Film Feministe: Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?

Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?

It's racially refreshing!

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? (1967) . spoilers.

A plot synopsis: Old-line liberals Matt and Christina Drayton (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn) have raised their daughter Joey (Katharine Houghton) to think for herself and not blindly conform to the conventional. Still, they aren’t prepared for the shock when she returns home from a vacation with a new fiancé: African-American doctor John Prentice (Sidney Poitier). While they come to grips with whatever prejudices they might still harbor, the younger folks must also contend with John’s parents (Roy Glenn Sr. and Beah Richards), who are dead-set against the union.

I was born in 1977, ten years after this film debuted. Interracial marriage has been legal, if not necessarily sanctioned or socially-accepted, my entire lifetime. I am white and I have lived on the West Coast my entire life, in mostly white environs (tempered a bit with Latino and Native American non-white families). I was raised by a soi disant “progressive” family and the subtle (and less subtle) internalized racist, patriarchal, heterosexist, and adultist attitudes typical in these kinds of families. While not relating entirely to the social class of the Drayton family – “self-made” upper class – I could relate to the “old-line liberal” family values they were imbued with.

Besides my family environs, I was raised in a so-called “post-racial” America. I was taught in school that racial issues were mostly a thing of the past. You could look up these troubles in a book, then shut the book and you didn’t have to think about it any more. I was taught not only a colorblind approach to solving problems, but also a colorblind way of looking at the world (I’ve written a tiny bit about that before). I was taught being called a “racist” was shockingly hurtful, hurtful enough we defensively denied any such charge rather than approaching it with openness and curiosity. Our own white privilege required that other people were “racists”. Any suggestion we might have these attitudes was met with staunch (or angry) defensiveness. I was raised in an era where people sneered at the concept of “political correctness”, a backlash that, curious enough, continues today.

It wasn’t pretty, but it’s where I came from. And for a few minutes, I want to talk about the film a little bit.

Popular film critic Roger Ebert says a lot of good things about the work, and I agree with much he said. (My advice? Stop reading, watch the film, read his review, then read mine.) Like Ebert I also didn’t find the contrived deadline all that contrived, given the framework and usual limitations of cinematic storytelling (although I could have used at least one character pointing out that, indeed, everyone involved had been given ample time to make their mind up about the issue at hand, i.e. their lifetimes leading up to this evening). I didn’t mind the “perfect” Poitier character although I think roles like this deserve some examination within our cultural context.

Along with the contrived plot “deadline” comes the contrived grouping, within the course of the evening, of several duos and trios of all the involved individuals – the domestic worker, the family’s spiritual counselor, both sets of parents, and the intended bride and groom. The movie moved through several of these conversations as each character stated his or her case – in formal language or the most familiar private talk – to one another. Again, this contrivance irritated me far less than what, as it came to pass, it left out (more in a minute).

Now unlike Ebert, I found the study scene between Jr. and Sr. Prentice not only unobjectionable, but absolutely beautiful. I grant the validity of Ebert’s points that within the film one father (the black one) is framed as “lesser” than the other (the white one). However, it is the moment between parent and child that moved me. To me this scene captured the boldness and heartbreak at the moment a child deliberately turns aside from the values of a dearly-loved parent, to make his own future. As both a grown child and a parent myself, this scene – the one my brother cited to me the other day, inspiring me to view the film – hit me in the gut. I’ll transcribe a bit of it here, where Prentice (the son) speaks in refutation to Prentice (the father’s) stated – and very real – sacrifices:

“Listen to me. You say you don’t want to tell me how to live my life? What do you think you’ve been doing?

“You tell me what rights I’ve got or haven’t got… and what I owe to you for what you’ve done for me.

“Let me tell you something.

“I owe you nothing.

“If you carried that [mail] bag a million miles, you did what you were supposed to do, because you brought me into this world, and from that day you owed me everything you could ever do for me. Like I will owe my son, if I ever have another.”

Now if only - if only – the film had managed a similarly spirited conversation where (white) daughter Joey puts her (white) father – the lynchpin in the romance – in his place.

The film generally contained a lot of incredibly human moments – and some wonderfully frank conversations. The performances were at turns subtle and lovely, then dramatic and heavy-handed. Hepburn was, of course, beautiful and glamorous, and her campy but rapier-like sendoff of a rude coworker was a bit of gooey deliciousness.

However, there was something that bothered me about the film, and that was the capital-P patriarchy, which is not challenged by the work – except in the abovementioned father and son impassioned talk, where a black father is chastized – one iota. For one thing, despite the above plot synopsis’ error, both the daughter and the two mothers are for the marriage. They are the voices of gentleness, passion, and optimism, but at the same time, the film lets us know it is not their voices that are going to count.

And along this line, every single character’s opinions, feelings, and interactions brings us to the film denoument, except one crucial interaction – the father Drayton, put in the position of deciding his daughter’s future happiness – and his daughter herself. And at the end of the film we have a speech: the Old White Dude that gets to decide everything, and gets to bless everything (or not), and sums up everyone’s feelings and dresses down every individual there (including telling his daughter to “shut up”), going on at lengths as to how he’s been insulted. Finally (and predictably) he gives his twinkly-eyed pedantic blessing, everyone sighs in happiness at this wonderful wonderful man, and he shouts at the black domestic worker to get dinner served. This is, literally, how the film ends.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed much of the film. I thought it refreshing and funny (the daughter’s early line, “He thinks you’re gonna faint because he’s a Negro” made me laugh aloud), human and sweet. But in a film meant to be socially significant, loving, and even a bit sappy, we’re still firmly reminded of who sanctions, and should sanction, our future, progressive or no: big white daddy.

So tell me. Is that how things really are?

I welcome feedback; email me your responses if you’d like them published them here. kelly AT hogaboom DOT org.

quick hit: this is why i can’t have nice noir

Drive (2011). Spoilers.

