or dependency. But those who volunteer after work to play with underprivileged children or tutor illiterate adults or regularly call their lonely relatives demonstrate that social segregation is in part a choice.

This is not to guilt everyone into feeling that our lives are meaningless unless we start volunteering. But we should be honest, not touchy, if our lifestyles are in fact more self-centered than others’. This year, unlike years past, I find myself only occasionally dedicating my time to someone else. My husband has been the giver, exerting himself to maintain the work-life balance constantly threatened by the pressures of his job and my medical needs. And for that he deserves accommodation from his employers, and both gratitude and admiration from me.

 

 

Advertisement

When Saying “I Don’t Judge” Is Judgmental

4 Aug

Beautiful and Softly(Image by Thomas Hawk used under Creative Commons license via)

 

“I’ve learned not to judge other people.” In the debate on marriage equality, many former opponents have softened their opinions with this all-too-common phrase. While a little progress and diplomacy in any debate is better than none, this should hardly be considered an acceptable assessment of same-sex marriage. Because whenever we say, “I don’t judge,” we’re implying that we think there is something morally ambiguous to judge about the situation.

We say “I don’t judge” when we observe pain or dishonesty and are hard pressed to think of a way it could have been prevented. We say it when we observe someone lose control and we know that everyone loses control sometimes. We say it when at least two sides are sparring and both have made major mistakes. It’s dishonest to pretend that we don’t have opinions about the decisions and actions we witness, because we all do. But ultimately saying, “I don’t judge” means my opinion is incomplete because I can’t say for sure what I would do in that situation. And when the act in question falls short of intentionally cruel behavior, it is often the appropriate thing to say.

It’s appropriate when we hear about a neighbor’s divorce (“I don’t know the details of the marriage, so I can’t judge”), when we hear that someone took a job that compromised their morals (“I can’t say what I would do if I were that strapped for cash”), when we see people with parenting methods that differ from our own (“That child isn’t my child, and I don’t know what I would do if she were”). We say it not to ignore the harm it may have wrought, but in order to remain humble, to avoid hypocrisy, and to remember that different circumstances prevent the human experience from being truly universal.

But we do not and should not say it regarding lifestyles that raise no moral questions. We don’t say, “She’s dating a foreigner, but I don’t judge,” or “They adopted a child, but I don’t judge.” If anyone said of my partner, “He married a woman with dwarfism, but I don’t judge,” that person would be implying there is something shameful or irresponsible about me and my condition.

A little over a hundred years ago, doctors were saying just that. A Virginia medical manual in 1878 advocated criminalizing marriages between average-sized men and women with dwarfism, insisting that such an act was on par with “murder.”

Modern readers hopefully find nothing morally ambiguous about two consenting adults falling in love and deciding to commit to one another. Regarding interracial or same-sex or international or medically “mixed” marriages, the only people who should invite our judgment are those who impugn these relationships with the statement, “I don’t judge.” It’s an oxymoron, not unlike a “Please” slathered sarcasm. And it would be swell to see it less and less in political discussions on civil rights.

 

 

“Power for Good”

28 Jul

tumblr_mqm3ypKbXg1qz5q5lo1_500(Via)

 

Tropes are ideas we construct based on observing patterns in society and wanting to understand them. Stereotypes are ideas we construct based on hearing about patterns in society and accepting them at face value. Needless to say, stereotypes based on that which we have no choice about—our sex, gender identity, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, physical traits, or mental abilities—usually do more harm than good.

Not only do they deny minorities equal rights and opportunities, but a recent study shows that embracing racial stereotypes leads to creative stagnation. So how do we combat them? 

In the wake of the Trayvon Martin verdict and President Obama’s call for a dialogue on race in America, Harvard researchers announced a competition to find the quickest, most effective method for getting people to let go of the prejudices they have about a certain group. The results? Calls for empathy and other try-to-put-yourself-in-their-shoes methods were largely ineffective.  What worked best was showing the participants counter-stereotypical images. World leaders with severe disabilities. Parents proudly painting their son’s toenails. Construction workers nursing their babies. Sons helping out with the housework.  Seeing is believing, apparently.

It is crucial to note that celebrating diversity can feel patronizing, especially to the subjects. The goal, after all, is to drive stereotypes to extinction so that observers find absolutely nothing extraordinary about any of the above images. Because the subjects do not feel extraordinary, at least not all the time – they feel normal.  No person who can qualify as a minority or counter-stereotype should feel pressured to spotlight their everyday life if they don’t want to.  But it is encouraging—if not unsurprising—to see that altering media portrayals of society alters a good deal of the prejudices plaguing too many corners of society.

As my friend Sarah Winawer-Wetzel recently said:

For me, it validates the importance of being out as a gay person. How else are people going to believe that a nice white Jewish girl who dresses femme and doesn’t look particularly counterculture can be queer if I’m not out like a friggin’ lightbulb everywhere I go? I’m not doing it just for me – I’m doing it so that when a little kid looks at the world and thinks about being gay, that kid sees the full spectrum of possibilities, not just a cultural stereotype. Those of us who control visuals and representations of people in the media need to remember to wield our power for good.

We often forget the power we wield when we have a stereotype in our hands, thinking it’s bigger than anything we can do about it. But it is not.  And that is wonderful.

 

 

Liberty and Justice For All

30 Jun

(Via)

 

The Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8 are dead. Less than nine years ago on Election Night 2004, when eleven states banned gay marriage in one fell swoop, I would never, ever have dared to think that change could come so rapidly. Of course, marriage equality does not yet exist in thirty-seven of the fifty United States, but with young people around the world overwhelmingly and increasingly showing their support, it is coming. Thank goodness, in the best sense of the word.

There are those—gay, straight, bi and queer—who are saying, “I can’t be happy about this after what happened to the Voting Rights Act this week.”

And, “I can’t be happy about this until full equality is granted to trans citizens.”

And, “I can’t be happy about this until the AIDS crisis gets more attention.”

And, “I can’t be happy about this until we realize that single people deserve federal benefits, too.”

And every one of these people has a valid point. It’s a common political strategy in such triumphant moments to grab the opportunity to shed light on other civil rights abuses while you have everyone’s attention. Drawing attention to other injustices—especially the attention of those whose privileges put them at risk for remaining oblivious to such issues—is crucial because no one is free when others are oppressed. This is why I am always willing to discuss the latter half of any of the above statements.

But I do take issue with the first half: the too-cynical-to-celebrate attitude that is begging to be called out for its hipster glass house. Because marriage equality is a victory for everyone.

Anyone familiar with the history of minority rights in the U.S. knows that granting civil rights for one group has had an undeniable domino effect on other groups. Not long after debates about slavery, segregation, and voting rights culminated with the nation’s belief that all men are indeed created equal, women asked, “Why just men?” And not long after so many women proved that straight relationships can be egalitarian, gay and lesbian citizens asked, “Why just straight ones?” And somewhere amid gays and lesbians proving that the way they were born hurts no one, trans people asked, “What about how we were born?”  And somewhere in between all the discussions about genitals and bodies and skin color and size, disabled people asked, “What about our bodies and brains?” Because no one is free when others are oppressed.

Likewise, when one kind of inhumane prejudice gets knocked down, all the others are under threat.

This is not to take attention away from the people most directly affected by this week’s momentous legal decision. Friends of mine in Massachusetts can suddenly enjoy concrete federal benefits now while my husband and I have always enjoyed these benefits simply because we’re in a straight relationship. I am so happy for them, and so sad one of my dearest friends never lived to see this day.

But the victory is truly for everyone – even those marriage equality opponents who fail to see how they will benefit from a society that is a little bit freer, a little less fearful, and lot less lop-sided. Because this is a victory for anyone who has been bullied for traits they never had any choice about. This is a victory for anyone with something that has made them stand out in their family. This is a victory for all the couples who have choked back tears when someone said that marriage is all about a man and a woman being able to procreate. This is a victory for all the parents who have tried to teach their children to never grow up thinking they are more important than anyone else.

Congratulations to all of you out there.

