Tag Archives: Pop Culture

Who’s Your Family?

27 Nov

Lady with Punk Grandson II(Image by Christ_i_ane used under CC 2.o via)

From the Archives

 “We don’t have to like each other, Jo. We’re family.”

— Holly Hunter in Home for the Holidays

Whenever you set out to talk about minority rights, you end up crashing into the issue of identity. And this invariably swerves, again and again, into the issue of family. The poet Sharon Olds once said, “A family is a mystery,” and this is probably why I can’t get enough of it in novels, film, clinical trials, and yes, even in real life. Show me someone fascinating and I can’t wait to meet their parents.

In and outside of the holiday season, twenty- and thirtysomethings so often love to extoll the importance of friends over relatives, echoing Oscar Wilde: “Friends are God’s apology for family.” Our first true friendships usually begin in adolescence—the time when we start wanting to forge our identities independently from our families—and this sets the standard whereby friends are seen as a respite from all of our obligations: from parents and siblings, from school, from work, from the exhaustion of the holidays spent with the relatives. “My family drives me nuts, my friends get me,” pop culture says. “Sure I love my family, but I actually like my friends.”

And yet, friendships ultimately prove to be fleeting with age, as life partners and earning money and having children begin to take priority. A study at Oxford University found that taking on a romantic partner generally pushes two close friends out of your life. A serious boyfriend or girlfriend is, after all, a super-close friend and there are only so many hours in the day to fit people in. It seems entirely reasonable to conclude that the addition of in-laws and children require us to quietly toss a few more buddies overboard. Or at least scratch them off the gift list.

Few of us like to face the harsh truth that the number one facilitator of friendship is convenience. How many people have we doused in superlative praise, spilled our hearts to, bragged with about our never-ending awesomeness, only to eventually lose touch because we live too far away, we’ve changed our habits since that new job/baby/boyfriend, we haven’t spoken in so long and wouldn’t know what to say? Sure, we’ll fling them a Facebook birthday greeting, but composing an entire email would require so much apologizing for having taken this long to write…

Maintaining a friendship requires effort, as author Julie Klam said in an interview with Linda Holmes on NPR two years ago:

She realized, too, that it wasn’t an area that was being written about very much in a way that spoke to her experiences. She found a lot of clichés, but not a lot of insight. “Everything that I had read about friendships was always … platitudes about, you know, ‘friends are like flowers and you have to water them’ or whatever. Or the T-shirts with the koala bear and the flower and the ‘Friends are…’.”

So… Why is there so much writing about so many aspects of our lives — love, sex, money, family, careers — and so little about the inner workings of friendships that are so central to so many people’s lives? Maybe, Klam theorizes, it’s because friendships seem disposable and interchangeable when you look at them like an efficiency expert. “There’s some sort of thing about, like, ‘Well, if you don’t like the friend, just don’t be friends with them.’ Rather than the idea of working things out.” Working things out, as you know if you read other kinds of relationship books, is the usual ideal outcome, rather than bolting when trouble strikes.

… And of course, that’s what makes keeping up with your friends complicated. When I ask her what she considers the big challenge of adult friendships, she emphasizes that it’s legitimately hard to make time for them, because they’re not, you know, mandatory. And the older you get, the more things in your life are mandatory.

Perhaps this is why there is such a paucity of stories about friendship in books and film. A friendship can be destroyed without any drama. All the characters have to do is lose touch.

And that can be fine. Many friendships are simply not worth laboring over. Time changes every one of us and there is little point in forcing ourselves to pretend to be someone we are not simply for the sake of sustaining the appearance of something that no longer serves us. Scores of people can be your perfect match in a single context: that course you took together, that team you both played on, that year you roomed together when a deep heart-to-heart required nothing more than walking down the hall and flopping onto the bed with a beer. (Or maybe there was more convenience in those years before you roomed together and had no idea how much/little time/money s/he spends on cleaning/personal hygiene/video games.)

A friendship is significant if it can survive all the changes and challenges life will inevitably throw at it. But the same goes for family, to the extent that I believe there is really no difference between the two. As Andrew Solomon wrote in what I still consider the Best Book of the 21st Century, “Love becomes more acute when it requires exertion.” The exertion can be exquisite.

Family can be fun to be with, but what they offer with far more consistency is purpose. This is why studies find that parents are often happier watching television than spending time with their children, but it’s their children—not television—that inspire them to endure when they are faced with pain or hardship.

Many traditional beliefs about family are not helpful. If you’ve explored this blog at all, you know I believe bloodlines are dangerously overrated. I also believe it can be damaging to expound upon the virtues of lifelong commitment and forgiveness without exception. While many people abandon others all too easily because they are more concerned with their own comfort than anyone else’s, just as many people remain in emotionally abusive relationships because their generosity trumps their self-care. I have sadly witnessed enough toxic relationships to know that some ties are better off severed.

This is why I define family not by genetics, but as the people you are so close to that they regularly drive you crazy – while still being worth the grief. They are the people who know you so well that it embarrasses you to think about. They can simultaneously be uncles, cousins, godmothers, half-brothers, former coworkers or classmates. But no matter their origin, once it’s clear to me that I will always stick by someone no matter how vexing they can be, they are family to me.

Because if novels and films and social psychology tell us anything, it’s that you can’t get truly close to another human being without being annoyed by them.

 

Originally published December 2014

Curiosity Kills the Rat

19 Oct

From the Archives

 

“All the freaky people make the beauty of the world.”

— Michael Franti

Fourteen years ago, I made a trip to Hot Topic—that quintessential 90s chain store for all things goth—in search of some fishnet stockings for a friend.  It was my first visit to the store since I was back in a wheelchair for my third and final limb-lengthening procedure and the narrow aisles prevented me from venturing beyond the entrance.  My first time in a wheelchair, from ages 11 to 12, had been a completely humbling experience as I was forced to see how very inaccessible the world is for the non-ambulatory.  This time around I was battling the hot-cheeked self-consciousness that adolescence attaches to any signs of dependency. 

As I tried to look casual while flipping through black gloves, black stockings, and black dog collars, a guy approached me sporting crimson hair, eyebrow rings, an employee badge and a smile.  “This is store is easily adjustable,” he grinned, and with that he began shoving aside the display cases and clothes racks—which were, like me, on wheels—clearing a path for me right through to the back and taking little notice of the other shoppers, some of  whom took one to the shoulder.  It was one of those crushes that disappear as quickly as they develop but leave a lasting memory: my knight in shining jewelry.

Thanks to experiences like this, I have a special place in my heart for the acceptance of physical differences that can often be found in the subcultures of punks, hippies, and goths.  From the imagining of monsters to the examination of anything taboo, counter-culture is often unfazed by physical qualities that fall outside of mainstream beauty standards.  The first kid in my high school who chose not to stare at the external fixators on my arms but instead held the door for me had green and purple hair.  About a month after my trip to Hot Topic, I showed a death-metal-loving friend my right fixator (shown above) for the first time, with the six titanium pins protruding from open wounds in my thigh.  He grinned, “That is the ultimate piercing, man!”  He hardly could have come up with a more pleasing reaction.  That my wounds were cool instead of “icky” or “pitiful” was a refreshing attitude found almost exclusively outside mainstream culture.  This attitude more readily understands my belief that my scars are merit badges I earned, not deformities to erase. 

However, this tendency toward decency over discomfort is just one side of the alternative coin.  Every subculture has its strengths and its weaknesses, and for all the freaky heroes I’ve encountered, I’ve also met plenty whose celebration of difference devolves into a sick fascination with the grotesque.  “Weird for the sake of weird” is progressive when it asserts that weird is inescapable, that it is in fact as much a part of the natural order as any of our conventions, and when it serves as therapy for the marginalized.  But it is problematic when it involves self-proclaimed artists using others’ reality as their own personal toys.     

In a previous post, I referred to a friend of friend including me in an Internet discussion about limb-lengthening.  His comments were in reaction to a photo of a leg wearing an Ilizarov fixator that had been posted on a Tumblr page focused on the “wonders of the world.”  There are countless sites like it, where photos of conjoined twins, heterochromatic eyes, intersexual bodies, and medical procedures are posted alongside images of animals, vampires, robots, cosplay, self-harm, manga and bad poetry.  I get it.  The world is “crazy” and it’s all art.  But if that’s not a freak show, what is? 

Disabled people are no longer put behind glass or in the circus—at least not in the U.S., Canada or Western Europe—but many people still believe they reserve the right to stare, both in public and on the Internet.  Whether under the guise of promoting diversity or admiring triumph in the face of adversity, they suppress any realization they may have that no one likes being stared atUnless it’s on our terms.  