Thinking about picking up a case of Armor-All

Yeah real quick? So I just watched the 2011 action crime thriller Drive. If you have any pop culture sensibility you probably know this is a recent-to-Netflix offering about a stunt driver who falls in love with a Good Girl and, oh-so-reluctantly-yet-heroically, gets tangled up in scary criminal activity because the Good Girl is all haplessly involved with Bad People. (I was gonna image-link to the phrase “damsel in distress” but there was far too much sexually-violent content associated with that phrase. Boo.) Things abruptly go from sweet and ethereal to really grisly and revenge-y. Think Man on Wire or The Professional, except we’ve replaced a sexualized little girl with a sanctified and sweet single mom.

Here’s what I liked about Drive. A lot, really. It was stylish, artsy-fartsy in a distinctly Michael Mann way, boasting a perfect New Wave-y score and a tasteful blend of millennial and eighties production design (although the title character’s muscle car is a seventies model). It showcased sexy cars and sexy driving and sexy cinematography and a sexy locale. We had the obligatory beautiful people. Ryan Gosling wore a cute jacket and a cute little t-shirt and was pretty cute, when he wasn’t stomping someone’s head in (I’ll get to that in a minute). The film took its time to develop a real romantic flair, if the romance itself was rather regressive. And the most fun for me, many of the actors looked like they had a good time making it. Maybe I’m just thinking Gosling and Albert Brooks. They looked like they were enjoying themselves. The latter was pretty good at being a sonofabitch. Last time I watched him I think he was Nemo’s dad.

Here’s what I didn’t like about Drive. By way of illustration: a couple photos of the two ladies in the film. That’s right, there were two. Just two. Who’s surprised? Not me.

First:

Carey Mulligan in Drive

And then.

We can probably guess a lot about who was who, and what happened to whom. Femme Fatale there (as played by Christina Hendricks) is only in the film a couple minutes. But she meets her boilerplate grisly noir demise, expect this is neo-noir so it’s really graphic. However, in traditional-noir fashion, the good guy gets to slap her around first. Yay! And let’s see, before that… yeah, she struts around being very sexilicious and pouty, and then she does a bit of hysterical screaming and crying. Before getting beaten then dispatched. As per her ilk, countless Treacherous Slut tropes who preceded her.

The Angel-Single-Mom (Carey Mulligan) is also great. If by “great” you mean, EXACTLY WHAT WE’VE COME TO EXPECT in this sort of thing. She’s perfect. Virginal, beautiful, childlike. White and blonde of course. A lot of honor and all that. We see her pluckily slap someone for offending her. She’s a nice mom. I assume. We don’t really see her “momming” so much, because her kid is kind of like a cute accessory and less like a child. When the Driver first meets her she’s somehow supporting herself and her son with no muss and no fuss, Strawberry-Shortcake-adorable in a waitressing outfit which inexplicably affords her a cute, spacious, shabby-chic apartment that’s never messy. Her kid is perfectly behaved and mostly exists to be quiet or sleeping or both. You know, like kids in film. Alternatively convenient versus being pawns in peril.

Virgin Mom-Supermodel is also subtly or not-so-subtly at the root of our eponymous Driver’s problems. She’s the Eve, introducing the snake into the heretofore undisturbed Driver’s existence. Nothing new there, either.

Still, when it got down to the thuggery I was a little surprised at the gore and coldblooded killing carried out by our hero. But then, as in so many other films, this is all done in the name of the Great White Male’s Justified Reproductive Rage. How many times at the supermarket have I glanced up and seen another DVD sleeve, showcasing a hulking star in the foreground (Costner or Neeson or Gibson or some such) gripping a shotgun as he protects a blonde white woman and a couple frightened little kids huddling against the doorway. The film’s tagline demands of us, “How Far Will A Man Go To Protect The Ones He Loves?”

You know what? I already know. Pretty far. Like by the end of the film I’m going to see some people getting stabbed in the neck, heads getting twisted off and all that.

So we get an eyeful of that stuff, and you know how that all goes too.

Drive was fun, but I really like noir despite its historical trappings that exclude my ladyness from being the Action, as opposed to the Object. I wish they could change the formula a teensy bit besides just upping the exploitation from the old days, you know showing actual bare breasts and then heads juicily exploding. Heck, maybe even some noir where, in the words of Danny Trejo’s bartender in Anchorman, “Lady’s can do stuff now!”

One can always hope.

Film Feministe: Room With A View OF HELL!, Or How Sometimes I Just Want To Watch An Orc Split In Half, In Peace

Like all reviews in The Film Feministe, I strive to reveal a brief synopses of a film or television series as well as an analysis. Occasionally my reviews include plot spoilers.

“Game of Thrones” (HBO, 2011)

marriage

Ask Rape what it can do for your marriage!

In a rare coup where Kelly Hogaboom occasionally gets caught up with pop culture hits, I just finished the first and currently only season of HBO’s grim fantasy work, “Game of Thrones” (see: one hundred other popular shows I haven’t managed to get around to: “Sex And The City”, “Big Love”, “True Blood”, “Six Feet Under”, “The L Word”, “Mad Men”, “The Walking Dead”, “Breaking Bad”, etc.). Yeah, so. Obviously I’m no television, pop culture, or fantasy/sci-fi expert and you shouldn’t expect an in-depth analysis here; just a few impressions.

I figured I was none too smart to jump into HBO again, knowing what I do about the intense levels of violence heaped upon women and children, concomitant to insultingly minor and narratively-neglectful roles afforded them. Sure enough, as I tweet within a few minutes of starting the pilot: “we have ‘babies on spikes’ – and now tits in 3, 2, 1…”  Yes, this episode’s first dramatic image depicts a gored child and the last dramatic image is that of a ten year old thrown out a window to die. These bookend, by the way, lots of prostitutes giving blowjobs and a big ol’ rape narrative of a young lady virgin – several scenes of screen time leading up to the rapey payoff. Oh this is gonna be fun.

Robb

So another white-dude "gritty" epic then? Cool, brah.