 

 

 

Picking & Choosing Our Tragedies

21 Apr

World travel and communications recorded on Twitter

(Image by Eric Fischer used under CC license via)

 

What a week.  A suicide bomber in Pakistan killed four people.  A fertilizer plant explosion in Texas killed at least fourteen people.  Sixteen people died in a goldmine collapse in Ghana.  President Obama and members of the U.S. Senate were sent letters laced with poison.  A journalist in Mexico was assassinated, presumably by agents of the drug wars.  At least 65 people died in terrorist attacks in Iraq.  More than 150 people just died in an earthquake in Szechuan.  And after two young women and a little boy were murdered by bombs at the Boston Marathon, it felt surreal if not uncomfortable to see my last post about America’s inexperience with bombs at home emblazoned across the blog.  But what to say? 

For most of the week, we had no trace of a motive for the Boston bombing.  And now that one suspect of Chechen origin is dead and his brother is in custody, we still don’t have anything we could officially call a reason.  Polemicists on the right and left are using the event as “evidence” for the necessity of their own political agendas, arguing that we should have used drones, or that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should face a military trial, or that we need more surveillance cameras everywhere, or that the two suspects seem more like the psychotic teens of Columbine than terrorist operatives.  As John Dickerson observed in Slate yesterday:

We need more restraint and less wild guessing. Free-flowing debate in the search for meaning is a part of these moments and a part of the human condition, but … In these fast-moving times when the only thing that is certain is that the first piece of news has repeatedly been wrong, perhaps those lawmakers and pundits who want to be part of the final conversation should (paraphrasing Mike Monteiro) follow the Quaker rule: Be meaningful or be quiet. 

Of course, we all like to think ourselves meaningful.  But so far, with no official motive, the only irrefutable point any politician has made thusfar came from the Ambassador from the Czech Republic, who urged the media to note that Czechs and Chechens belong to two different countries located over a thousand miles apart.

Distance and borders matter, obviously, since none of us are equally horrified by every single one of this week’s tragedies.  But why?  I had friends in the Boston area who were stuck at home during Friday’s lockdown.  (Two were hoping to be allowed out in time for them to make it to the annual birthday celebration of their late brother Bill, whom I wrote about at this time last year in a post on grief.)  But I’ll hazard to guess that most of those glued to the news updates from Boston did not have loved ones there.  The story dominated the headlines across the ocean in Germany, in France, in the U.K.  Everyone seemed to be watching. 

The simplest reason for this is that people are naturally empathic, upset to see others upset and, in the words of the Czech ambassador, “It was a stark reminder of the fact that any of us could be a victim of senseless violence anywhere at any moment.”  But dead people in Pakistan and Iraq no longer serve as reminders of that fact.  They instead represent our ability to compartmentalize, to exile certain tragedies to a semi-numb region of the mind, either because they seem too frequent for us to commit to or because we want to believe there is some crucial difference between Us and Them, protecting us from their fate.  It’s not malicious of us to compartmentalize in this way—to tear up upon sight of the beautiful little boy in Boston while not even checking to see if any of the victims in Iraq were children—but it’s not fair either. 

And so I stared down my last post about World War II bombs, feeling inexplicably uncomfortable, wondering whether it was callous of me to not say anything about the tragedies going on in my old home country, yet knowing World War II would never have happened had my new home country not embraced a dangerous idea of what makes a country “home.”  Borders are always bizarre.  In a digital age, distance is all in the mind.  I’ll never be able to rationally explain why some things feel “close to home” and others don’t.   I’ll always care more about the safety of those I know personally than those I don’t, but I’ll never be completely comfortable with this fact because ignoring our common humanity is what builds borders and facilitates cruelty.  I’ll always tear up if you show me a picture of an innocent victim.  I’ll always try to remember to ask why we are shown pictures of some victims, and not others. 

Or, as a friend in Boston observed during the lockdown, “It is so hard to be inside on this gorgeous, beautiful spring day.  Minor problem, but reminds me how lucky we are most of the time to feel safe outside our homes.”

 

 

Who Gets Stuck in the Friend Zone

24 Mar

Love for all!(Image by Matthias Ripp used under CC license via)

 

Well, I finally sat down and saw The Phantom of the Opera a quarter of a century after everyone else.  (If you don’t know the story, this parody sums it up pretty well.)  I won’t say what I thought of all the songs songs songs because I’m bound to alienate half my readers either way, but by the second to last scene, I was hollering at the screen: “Girl, you’d better not go for that swaggering bully in the mask!”  But then she ripped the mask off and he couldn’t stop crying and I was up to my eyelids in Kleenex, wailing: “If only he hadn’t killed so many people!  (And talked to her instead of stalked her… )  Now he’s just another disfigured guy stuck in the Friend Zone!  But his pain is reeeeeeeeal!”

This week, the word “Friend Zone” has been entered into the Oxford English Dictionary.  Many of my favorite feminists are not pleased.  Because the term is generally thought to be something only straight, bitter men complain about (see these Urban Dictionary definitions), many argue that it’s a misogynistic trope.  Lamenting the Friend Zone sends the message, however subliminally, that spending time with a female is pointless unless you gain access to her naughty bits.  Because who would want to be friends with a woman?! 

Such a bleak view of women is certainly a problem among many men.  In the words of John Mix Meyer, “Girls are not machines you put kindness coins into until sex falls out.”  Nice for the sake of nice is respect.  Nice only for the sake of getting laid is not.  As I’ve said before, cross-gender friendship could use a lot more support in books, film, and mainstream society.

But I’ve also used the word “Friend Zone” before because I don’t believe it refers only to this one chauvinistic idea.  Unrequited love isn’t fun for anyone.  Lots of women have been stuck in the Friend Zone, too.  Many people are expected by pop culture to always end up there, because society deems them asexual, and it could be helpful to examine why.  Almost every adult on earth craves love and sex, and we are all trying to figure out what attracts those we deem attractive. 

Men who sigh, “Girls don’t like nice guys,” need to get over their narcissism.  But there are others who wonder in earnest why the Friend Zone seems so jam-packed with quiet guys who genuinely respect women.  In stories of every genre, from classic literature (Madame Bovary) to modern literature (Freedom) to dime-a-dozen bodice-rippers (The Bridges of Madison County), bored heroines look past their straight-laced suitors to the tall dark stranger who’s not exactly famous for his fidelity or his feminism.  Love triangles always make for good drama, but when the heroine more often than not decides that the devoted sweetheart belongs in the Friend Zone and the unpredictable bad boy belongs in bed, many scratch their heads and repeat, “Why do girls always go for jerks?”  Or, as The Mr. T Experience sings, “I have some problems… but even Hitler had a girlfriend, so why can’t I?”

The answer often depends on the situation, but there are two fundamental, heteronormative traditions that prop it up:

The Macho Stereotype – Any guy who isn’t strong and independent to the point of being daring isn’t a “real man.”  Obeying the rules, doting on your wife, and being mediocre is emasculating.  Hence the double standard men are held to in real life: they are always expected to focus more on their success and autonomy than their emotional fulfillment.  Sociologist Stephanie Coontz has pointed out that the inordinate importance of independence to male worth is why homeless men arouse so much more disgust than homeless women.

The Gentler Sex Stereotype – A nice girl can see the diamond in the rough.  A man with a nasty wife is hen-pecked and pathetic, but a woman with a bad boy just might be the only one who understands him.  From a conservative standpoint, it’s virtuous of a woman to be so selfless and forgiving.  From a liberal standpoint, it’s the thrill of conquest that keeps her trying.  

A man’s worth is defined by his success, albeit many women accept broad definitions of success.  Western romances across the ages assert that special girls who search for the softer side of the bully or the bad boy will find it: Beauty and the Beast, Wuthering Heights, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, The Music Man, Guys and Dolls, Bonnie and Clyde, right up to Fifty Shades of Grey.  Pop culture reiterates ad nauseam how much men love the chase, but this trope shows that scores of women do, too.  For the starry-eyed heroine, it’s a challenge to stray from the disapproving masses—or her parents—and become the One Special Woman who can tame the beast and bring joy to his lonely life.  The higher the risk, the greater the reward.  The reward is knowing that she is deeper, different from those other girls who swoon over bland perfection.  Hence even America’s most famous feminist, Lisa Simpson, has looked past loyal, bespectacled Milhouse for Nelson, the schoolyard bully from a broken home.  