I see endless art in my medical experiences and it can be so therapeutic.  During my first limb-lengthening procedure I also had braces on my teeth, leading my dad to observe, “She’s now 95% metal.”  Kinda cool.  During my third procedure, I had Botox injected into my hips twice to paralyze my muscles lest they resist the lengthening.  At the time, when I along with most people had no idea what it was, it was described to me as “basically the most deadly poison known to man.”  Whoa, hardcore.  When I happened upon photos of my anterior tibialis tendon graft surgery, I was enthralled: “I’m so red inside!”  And when a fellow patient recently alerted me to the fact that a high-end jeweler designed a bracelet strongly resembling the Ilizarov frame, I laughed my head off.  Almost all of us like looking at our bodies, and perhaps this is especially so for those of us who have had real scares over our health.  It’s a matter of facing our fears and owning it.  But no one likes the idea of others owning it.  This subtle but severe preference, this desire for dignity determines the difference between human rights and property rights. 

Two years ago, NPR featured a piece by Ben Mattlin, who is non-ambulatory and who said he used to be uncomfortable with the idea of Halloween and its objectification of the grotesque.  From my very first costume as a mouse to my most recent stint as the Wicked Witch of the West, my love of Halloween has not so much as once flickered, but his point is worth discussing.  Costume play, Halloween and any celebration of “weird” that is primarily attention-seeking inherently assumes there is a “natural” basis to be disrupted.  (And all too often Halloween devolves into offensive imitations of all sorts of minority identities.) 

I have my own collection of artsy photos stolen off the Internet that I use as screensavers and montages for parties, but they do not include photos of bodies taken outside the context of consensual artistic expression.  Re-appropriating a photo in a medical journal for a site about all things bizarre is protected under freedom of speech, but it can feel like disregard for consent.  And in any case, such xenocentrism will always be just as superficial as the status quo it seeks to disrupt.

When conjoined twins Abigail and Brittany Hensel agreed to be interviewed once—and only once—for a documentary about their lives (which I highly recommend), they explained that they don’t mind answering strangers’ questions at all.  (Ben Mattlin has said the same, as do I.)  What they hate more than anything is being photographed or filmed without permission.  While attending a baseball game outside their hometown, a sports film crew quickly directed their attention to the girls.  Even though they were already being filmed by their own documentary team, the stranger camera’s invasive, presumptuous stare ruined the day for them. 

Sensitivity toward others’ experience with medicine and death should never kill the discussion.  These discussions are imperative and art is the most glorious way we relate to one another.  But just as there’s more to good manners than simply saying “Please,” there’s more to genuine learning and artistic expression than poking at anything we can get our hands on.  Nuance, deference and respect are prerequisites for anyone with artistic or scientific integrity not only because they are the building-blocks of common decency, but because history has shown that curiosity will more likely harm the rat than the cat.

 

 

Originally posted May 19, 2012

Happy Halloween

24 Oct

As of tomorrow, I have to go on medical leave and take a break from blogging for hopefully just a short while.  So, in the spirit of season, I’ll leave you with a re-run of my old post, “Curiosity Kills the Rat.”  Happy Halloween and be back soon!

CURIOSITY KILLS THE RAT

“All the freaky people make the beauty of the world.”

— Michael Franti

Fourteen years ago, I made a trip to Hot Topic—that quintessential 90s chain store for all things goth—in search of some fishnet stockings for a friend.  It was my first visit to the store since I was back in a wheelchair for my third and final limb-lengthening procedure and the narrow aisles prevented me from venturing beyond the entrance.  My first time in a wheelchair, from ages 11 to 12, had been a completely humbling experience as I was forced to see how very inaccessible the world is for the non-ambulatory.  This time around I was battling the hot-cheeked self-consciousness that adolescence attaches to any signs of dependency. 

As I tried to look casual while flipping through black gloves, black stockings, and black dog collars, a guy approached me sporting crimson hair, eyebrow rings, an employee badge and a smile.  “This is store is easily adjustable,” he grinned, and with that he began shoving aside the display cases and clothes racks—which were, like me, on wheels—clearing a path for me right through to the back and taking little notice of the other shoppers, some of  whom took one to the shoulder.  It was one of those crushes that disappear as quickly as they develop but leave a lasting memory: my knight in shining jewelry.

Thanks to experiences like this, I have a special place in my heart for the acceptance of physical differences that can often be found in the subcultures of punks, hippies, and goths.  From the imagining of monsters to the examination of anything taboo, counter-culture is often unfazed by physical qualities that fall outside of mainstream beauty standards.  The first kid in my high school who chose not to stare at the external fixators on my arms but instead held the door for me had green and purple hair.  About a month after my trip to Hot Topic, I showed a death-metal-loving friend my right fixator (shown above) for the first time, with the six titanium pins protruding from open wounds in my thigh.  He grinned, “That is the ultimate piercing, man!”  He hardly could have come up with a more pleasing reaction.  That my wounds were cool instead of “icky” or “pitiful” was a refreshing attitude found almost exclusively outside mainstream culture.  This attitude more readily understands my belief that my scars are merit badges I earned, not deformities to erase. 

However, this tendency toward decency over discomfort is just one side of the alternative coin.  Every subculture has its strengths and its weaknesses, and for all the freaky heroes I’ve encountered, I’ve also met plenty whose celebration of difference devolves into a sick fascination with the grotesque.  “Weird for the sake of weird” is progressive when it asserts that weird is inescapable, that it is in fact as much a part of the natural order as any of our conventions, and when it serves as therapy for the marginalized.  But it is problematic when it involves self-proclaimed artists using others’ reality as their own personal toys.     

In a previous post, I referred to a friend of friend including me in an Internet discussion about limb-lengthening.  His comments were in reaction to a photo of a leg wearing an Ilizarov fixator that had been posted on a Tumblr page focused on the wonders of the world.  There are countless sites like it, where photos of conjoined twins, heterochromatic eyes, intersexual bodies, and medical procedures are posted alongside images of animals, vampires, robots, cosplay, self-harm, manga and bad poetry.  I get it.  The world is “crazy” and it’s all art.  But if that’s not a freak show, what is? 

Disabled people are no longer put behind glass or in the circus—at least not in the U.S., Canada or Western Europe—but many people still believe they reserve the right to stare, both in public and on the Internet.  Whether under the guise of promoting diversity or admiring triumph in the face of adversity, they suppress any realization they may have that no one likes being stared atUnless it’s on our terms.  

I see endless art in my medical experiences and it can be so therapeutic.  During my first limb-lengthening procedure I also had braces on my teeth, leading my dad to observe, “She’s now 95% metal.”  Kinda cool.  During my third procedure, I had Botox injected into my hips twice to paralyze my muscles lest they resist the lengthening.  At the time, when I along with most people had no idea what it was, it was described to me as “basically the most deadly poison known to man.”  Whoa, hardcore.  When I happened upon photos of my anterior tibialis tendon graft surgery, I was enthralled: “I’m so red inside!”  And when a fellow patient recently alerted me to the fact that a high-end jeweler designed a bracelet strongly resembling the Ilizarov frame, I laughed my head off.  Almost all of us like looking at our bodies, and perhaps this is especially so for those of us who have had real scares over our health.  It’s a matter of facing our fears and owning it.  But no one likes the idea of others owning it.  This subtle but severe preference, this desire for dignity determines the difference between human rights and property rights. 

Two years ago, NPR featured a piece by Ben Mattlin, who is non-ambulatory and who said he used to be uncomfortable with the idea of Halloween and its objectification of the grotesque.  From my very first costume as a mouse to my most recent stint as the Wicked Witch of the West, my love of Halloween has not so much as once flickered, but his point is worth discussing.  Costume play, Halloween and any celebration of “weird” that is primarily attention-seeking inherently assumes there is a “natural” basis to be disrupted.  (And all too often Halloween devolves into offensive imitations of all sorts of minority identities.) 

I have my own collection of artsy photos stolen off the Internet that I use as screensavers and montages for parties, but they do not include photos of bodies taken outside the context of consensual artistic expression.  Re-appropriating a photo in a medical journal for a site about all things bizarre is protected under freedom of speech, but it can feel like disregard for consent.  And in any case, such xenocentrism will always be just as superficial as the status quo it seeks to disrupt.

When conjoined twins Abigail and Brittany Hensel agreed to be interviewed once—and only once—for a documentary about their lives (which I highly recommend), they explained that they don’t mind answering strangers’ questions at all.  (Ben Mattlin has said the same, as do I.)  What they hate more than anything is being photographed or filmed without permission.  While attending a baseball game outside their hometown, a sports film crew quickly directed their attention to the girls.  Even though they were already being filmed by their own documentary team, the stranger camera’s invasive, presumptuous stare ruined the day for them. 

Sensitivity toward others’ experience with medicine and death should never kill the discussion.  These discussions are imperative and art is the most glorious way we relate to one another.  But just as there’s more to good manners than simply saying “Please,” there’s more to genuine learning and artistic expression than poking at anything we can get our hands on.  Nuance, deference and respect are prerequisites for anyone with artistic or scientific integrity not only because they are the building-blocks of common decency, but because history has shown that curiosity will more likely harm the rat than the cat.