The show is sprinkled with the usual and typical varieties of kyriarchy. Eating my lunch: race-fail (almost everyone’s white, except horse lords who are vaguely dark and “ethnic”, speak Klingon, are very animalistic, don’t understand how the ocean works, and don’t have a phrase for “Thank You”. I’m not kidding!), oppositional sexism, misogyny (more in a minute), and adultism. As for non hetero- or cis-normative character development, the offerings are grim. The show has several instances of “lady kisses” – that is, pseudo-lesbian sexual behavior showcased only as exploitative sexual fodder and primarily designed for straight males – and one gay male couple, depicted for about three minutes. The season also offers one eunuch, and they have to mention all the time he’s a eunuch, and he’s mocked for not having the beans and/or frank, because that means he’s less of a man and therefore (in the show’s construct) less of a person (he at least, unlike the ladies and kids, is written as an interesting character).

So yeah, it’s the misogyny that really gets me. Like eye-rubbing-really?-they-gonna-go-with-that? levels of lady-hate. Ah misogyny, how do I count the ways? Sure, none of the characters in “Thrones” are particularly subtly written, but the women and children are considerably less so; in the case of women, they are all varieties of girlfriend, mom, daughter, or whore (mostly whore). We have the seductress, the harpy, the mother (either naive and overly-emotional or vengeful sociopaths), and in one particularly irritating depiction of breastfeeding-as-creepy, the batshit-fanatic.

Naked women are aplenty (hey – it’s HBO, after all!), as the show depicts prostitution by the bucketful of young, (mostly) white, nubile, and giggly prostitutes. Many scenes do that particularly chafing thing where these pretty women’s bodies, sexual moans of ecstasy, and nudity are staged in the background while some dude is going on at length about his power/political strategy (see: almost every strip club scene in a gangster movie, ever). You know, to show how GRITTY stuff is. And how women are primarily commodities. And how all prostitutes are young and beautiful and having a great time. No downside, they’re like bowls of tasty Werther’s Caramels on the coffee table.

There’s more. Misogyny, I mean. In general, the few female “players” of the show have a morally developed and fairly monogamous sexual construct, prone to jealousy (natch!); while in general the men happily take advantage of aforementioned gaggle of willing prostitutes. Children are alternatively conveniently out of site, then put in peril repeatedly (hitting maternal viewers where they live). Of course, birth is really scary, sudden-onset, and makes perfectly strong women faint. Birth, unlike death, isn’t shown onscreen which is probably a mercy as usually in these sorts of things we’ve got blood squirting everywhere when it is (again, implicitly threatening women vis-a-vis their sex). Women revenge themselves only in relation to their boyfriends or children; men revenge themselves according to a number of personal agendas. Women are raped helplessly, and men are prone to rape and/or revenging themselves for the rape of the women they believe they “own”.

And the rape. Man, the show is so pro-rape I was thinking they should byline it: “Rape, There’s Literally No Downside”. When they aren’t raping away they’re making intensive rape and anti-woman analogies. You could make a pretty good drinking game.

"Give me ten good men and some climbing spikes. I'll impregnate the bitch."? Aw shit. Again? I'm gettin so wasted.

OK, so, those are a few impressions of the show, and parts that are tiresome, even as familiar as they are.

Now here’s the deal: I want, just like everyone else, to enjoy huge sweeping cinematography and beautifully bleak or lush locales, detailed costumes and fantastic sets, plot intrigue, zombies and supernatural shenanigans, lovable and/or sinister characters, and your occasional grisly beheading coupled with juicy foley-work. Just because I’m say, really really tired of seeing the same old crap on the screen doesn’t mean I don’t want to be entertained like everyone else.

I’m aware if you raise an objection to a portrayals of (Hollywood) Business As Usual you get labeled a killjoy. This”hands off!” admonishment is ironic, coming as often does from fans who spend hours editing the Wiki. As Pablo K points out in “Race, Gender and Nation in ‘Game Of Thrones’ (2011)”:

There are two standard responses to these kind of criticisms: that it’s only a story and that these tropes only reflect reality (either because their portrayal of difference is true or because their portrayal of attitudes to purported difference is true). [...] But fiction is an important stage for ideas about war, diplomacy, sex and race, not least because we’re freed to engage in a more fulsome emotional investment precisely because it’s not real.

It’s no accident such offerings reinforce typical mainstream white supremacist and patriarchal narratives (like White People Are Who’s Important To Talk About, Kids are Boring/Subhuman, and Women Get Raped A Lot-That’s Just How It Goes) whilst simultaneously employing liberal doses of creative license, millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours spent in inventing detailed histories and entire languages, and throwing in freakin’ zombies and dragons and giant spiders. Yeah, we can spend all this time imagining a fantasy universe in all its minutia, but we’re still gonna invest in and reify the oppressive and violent strategies that re-victimize, offend, or (worse yet) socialize viewers in the same harmful ways. If we keep telling the story that way we can evo-psyche ourselves into believing misogyny, racism, disablism, etc. are universal (and alternate-universal) truths and not only shouldn’t be messed with, but shouldn’t even be rebuked, let alone examined, in a meaningful way.

After all, in drawing up a different world why imagine, let alone engage in, a truly different world? It’s just too much work.

Meanwhile let me get back to drawing away on this really really detailed map and sketching lots of different kinds of sigils for armor. Toodles!

breastfeeding: not just ladybusiness

http://www.flickr.com/photos/mamiscl/4968830387/This piece is featured in Squat! Birth Journal‘s Spring Issue. I encourage an exploration and/or support of this lovely zine (available in paper or digital form); certainly a great gift for an expecting family-to-be! It’s a wonderful publication.

Over my twitterstream my friend Wendy links to a piece of, once again, sex discrimination against a woman feeding her child1). We’ve all heard it before. A woman is feeding her baby in a shop or a library or wherever, when an employee approaches and tells the woman she must leave, often invoking (their fallacious understanding of) the law and – at least in North America – usually in violation of protected rights. And certainly counter to common sense, compassion, and an understanding of public health.

It’s too bad more people don’t seem to see it that way.

Breastfeeding discussion is continually ignored and/or marginalized by the mainstream, made into a fringe issue although it concerns us all – our progress toward an egalitarian society, our support of families, our stewardship of the environment, and our county’s medical costs and spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being. Even movements self-identified as pro-woman often pick and choose which reproductive rights they support and advocate for, ignoring the societal edifices concerning birth, babies, and fulltime care of children – which necessarily ignores the women involved. If you Google “breastfeeding and feminism” you will see communities concerning the former subject discussing the latter, but rarely the reciprocal; mainstream pro-feminist discussions in general do not concern themselves with breastfeeding even though something like eighty percent of USian women do become parents at some point.