By far the most horrific result of this romantic tradition is the fact that too many women in real life endure abuse, or worse.  Pop culture sometimes concedes this and still has the audacity to romanticize it.  My high school did a production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel the same year Time magazine declared it the Best Musical of All Time.  After wife-beater Billy Bigelow dies in an armed robbery, his widow tells their daughter, “It is possible, dear, for someone to hit you, hit you hard, and it not hurt at all.”  You see, truly devoted wives know that offering yourself up as his punching bag is a way to show your love and nurture him as he struggles with his demons.  Only a selfish bitch would leave him when he needs her most.

Carousel was written in 1956, but the trope is still going strong.  The final film of the Twilight series lead NPR’s Linda Holmes to observe:

When a saga popular with pre-adolescent girls peaks romantically on a night that leaves the heroine to wake up covered with bruises in the shape of her husband’s hands — and when that heroine then spends the morning explaining to her husband that she’s incredibly happy even though he injured her, and that it’s not his fault because she understands he couldn’t help it in light of the depth of his passion — that’s profoundly irresponsible.

Yes, we’re all having a good yuk over the unhinged quality of it all.  And yes, it’s a movie with a monster baby… But romanticizing an intimate relationship that leaves bruises and scars is a particularly terrible idea in a film aimed at girls.  Talking about this is tiresome, but then so is putting it in the movie.

Indeed.

But attraction to the forbidden is not always dangerous.  Sometimes the bad boy is just misunderstood.  There is a powerful romantic tradition of fine ladies risking wealth and status for true love.  (See Aladdin, Titanic, Robin Hood, Moulin Rouge, Lady and the Tramp, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Pirates of Penzance, The Pirates of the Caribbean.)  There are also classic tales of heroines opening the gates to social progress by debunking their families’ horrid prejudices when they fall for men outside their race/nationality/religion/species.  (See Pocahontas, South Pacific, Fiddler on the Roof, The Little Mermaid.)  The heroines of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Angst essen Seelen auf stare down the racial tensions of the era in which the films were released.  Meanwhile, Cyrano DeBergerac and the Phantom of the Opera both find out—albeit too late—that their beloveds would have looked past their disfigurement and loved them back. 

Since then, we’ve seen heroines end up with men with disabling injuries (often from war), while a handful go for guys who are congenitally disabled or disfigured.  As noted recently, Peter Dinklage’s romantic roles are possibly, finally breaking dwarf men out of the Friend Zone.  Great art obsesses over the blurry border between right and wrong, friend and lover, beauty and banality.  These compassionate heroines who try to understand the “bad” boys and the rejects help us deepen our perceptions of attractiveness.

It’s worth noting that the Phantom and Cyrano compensate for the supposed repulsiveness of their disfigurement with the sexiness of their genius.  They are supercrips.  Granted Gothic tales love to examine the complexity of blinding light draped in darkness.  I like a study of conflicting traits as much as the next starving liberal arts grad.  But it’s a ludicrously ableist tradition that only gives disabled superheroes a shot at intimacy, restricting ordinary disabled men like Quasimodo or the Seven Dwarfs to the Friend Zone.  And it’s an absurdly lookist tradition that restricts almost all of our disfigured and disabled women there.

Can you name a famous heroine who’s disfigured or physically disabled?  (Can you name a famous actress who’s visibly disabled, for that matter?  I might be able to, but I’d have to check Wikipedia to be sure.)  In the old days, disabled and disfigured girls might arouse sympathy (see Helen Keller), but the women were hags.  Period.  If women who were merely not conventionally attractive ever dared to step out of the Friend Zone and into the dating game, they were annoyingReally annoying.  And they were swatted away like flies.

Nowadays, love stories try to speak to women’s insecurities about their looks with quirky retellings of the Ugly Duckling or Cinderella.  The heroine perceives herself as unattractive, moaning, “Is it because of my [thighs/eyes/nose]?!”  (Rather than cursing, “That shallow jerk stuck me in the Friend Zone!”)  But we eventually see that she truly is a knock-out and it’s just a matter of finding the right man who will wipe the soot off her face, pay for a makeover, or simply remove her glasses.  Children’s films are getting a little better: Shrek and The Princess and the Frog feature heroines who are green-skinned for part of the courtship, though their Otherness is not quite as realistic as the Phantom’s or Quasimodo’s.  We’ve yet to see a heroine angrily unveil a severe facial deformity and hear her strapping lover say, “I think it’s intriguing.  And I wanna knock boots with you.  So.  Bad.” 

And why not?  Francis Bacon said, “There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportion.”  I’ve overheard countless guys say, “Chicks dig scars.”  Which is true.  Lots of chicks got scars, too.

The popularity of a story is by no means an empirical examination of our values.  Most people I know are so much deeper than pop culture gives us credit for.  And there is a lot more to many of these stories than the tropes I just reduced them to.  But it would be daft to pretend that they have nothing to do with our collective psyche.  Every one of us treasures those romantic moments we experienced that were “just like in a movie.”  Our most popular books and films simultaneously reflect and influence what we tend to think is hot.  And when it comes to opening our minds, fiction is often the best messenger.  We look to entertainment for escape and to art for enlightenment.  The most powerful stories provide both. 

When I attended a lecture at the Network of Disabled Women in Berlin two weeks ago, there was a debate as to whether reality TV shows and documentaries help or harm perceptions of disabled women.  Good documentaries smash stereotypes by providing facts and figures, but the over-representation of disabled women in such reports combined with their invisibility in love stories, detective stories, and silly sitcoms suggests that they exist solely as objects of study.  They are there to satisfy our curiosity, but we’re rarely asked to root for them the way we root for Rapunzel or Bridget Jones.  We never follow them on a journey dripping with passion.  We should. 

The Oxford English Dictionary’s newborn definition of “Friend Zone” reads: “a situation in which a platonic relationship exists between two people, one of whom has an undeclared romantic or sexual interest in the other.”  It doesn’t say it’s exclusively a problem for men.  And good for them.  To me, the term will always evoke the potentially destructive idea that certain “types” of people don’t ever need or deserve intimacy.  And we’ve got to keep questioning it.  Children, animals, and self-proclaimed asexuals automatically belong in the Friend Zone, along with your clients, patients, and students.  The disabled, the disfigured, the elderly, the ordinary, and the unsuccessful do not automatically belong there.  I’m counting on all of us, the storytellers and the lovers, to recognize the word so that we can recognize the problem.

 

 

Dragging Entertainment Into the 21st Century

21 Oct

(Via)

 

This week, humor site Cracked.com features a great article by J.F. Sargent titled “6 Insane Stereotypes That Movies Can’t Seem to Get Over.”  Alongside the insidious ways in which racism, sexism, homophobia still manage to persevere in mainstream entertainment, Number Two on the list is “Anything (Even Death) Is Better Than Being Disabled”:

In movie universes, there’s two ways to get disabled: Either you get a sweet superpower out of it, like Daredevil, or it makes you absolutely miserable for the rest of your life. One of the most infamous examples is Million Dollar Baby, which ends with (spoilers) the protagonist becoming a quadriplegic and Clint Eastwood euthanizing her because, you know, what’s the point of living like that? Never mind the fact that millions of people do just that every day…

Showing someone using sheer willpower to overcome something is a great character arc, and Hollywood applies that to everything, from learning kung fu despite being an overweight panda to “beating” a real-world disability. The problem is, this arc has some tragic implications for the real-world people who come out with the message that they are “too weak” to overcome their disabilities.

The result is that moviegoers think that disabilities are way worse than they actually are, and filmmakers have to cater to that: For example, while filming an episode of Dollhouse where Eliza Dushku was blind, the producers brought in an actual blind woman to show the actress how to move and get around, but the result was that “she didn’t look blind,” and they had to make her act clumsier so the audience would buy it.

Even in Avatar, real paraplegics thought that Sam Worthington’s character was making way too much effort transferring from his chair, but that’s the way we’re used to seeing it in movies. It’s a vicious cycle, and it isn’t going to stop until either Hollywood wises up or people with disabilities stop living happy, fulfilling lives.

I’ve examined Hollywood’s ableist problems several times before and there are still plenty to dedicate an entire blog to.  But, like The Daily Show or The Onion, Cracked has a long history of excellent social critique embedded amongst the fart jokes and it’s awesome.  Especially when considering that not only mainstream but alternative entertainment all too often can’t seem to let go of the tired stereotypes.  That Cracked is a site not officially dedicated to politics or social activism suggests that the comics writing for it believe calling out the industry for its embarrassing ineptitude is just common sense.