 

 

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.

 

 

When It Comes to the Sexes, Ignorance Is Bitterness

1 Jul

 

“Men and women can’t really be friends, can they?”  In the wake of Nora Ephron’s passing on Tuesday, there’s been a revival of this When Harry Met Sally question.  And you can probably guess what my answer is.  With no disrespect intended to the late feminist, I’m really hoping this is one of her contributions to pop culture whose staying power will erode with time.  It’d be easy to dismiss it as no big deal, nothing more than a cute gimmick, but an excellent NY Times piece from earlier this spring asserts what I have always suspected: Our society’s lack of faith in cross-gender friendships signifies its traditional lack of faith in men and women being able to understand each other.  And that’s a big deal.

According to tradition, men and women view each other as the Other and only meet for the sake of mating and family, hence the cultures wherein women were banned from being seen with any man who was not their husband or relative.  Western pop culture promotes vestiges of this in its assumption that any regular contact with a member of the opposite gender will lead to you falling for them, especially if you’re a guy.  As Jeff Deutchman writes in this several-volume Slate article, “It’s called having no standards.”  When Harry Met Sally says, Fine, maybe as a guy you don’t fall for every woman who crosses your line of vision, but it’s your only motivation for maintaining a friendship with one, and attraction will always poison friendship.  Oh, puh-lease.

“Only worth it if I get laid” may be the rule for a Hollywood character, but it is a very bleak view of the other gender.  Friendship may be impossible if you are set on maintaining that view, but in that case, too bad for you.  And everyone else around you.  I’ve seen friendships survive unrequited love, illicit feelings, romantic trysts and break-ups, and go on to rival any sisterhood or buddy bond in depth.  Men and women can sure as hell be friends, and I don’t mean friendly chit-chat at dinner parties.  I mean call-up-and-confide-your-deepest-fears, ask-for-advice-on-your-most-serious-problems, make-you-laugh-in-a-way-almost-no-one-else-can friends.  Instead of Harry and Sally, they embody Jerry Seinfeld and Elaine Benes, or Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew, nurturing an allegiance that says “So what?” to any sexual tension, past or present.  They are anathema to the “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” folklore, just as international relationships are anathema to racist myths. 

It is true that men and women are culturally conditioned to think and behave differently, just as Germans and Americans are culturally conditioned to think and behave differently, as are New Yorkers and Texans, Berliners and Bavarians, Long Islanders and Upstaters.  But there is always far more variation in the thoughts and behaviors within cultures than across them.  Our traditional categories ignore this, suppressing any details that throw themselves into question, no matter how critical.  Arguing against male-female understanding by emphasizing the traditionally recognized differences is disingenuous because it relies on an extremely narrow, heteronormative perspective. 

Social conservatives often cite hormonal and genetic differences as wedges between men and women, straights and gays, but such arguments are cherry-picking the facts to prop up the antiquated gender binary.  In a New York magazine article on transgender children appearing last month, a theory presented by Dr. Jean Malpas breaks down the concepts of sex and gender into not two but four parts, visually represented on a stick-figure:

  • Biological Gender: your chromosomes and genitals.  Indicated on the stick-figure’s crotch.
  • Sexuality: your romantic attraction to others.  Indicated on the stick-figure’s heart.
  • Gender Style: sometimes called Gender Expression, your preferred self-presentation in matters such as fashion, posture, speech patterns and hobbies. Indicated by a circle around the outside of the stick-figure’s body.
  • Gender Identity: your innate sense of being male or female or androgynous, regardless of biology or style or sexual interest.  Indicated on the stick-figure’s brain.

We are so much more complex than Harry and Sally, and so much deeper than they give us credit for.  Just as an international relationship requires at least one if not both partners to be bilingual, a cross-gender friendship requires at least one if not both friends to be intellectually curious, empathic and uninterested in the stereotypes they have been taught regarding both their own gender and someone else’s.  Indeed, the author of the Slate article claims that cross-gender friendships work best between individuals who are “less gendered.”  (Guys who are unafraid to enjoy movies like The Joy Luck Club, no matter the risk of looking effeminate; women who are unafraid to make asses of themselves, no matter the risk of looking unladylike… )  Bonding over common experiences is easy.  Considering a different point of view despite cultural pressures signifies genuine respect, the very sort needed to fuel any kind of progress.  This is why having close friends of all kinds of gender identities, styles and sexualities can be so awesome. 

Friendship, unlike politics, requires the participants to not just listen to each other but hear what the other is saying.  As a woman who wants a career, I am still expected to juggle it with almost all the responsibilities of childcare because mothers who focus more on their success than their family are negligent.  Many guyfriends are sympathetic to this, while pointing out to me that with or without a family, they are expected to focus more on their success than their emotional fulfillment.  Discussing such ambivalent feelings with friends of the same gender identity can be very helpful, but peer pressure can impede it.  Discussing such feelings with a romantic partner is very important, but it carries the burden of how these feelings will affect the relationship.  Discussions that take place outside of a romantic relationship are more likely honest than resentful because the problem can be identified without having to be solved right away.  That’s what friends are for.   

But it receives little support from tradition because Harry and Sally insist that straight men and women are doomed to fall in love, and traditional notions of love have very little to do with respect.  In passionate romance, possessiveness trumps respect, and while overt jealousy may now be seen as uncool, the tendency for men and women to break off along gender lines at parties seems to correlate directly with the number of monogamous couples.  Pursuing a new friendship with a man your husband doesn’t like—who isn’t gay—can still be judged as inappropriate.  But it’s a double standard, because many men and women strongly dislike their partners’ same-gender friends, yet to try to quell such friendships would be seen as Yoko Ono tyrannical. 

As partners, we should understand that cross-gender friendships more often indicate open minds than loose morals.  Navigating the complexities of life-long commitment is where men and women need to be able to understand each other most.  People whose primary or only close communication with the other gender is through their partner are more likely to assign misunderstandings to their partner’s entire gender.  (“Women are incapable of being on time!”  “Men can’t be trusted for the life of them to buy Christmas presents!”)  The more opaque we consider the Other to be, the less likely we are to try to understand their perspective, as well as the perspectives of those who don’t fit into our stereotypes.  It’s no coincidence that the cultures that place the most restrictions on male-female interaction afford the fewest freedoms to women and LGBT individuals.

But things are getting better.  Cross-gender friendships are more accepted now than ever before because men and women of all gender identities are communicating and understanding each other at record levels.  Not only are new mothers freer to nurture an identity outside the home, but new dads are more likely to hug their children and tell them they love them now than at any other time in modern history.  Attraction and the possibility for it will probably always complicate relationships—and politics and life—to some degree, but open dialogue continues to prove that the Other is never as impenetrable as we have been told.  In the words of researcher Kathryn Dindia, “Men are from North Dakota, women are from South Dakota.”  Our friendships are both the cause and the result of this.

 

 

Body Image Part II: The Rules for Snark

10 Jun

(Image by Stephen Alcorn © 2003 http://www.alcorngallery.com)

 

Last week I went after talking about others’ bodies for the sake of analyzing what you can’t be attracted to.  Today I’m going after talking about others’ bodies for the sake of musing, or amusement…

Anyone who insists they never make fun of others behind their back is lying.  We all do it, and to the extent that snark is now rivaling porn as the Internet’s raison d’être.  Every bit of our outward appearance—our fashion choices, our speaking styles, our assertiveness or timidity—it’s all out there for others’ scrutiny and all of us pick targets when we’re in the mood, sometimes at random, sometimes with a purpose.  Just take the example of weddings.  I bet there’s at least one wedding you’ve seen that looked ridiculous to you.  Alternative brides think, Wear an expensive dress if that’s what you’ve always wanted, but it’s still vulgar materialism.  And the mainstream brides think, Dont wear a white dress if you don’t want it, but you just want attention for being anti-everything.  While others simply think, Purple.  Yuck.  Or something to that effect. 

In wedding planning as in our everyday fashion, what we choose is a comment on what we don’t.  No one’s choice is in isolation of everyone else’s.  To dress like a punk or to dress like a cowboy, to speak a local dialect or to speak like a newsreader, to try to fit in or to try to stand out are all decisions we make that usually reflect both our tastes and our beliefs.  We give others’ decisions either the thumbs up or thumbs down accordingly.  As I’ve said before, it’s fair game when beliefs are targeted, because we should all take responsibility for our beliefs.  But too many of us make no distinction between the elements of someone’s appearance that reflect their beliefs, and the elements that reflect their biology.  