Keeping breastfeeding peripheral to social justice discussion contributes to extremely low breastfeeding rates in the so-called developed world (which are lower still in marginalized groups such as black mothers, teen mothers, and native or indigenous mothers, etc.). After all, anyone remedially-versed in the experiences of infant care and feeding understand that support, or lack thereof, is a major if not the major factor in aggregate breastfeeding success rates.

While some without children, or some with older children, or some men believe they can continue to ignore the health and well-being implications of poor breastfeeding rates and the compounded lack of choice afforded to already-stressed marginalized populations, such a luxury is not experienced for the child nor the child’s carer. These peoples’ daily realities are put under additional stressors. Thus when an individual receives repeated shaming messages or policing language and repressive strategies against her, she is most likely to experience discouragement, uncertainty, and isolation; she is at a very real disadvantage. Or as the author of “A tired hungry baby” writes:

I knew the law. I knew my rights. But I was still upset. And not the angry, self-important, righteous kind of upset. The teary, scared, “they”‘re going to kick me out of the store”, “I”‘m here with my kids” type of upset. It was clear I was about to be thrown out, and I was pretty sure that if I was going to be forced to justify feeding my baby, I was going to cry. And I felt truly alone.

This experience and this sentiment could have been written by so many of my friends – and many of these are “educated” women with class, hetero-, cis-, and racial privilege. Which puts the question: at what point does our mainstream dithering about “public decency” get real, and admit the costs we are requiring so many others to pay? “Gross, I shouldn’t have to see that!” seems incredibly trite and inhumane when considering our socioeconomically-classist culture, to put it frankly, requires black, brown, poor and working-class mamas and families pay multifaceted costs – and by heaping on body-shaming and gender-policing we’re just making it harder. “Gross, I shouldn’t have to see that!” tweeted by a white Portland hipster without children is such a disheartening and ignorant response when I consider, for instance, the lived reality of a child up all night screaming from a painful ear infection (and the work/sleep missed by carers and the stress for all involved). To get a little 101, ear infections, which account for thirty million trips to the doctor each year and are experienced by an estimated 75% of babies, is a risk decimated by a factor of at least two for a breastfed child2. And that’s just one real-life health issue and one potential pragmatism for parents, and it makes me irritated enough to knock that Stumptown out of said urbanite’s hand.

“Gross, I shouldn’t have to see that!” hurts real-life families, real-life people.

“Gross, I shouldn’t have to see that!” is something that should have been eliminated from our public discourse a long, long time ago.

This is why it is key that those who are not at this moment stuffing a nipple into a baby’s face – including men, including formula-feeders, and including those without children – support breastfeeding and stand up for families’ rights and for mothers to young children. When the mainstream frames breastfeeding an issue that the individual mothers should be fighting, all on their own, it throws the game (especially considering the corporate power and cultural reach held by formula producers: phdinparenting.com has some great information on this). Concomitantly, framing infant feeding as solely individualistic and “choice”-based is also at heart of those who shame individual formula feeding families (moms) for “not trying/caring hard enough”, too (sadly, there are many of these voices, although for the purposes of this piece I should note bottle feeding mothers are generally not asked to leave public spaces based only on their method of feeding).

So while there are many breastfeeding mothers who stand up to pressure and have a generally positive feeding career, the vast majority of breastfeeding mothers have been pressured to stop feeding and most have been shamed explicitly or implicitly while others stand silently by or dismiss the topic as a “women’s issue” (because, you know, those aren’t important).

This means often, as in the above-cited author’s case, at the point an episode of discrimination is most acute and immediate, she is likely extremely disadvantaged in her response. Consider also that mothers who breastfeed:

* are expending 300 – 500 extra calories a day per breastfeeding child (yes, some women are breastfeeding more than one child), and those are just the calories required to produce milk, not those needed to care for, comfort and nurture, clean for, etc. anyone else in the family.

* are often severely sleep-deprived (personally, I cannot overstate this effect on my life when I had infants).

* are usually dealing with hormonal and physical changes while they:

* are also under endemic body-policing and -shaming pressures including scrutiny of their weight, the state of their skin or hair, and their changed or changing body shape.

* are often under cultural policing as well; this is levied at mothers of color, those without class privilege, those outside the heteronormative spectrum, those with multiple children, etc.

* are usually constantly segregated and policed in subtle and not-so-subtle ways by virtue of having children, by our adultist and child-unfriendly cultural norms.

* are often under-supported by their family, friends, neighbors – and, too-often, their partners (even well-intentioned ones), if they have one.

* are in the throes of what many would identify as one of the most life-changing experiences they’ve had – the twentyfour-seven care and responsibility for another human being, and an incredibly vulnerable one at that.

It is my position that any restriction of breastfeeding should be taken as sex discrimination - whether legally promoted or de facto by policy, societal attitudes, etc. As such, I haven’t yet heard a compelling argument to support it. A disdain for a function of women’s bodies doesn’t seem meritorious enough to warrant prescriptive measures.

It’s time for others to adopt that standard as well.

Because in North America, fighting for the unrecognized humanity of these women, babies, and families, often seems a never-ending job against a seemingly bottomless pit of ignorance and oppression. Today, as I finish this piece, a blogreader sends me an article from The Root, in which a woman nursing in the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. was hounded twice by security and told she must enter the bathroom and sit on the toilet to feed her child3.

So, yeah. “Gross, I shouldn’t have to see that!” needs to go.

* Photo credit: 3º Lugar – 2º Concurso Fotogra¡fico Regional “Fotografiando la Lactancia”. Released under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

quick hit: compassion and critical thinking ≠ Big Brother

“History is written by the winners” – non-attributed

Growing up in America we are taught to believe in the Rightness and Goodness of the Meritocracy – that people who have good things and a life of comfort earned it all on their own efforts. Please note, people that have things relatively good tend to trumpet this loudest.  People who have things harder, well, sometimes they have a different perspective. We the privileged often don’t like to hear that perspective.