 

 

   

It’s So Easy To Take Peace for Granted

14 Oct

(Via)

 

The European Union has won the Nobel Peace Prize amidst the hardest year it has faced since its inception.  The E.U. founders certainly had no idea what they were building when they did—the goal was simply to control German coal and steel so that Germany could never rebuild its war machine—and the ensuing peace among member nations that is now over 60 years old was not something anyone would have bet on at the time.  Nor would anyone have imagined that E.U. membership would later mean abolition of the death penalty, but it has. 

I detest the austerity policy in place now during the economic crisis, but the E.U. is more than that, just as the U.S. is more than Wall Street.  The Euro Generation that emerged 15 years ago doesn’t identify with austerity but with European peace, universal healthcare, the welfare state, religion out of politics, and the determination to simultaneously open borders and promote multi-lingualism while protecting minority languages and cultures.  To them, nationalism is pointless at best and cataclysmic at worst.

Of course, bureaucracies are never as pretty as the ideals behind them.  And some of the criticism this week has been fair.  (Der Spiegel claims that awarding former E.U. leaders such as Jacques Delors would have more effectively spotlighted the ideals of the European peace project.)  A lot of the criticism has been ridiculous, if not offensive.  (Many on the far left are echoing the sentiments of critics on the far right, comparing police brutality in Greece and Spain to World War II.  Not helpful.)  The debate should keep going, but I’m personally taking the moment to remember how I felt 13 years ago when I read Eddie Izzard campaigning against Europhobia in the UK:

“I believe that we are on to something really good here, if it means that we stop rolling tanks across one another’s borders and stop killing each other. There are 800 million of us Europeans and we’ve been killing each other for centuries.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s Privilege?

7 Oct

(Via)

 

This week I led a workshop about teaching pre-school children about diversity.  I started by asking the teachers what privilege is, and I got the same answer a family member had given just days before: “Privilege is what people who are really lucky have.  Like being born into a rich family, going to nice schools, or even just being exceptionally good-looking and therefore having an easier time of it.”

It is interesting that so many seem to be under the impression that privilege and luck are what extremely well-off people have.  Privilege does belong to anyone whose place in society is considered “better than normal,” but also to anyone whose place is considered simply “normal.”  As said before, privilege is granted by society to certain people based on things we had absolutely nothing to do with: our gender identity, our ethnicity, our sexuality, our physical traits, our mental capabilities, our class background.  That is why any privilege—like any form of disenfranchisement—is unjust.     

In the workshop, I read off the following list of statements that illustrate privilege to the participants who were lined up in a row.  (It’s a hodge-podge of original statements and ones taken from privilege activities created by Peggy McIntosh, Earlham College, and the Head Start Program.)  Anyone for whom the statement was true could step forward.  Anyone else had to stay behind.  All of us in the group stepped forward at least half the time.  You can see for yourself where you would have ended up: 

 1)      I always felt safe in my neighborhood as a child.

2)      If I wish to, I can be with people of my race/ethnicity most of the time.

3)      I never have to plan how to reveal my sexual orientation or gender identity to friends, family, or colleagues.  It’s assumed.

4)      I can go out in public without being stared at.

5)      I participated in extracurricular activities as a child (swimming, football, ballet, piano, yoga, painting, etc.).

6)      I can easily buy posters, picture books, dolls, toys and greeting cards featuring people of my race.

7)      I can wear a skirt, a dress, jeans, or pants, without anyone staring or asking me to explain my choice.

8)      In school, I could always take part in whatever activity or games the class was assigned.

9)      None of my close friends or family has ever been arrested.

10)  Rarely have I been asked to explain why my body looks the way it does or why I move or speak the way I do.

11)  I have never worried that I might not be able to afford food.

12)  When I learned about “civilization” in school, I was shown that people with my skin color made it what it is.

13)  I have never heard of someone who looks like me being given up for adoption or aborted because of it.

14)  Who I am attracted to is not considered a political issue.

15)  I attended a private school.

16)  I am never asked to speak for everyone in my ethnic group.

17)  I can find colleges that have many people from my class background as students.

18)  I can criticize our government without being seen as an outsider.

19)  My family never had to move for financial reasons.

20)  If I am assertive, it is never assumed that it comes from my need to “compensate” or struggle with my identity.

21)  When I was a child, I never had to help my parents at their workplace regularly.

22)  When I talk about my sexuality (such as joking or talking about relationships), I will not be accused of “pushing” my sexuality on others.

23)  If I make a mistake or get into trouble, I am usually judged as an individual, not as an example of people who look like me.

24)  I can go for months without being called straight, heterosexual, or cis.

25)  I can use public facilities (store shelves, desks, cars, buses, restrooms, and train or plane seats) or standard materials (books, scissors, computers, televisions) without needing help or adaptations.

26)  When I dress for a formal event, I don’t worry about being accused of looking too dolled up or not pretty enough.

27)  As a child, I never had to help care for a family member.

28)  When I watch family advertisements for food, medicine, clothing, games and toys, the families on TV usually look like mine.

29)  I grew up feeling I could be whoever or whatever I wanted.

30)  I have never been asked, “What do [people like] you like to be called?”

 

 

Biology and “The Imprecision of Stereotypes”

16 Sep

 

This week the British newspaper The Telegraph asks:

Ever wondered why men can’t seem to tastefully decorate a house?  Or have a tendency for dressing in clothes that clash?  And why, for that matter, can’t women seem to hack it at computer games?  Now scientists claim to have discovered the reason: the sexes see differently.  Women are better able to tell fine differences between colors, but men are better at keeping an eye on rapidly moving objects, they say.

Professor Israel Abramov and colleagues at the City University of New York reached their conclusions after testing the sight of students and staff, all over 16, at two colleges…

The authors wrote: “Across most of the visible spectrum males require a slightly longer wavelength than do females in order to experience the same hue.”  So, a man would perceive a turquoise vase, for instance, as being a little more blue than a woman who was looking at it too.

Abramov, professor of cognition, admitted they currently had “no idea” about how sex influenced color perception.  However, writing in the journal Biology of Sex Differences, he said it seemed “reasonable to postulate” that differences in testosterone levels were responsible…

Men can’t perceive colors as deftly as women can.  That’s why all the great Western painters like Van Gogh and Cézanne and Leonardo and Picasso and Renoir and Monet and Munch and Vermeer and Kandinsky and Matisse are female.  And all the major fashion designers of the last century like Hugo Boss and Karl Lagerfeld and Gianni Versace and Giorgio Armani and Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren were women.  Oh, wait. 

Maybe the study meant to say testosterone only triggers color ineptitude when male ears register the words “home decorating.”  Or that male color perception improves when money is involved. 

Or maybe The Telegraph author was exaggerating just a bit.  Tacking jazzy headlines onto reports of scientific studies are all the rage these days, no matter how much they distort the findings.  In June, Medical Daily ran an article under the title, “Racism Is Innate.”  Innate means, according to my biologist father, “present at birth,” so this seemed like a call to toss all those No child is born a racist buttons onto the trash heap.  Except that anyone who bothered to read the article would discover that the study simply concluded that brain scans of adults show simultaneous activity in the centers that process fear and emotion and those that differentiate between familiar and unfamiliar faces.  The idea that fear of the Other can be neurologically mapped lends itself to a great deal of speculation and debate, but nowhere did the study claim that racism is present at birth. 

Such truth-stretching borders on mendacity, yet it pervades the science sections of so many newspapers.  Scientific studies are supposed to be free of bias, but the news media is severely biased toward publishing whatever will grab readers’ attention.  As several researchers have pointed out, differences between the sexes are currently considered a much more interesting discovery than no difference, so publishers often remain silent on an issue until they find a study that provides the juicier headline, no matter how numerous the contradicting studies are.  When the market is left to decide, it chooses salability over comprehensiveness.

Such an irresponsible approach to science results in a gravely misinformed public.  I can’t tell you how many people have repeated the claim that our modern Western female beauty standards are “natural” because a round waist resembles pregnancy and triggers the male fear of cuckoldry.  No one seems to remember that several crosscultural studies discredited this idea years ago.  But how can anyone be expected to remember something the media chose not to promote in the first place? 