Many of my friends and family, along with most commenters on TV or online, see little difference between making assumptions about others’ clothes and making assumptions about the bodies they cover.  Just as they’ll assume the slick suit must belong to a businessman and the lady in shorts and sneakers is American, they’ll assume the particularly skinny woman must be anorexic, that the man whose hands shake must be an alcoholic, that the young woman who collapsed must be either diabetic or pregnant, that the large child over there getting his breast milk is obviously too old for that, that chubby guy over there is certainly overweight and should lose a few pounds, that the poor kid with acne isn’t using the right medicine.  Sometimes these flimsy diagnoses are voiced as expressions of sympathy or intellectual exercises à la Sherlock Holmes, sometimes they are dripping with self-aggrandizing pity or snarky complacency.  They are always unjust because, unlike quips about clothes or tattoos or cell phone ringtones, comments about another’s body have little to do with choices anyone has made. 

As someone who’s undergone limb-lengthening, I can of course attest that there are a few choices we make about our appearance.  But while I chose to try to add as many inches as possible to my height, I didn’t have much of a choice about how many inches I could go for.  (I gave all I could in physical therapy, but in the end, my ticked-off muscles stiffened and decided the limit for me.)  Nor did I have much of a choice about my anterior tibialis tendons severing on both legs, which now makes me stumble on average every few weeks and makes dismounting from a bicycle dangerous.  (After two surgeries to repair the tendons and three years of physical therapy, they remain weak.)  Nor have I ever had any choice about my hips swaying when I walk because the ball-and-socket hip joint in achondroplastic people is shaped like an egg-and-socket.  Skinny friends with hypoglycemia, heavy friends with slow metabolism, and friends with diastrophic dwarfism—whose growth plates do not respond to limb-lengthening—can also attest that any choices we make about our bodies are always limited.  Discussing these choices is important, but strangers assumptions about them are usually way, way off.

It is because I know so many kind, loving people who analyze strangers bodies that I wasn’t at all surprised by the nasty ruminations over her “puffy” appearance that Ashley Judd so awesomely bucked in Newsweek earlier this year.  And I’m only half-surprised by the website Too Big For Stroller, where people post street photos of children who appear to have outgrown the transport and smirk about what idiotic parents they must have.  In his essay, “Broken Phantoms,” Robert Rummel-Hudson writes beautifully, harrowingly about the unfair judgment strangers often heap on individuals with rare disabilities whose symptoms are less visible.  He went after the Too Big For Stroller crowd and summarized their defense arguments thusly: 

However many kids with invisible disabilities might be made fun of or hurt by that site, they are acceptable collateral damage, because some of them are probably lazy kids with weak parents, and they must be judged.

“Acceptable collateral damage” is the word I’ve been searching for my whole life.  It’s how Jason Webley downplayed the rights of “the few conjoined twins in the world” in light of his Evelyn Evelyn project.  It’s how so many minorities are dismissed as annoyances in our majority-rules society by the vacuous, relativist claim, “Everyone’s going to be offended by something.”  Which is another way of saying, “We can’t consider everyone’s rights.” 

All of us make automatic, silent assumptions about others’ bodies, often trying to figure out how we ourselves measure up, because we are all insecure about our bodies to some degree.  But the ubiquity of these thought patterns and the rate at which they are voiced is the problem, not the excuse.  There’s probably a list of catty things I’ve said the length of a toilet roll, but I try to stop myself from diagnosing strangers’ bodies, if anything out of awareness of my own vulnerability to inaccurate assumptions.  A few years spent in and out of hospitals also taught me what the hell do I know about where they’re coming from, and we all think enough unproductive thoughts about others’ physical appearance as it is.  In an essay about me and my scars, Arthur W. Frank writes that when we see someone who looks either unattractive or pitiful to us, our first thought is, “I’m glad that’s not me.”  And our second thought is, “But if it were me, I’d get that fixed.”

This is, of course, more than anything ahope.  We hope we would be different in the same situation.  But we’re afraid we may not be, and this fear causes us to quickly deflect the problem onto someone else.  Why not the person who just upset our delusions of normalcy?  So we and our supposedly meritocratic society nurture this idea—“I wouldn’t be like that”—as a justification for being judgmental.  Whether or not we voice these assumptions is indeed a choice we make, and whether or not we add any hint of judgment is yet another.   Whether or not this is fair is often debated on a case-by-case basis, but anytime anyone insults someone else’s body, it is a demonstration of their own insecurities.  Period.   

We’re all constantly judging one another and judging ourselves in comparison to one another.  This can be fair game when we stick to focusing on the mundane decisions we all make.  There is a world of a difference between quipping about fashion choices with head-shaking amusement—Sorry, Eddie Izzard, but sometimes you do not know how to put on makeup—and allowing our personal insecurities to fuel pity or disdain for others’ apparent physical imperfections.  There is no fair way to trash someone else’s body because, for the most part, your own biology is neither your fault nor your achievement.

 

 

The Gender Police

5 May

(Image by Stephen Alcorn © 2003 http://www.alcorngallery.com)

 

Last Sunday, Pastor Sean Harris of the Berean Baptist Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina gave a sermon on gender:

So your little son starts to act a little girlish when he is 4 years old and instead of squashing that like a cockroach and saying, ‘Man up, son, get that dress off you and get outside and dig a ditch, because that is what boys do,’ you get out the camera and you start taking pictures of Johnny acting like a female and then you upload it to YouTube and everybody laughs about it and the next thing you know, this dude, this kid is acting out childhood fantasies that should have been squashed.

Dads, the second you see your son dropping the limp wrist, you walk over there and crack that wrist. Man up. Give him a good punch. Ok? You are not going to act like that. You were made by God to be a male and you are going to be a male. And when your daughter starts acting too butch, you reign [sic] her in. And you say, ‘Oh, no, sweetheart. You can play sports. Play them to the glory of God. But sometimes you are going to act like a girl and walk like a girl and talk like a girl and smell like a girl and that means you are going to be beautiful. You are going to be attractive. You are going to dress yourself up.’

Harris used the sermon to voice support for an upcoming proposed amendment to the state constitution that would define marriage as between a man and a woman.  North Carolina law already prohibits same-sex marriage.  The constitutional amendment would simply make it ever more so, as well as ban same-sex civil unions.  Update on 9 May: The amendment passed.

The hostility Harris invoked is one of the absolute best arguments for the opposition.  Play his sermon on a loop next to the 2010 study finding American children of lesbian parents report the lowest rate of abuse and repeat: Who’s advocating happy, loving families here?  But it should concern not only those who believe in same-sex marriage or non-violent childcare, but anyone who believes in equality and a non-threatening approach to character development.  Because, unfortunately, Harris was merely saying directly what children, teens and adults are told stealthily almost every day.  

In the 2007 documentary For the Bible Tells Me So, religious scholars and sociologists conclude that the reason socially conservative religious groups target same-sex marriage so passionately is because it disrupts patriarchy.  Indeed, Harris’s rant embodies the two most arbitrary, constricting rules for heterosexual women and men in dating that endure today.  That is, nothing is worse for a guy than seeming effeminate, and nothing is worse for a woman than being ugly.

Most readers may agree that these rules exist but certainly not to the extreme that Harris advocates.  Rarely does Western society openly invoke the violent, threatening imagery he did.  But these rules take various forms, often masquerading as indisputable facts about innate gender differences, and are reinforced in films and magazines, and as mantras in everyday conversation. Many of the following probably sound familiar to you:

1) Women constantly want to constantly shop the way guys constantly want to get laid.

2) A woman should ultimately let the guy pursue her lest she emasculate him and, in any case, she should want to be pursued.  Because every woman is a princess and every guy is a hunter.

3) Guys can’t be sexually assaulted by women.  They can only be grossed out by the advances of ugly women.

4) She can play sports or join the army, but she needs some makeup to be attractive and should always take care of her looks more than a guy should.

5) But she shouldn’t wear heels if it makes her taller than her man.

6) While many men can expect conventionally attractive women to overlook their gray hair, baldness, wrinkles, and/or chubbiness for their success or sense of humor, a woman cannot expect a conventionally attractive man to do the same for her.  Beauty and the Beast was about the woman seeing past her lover’s looks, not the guy! 

7) Guys don’t cry, but women do.  A lot.  Because guys use assertiveness to get what they want, while women show their vulnerability to get what they want.

8) Guys don’t cuddle with each other.  That’s gay.  But women cuddling is either sweet or hot.

9) He’s castrated if she asked him out, she’s physically stronger than he is, he earns less than she does, he takes her surname, or she talks more than he does at parties. 

10) And he’s gay if he’s interested in dresses, skirts or makeup.

11) Or if he enjoys books or films about women’s experiences.

What silliness. Exiling the very real horrors of LGBT persecution to the peripheries for just a split second, how many of you nearly choked yourself laughing at Harris’s order to “get outside and dig a ditch because that’s what boys do”? 