I believe one’s gut reaction to the “winners” quote above depends on one’s worldview.  Some people might see the quote as purely observational shorthand – that is, recorded historical accounts are told and reified by certain groups while others’ equally valid experiences are suppressed. Some believe the quote to be morally prescriptive in a Darwinian fashion: that is, a “winner” is someone who’s dominated others for their own goals, and – yay, the world is their oyster as it should be (this is sort of the sports analogy interpretation)!

Here’s what I believe: in being a “winner” one is essentially in a position of privilege (no matter how we got there); when I find I am a “winner” I must then look carefully around at how I have prevailed – and who hasn’t, and how to help them if they should want it.  It should go without saying to any who read here that I believe it is my responsibility – given I have relative privilege, good fortune, and personal success – to take steps to care for the “losers”, the down-trodden, those who are being marginalized, eclipsed, abused, oppressed. There are many, many paths of responsibility and stewardship; imagination and exposure continue to illuminate more still.

Some measures are small.  Today in a Yahoo group I made the tangential request those in the discussion pool refrain from using the words “crazy” or “lame”. Here is my clarification post (after I asked and was granted permission to post links):*

My intention wasn’t to police anyone and obviously I don’t have that power anyway (I’m not a mod). I am active in reading blogs authored by people with disabilities and the topic of abelist conversation comes up quite a bit.

For those who are interested, here are a few readings that convinced me to stop using those terms as pejoratives (“adult” language in the links):

“The Transcontinental Disability Choir: What is Ableist Language and Why Should You Care?” at bitchmagazine

“Guest Post from RMJ: Ableist Word Profile: Crazy” from Feminists With Disabilities/FWD

“Why Not to Use the Word Lame: I Think I”‘m Starting to Get It” at Alas! A Blog

I still accidentally say “lame” and “crazy” myself but am working hard to use other effective and less offensive words. Fortunately the English language has many!

This is also a fun read that comes up usually when someone calls out language as being problematic, and the resultant typical objections that often ensue: http://www.derailingfordummies.com/

The moderator immediately accused me of – guess what? Censorship. Yes – the moderator accused me of this. Very rich indeed.

Now of all the toothless arguments people knee-jerk with when their behavior is identified as being aligned with oppressive tactics, cries of “censorship”, accusations of being “the thought police”, and sneers of “PC” probably bother me the most; like an unholy Trinity of Ass they share the same roots of fear and an immediate assumption of bad faith.

I mean really, Censorship? “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” (Here is some 101: “online interaction and free speech” at finally feminism101). “Thought police” is particularly fartsy-bloated with the same tooting self-important drama-horn as the C-word; as if by maintaining a moderated blog or objecting to a word, phrase, or worldview that is offensive or incorrect or bigoted the blog author/objector is suddenly in the POSITION OF ALLTIME INTERNETTY POWER and now has CONTROL OVER ALL TEH BRAINWAYVES / ORWELLIAN TELESCREENS.

PC? Please. I teenaged through Bill Clinton’s Presidential tenancy and the attendant revival of sensitivity/PC language and I can tell you the backlash started so quickly it almost preceded it (which to me is a barometer that people loooooove their bigotries). There hasn’t been a whiff of PC that hasn’t been, like El Niño (this paragraph is very USian 90s), simultaneously and fervently blamed for Everything Bad including Ruining America and also, Now We Can’t Have Jokes.

Back to the Yahoo group response: at current count there have been five responses to my request – very familiar responses to those versed in corners of the social justice online sphere. On the positive side, the original poster who’d used the term “crazy” apologized for using it and said she understood why the word was problematic (classy! and – more later). The remaining four responses have been skeptical and/or hostile and for their brevity have still nailed a surprising number of the squares in Bingo for Derailing – including “You’re being oversensitive”, “You’re being overly-intellectual”, and “Words have power only if you give them power”/the reclamation argument (the “power” sentence is an actual quote from one of today’s Yahoo messages – this person also said, “words hold no inherant ability to hurt”). If the discussion doesn’t die quickly I predict soon I will get, “you’re nitpicking a minor/trivial issue” / “Don’t you have more important things to think about?” But hey, I hope I’m wrong.

The most commonly iterated response was the token/backup trot-out, or what I sometimes think of as the “black friend” defense meant to entirely shut down conversation: “I have a friend / brother / such-and-such in this marginalized group and they don’t find this offensive” etc etc. So therefore: I will not read the articles or listen openly to your points. Therefore: I will ignore the fact that marginalized groups sometimes internalize oppressive and damaging narratives and strategies (reading the above link re: “reclamation” helps explain the so-called “double-standard” on who is “allowed” to use what language). Therefore: I do not care how many other people/scholars/researchers/writers/bloggers have objections and have worked to elucidate others on why they do – my tokenized example puts me above any reproach. This would be a laughable defense if it wasn’t also a very typical response to anti-oppression work and therefore, a bit sobering if not frustrating.

I have no evidence whatsoever a single soul who responded on Yahoo read my provided links, and that’s a shame. I posted them precisely because they were good, well-written, and better formed than anything I could have done. I’ve been exposed many times to the defense of pejorative use of words associated with marginalized groups: “retard”, “gay” (Wanda Sykes – I love it!), “crazy”, “lame”, “pansy”, “spaz”, “moron”, “pussy”,”woman” (yes! This is often used as an insult!), “faggot”, and “idiot” (um, I really could go on and on); objecting to these words and offering up arguments against their casual use is my prerogative and is not done for fun nor whimsy. I further add nor is it my contention those who use these words are Monsters and I am A Thoroughly Enlightened One (please; I only recently got right re: “crazy”; if you search my near decade-long blog you’re sure to see my ass in many minorly humiliating ways). To those who are uncomfortable with being challenged and/or embarrassed, I feel you. I’d offer this tasty tidbit from the Shapely Prose comment policy:

If someone gets pissy at you for using the word “retarded” for instance, that doesn”‘t mean they think you”‘re an evil person who hates developmentally disabled people OR that they”‘re hysterical, overreacting thought police. It means there are people around here who find that word hurtful, and we”‘re a lot more interested in protecting their feelings than your god-given right not to think of a better word.