And forget about waiting until the study is corroborated.  In 2007, The Times ran a headline claiming that women are naturally drawn to the color pink because of our savannah foremothers’ need to gather berries while the men hunted.  The Times published the study without consulting any historians, who eventually pointed out that pink was considered a manly color as recently as 1918 until fashion trends changed.  Oops.

This doesn’t mean that we should, as Mitt Romney has demanded, “keep science out of politics.”  Science is impartiality and corroboration and the best method we have for sorting facts from wishful thinking—for preventing our emotional, egotistical needs from weakening our objectivity.  To me, science is the most humbling force in the universe because it demands we always admit what we do not know.  It prevents hasty conclusions based on flimsy evidence, gut feelings, and political agendas.  It questions crude stereotypes and discovers more complex structures. 

But according to pop science reporters and the researchers they choose to spotlight, nearly every single modern joke about the differences between men and women stems from millennia-old evolutionary adaptations.  (Indeed, the Telegraph article claims that the female proclivity for detecting color helped our foremothers with gathering berries.  Always with the damn berries… )  As stated in the graphic below, such reports all too often suggest that prehistoric society on the African savannah looked just like something Don Draper or Phyllis Schlafly would have designed:

Men hunt, women nest, and every macho social pattern we see today has been passed down to us from our prehistoric ancestors.  Even though historians find that these patterns, like our racial categories, are barely more than two centuries old, if that.  And that the gender binary is far from universal.  Misinterpreting scientific findings is just as dire as ignoring them. 

When it comes to what women and men can and can’t do, neuroscientist Lise Eliot notes, “Expectations are crucial.”  When boys and young men grow up in a culture that mocks their supposed incompetence in all things domestic (“Guys don’t do that!”), it comes as no surprise that only the most self-confident will pursue any interest they have.  Meanwhile, studies show girls perform as well as boys do in math and science until they reach puberty.  Maybe the onset of menstruation paralyzes our visual-spatial intelligence because we’ve got to get picking those berries, or maybe girls pick up on the not-so-subtle message that guys think coquettish beauty is more important than nerdy brains in the dating game.  (For more details on the sexism faced by aspiring female scientists, see Cordelia Fine’s excellent book, Delusions of Gender.)  In her research, Dr. Eliot finds only two indisputable neurological differences between males and females:

1) Male brains are 8% to 11% larger than females’.

2) Female brains reach maturation earlier than male brains. 

All other neurological studies that find major differences between the sexes are studies of adults: i.e., the people most shaped by their culture and society.  Only cross-cultural studies of adults can isolate nurture from nature.  In any case, Eliot is a proponent of neuroplasticity, the idea that the pathways and synapses of the brain change depending upon its environment and the neural processes and behaviors it engages in.  In other words, painting or gaming from an early age or frequently throughout your life will condition your brain to do these tasks and related ones well.  It explains why the gender roles of a given time and place are so powerfulwhy mastering unfamiliar tasks is an uphill climb for men and women but also why countries committed to equality have the narrowest gender gaps. 

“Plasticity is the basis for all learning and the best hope for recovery after injury,” Eliot writes.  “Simply put, your brain is what you do with it.”  For more, see her brilliant parenting book, Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps—and What We Can Do About It.   

But I’ll never believe that a neuroscientist has all the answers.  I live in a country that showed the world the dangers of hastily trying to trace all social patterns back to biology.  As a result, the media here in Germany is usually much more reticent to casually toss around arguments like those in The Telegraph or The Times or Medical Daily.  Natural scientists have made discoveries like neuroplasticity and limb-lengthening that are crucial to progress, but social scientists have discovered that equality and empathy are crucial to any society that values peace and respect over power and greed. 

Or, in other words.

 

 

Fighting the Good Fight or Feeding The Ego?

19 Aug

Body Art Chameleon“I know so many men and boys and trans individuals who wear dresses for so many different reasons, and they do it a lot more than mainstream movies, TV, and advertising suggest.” 

I felt my fingers tremble just a tiny bit as I typed this sentence last week.  Not because of the subject matter.  Not because of the point I was trying to make.  Because of the “I.”  Was that word going to drive home my point, or derail it?

Studies show personally knowing someone who belongs to a minority group increases the likelihood that you will have empathy for that minority.  If you have a family member who is gay, you’re less likely to oppose marriage equality.  If you know someone with dwarfism well, you’re less likely to see their medical diagnosis whenever you look at them.  GLAAD emphasized the political potential for all this in a brilliant meme last fall.  Urging LGBT individuals to talk openly about their partners and love lives at the dinner table with the same frequency as their straight family members, they called it, “I’m Letting Aunt Betty Feel Awkward This Thanksgiving.” 

Truly caring for someone with a different perspective often—though, sadly, not always—inspires us to try to understand their perspective and this enhances our own.  Letting others know that They are not so different from Us because we know and care deeply about many of Them can effectively break down barriers.  And, when discussing social injustice, it’s always best to ask someone with personal experience, lest we unwittingly make erroneous assumptions.  But, of course, just having friends who belong to minority groups doesn’t solve everything. 

As I wrote about knowing men and trans people who wear dresses to elucidate that They are actually Us, I cringed at the idea of flaunting my loved ones’ Otherness for the purposes of my blog.  By inserting myself into the statement, there was a risk that some would think I was trying to prove my open-mindedness.  I’ve bragged like that in the past, especially when I was an egocentric teen.  (You know, back when you practiced writing your name over and over?)  And my own Otherness has been flaunted a few times by friends and acquaintances seeking attention for their open-mindedness.  It’s a serious problem in the social justice movements.  

In Black Like Me, the author tells the story of a New Yorker he encounters who has come to the South to “observe” the plight of the black citizens.  “You people are my brothers,” the New Yorker insists.  “It’s people like me that are your only hope.  How do you expect me to observe if you won’t talk to me?”  Although the man’s opposition to segregation was morally correct, his overt self-regard and patronizing disgust at his brothers’ “ingratitude” makes it one of the most cringe-inducing scenes in the book.

In Baratunde Thurston’s fantastic memoir, How To Be Black (just out this year), the author asks writers and activists about white people’s fear of being called racist.  damali ayo, the author of How To Rent A Negro and Obamistan! Land Without Racism, says it best:

It shows our values as a culture when somebody says, “I don’t want to be a called a racist.”  Really what they’re saying is, “I want you to like me.  I don’t want to not be liked.  I want to still be okay with you.”  They don’t mean, “What I really want is to know and understand experiences of people of color…”  That would be great.

And so, it just shows that, as I always have said, we are operating at this third-grade level of race relations.  And it’s that third-grader that goes, “Please like me, do please like me,” versus “Can I understand?”

We all want to be liked and we all want to do the right thing.  But the the third-grader mindset can’t help but focus more on the former.  It is evident in common phrases like:

“We were the only white people there!” 

 “I’ve always wanted a gay friend!” 

“I think I’m [bisexual/learning disabled], too, because I [kissed a girl once/have difficulty concentrating]!” 

“I’m not prejudiced!  I have so many [nonwhite/foreign/LGBT/disabled] friends!”

Of course, in certain contexts and worded differently, these statements would not be offensive.  What makes them offensive is the need to let others know all about us, the belief that our support for equality deserves praise, the patronizing (and unjust) view that minorities should be grateful for our lack of prejudice.  We can note that we were the only white people in a group in order to spark a dialogue about social segregation, or we can flaunt the experience like a medal from the Liberal Olympics.  We can worry that having a homogeneous circle of friends will limit our perspective, or we can believe that racking up as many minority friends as we can is proof of our expertise on all minority issues.  We can try to empathize with someone labeled “different” because of their sexuality or biology in order to remove stigmas and barriers, or we can try to seek the attention they are getting for ourselves.  We can respond to accusations that we have offended by trying to understand why someone would be hurt, or we can respond by listing our liberal credentials.

This depends primarily on the individual.  Someone who likes to brag about their open-mindedness usually brags about most things they do.  This personality trait seems to be particularly common among educated elites—parodied so well at Stuff White People Like—because elite education frequently fosters competitiveness.  (Taking the time to count your degrees, count the books you own, count the minority friends you have…)  Competitiveness is anathema to selflessness.   But while bragging about the number of books we own is silly because we’re obviously missing the point of reading, bragging about the number of minority friends we have is grave because we’re missing the point of human rights.

Do we donate to charity privately because it makes us feel better to spend the money on someone else?  Or do we hope that others will notice and admire our sacrifice?  Then again, drawing attention to the work we’re doing is usually important if we want to advertise the cause and urge others to join.  That’s where things get murky.