Nothing should be off-limits to anyone unless they honestly, independently have no interest in it.  Most of us are probably disinterested in or uncomfortable with some of the aforementioned behaviors, but the disinterest should arise from self-awareness, not authoritative training.  And I’ve met enough self-aware, self-confident individuals to know that these behaviors do not fall along gender lines, but personalities. 

My neighbor loves ponies as much as she loves repairing cars.  My husband’s buddy plays rugby and knits.  My guyfriend loves arranging flowers and wearing skirts as much as he loves target-shooting and watching Formula One.  I love arguing politics and watching figure skating with my mom and dad as much as I cringe at discussing shoes or watching football.  All of us are encouraged by our partners, demonstrating that our fears of persecution for such gender-bender are usually reinforced not by the opposite sex but, as Ashely Judd so eloquently pointed out last month, by our peers. 

Many men try to talk their girlfriends out of wearing makeup, while many women are supportive of—and often intrigued to the point of being attracted to—men who adopt traditionally feminine activities.  (If it weren’t the case, “Too bad he’s gay!” wouldn’t be the famous expression it is.)  Despite this, women thrust ludicrous beauty standards upon themselves, making catty comments about each other’s supposed failures, while men police one another with gay slurs.  That these cultural rules bear so much repeating signifies that they are indeed rules, not facts.   A glance at history and across cultures demonstrates that they are fashions.  That enforcing them requires scare tactics—“You’ll never get laid!” “You’ll never land a man!”—should land the final blow to their credibility.

 

 

In Comedy, It’s All About Deciding Who’s Us & Who’s Them

28 Apr

Krampus twins(Via)

 

The Guardian’s stylebook contains the greatest commentary on style I’ve ever seen in print:

political correctness: a term to be avoided on the grounds that it is, in Polly Toynbee’s words, “an empty right-wing smear designed only to elevate its user.”

Around the same time, while researching the back stories of Life’s Too Short for my review, I came upon the controversy over the word “mong” in which Ricky Gervais found himself embroiled this past fall.  Apparently “mong” is a British English insult derived from “Mongoloid,” the very antiquated and now unacceptable term once used to describe people with Down’s Syndrome.  Both Americans and Brits have probably heard “retard” used the same way.  Gervais eventually apologized to those who objected—including the mother of a child with Down’s Syndrome who has frequently endured the insult—but not without first dragging his heels screaming at what he called “the humorless PC brigade.” 

I will never get over how many comedians insist that any criticism of their work is an indictment of all comedy; as if there’s no such thing as an unfunny comedian, only stupid audiences.  This logic sets the bar for comedy so low that no comedian need ever try to be original.  Ignoring the “PC brigade” (i.e., anyone who doesn’t live with the privileges they do), they can simply regenerate old stereotypes, mining the minstrel shows, the frat houses and the school yards, and if no one laughs at this, it’s simply because we’re all too uptight, right?  Wrong.  We don’t refrain from laughing because we feel we shouldn’t.  We refrain because, unlike the repressed who giggle away in awe, we’ve heard it a thousand times before and we know it’s far from unique.  And isn’t unique what every comedian, entertainer and artist strives to be?   

Like politics, comedy can be divided into two categories: that which confronts our problems with our own selves, and that which confronts our problems with others.  Xenophobia literally means the (irrational*) fear of strangers and the second type of comedy relies upon this fear.  There has to be a “them” for “us” to laugh at.  So Republicans laugh at Democrats.  Hippies laugh at yuppies.  Academics laugh at hippies.  Progressives laugh at bigots.  It’s fair game when beliefs are targeted because we must always take responsibility for our beliefs.  However, when the joke defines “them” as those who have had no choice whatsoever about their distinguishing quality—ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality, physical traits, mental or physical capabilities, or class background—and who continue to be disenfranchised by society’s delusions of normalcy, the joke had better target those delusions to be in any way original.  Otherwise, why pay for cable or tickets to hear someone lazily reiterate the guffaws of playground bullies? 

Every good comedian, from Stephen Colbert to Eddie Izzard to Christian Lander to the writers at The Onion, knows that the best jokes mock people’s hang-ups and clumsy reactions to minority issues, not the mere existence of minorities. My beloved Flight of the Conchords frequently flip gender roles and ethnic stereotypes, exposing the absurdity of racism and misogyny.  As the following video demonstrates, 1970s machismo has been begging to be made fun of.  However, when it comes to physical Otherness, it is the body—not fearful attitudes toward it—that they choose to snicker over, 54 seconds into the video:

 

 

Hermaphrodite?  Really?  An intersex kid’s medical reality is your toy?  C’mon, Conchords.  You’ve proven you’re great at making fun of white Kiwis tripping over Maori culture.  (“Jemaine, you’re part Maori…  Please be the Maori!  If you don’t do it, we’re gonna have to get Mexicans!”)  Surely you could come up with some good bit about hipster comedians clinging to lookist and ableist jokes like teddy bears and throwing temper tantrums when they’re taken away.  Or take a tip from Mitchell & Webb and take a jab at the way the ableism of reality TV masquerades as sensitivity:

 

 

Of course comedians have the right to make jokes objectifying minorities.  But I’m more interested in why they feel the need to, why they choose to objectify some people and not others.  Being gay, disabled, trans, intersex or non-white is not inherently hilarious to anyone who doesn’t live their lives sheltered from anyone unlike them.  The American freak shows of P.T. Barnum and the racist British sitcoms of the 1970s signify not just how profoundly disenfranchised minorities were in these countries, but how absurdly provincial audiences must have been in order to be so easily titillated.  Many comedians who reiterate chauvinist jokes argue that in doing so they are pushing the boundaries, expanding freedom of thought in defiance of PC oppression, when in fact they are merely retreating to well-trod ground, relying on ideas that challenge nothing but the very young idea that minorities deserve to be included in the dialogue as speakers, not objects.  As Bill Bryson has pointed out, the backlash against “political correctness” took place the moment the idea was introduced and has always been far more hysterical than what it protests.   

Toni Morrison has said, “What I really think the political correctness debate is really about is the power to be able to define.  The definers want the power to name.  And the defined are taking that power away from them.”  Revealing that it is all about power explains why emotions run so high whenever minorities get upset by certain jokes and comedians get upset about their being upset.  But this redistribution of power can be productive.  Taking old slurs and xenophobic tropes away from today’s politicians and comedians challenges them to think beyond their own experience and to wean themselves off society’s long-held fears, to redefine “them” as those enslaved by the limits of their imagination; in essence, to really push the boundaries.  Yet too often they default to the tired claim that this challenge infringes on their right to free speech. 

Some progressive critics do bring on the censorship accusation by using the ineffective phrase “You can’t say that!” and sometimes this is indeed an open attempt at censorship because most media outlets self-censor.  For example, Little People of America has called for the Federal Communications Commission to add “midget” to its list of words you can’t say on television.  I understand the temptation to insist upon the same treatment afforded other minorities: If certain ethnic and gender slurs are banned by newspapers and TV networks, why not others?  But this tactic too easily insults those other minorities—are you claiming black people have it easier than you?—and creates the concept of a forbidden fruit that will only tantalize right-wing politicians and shock jock comedians.  Simplifying the issue into Good Words/Bad Words can be a waste of an opportunity.  Instead of limiting itself to which words are always unacceptable regardless of context or nuance, the dialogue should always aim to reveal which minority jokes truly blow people’s minds and which lazily replicate institutionalized chauvinism. 

Instead of splitting hairs over the modern meaning of the word “mong,” I’d love it if a comedian went at the fact that Dr. Down came up with the term “Mongoloid” because he thought patients with the diagnosis resembled East Asians.  Because really.  Who’s asking to be made fun of here?

 

 

* “Phobia” always indicates an irrational fear, hence arachnophobia, agoraphobia, claustrophobia, homophobia, etc.  Fears that are well-founded are not phobias.

In Activism, The Medium Is The Message

6 Apr

 

An acquaintance recently referred to me in a discussion about limb-lengthening on a Tumblr page.  Having heard about my medical experiences from mutual friends, he insinuated that I may have been forced into it, reported the procedure is used to make people with dwarfism “look normal” and dismissed it as therefore morally wrong.

Around the same time that week, The New York Times featured a discussion regarding whether the Internet’s contributions to political discourse are always productive under the headline, “Fighting War Crimes, Without Leaving the Couch?”  The Internet itself is so multi-faceted it undoubtedly does as much good as harm.  Like all media, it has both cerebral and shallow corners.  And, as the Times piece reveals, there is a fine line between slacktivism and activism.  But the recent trend toward microblogging—Tweets, Facebook status updates, Tumblr—for political discussions is rife with problems.  For every productive comments thread I’ve read, there are conversations that never evolve beyond slogans, sneering, choir-preaching, or kneejerk reactions with most information based on hearsay.  Every single piece of information cited in the Tumblr discussion on limb-lengthening contained at least one factual error.  (More here on the fact that it was posted in the context of sick fascination rather than bio-ethics.)  That microblogging brings those who don’t have the time or energy to compose an entire blog post or article into the discussion is hardly a compelling argument, since it quickly extends to Those Who Don’t Have the Time to Research Or Think Much About the Issues. 