Believe me; I’ve made my share of comments and been called out; it stings, I know, and I fully expect it to happen again! Being allowed to say anything I want without being challenged is not an inalienable human right; in the glass-half-full analysis of this I would posit that listening openly and self-educating are some of the more breathtaking and beautiful aspects of human responsibilities if we are in the position to do so.

Speaking up is hard. It often isn’t welcome, as any of my dedicated readers will know by now. This isn’t because the world is full of assholes (or at least I refuse to believe this); it’s because many people don’t like having their worldviews challenged; they often respond with a counter-offense (no matter how respectfully, I’ve discovered, one puts forth an objection).

But there are good reasons and positive results from objecting to a harmful status quo; a few touching anecdotes came my way from a father who tweets me today in recognition of these problematic words. “The one that makes me cringe the most is ‘that’s retarded’ and this was before I had a son with a mental disability.” He continues: “Now that I do have a son with autism I hear the ‘R’word and it sounds like it’s coming out of megaphone.”

Yeah. And thank you for sharing. He sends me the link to his blog where he writes about his son; I put it in my feed reader.

And then there’s this: some people truly can pick themselves up, brush themselves off, and thank you for the assistance. The very first comment in response to the FWD ableist word profile linked above is from Sarah, who simply writes, “I”‘ve been guilty of this. How embarrassing! Thank you so much for posting.”

Now that? That gives me hope.

* Incidentally? I would appreciate it if you do not re-tweet, IM, email, or share this article unless you first read through the four links provided in my cited Yahoo message; I typically do not write using linked articles (hence “quick hit”) and these are good ones.

Mentioned/Further Reading:

Meritocracy at en.wikipedia.org

The quote, “History is written by the winners” discussed at the snopes message board.

“Teaspoons 101: I Am Not the Thought Police” at Shakesville.

“Ableist Word Profile: Why I write about ableist language” A great 101 on a way to think about abelist language and the study therein at FWD.

“Being White” by Louis C.K. (trigger warning: rape metaphor)

“Touching Strangers: Making Friends of ‘Others'” at humaneeducation.org, sponsored and authored by Zoe Weil

“What ‘So Ghetto’ Really Means” by Tami Harris at change.org; those who’ve used “ghetto” against white neighborhoods might want to zap to my comment re: growing up in then-largely-white-but-working-class Hoquiam.

Tangentially and finally, because I had nowhere else to post this – someone in rebuttal to my points in the Yahoo discussion offered up this page: “Your guide to living life in the U.S.”. I kind of don’t have words as this does not seem to be a parody.

food: it’s what’s for dinner

food? or poison?

Food? Or Poison?

So it’s happened again: yet another lunch guest who tells me she hardly eats any meat or fat, mostly all-vegetables – and a few minutes later is ladling up two plates’-worth of my shepherd’s pie – with its buttery mashed-potato corona of Awesome – and devouring with much gusto. Then she tells me she doesn’t drink alcohol – and ends up asking for one of the gin and tonics my husband is mixing for other guests.

In my peer group at least, food fuckabouts are common enough. Whether men and women self-identify as “dieting” or not, they often are. And many of them do not demonstrate eating competence.

Food and diet are controversial, varied, and hugely complex subjects. So just to be clear from the outset, here is what I am not addressing in this article. I am not going to be talking about individuals and families who do not have access to a variety of food they can afford. I am not going to be talking about concepts appropriate for individuals with severe eating disorders.

I’m weighing in on the behaviors and strategies of people like my friends, family and I: people who have the means and resources to afford a variety of fare and who would not be classified as having an ED.1

Considering “eating competence” is almost as an important aspect of feeding and eating as supply and access it’s interesting few people know the basic tenets of the concept. From an article published at Kansas State University’s Department of Human Nutrition:

People who are competent eaters have positive attitudes about eating. They enjoy food. They are confident that they will have enough food to eat and they trust their bodies”‘ internal regulators to signal when they are hungry and when they are full. Children move toward eating competence as they learn to acknowledge their own internal cues. Development of eating competence ““ or the lack of ““ begins in infancy and continues through life.2

So I’m a pretty good cook; mostly though, a joyful and prolific one. I cook often for my family and for other people when I can.3 The socially-performed rituals of food-as-a-moral-failing-or-virtue are behaviors I’ve observed too often to be considered flukes.

See, many Americans can be really silly about food. Fer realz. Did you know we still have an operational Food Pyramid being purveyed by our government?4. Advocates of the Ethical Food Movement – with whom my family shares some aims and is locally-influential in promoting these goals – often do not address the institutional, cultural, and hugely oppressive stresses on American food habits, instead releasing considerable internet-vitriol slandering individual people and families for their ginormously disgusting Fatty McFatsalot food habits and sloth. (I’m not going to provide any soul-sucking links for this, throw a rock on Google and you’ll hit loads of it.)

That obesity business. Because let’s get real: one of the major factors in these food-games my friends and family play relates to their weight and size. Many Americans absolutely worship the Idol of Weight Loss with a fervor blind to any nuanced discussion of mitigating factors, scientific study, or personal health and happiness. Weight Loss is massive, a constant undercurrent, and an aspiration we’re all supposed to hold (so even if you’re not dieting, you should support dieting), even though countless studies prove diets don’t work and Americans know this anecdotally and empirically. In fact the efficacy of dieting is worse than many people realize: study after study shows around 95% of diet-participants gaining weight back in two years while two-thirds gain even more weight than what was lost.5 The significant health effects of de facto yo-yo dieting are wreaking havoc on American bodies and minds and quality of life (more about this in a minute). But this does not deter Americans from: dieting.

I notice a fair amount of my friends and family will claim their diet-and-exercise regimens and their food restrictions are about “health” – not weight. If you query them further (they might not like this) you often find this is a smokescreen.