A while back, within a few months of each other, two friends stood up to ableism and told me about it after the fact.  A guyfriend came fuming to me about his teacher who had used the word “midget” and who had then insisted, despite my guyfriend’s protests, that it wasn’t offensive at all.  A girlfriend told me that a mutual acquaintance had said something crass about my dwarfism and that she had told him to back off repeatedly because she wouldn’t tolerate such bigotry in her presence.  The first friend focused his story on the offender’s behavior.  The second focused her story on her heroic defense.  People who want to understand the problem more than anything tend to focus their feelings on the injustice they encountered.  People who want to be liked more than anything tend to focus their feelings on their performance.

This shouldn’t ever deter anyone from working for equality and social justice, from celebrating diversity or from spreading awareness.  Open minds should always be highly valued.  But to paraphrase the recent words of the Crunk Feminist Collective, by not being racist—or sexist or homophobic or lookist or ableist or transphobic—we’re not doing anything special.  We’re doing what we’re supposed to do.

 

 

Interpreting History Part II: Oppression Has Never Been Universal

5 Aug

(“Samurai Kiss” via)

 

Nothing divides a country quite like a national holiday.  When I was studying in St. Petersburg ten years ago, there was as much apathy as there was celebration on the Russian Federation’s June 12th decennial.  German reactions to Reunification Day every October 3rd are anything but united.  And on the United States Fourth of July last month, Chris Rock tweeted, “Happy white peoples independence day, the slaves weren’t free but I’m sure they enjoyed fireworks.”

Amid the outbursts of “unpatriotic!”, conservative blogger Jeff Schreiber shot back, “Slavery existed for 2000yrs before America. We eradicated it in 100yrs. We now have a black POTUS. #GoFuckYourself.” 

Schreiber has since written a post on his blog, America’s Right, apologizing for cursing and conceding that the slave trade was unconscionable.  But for all his insistence that he never intends to diminish the horrors of American slavery, he adds that President Obama’s policies are now “enslaving Americans in a different way.”  (Real classy.)  And for all his reiteration that slavery was always wrong, he still hasn’t straightened out all the facts skewed in his Tweet.

“Slavery existed for 2,000 years before America.”  He uses this supposed fact to relativize the oppression, as if to shrug, “Well, everyone was doing it back then.”  His tweet implies that the ubiquity of the slave trade makes America’s abolition of it exceptional, not its participation.  This argument hinges on fiction.  Slavery did not exist for 2,000 consecutive years.  In the West, it was pervasive in Antiquity and the Modern era, but it was downright uncommon in the Middle Ages.  (While anathema to our modern ideas of freedom for the individual, medieval serfdom was not slavery.)  Slavery was re-instituted in the West roughly 500 years ago with the advent of colonialism.  And the United States held on to it long after most other colonial powers had abolished it.  Critics can say what they want about the effectiveness of Chris Rock’s rain-on-a-parade tactics, but his argument did not distort history.      

In my last post, I argued the risks of concealing the human rights abuses of the past for the sake of nostalgia, if anything because it is the height of inaccuracy.  But portraying history as an unbroken tradition of straight, white, able-bodied male dominance like Schreiber did is also inaccurate.  The universal human rights movement in its modern form is indeed only a few decades old, but the idea of equality for many minorities can be found all over in history at various times and places.  The Quakers have often been pretty keen on it. 

And almost no minority has been universally condemned.  People with dwarfism appear to have been venerated in Ancient Egypt.  Gay men had more rights in Ancient Greece and in many American Indian societies than in 20th century Greece or the United States.  Muslim women wielded the right to divorce long before Christian women.  English women in the Middle Ages were more educated about sex than their Victorian heiresses.  Much of the Jewish community in Berlin, which suffered such unspeakable crimes culminating in the mid-20th century, were at earlier times better integrated into the city than Jewish people were in many other capitals of Central Europe.  In short, history does not show that racism, misogyny, homophobia, ableism, transphobia, and our current beauty standards are dominant social patterns only recently broken by our ultra-modern culture of political correctness.  The oppression of minorities may be insidious and resilient throughout history, but it has never been universal. 

Downplaying the crimes of the past by claiming everybody did it is both historically inaccurate and socially irresponsible.  It is perverse when such misconceptions fuel arguments for further restrictions on human rights.  In 2006, Republican Congress member W. Todd Akin from Missouri claimed that, “Anybody who knows something about the history of the human race knows that there is no civilization which has condoned homosexual marriage widely and openly that has long survived.”  Even if this were true, the argument is absurd.  (It appears that no civilization has regularly chosen women with dwarfism for positions of executive power, but does that mean it’s a bad idea?)  But the argument collapses because it relies on facts that are untrue.

Granted hyperbole is a constant temptation in politics.  Stating things in the extreme is a good way to grab attention.  In an earlier post on sex, I asserted that mainstream culture assumes women’s sex drive is lower than men’s because female sexual expression has been “discouraged for millennia.”  Patriarchy has certainly been a major cultural pattern around the world and throughout history, and we cannot emphasize its power on both the collective and individual psyche enough.  But patriarchy is by no means a cultural universal.  Ethnic groups in Tibet, Bhutan, and Nepal continue to practice polyandry into the present day, while history shows many others that have done the same at various times.  These exceptions question the biological theory that heterosexual male jealousy is an insurmountable obstacle to sexual equality.  And prevents any conservative excuse that insists, “Everybody’s been doing it.”    

They haven’t been.  Xenophobia has never been universal.  Humans may have a natural fear of the unfamiliar, of what they perceive to be the Other, but our definitions of the Other change constantly throughout time and space, as frequently and bizarrely as fashion itself.   This makes history craggy, complex, at times utterly confusing.  Like the struggle for human rights, it is simultaneously depressing and inspiring.  But whatever our political convictions, we gotta get the facts straight.

Despite what Stephen Colbert says.

 

 

Berlin Loves You

8 Jul

Ponys für alle(Image ©Folke Lehr)

 

The very first time I entered Berlin, on a backpacking trip across Europe, I remember thinking that it was fairly ugly compared to Paris and the idyllic villages of Bavaria.  But seeing the remains of the Wall at The East Side Gallery and the Memorial Church left from World War II blew my mind.  By the time I finished studying here, I was deeply in love.  Soon I will have lived here longer than any other place.  My partner calls it “the only livable German city.”  Even though I am still very much American, Berlin is home to me in every sense of the word. 

And seeing as I kvetch so much about the cultural and social problems of our day, I want to take a breath and gush about a place I adore.  (I’m quite sure my head will explode if I see myself write the word “society” one more time without a break.)  So what’s the big deal about Berlin?

For one thing, it’s a city, and having grown up at first in the suburbs of Long Island and then rural Upstate New York, I’ve found I’m happiest in the urban setting.  Yes, people are less friendly and there’s more pollution.  But there’s also little room for gossip or judgment or homogeneity.  You can wear anything you like and no one cares, or you accidentally start a new trend.  Nothing is done only for tradition’s sake.  So much is done for art’s sake.  You can get anywhere you need to go, including out of the country, without a car.  And while it’s no social utopia, anyone who’s visibly different gets stared at less in the cities than anywhere else.

But Berlin also has lots to offer that New York and Paris and London and Hamburg and Munich do not, because, in the words of our mayor, it’s “arm aber sexy” (poor but sexy):

Decent Housing.  While gentrification is naturally creeping into many of my favorite neighborhoods sections, Berlin still offers cool places at a fair price.  Students and recent graduates are not economically exiled to ludicrously dirty or dangerous or diminutive areas.  The less expensive districts have beautiful parks.  Social workers can afford three-bedroom turn-of-the-century apartments with stucco lining the walls and balconies with French doors.  Housing developers are also restricted to buying up only a few houses in a single block to prevent aesthetic monotony.  I believe a society that doesn’t remind you every day of how little you earn by refusing you security, cleanliness or beauty is a free society.  (The S word!  Oops!)

Hip without the Hipsters.  In the words of Gary Shteyngart, “Whether German or foreign, these young people genuinely care about the communities they have forged out of the rubble of the 20th century’s most problematic metropolis… It’s still okay to be excited by things in Berlin.”  Take that, Williamsburg.