I’m quite used to having my story cited in debates because of the exposure I’ve allowed it.  I love debate like other people love video games and limb-lengthening is a contentious issue.  (Just ask my friend who witnessed a stranger with dwarfism approach his mother and demand, “How could you ruin your child’s life like this?!”)  When ignoring the broad-sweeping nature of his assertion, I consider this friend of a friend’s kneejerk opposition to cosmetic surgery preferable to, say, the handful of journalists who have interviewed me and chosen to portray limb-lengthening as a painless miracle cure for anyone unhappy with their size.  But reading his hasty dismissal of my seven-year-long experience based only on what our mutual friends had told him brought back memories of all the people I’ve observed summarizing deeply personal, overwhelmingly complicated decisions in 140 characters or less, both online and off:

“It’s been TWO months since she died.  He’s gotta move on.” 

“It was so selfish of her to get pregnant now with everything her husband’s going through.”   

“It’s absolutely horrible to abort a fetus that tests positive for a disability.  Who would do such a thing?!” 

“Only one girlfriend?  Well, then she’s not really gay.  She was just experimenting.” 

“It’s ultimately selfish to want a child with dwarfism.  You wouldn’t want to do that to a child.”

“No wonder she got mugged.  Any girl who goes hiking alone should know better.”

“It’s so stupid that women are supposed to be upset about not being able to have their own kids.  They could just adopt.” 

Assuming others’ motivations, knowing what’s best for everyone, passing on poorly researched information; too often gossip masquerades as political discourse, both in the media and at home.  We all feel compelled to have an opinion.  About everything.  The more noble root of this is the desire to actively take an interest in everything.  But that nobleness dies the moment we can’t be bothered to consider anything beyond our gut reaction before spouting off; the moment a desire to improve the world devolves into the simple urge to mark everything we see with our own personal “GOOD” or “BAD” stamp. 

Obviously, as a blogger I am constantly offering my opinions.  But I remain acutely conscious of my chosen medium, taking inspiration from Marshall McLuhan whose quote heads this post.  There is a difference between tabloids and broadsheets, between documentaries and reality TV, between a blog entry and a Tweet, and it’s not just big words: It’s the intellectual commitment required of the audience in order to consume.  True learning demands this commitment and risks upsetting our world view.  Voyeurism indulges our complacency and guarantees our prejudices will be cemented.     

Every blog post I put out is both a labor of love and a terrifying experience.  Every week I hear the imaginary voices of every individual who could in any way be implied in my arguments howling at me, “Who do you think you are?!”  The voices aren’t loud enough to scare me into silence.  But, combined with the inspiring examples set by my partner, my mom and dad, Ariel Meadow Stallings, Barack Obama and many others, they motivate my every edit of that girl in high school who was so well known for her righteous indignation that she was voted “Most Argumentative” in the yearbook.

That girl has made so many mistakes along the way.  I found out that posting your religious views online can earn you applause from strangers but cost you a friendship.  I’ve learned using the “I know someone who…” argument can offend or embarrass said person if you haven’t asked their permission, even when it’s intended as praise.  I’ve learned passion alone inspires your supporters but usually sounds like ranting to the unconvinced, especially on Facebook.  I’ve learned mass emails are not only passé outside the workplace but were never very popular to begin with.  (At least not among the recipients.)  I’ve learned to never read the comments section on YouTube unless I want to lose all my faith in humanity.

I intend to address all the reasons why I underwent limb-lengthening eventually, but at the moment I’m not sure yet if I can in anything less than the 13 pages I needed in Surgically Shaping Children.  I’m sorry to play Tantalus to those unable to shell out the cash for the book or find it at their library.  This undoubtedly limits the number of people I inform.  But, for now at least, I prefer to be held responsible for a few well-informed individuals rather than many misinformed ones.  And no matter how I end up condensing it, I know I won’t ever be able to fit seven years of limb-lengthening into one Tweet.    

 

 

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. 

 

 

The Good, the Bad and the Boring of “Life’s Too Short”

21 Mar

 

Today Feministing.com features my review of HBO’s Life’s Too Short, the first sitcom I’ve ever seen starring someone with dwarfism.

 

 

When It Comes to Sex, Fair Is Fair

17 Mar

Boy Toy(Image by Ian used under CC license via)

 

Disclaimer: This post is going to talk a lot about sex, so for my relatives out there, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

***

I was recently walking around Tokyo’s Electric Town, a sensory overload of video game stores, electronics boutiques, and maid cafés.  Wait, what?  The young women outside these cafés were dressed in lacy maids’ outfits, complete with fishnets, platform shoes and cat ears on their heads.  Addressing their customers as “Master,” they apparently serve them on one knee, providing spoon-feedings and massages to those willing to pay extra.  These cafés were everywhere.

The guy accompanying me probably sensed my feminist judgment before I voiced it.  “So, what would have to change for you to be okay with it?” he asked. 

Quite simply, half the cafés would cater to female customers, hosted by provocatively dressed, eager-to-please, teenage-looking boys.  Half the people on the street in Tokyo are women, but the maid cafés offer them only work, not service.  No wonder nerd women feel so alone.  But it’s not fair to single out Electric Town.  Every well-known naughty incarnation of sex from the Playboy Mansion to token event dancers embodies the same problem: Whether selling dominance or submission, it’s all for the straight male customer.  In Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine has identified one of the panes of the glass ceiling to be the not uncommon tradition of businessmen bonding by going to strip clubs together.  The most a straight female customer can hope for at such venues is to be bored, however much her partner may hope she’s taking down notes. 

Just as the word “doctor” or “lawyer” almost always causes a listener to envision a man, the word “escort,” or “stripper” evokes a woman.  Girls are aware of this from the earliest of ages.  Many have argued with me that the lack of lascivious fare catering to female clients is indicative of supply and demand; women aren’t as interested in commercial forms of sex, so there aren’t any.  It is true that the demand may not be overt enough for the market to notice, but this is not because it is non-existent.  It is because, like the demand for non-heteronormative sexuality, it has been discouraged for millennia. 

Men are animals, they can’t help it, goes the traditional view.  But women are not and thus they should only be sexual when satisfying men’s desires, either by playing the role of the virgin he wants to have a family with or the whore he wants to have fun with.  Yet if women’s sex drive is indeed naturally lower than men’s, why are so many societies so concerned with suppressing it? 

Around the world from Kuwait to Kansas, authoritarians go to great lengths to reduce if not altogether prohibit female sexual expression.  Over 92 million girls have undergone genital mutilation in Africa alone in order to reduce their libido.  American evangelical Christians oppose mandating the HPV vaccine for pre-teen girls, arguing that reducing the fear of cervical cancer will increase girls’ promiscuity.  In Haiti, Jordan, Syria and Morocco, “honor” killings and crimes of passion in instances of adultery are still legally permissible (only) when it is a female who has had pre-marital or extramarital sex.  A 2002 U.N. report found legislative provisions allowing for partial defense of “honor” killings in Argentina, Ecuador, Egypt, Guatemala, Iran, Israel, Peru, the Palestinian National Authority, and Venezuela.  Let me repeat: Politicians, religious leaders and parents endorse scaring women with the threat of murder, others with the threat of cancer, to control their sexuality. 

I’m sure this sounds outrageously antiquated to most readers, but aside from the fact that it is a grave reality for women in many cultures, vestiges of this machismo endure in secular culture.  Guys still try to insult each other by attacking their mothers’ sex lives, and women’s bodies and promiscuity are still discussed far more than men’s.  Have you ever heard anyone say, “Your dad’s a whore”?  Or heard a guy who won’t put out described as “frigid”?  Chloe Angyal summed it up beautifully at New York’s Slutwalk this past October:

The idea behind the word “slut,” and the beliefs and behavior that it justifies, is alive and well.  This idea says that sex decreases a woman’s worth.  This idea says that a woman who steps outside the bounds of acceptable femininity by enjoying sex, or seeking sex, or having a lot of sex, deserves whatever sexual violence is done to her… This idea says that almost anything a woman does, says, wears or is, can be used to justify that violence. Are you confident and outgoing?  That could have been construed as flirting, and that is practically consent.  Are you shy and reticent?  You should have been confident and outgoing enough to firmly say “no.”  Are you considered attractive by the standards of our culture?  Well, you know how men get around pretty women.  Are you considered unattractive by the standards of our culture?  What man would force himself on an ugly woman?  You must have asked for it.  This idea sets up a no-win situation, where no woman is pure enough to be blameless.