Example: a dear friend of mine recently told me she needed to drop forty pounds. I asked Why? and she responded, “To be healthy”. She want on to say, “I want to be able to walk a brisk two mile walk and feel good doing it.” I said, “If you got up tomorrow and tried that walk slowly, then rested the next day then did it again, and so on, within a couple weeks you’d be able to do it and you’d probably feel great. And you probably wouldn’t drop more than a couple pounds, if that.” (This friend is able-bodied and fairly active already). From the look in her eyes I could see I wasn’t “getting” the fantasy-image she had of her new, slimmer, “healthy” self, a whole new Her (the fleshed out version of these visions is further-reaching than just Pounds Lost; it is also sometimes called The Fantasy of Being Thin6). Later, passing through her bathroom I saw the scale on the floor and the careful notes of pounds written on a piece of paper and taped to her mirror.

This woman, and so many people I know, might say the word “health”  but does not know her blood pressure nor has had recent bloodwork done or seen a trusted naturopath or physician or embarked on a study of quantifiable health markers (and yes, she could afford to do so if she wished). If her focus was truly on health she’d likely get rid of the scale and follow a proven method of lifestyle and fitness improvement, such as the HAES model developed by Linda Bacon (that’s right, BACON!).7 But of course, that’s not really what she, or lots of other “health”-touters, are really thinking about.

The typical versions of dieting are distressing behaviors because weight loss culture is a real agent of harm, self-loathing, and poor health. As long as people still cling to the ideologies of the Weight Loss Industrial Compex (fistfuls of money are being made hawking this religion) their bodies will suffer as will their quality of life: also and especially their children. Spending time with other people’s kids – especially the girl-children – I observe how many girls, even young ones, talk sneeringly about fatness or express their longing to thin – yes, even girls who already are thin. I’ve heard girls as young as four express these sentiments.  I am afraid in many cases their parents/carers aren’t doing all they can to protect these children, probably because they’ve either bought into “thin is in” or they don’t realize how invasive the forces are working against their children’s health.8 Make no mistake, the influence of peers and the media has even well-strategizing parents at a disadvantage.

The cost to our children is being borne out overwhelmingly by our female children, especially girls and young women of color.9 No one, however, is immune.  My own daughter asked me the other day if she was “too fat”.10 She’s not only not “too fat”, she’s just not fat at all, and the fact she has been asking and hinting about this lately troubles me. We are a homeschooling family who does not own a television and her father and I are active supporters of FA and healthy eating; we do not impose Draconian food measures. If she’s still getting these “better worry about one’s weight” messages loud and clear I’d like the reader to consider how oppressively ubiquitous they are and how they are likely playing out even more harmfully depending on the race, gender, sexual orientation, degree of disability, institutional status, and socioeconomic class of other children – most categories of which my daughter is an a culturally-privileged place.

It’s a grim picture. Yet we still talk about food incautiously and as if there were these tangible or elusive moral Rights and Wrongs. We still look at fat people (and occasionally thin people) and imagine we know what they eat (and/or how much they exercise and how “good” their exercise regimens might be). Sometimes my friends tell me they’re carrying “an extra X pounds.” I ask them how would they know it was ‘extra’? – literally, where would they go to find out? (The BMI index?11 The tabloids? Equally laughable!) They then, invariably, tell me about a time in their life they were smaller – maybe thirty years and three children ago (personally I came into this world at about eight pounds but I’ve put on a lot since then!).

We still suffer from poor-self-worth and insecurity which, tragically, often contributes to the pro-Diet mantras and myopic concepts of food morality. Unfortunately, this is not a “victimless crime” or even a one-victim crime; our attitudes and lip service in aggregate have very real effects on other people.  There’s also just the personal garden-variety misery our worldview effects; therapist, author and lecturer Ellyn Satter writes:

Our dilemma with weight is that at the same time as we are being told by health policy makers – repeatedly and with a great deal of judgment and urgency – that any degree of overweight is medically dangerous, there is no successful method for reducing and maintaining a lowered body weight. In fact, weight loss attempts have a boomerang effect: Most people regain lost weight and many gain to a higher level with each loss-regain cycle. While high body weight is a serious health risk only at the extremes, the far-more-common pattern of weight instability as a result of dieting is associated with negative health outcomes [emphasis mine].

For people who are relatively fat, the weight dilemma is even worse. Although body composition is, for the most part, genetically determined, people of size generally feel guilty about their weight and therefore ashamed of their eating. They have accepted society’s judgment that they overeat and that they are digging their graves with their knives and forks. In reality, most relatively fat people eat no more or no differently from thin people. They just pay the price. People of size at times eat chaotically, but that chaotic eating, rather than being a cause of high body weight, is far more likely to be a consequence of the weight-reduction dieting that they have pursued in the name of becoming thin.12

People make judgments about food and individuals’ “food virtue” that make little to no objective sense. Around these parts I’m known as a good cook and a “healthy” one. Because my family is slim and people know I enjoy cooking and I do cook with a wide variety of ingredients, some organic depending what I can afford, I am told I’m a “healthy” cook. What does that even mean? I’ve had people gush about my refried beans from scratch and tell me They’re Gonna Start Cooking Healthier At Home, and I think to myself, Do they want to know how much butter and salt are in those beans? From what I can tell some want to eat my food, proclaim it as healthy and delicious, perhaps claim they never eat such-and-such (while I’m watching them devour it), and/or tell themselves and the rest of the guests how they’re Losing Weight (or going to start soon). This is all part of that Fantasy I alluded to before. It’s hard to know what to say; often, I don’t say much at all.  (Disclosure: by vast overwhelming majority my friends and family who eat restricted diets because of medical issues or spiritual/ethical convictions are the ones I observe eat the way they claim to eat.)