Das Kiezgefühl.  It’s a city five times the area of Paris, yet every neighborhood has its own cozy feel to it.  We know our postman by name.  Our favorite bookstore owner lent us his bikes while we were on vacation in his home country.  My partner buys groceries for the little old lady who lives above us.  On Christmas Eve this year, I said hello to seven familiar faces in the 10 minutes it took to walk home from the U-Bahn station.  In between I hummed, “Can you tell me how to get?” 

Good Parenting in Public.  Unlike in the U.S. and other nations I’ve inhabited, it’s extremely rare to ever see a German parent screaming at their child.  It’s also your responsibility to call the police if they so much as slap them, which I’ve never once witnessed.  With the introduction of paid paternity leave, many Berlin dads have jumped at the chance to take time off to actually get to know their children, pushing baby carriages with all the finesse of an expert.   

No Urban Sprawl.  Along with containing huge forests, nearly 70 lakes and more canals than Venice, Berlin ends at the countryside of Brandenburg.  The budget of communism and the physical imposition of the Wall made the city stop rather abruptly, and the environment can be grateful for it.

You Can Walk Around Freely At Two in the Morning.  Despite having the highest crime rate in Germany, Berlin is very laidback compared to most major cities.  I also love it that local crime is rarely a topic of conversation among Berliners, unlike in the U.S.

Döner Kebab.  And kettwurst and currywurst and Bionade (organic soda).  And flammkuchen and excellent schnitzel.  Furthermore, German breakfasts—a wide selection of good bread and soft pretzels with salami or liverwurst or mettwurst or teewurst or jam or cheese or honey or Nutella—cannot be beat.  Yeah, and beer.  And in the words of a recent English guest, “It’s dirt cheap!” 

Streetcars!  And no turnstiles, meaning no hassles with over-sized luggage or broken card readers or premature goodbyes.  And the S-Bahn seats are heated in winter.  And it’s one of the few cities whose airports are directly linked onto the public transportation system, so there are no exorbitant shuttle fees obstructing your way to the city center.

The Scars of Recent History.  The Berlin Wall once stood at the west end of my street.  On the east end, Soviet and Nazi bullet holes line the columns of the local school.  Street markers signify houses where Jewish families were arrested.  The city’s biggest mountain, Teufelsberg (“Devil’s Mountain”), is made out of rubble.  Undetonated bombs are still discovered regularly throughout the year.  The local tabloid newspaper screams hysterically when the Homosexual Memorial is vandalized.  Berlin knows what happened here, and it wants you to know, too.    

Anything Still Goes.  Every year, the districts of Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg rebel against their joint bureaucratic status by having a food fight on the Oberbaum Bridge.  It’s known far and wide as the “Gemüseschlacht” (Battle of the Vegetables).  Need I say more?

 

 

Four Tiers of Fear

31 Mar

 

“How DARE you call me a racist!” 

We’ve all heard that one before, and it’s becoming ever more frequent with the debate over Trayvon Martin’s death.  Marriage equality opponents have been adopting the same tone over the past few years, claiming “homophobic” is now an insult.  In the video posted above, Jay Smooth makes an excellent argument for shifting the focus from criticizing actions instead of people in order to spark more productive dialogue about racism and this can be applied to any discussion about xenophobia. 

But outrage at any charges of xenophobia is not only an issue of grammar.  This outrage usually relies on the assumption that “racist” or “homophobic” automatically denotes a Neo-Nazi level of vitriol.  (This is why it’s frequently accompanied by the protest, “Some of my best friends are black/gay/dwarfs!”)  The outrage silences any discussion about the more insidious forms of chauvinism, and this is the very discussion that needs to happen, because the most insidious forms are the most ubiquitous. 

Most people who harbor transphobic, racist, ableist, sexist, lookist, ethnocentric or homophobic views are not Neo-Nazis.  Most would never physically harm anyone, and as Jay Smooth demonstrates, most would never admit to being xenophobic.  My theory is that chauvinism appears in society today in four different forms:

***

1. Violence: Both organized and individual violence, though of course the more organized, the more terrifying.  (The Southern Poverty Law Center reports this month that hate groups are on the rise in the United States.)  A hate crime should not necessarily be punished more severely than any other case of assault or murder, but its designation is an essential counter-statement by society to the statement the violence was intended to make.  While the most horrific form of xenophobia, violence is also the least common.

2. Overt Animosity: Harassment and disrespect that falls short of violence.  It’s insulting someone to their face, knowingly using slurs, arguing in earnest against someone’s human rights.  It’s refusing to hire, date or talk to someone because they belong to a certain ethnic group, or because they do not belong to a certain ethnic group.  It’s parents disowning their children for being gay, trans or disabled.  It’s the guy I witnessed at the mall yesterday who tapped a Chinese woman on the shoulder, closed his eyes and babbled, “Ching-chong-chang!” before dashing off.  It’s the Yale Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity’s pledge, which included the chant, “No means yes!  Yes means anal!”  It’s the New Orleans cop saying Travyon Martin was a “thug and… deserved to die like one.”  Because the intention is either to provoke or dismiss the victim, it’s extremely difficult to find a constructive counter-argument.  Beyond ignoring such provocations because they are beneath us, our only hope is to appeal to any capacity for empathy the offenders may have when they are not in a provocative mood.  Such cruelty always stems from profound personal insecurities.         

3. Covert Animosity: Disrespect behind someone’s back.  This usually occurs when the speaker thinks they are surrounded by their “own kind,” and thus unlikely to offend anyone present with their slurs or jokes.  We’ve all heard at least one relative or coworker talk this way.  Often an environment encourages such disrespect and the peer pressure to join in is high.  Often someone will insult an entire minority privately but be utterly decent when meeting an individual from that minority.  A friend of mine once dismissed a boy band on TV as “a bunch of fags” just hours after he’d been raving to me about my awesome neighbor, who he knew is openly gay.  Sometimes this behavior is excused on the grounds that the speakers are from “a different generation,” an excuse I rarely accept since those with more progressive views can often be found in the same generation.

4. The Xenophobic Status Quo: The stereotypes and privilege that surround us.  Most of us have some of these prejudices without knowing it because we have been bombarded with them from birth on.  It’s the invisibility of minorities in the media and the social segregation in public that causes us to stare when we see certain people.  It’s the jokes that rely on the assumption that all heterosexuals find gay sex, intersexuality or transsexuality at least a little gross.  Or the assumption that physical disabilities, mental disabilities and physical deformities are always tragic and sometimes morbidly fascinating.  It’s the virgin/whore standard to which Western women are still held, leading us to comment far more on the appropriateness of their clothes and promiscuity than on men’s.  It’s our collective misogyny, homophobia and transphobia that converge to make us wonder why a man would ever want to wear a dress, but not why a woman would want to wear jeans.  It’s the prevalence of chauvinist expressions in our language (e.g. “Congressman,” “flesh-colored”) and of chauvinist traditions in our books, films and legends (e.g. our god is a white male) that makes them difficult to avoid and easy to reiterate.  It’s our demanding transgendered people wait for the rest of us to “get used” to the idea of their transitioning instead of questioning our belief in the gender binary.  It’s our view of every person who belongs to a minority not as an individual but as an example representing that minority with every move they make.  It’s the assumption that a difference upsets normalcy in lieu of the concession that normalcy is a delusion.  The privileges bestowed by our society on some members at the exclusion of others, rewarding those who have done nothing but be born with characteristics considered “normal,” are perhaps the most insidious reinforcement of these prejudices.

***

There is a danger to placing too much emphasis on the differences between the four tiers—I never want to end up in a conversation where people’s actions are excused as being “only Tier 4 sexist”—because all four tiers feed off each other.  They don’t exist in a vacuum.  The non-violent ideas of covert animosity and the xenophobic status quo provide confrontational people with a means of choosing their victims.  Conversely, regularly seeing society’s long tradition of hate crimes and public humiliation both in our history books and in our everyday news is what leaves us all dangerously unsurprised by the less belligerent forms of disenfranchisement many of us help perpetuate. 