However, as women’s scantily clad bodies are condemned in Congress and in churches while being used to advertise everything from ice cream to phone companies, I suspect it’s not only the suppression of female desire at work.   When I imagine men being marketed as boy toys, the first obstacle that comes to mind is homophobia.  I’m sure you can just hear the shouts of “Yuck!  Sick!” that would erupt if male butts were given as much attention on television as female breasts are, or if guy-on-guy action were insinuated in music videos as frequently as lesbianism is.  Men who dislike the self-objectifying performances of Mick Jagger or Robbie Williams or male ballet dancers usually call them gay slurs.  I feel safe in assuming similar insults would be hurled by many male Star Wars fans had the master at Jabba the Hut’s palace been a madam who enslaved Luke Skywalker on a chain in a pair of golden briefs.  In 2008, a study found nearly 40% of women appearing in films wore sexually revealing clothing, compared to 7.8% of men, proving that straight women put up with sexy representations of their gender with the same frequency that straight men are shielded from it.  The homophobia behind these cultural patterns is the very same that restricts gay sexuality to the gay district.  And it is often to these corners that lusty women go.  Sex and The City was addressing a real problem when it encouraged women to watch gay male porn in order to see men that are truly sexualized. 

However, as discussed in my last post, sexualization comes at a price when it is the result of overwhelming demand, not free choice.  The American Psychological Association says a person is sexualized when their “value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics; [when] a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy; [when] a person is sexually objectified—that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making.”  Self-objectification is a free choice an individual can make only insofar as that individual has never been pressured into it.  Bombarded with the media images cited above, women are taught to self-objectify from girlhood on.  Even the professional dominatrix, no matter how powerful, is fulfilling a male customer’s requests.  The beauty standards embodied by these sexualized models result in women and gay men suffering from eating disorders at far higher rates than straight men.  In Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Peggy Orenstein writes:

I object—strenuously—to the sexualization of girls but not necessarily to girls having sex. I expect and want my daughter to have a healthy, joyous erotic life before marriage.  Long, long, long before marriage.  I… want her to understand why she’s doing it: not for someone else’s enjoyment, not to keep a boyfriend from leaving, not because everyone else is.  I want her to do it for herself.  I want her to explore and understand her body’s responses, her own pleasure, her own desire.  I want her to be able to express her needs in a relationship, to say no when she needs to, to value reciprocity, and to experience true intimacy.  The virgin/whore cycle of the pop princesses, like so much of the girlie-girl culture, pushes in the opposite direction, encouraging girls to see self-objectification as a female rite of passage. 

Reciprocity is the key word.  If you want your girlfriend to accompany you to a maid café, you’d better be willing to follow her to a Fantasy Boys’ Strip Tease.  If you want her to learn a naughty routine to add some spark, you’d better learn one for her.  If you want your wife to be fine with you sleeping around, you’d better encourage her to have affairs.  If you ask for oral sex, you’d better be willing to give it.  And don’t you dare make your daughter wear a purity ring until marriage if you won’t demand the same of your son or your own self.  Indeed, if the social pressure that urges women to submit were diverted to straight men, the resulting dialogue would reveal a great deal about how much free choice really enters into it. 

Studies in sex-positive feminism and BDSM culture reveal that many self-confident, consenting individuals are interested in the sex industry, but without the gender disparity pop culture promotes.  And while it is true that many women have no interest in commercial forms of sex like pornography or strip clubs, nor do many men.  Whether the red light district is silly or sexy is a matter of taste.  Whether it is male chauvinist is not.  In the words of one YouTube commenter—a rare source of inspiration—“this is what music videos would look like if women ran the world.

Look ridiculous?  In the words of Nadine Gordimer, “So many sensual moves are, if you set yourself outside of them.”  It’s no more ridiculous than the song it parodies or the cat ears donned by the Electric Town maids.  If every second maid were replaced with men posing like Bret and Jemaine do, I’d find nothing wrong with Electric Town, except for its carbon footprint. 

 

 

Today’s Princesses: Teaching Them “That Self-Absorption Is The Same As Self-Confidence”

10 Mar

When I was growing up, I had a hard time remembering that McDonald’s and Disney were not the same company.  I still have a hard time remembering that.  Both aggressively market products few can spend their entire lives resisting because their advertising budgets are unrivaled and because they have mastered the recipes for broad appeal.  Both are aggressively exported to other countries, representing all that is optimistic, colorful, unsubtle and indulgent about America.  Both are harmless in small doses but unhealthy when they attain the monopoly on a child’s life they’ve been aiming for.

I’ve just finished Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture by Peggy Orenstein.  Like Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation, Orenstein examines a corner of our culture that does not take constructive criticism well.  It is because of the magnitude of the pink princess deluge driven by Disney and their ilk combined with their defensive refusal to admit any fault or responsibility—“It’s what every girl wants!”—that her work deserves such a warm welcome.

For any of her failures to perfectly repair the girlie-girl culture in 200 pages, Orenstein offers several impeccable articulations of the problems.  Princess packages are problematic when they impose rote scripts and must-have shopping lists, stifling rather than encouraging creativity.  Sexualization is problematic when the implied goal is not to attain pleasure but to please a man in exchange for being approved of as pretty.  Social networking online is problematic when “the self becomes a brand to be marketed to others rather than developed from within.”  And the Muppets are problematic when, for all their ingenuity, they still can’t come up with more than two female Muppets.  I think I’m going to end up quoting her a lot.

The New York Times praised her book while emphasizing that it is little cause for alarm seeing as most girls outgrow the pink princess phase.  As a former Snow White wannabe, I know this can be true, but I had kick-ass feminists in my life to help me along the way, including a dad who sewed my costumes.  I hesitate to agree with the Times’s assertion that “most” move on.   Orenstein provides depressing figures on the rise of female eating disorders, the recent drop in computer science degrees, the persistent problem of young women equating “feeling good” with “looking hot.”  Even as I tend to surround myself with self-confident, intellectual women who define themselves as much more than their prettiness and their purchases, I regularly encounter those who fit into Orenstein’s figures.  They are the ones whose fathers only gave them credit cards, never engaging them in intellectual discussion, and who now avoid debate like an ugly outfit.  They are the ones who know that appearing pretty means non-threatening, so self-confidence is tossed out for coyness, self-assertion is abandoned for pouting, and wit is relinquished for fawning giggles in the presence of men.  They are the ones who torture themselves over their looks—“I’m so ugly! I’m so fat!”—in order to land a man and then keep him from cheating, spending more of their day unhappy than any other people I know.  They are the ones who have not left the princess phase because they do not know how to. 

Too often criticism of the princess culture is misconstrued as bitter resentment by those who just don’t have what it takes to wow the guys or woo the pageant judges.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  It is sincere concern inspired by the hard evidence of the very real dangers that motivates critics like Orenstein:

There is… ample evidence that the more mainstream media girls consume, the more importance they place on being pretty and sexy.  And a ream of studies shows that teenage girls and college students who hold conventional beliefs about femininity—especially those that emphasize beauty and pleasing behavior—are less ambitious and more likely to be depressed than their peers.  They are also less likely to report that they enjoy sex or insist that their partners wear condoms. 

Depression, eating disorders, STDs, and unwanted pregnancy are nothing to sneeze at.  Meanwhile, a study conducted at the University of Houston found women who identify as feminists demonstrate less hostility toward men than women who don’t.  A Rutgers University study found they are also more likely to be in a relationship and their partners report more satisfaction with their sex lives.  Isn’t that the happily ever after every parent wants for their daughter?      

Sometimes Orenstein’s feminist alternatives to the pink princesses sound soft compared to the roar of her reprimands.  Focusing only on the (admittedly daunting) price of the dolls, she misses a major opportunity to understand the educational, multi-cultural brilliance of the American Girl history series.  Disney’s The Princess and The Frog promotes independence, battles lookism and exemplifies egalitarian romance in all the ways Beauty and the Beast failed to, yet Orenstein’s review of the film was as weak as its box office performance.  Princess Fiona of Shrek is bad-ass and the third film in the series parodies princesses better than anything else it takes a jab at.  However, I wonder how necessary any model of romance—feminist or traditional—is for the preschool set.