Yet it is important to distinguish between these manifestations of fear in order to avoid the assumption that only violence and overt animosity qualify as xenophobia.  That assumption lets millions of people off the hook.  You don’t have to belong to the Westboro Baptist Church in order to have homophobic views.  You don’t have to belong to the NPD or the BNP or the Georgia Militia in order to have racist views.  You don’t have to wait in a dark alley for a stranger in order to commit rape.  You don’t have to threaten someone in order to to make them feel unwelcome.  Our society has been built on many xenophobic assumptions, making it very easy for all of us to pick some of them up along the way.  The fight for equality aims to make it more and more difficult, but it needs to be able to recognize its targets and use tactics suitable to each. 

I make these distinctions in the hopes of facilitating the conversation on chauvinism.  Yet it should come as no surprise that chauvinism is difficult to discuss because, in the words of Jay Smooth, it’s a system that has been designed to insult and subjugate.  In other words, it’s hard to speak politely about the idea of being impolite. 

 

 

Don’t Think They’ll Miss It

25 Feb

Rings (Image by Margot Trudell used under CC license via)

 

The French government has done away with “Mademoiselle,” the term of address for unmarried women, becoming the second country I know of to have officially done so.  The other country is my current residence, Germany, though most foreigners are unaware that “Fräulein” was tossed out in 1972 and sounds quite sexist today.  I have explained to my husband that many Americans use it because most of their knowledge of German comes from The Sound of Music, but he says any use by an American immediately evokes the image of U.S. Army soldiers cat-calling, “Hey, Fräulein…”  Every woman in Germany is addressed as “Frau” (literally, “woman”) and now every woman in France is “Madame” (“my lady”).  No more attention is given to their marital status than is given to the men’s.  It’s simple and I like it, especially in contrast to the Anglophone attempts at a solution, which have been anything but simple.

In English, the non-sexist term is the neologism “Ms.”  It’s pronounced “mizz,” possibly in a subconscious attempt to be as unphonetic in its spelling as “Mrs.”  Neologisms can be tremendously helpful because they can be devoid of connotation.  Take, for example, the word “cis.”  It has been invented for the purposes of referring to anyone who is not transsexual.  It avoids any insinuations of “normal” or “natural,” an all-too-frequent problem when discussing biological traits that deviate from the average and those that don’t. 

But neologisms are not always free of connotation.  I have met numerous women who buck the term “Ms.” based on its association with the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s, while others embrace it based on the same association, and so all three terms continue to be used.  In order to avoid offense in Anglophone culture, it is necessary to know both the woman’s marital status and her political leanings.  Non-native speakers of English frequently find themselves tongue-tied and brain-cramped trying to differentiate between “Ms.” and “Miss.”  (“Which one’s sexist again?  And how do you pronounce it?”)  Swedes find this particularly silly, having done away with honorific titles altogether in a refusal to draw any attention to marital status, gender, age, or class.  

Growing up with a mother who did not take my father’s surname, I argued that “Ms. Sullivan” was the only appropriate title for her because “Miss Sullivan” would imply she wasn’t married and “Mrs. Sullivan” would imply it was my father’s name.  But is the latter really true?  Every day I have lived in Germany, both before and after my wedding, I have been addressed as “Frau Sanford.”  If, before my marriage, anyone were ever to call me “Fräulein Sanford,” it would sound as ridiculous as calling my husband “Master Lehr.”  Treating women and men equally is often not just the fairest way of doing things, but the easiest.

 

 

Working with the F Word

12 Feb

audre lorde rough paper background by Starving ArtistIf you’ve explored this blog, you’ve heard me toss around that lovely word “feminism.”  And I bet a few of you cringed, rolled your eyes or ignored it: “Feminism is the idea that men and women are equal.  We get it.”

Traditional gender roles inflict thousands of double-standards on women and men, and I’ll discuss them in greater detail soon.  But feminism is so much more than that.  Despite the “fem” in feminism, women’s rights are neither the limit nor the core of equality.  As Gloria Steinem recently said, it’s about challenging hierarchies.  It’s about saying, “You’re not the boss of me!”  There is no other word for opposing all hierarchies based on characteristics about which we have no choice: our ethnicity, our sexuality, our race, our gender identity, our class background, our physical traits and capabilities, our mental capacities.  There should be.

Because chauvinism is the common enemy.  Feminism started off aiming to liberate women.  And that includes poor women.  And women of every possible ethnic background.  And in every country.  And women with physical differences and disabilities.  And women with mental disabilities and psychiatric disorders.  And women who are attracted to women.  And women who are attracted to both genders.  And women who transition into their sex.  And those who transition into another.  And those whose biology or sense of self does not correlate to either male or female.  And those who are men.  As a woman with achondroplasia, how could I ignore anyone who is screwed over for the way the way they were born?  As a woman with achondroplasia who chose to undergo controversial limb-lengthening procedures, how could I condemn anyone forced to make deeply personal decisions directly linked to their identity?  And the questions logically expands to: How could anyone?

Do “human rights” or “egalitarianism” adequately imply opposition to any manifestation of chauvinism?  Labels are so problematic.  Internet and library searches for “egalitarianism” usually produce discussions of class and poverty, while “human rights” tends toward macrocosmic, international issues of war, poverty and suffrage.  In effect, these terms can be narrower or broader than feminism.  Yet there are advantages to redefining a well-known term like feminism rather than trying to invent and disperse a new one.  When self-proclaimed feminist Amanda Palmer defended a project objectifying conjoined twins, Sady Doyle at Tiger Beatdown gave her the lecture of a lifetime that sums it up better than I’ve ever heard:

… this “feminism” thing: it’s not for some people, it’s not for you specifically, it’s not a fun little badge you get to slap onto your actions when it suits you. It is a system of carefully worked-out thoughts, which has been developed for many, many years by many thousands of people, and one of the most unavoidable parts of this system, which we can’t get away from if we are thinking for even a second with any ounce of intellectual rigor or honesty, is that everybody matters. Everybody matters precisely as much as you do. Which is why you don’t get to use them as a means of gratifying yourself with attention when the attention is good, or deny them the right to be heard or respected when the attention is bad.

Feminist history is stained with instances of female chauvinism, racism, ethnocentrism, classism, homophobia, transphobia and ableism, and continues to be by the likes of many.  And we’ve got to keep calling that out with the same vigilance we accord any issue.  As the xenophobic view claims that multiculturalism and universal human rights are inefficient and the only battle worth fighting is your own, a non-violent society only functions when based on the concept of reciprocity.  Despite the structures in place that assume otherwise, everybody’s health, job, relationships, sex life, family, and happiness matter exactly as much as yours do.

That’s what the F word means to my husband, my mom and my dad, my sister-in-law, my closest friends, my favorite teachers, and me.  And if that still makes you cringe, if you still find the label too problematic, leave me a well-thought out argument in the comments.

 

 

Welcome to Painting On Scars

4 Feb

 

So you’ve heard that “Kids can be so cruel”?  What a cop-out.  Adults are cruel.  Kids are constantly blunt and sometimes mean-spirited, but they have the chance to grow up.  Turning 30 this year, I realize that I’ve encountered more ableism over the past 10 years than any other time in my life – online, at dinner parties, and during my four years as an undergrad at Bard College when it was consistently rated in one of the Top Ten Most Liberal Schools by The Princeton Review.  If I ever have children biologically, they will each have a 50% chance of inheriting achondroplasia from me.  Whether or not they have achondroplasia, I’m much more concerned about the adults they will encounter in their lives than the kids.

Today ableism – a.k.a. disability discrimination – ranges from the yuk-yuk objectification of freaks, to the sick fascination with medical realities, to personal phobias of looking weak or unattractive, to well-intentioned charity that is truly patronizing That this so often comes from those whose own experiences of marginalization would logically render them better candidates for empathy has inspired me to start this blog. 

There also aren’t enough blogs about dwarfism.  There are hardly any blogs about dwarfism beyond childhood.  The community of dwarfs who have undergone limb-lengthening is non-existent, as if we want to pretend we were never dwarfs in the first place.  And feminist blogs for and about dwarfs who have undergone limb-lengthening continue to elude my Google efforts.

While my own experience invariably influences my perspective, I refuse to argue only about issues directly related to dwarfism and limb-lengthening.  Without knowing the word for it, I was raised to believe that if you’re going to support the rights of one minority, you’ve got to support them all.  In the end, they’re all related.

So consider this blog a continued reflection on the issues I addressed in this book.  Or The Most Inclusive, Progressive Forum Ever!  Or just another reminder that whether you’re discussing a sex issue or scar tissue, the personal is inescapably the political.