Indeed, it is important to distinguish between the pre-pubescent girls and the post-pubescent ladies in books and toy stores, and on the screen.  Sparkles and daisies are innocuous. Unrealistic beauty standards and boy-crazy storylines are not.  The original Strawberry Shortcake and Rainbow Brite were not the cleverest female role models, but they acted their age and thus appropriately for their target audience.  Their cadres of friends were coed.  They regularly outwitted male villains—proving that girls’ problems aren’t limited to cat fights—and the reward was always a happier world, either more colorful or fruit-filled.  Like Hello Kitty, Strawberry Shortcake and Rainbow Brite demonstrated that to be cute is to be round and childlike, not dangerously busty-yet-skinny like Barbie and the Disney Princesses.  But both Rainbow Brite and Strawberry Shortcake have since been redesigned to at least suggest adolescence:     

 

Characters that were not invented first and foremost to sell dolls and costumes are usually a safer bet.  Lilo and her sister Nani of Lilo and Stitch are two of the best female characters in cinema history, let alone the Disney canon.  Meanwhile, Pippi Longstocking is worshipped in Northern Europe by boys and girls alike.  Indeed, wouldn’t a more pro-active welcoming of boys into the princess culture dilute a lot of its sexism?  How about dads reading The American Girls to their sons as often as moms read Harry Potter to their daughters?  Orenstein does recognize the potential for that revolution, citing a Creighton University study that showed half of boys aged 5 to 13 chose to play with “girls’ toys” as often as “boys’ toys,” but only after they were promised that their fathers wouldn’t find out about it.

Like the families relying on fast-food several times a week, many parents find it difficult to resist the pink marketers’ schemes and the peer pressure foisted upon their daughters in play groups.  There is nothing wrong with the occasional indulgence, just as there is nothing inherently wrong with the color pink.  But just as we have demanded healthier Happy Meals and more farmers’ markets, we should demand more varied toys, activities and role models for our children, refusing any monochrome model of girlhood.

 

 

Dwarf-Tossing: Something I Really Don’t Like Thinking About

18 Feb

 

I was recently invited to write a guest post for Feministing.com. I’ve written about dwarf tossing and it appears in today/yesterday’s edition of the blog here(I apologize should this news seem late in coming – I’m writing to you from Tokyo where the time difference is working against me.)

 

 

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.

 

 

The Simpsons, Dwarfism & Getting It Almost Right For Once

12 Nov

Livro ou TV?(Image by Lubs Mary. used under Creative Commons license via)

 

Somewhere, among the many things cluttered in the back of my head, has long been the wonder as to whether The Simpsons would ever address dwarfism as a topic. Last night, I found out they did two years ago in the episode “Eeny Teeny Maya Moe” and I was shocked to see them decide against the freak show trope that our generation adores so dearly.  Not only did they transcend the snickering, but they pounced upon it and deftly demonstrated how blurred are the lines between comfort and discomfort.

Of course it feels silly to be grateful upon seeing one’s difference portrayed respectfully and productively.  But forgetting all the crappy media that take cheaps shots at dwarfs (James Bond, The Man Show, Celebrity Apprentice, Austin Powers), I’ve become quite used to good art reveling in the yuk-yuk fascination (Scrubs, This Is Spinal Tap, QI, Bob Dylan).  Not to mention the fantasy genre’s long-held tradition (from The Wizard of Oz to The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus) of utilizing dwarfism to denote either a separate race or mysticism (“It must be a fucking dream, there’s a fucking dwarf in it!“), which is not explicitly offensive, but also not particularly helpful in deconstructing prejudice and misconceptions.  Across the genres, Hollywood usually contributes more to the list of names we get called (Oompa Loompas, Hobbits, Mini-Me, etc.) than to diversity awareness.

The Simpsons episode isn’t perfect – how does one deal with minority issues perfectly? – but I was quite pleased.  The one moment that left a bitter taste in my mouth is the final line: “Who would have thought a woman so short could make me feel so big?”  Little People of America and many of their supporters perpetuate this same, pathetic slogan of empowerment: physically short, but mentally/spiritually/emotionally huge.  Short, but.  Little, but.  You’re well-meaning, but.

Little is not less.  Little is not inferior.  Little is not cute.  Little is not submissive.  Little is not weak.  Little is not a Napoleon Complex.  Little is little.  Big is not greater.  Big is not better.  Big is not powerful.  Big is not dominant.  Big is not strong.  Big is not a Gentle Giant.  Big is big.  To consider size as indicative of personality traits is as ludicrous as equating anything from freckles to elbow shape with personality traits.  (Any attempt to compliment Oprah Winfrey or Alice Walker by saying, “She may have been dark-skinned, but she brought light to the lives of many” would be considered wholly idiotic and righftully so.)  Having two x chromosomes does not impede my intelligence or independence or strength, and neither does having an autosomal dominant mutation in my fibroblast growth factor receptor gene 3.

If you want to praise an individual’s ability to overcome social obstacles, do not place blame for the obstacles on their genetics.  Society’s incessant xenophobia and vanity are constantly let off the hook because a genetic difference is still seen as that which upsets normalcy, rather than that which is handicapped by our delusions of normalcy.  It is all too often supported by the reasoning that if a majority is scared of a difference, then it must be a natural fear, and natural is practically synonymous with good.  It will take quite a few more episodes like that on The Simpsons before the discourse changes and someone says, “Who would have a thought a woman so shat on by our culture’s omnipresent lookism could have the patience to deal with my own individual prejudices?”

 

 

It’s Not One or the Other with Evelyn Evelyn

6 Nov

Evelyn EvelynSo Jason Webley and Amanda Palmer have formed a band called Evelyn Evelyn for which the two dress up as conjoined twin sisters.  I wasn’t going to comment on the scandal that has erupted over the launch of their new album because it seemed too many people were screaming at the top of their lungs and the ones who weren’t had stuck their fingers in their ears.  But I’m both a big Jason Webley fan and an advocate for more visibility on the issues of ableism in political discourse.  And this is an excellent example of a common occurrence in the counter-culture that rarely gets talked about.  Here are a few of my points, some of which have already been made by others, some of which haven’t.

One can love Jason and/or Amanda as artists and also believe that they’ve done something wrong.  One can be in awe of Mick Jagger’s talent, and still gristle at his womanizing and the lyrics he sings advocating it.  The adolescent idol-worship of these two singers that’s been revealed in the defense arguments is quite disturbing.

Even though I fiercely believe in intersectionality (i.e., if you’re gonna support the rights of one minority, you’ve got to support them all), being insensitive toward one group of people does not make you insensitive to all.  Amanda Palmer is a fierce feminist and LGBT advocate, and both she and Jason like to sing about, as he put it, the experiences of those on the margin.  This project does not nullify their previous good works and transform  them both into misanthropic bigots.

As intersectionality often proves, a liberal identity does not make progressives like Jason and Amanda incapable of prejudice or sheer jack-ass behavior.  I met student after student at Bard who would glare at anything remotely racist or sexist or homophobic, but who insisted that dwarf-tossing is fucking hilarious and cringed at individuals with facial deformities.

I admit that I didn’t consider the offensive implications the first time I heard of the project.  When I read the bio on Evelyn Evelyn’s MySpace page, I did start to feel the thing reverberate with circus-freak retro-chic.  More than anything, I didn’t see why the twins had to be conjoined.  They have the same name and sing back and forth to each other; there isn’t anything about their record requiring them to be conjoined except to add a little freak-show flavor, realized by the sight-gag of the two singers performing onstage on a single accordion.  If Evelyn Evelyn were merely identical twins, no one would have given it a moment’s pause and only the freak-show flavor would be lost.  I happen to think “Have You Seen My Sister Evelyn?” is a great ragtime song.  I also enjoyed Jason’s solo rendition of “Elephant Elephant” using the audience for call-backs far more than his version with Amanda as his twin. 

Bearing all this in mind, it is my opinion that both Jason and Amanda have handled this quite badly. 

Jason’s apology on his blog is much less defensive than Amanda’s, his shock at the reaction seems genuine, but he nevertheless manages to keep stumbling.  “I had some fear that the few conjoined twins living in the world might find the project offensive.”  Ouch.  Respect and human rights do not directly correlate to a minority’s numbers.  Someone pointed out that conjoined twins are so few because their infant mortality rate is so high.  Ouch.    

As for Amanda, I don’t know why she tweets or posts so frequently only to be shocked about the fire she draws from her hastily typed statements regarding her often controversial projects.  Let’s not kid ourselves – she obviously likes being an iconoclast, which is fine and in fact admirable, but she so far lacks the poise to handle the inevitable backlash each time she comes roaring onto the scene with another boisterous project.  And, Amanda, you don’t need to let us know you’re PMSing.  If you’d used the word “midget” on me and included that in your apology/excuse, it would not help to redeem you. 

I originally wasn’t going to attend the Berlin show because it’s rather expensive, but now I’m considering proposing a boycott over this issue.  Not because I hate these two for it (I don’t), but because the friends who were reluctant to go over the price would likely tell me to loosen up if ableist politics were my sole reason.  And that could be a good opportunity to confront the prejudices lurking under the liberal badges we love to wear.

 

UPDATE: Any credibility Amanda’s apology had was swiftly obliterated by her performance on this Australian talk show.  She may very well be a feminist and a radical and an activist, but first and foremost, Amanda Palmer is a narcissist.  Possibly the least radical thing you can be in show business.

 

 

Note: This post originally appeared on February 21, 2010 at klompen.livejournal.com