Day after day I see the play-around “rules”, the “bad” food vs. “good” food, the “I can eat this slice of cheesecake because I did thirty minutes on the treadmill”, the endless discussions on size 6 jeans or size 8 jeans (and the hurt silence of the woman in the room who’s a size 20). I’ve seen it so many times, and as a hostess who loves to cook and have friends over it would almost be funny if I didn’t know What Lies Beneath; if I didn’t want better for future babies, boys, girls, men and women. My job as a hostess is to cook exactly the foods my friends tell me they want, put the grated cheese on the side or provide vegetarian alternatives or gluten-free main courses or whatever best serves everyone attendant; to lovingly craft with my own hands exactly what will nourish us all. What they put on their plate and how they frame it is, in the end analysis, under their control. The smiles and compliments, at least, tell me I’m doing something right.13

Here, writing about my observations, I know there are lots of people who simply can’t break the perpetuated mainstream mindsets on food and diet (and occasionally, ZOMG the obese are Ruining America!!11!) and who will want to tell me about all these Great Big Fat Persons14 out there who really, really, REALLY need to lose weight, Kelly, you should see what “these people” eat, blah blah.

But there are those I know who read here – those who are passionate about doing things a better way for themselves and their family, friends and children – who are open to expanding their worldviews and finding better ideas. As a personal aside, my own mother is gradually, ever-so-gradually, breaking a lifetime of training on self-worth-hinging-on-attractiveness, body image, and self-food-policing; she tells me I am her main influence in this regard.  This means a lot to me personally.

I’d hope I could positively influence other people, as well – not just cook for them.

Mentioned/Further Reading:
“If only poor people understood nutrition!” by Michelle Allison at The Fat Nutritionist

“Dear Health Care Provider” at RaisingBoychick.com, on partnering with your doctor/PA/naturopath/practitioner, etc. to manage topics of self-care, diet, exercise, and medication.

“But Don’t You Realize Fat is Unhealthy?” at Shapely Prose.

“Let us eat cake” at mymilkspilt: pressures on mothers regarding feeding their children.

“Occupied Bodies: Women of Color Speak out on Self-Image”, a call for submissions from Tasha Fierce at Red Vinyl Shoes.

“Diets Don’t Work, But…” on dieting-but-not-calling-it-that, by Kate Harding

“A Fat Rant” as performed by Joy Nash

“No Weigh! A Declaration of Independence from a Weight-Obsessed World” – a commitment to health from NationalEatingDisorders.org : “I, the undersigned, do hereby declare that from this day forward I will choose to live my life by the following tenets. In so doing, I declare myself free and independent from the pressures and constraints of a weight-obsessed world.” [click] for a pdf download.

  1. More information on Eating disorders can be found at the NIMH website. Also: obesity is not an eating disorder (warning-ableist language in the latter article).
  2. Full article here: “What is Eating Competence?”, published April 2008.
  3. Here are some snapshots.
  4. Here’s the updated version: http://www.mypyramid.gov/; and here are some criticisms for the pyramid and its underwriters, the USDA: 1, 2, 3, and 4 (warning: some rather broad-stroke anti-obesity language therein a few links): as one study author mildly puts it, “the USDA is too closely linked to the agriculture industry to be in the business of giving diet advice”.
  5. “Dieting Doesn’t Work”, UCLA research demonstrating “the most comprehensive and rigorous analysis of diet studies, analyzing 31 long-term studies.”
  6. Well-elucidated by this essay:  “The Fantasy of Being Thin” at Shapely Prose
  7. HAES, an introductory primer.
  8. A suggestion: print out the NEDA’s list “50 Ways to Lose the 3Ds: Dieting, Drive for Thinness, and Body Dissatisfaction” (pdf download) and use the scorecard to see how you’re doing.
  9. “A Different Kind of Fat Rant: People of Color and the Fat Acceptance Movement” by Lesley at Fatshionista.
  10. Here’s a picture of her.
  11. “Overweight Kills: If You Use Shaky BMI Science” at consumerfreedom.com
  12. From “Resolve the Weight Dilemma” at Ellyn Satter’s website.
  13. “cooking, a manifesto”, at my blog.
  14. “Was she a great big fat person?”

look fabulous or go home

Look fabulous!

"Why on EARTH she'd think box pleats were acceptable in society is beyond me!"

I’ve been meaning to write a post about Nice White Lady Syndrome, a condition I myself struggle with. Hell, I used to be a walking Typhoid Mary (I’m trying to heal, people).  NWLS is elusive for me to describe but it’s real.  I could easily off-hand name some of the common traits. We with NWLS are concerned with being “nice”, of course, and will go to great lengths (including avoidance of subjects or people) to ensure the facade does not shatter.  We are incessantly – internally or aloud – policing the bodies, clothes, manners and appearance of ourselves as well as other women, thereby making sure any concept of “sisterhood” runs concomitant to the pledging of a sorority that allows some (worthy ladies) in, while some are most stridently refused.

Yet despite the desire to be “nice” many afflicted with NWLS will devolve to hateful language and ad hominem attacks if you call out – however respectfully and accurately – problematic behaviors. In fact in our rigidity against admitting wrongdoing we have a core of steel that matches the most unapologetic purveyor of hate speech.  Now I hardly need point out that not all white ladies who are nice suffer from NWLS (so please don’t be bringing me that bunk). 1  I shall leave it for another post to write much more about my thoughts on this little syndrome but I will say: you see its true colors when you disagree with our most treasured bigotries, perpetrations, and prejudices.

Case in point, I enjoy following Gertie’s Blog for Better Sewing, a lovely series of entries that are akin to one of those entrancing, snapping insect-killer lamps for so many American mid-to-upper class white ladies like myself (we’re in the “working class” category if you’re curious). On May 28th Gertie wrote a bit about her experiences in classes with (illustrious and amazing) professional Kenneth King. In brief, her post stated the following: that as she pursues an interest in fashion and fitting clothes for oneself, inevitably she begins to find problems in the fit of ready-to-wear (RTW) clothing she sees out in the world.  Thus her passion for personal clothing construction becomes a nit-picking enterprise on other people’s clothing – and this troubles her a bit.  Or as Gertie herself says, “It makes sense that as we become more proficient fitters and sewers, we’ll become more observant of the garments all around us. (Unfortunately, we might also become more annoying, petty people in the process!)”2

Gertie makes a good point but the issue is not so simple as mere “nit-picking” or “petty[ness]“, since the intersection of a whole mess of issues comes to the fore when we begin to look at other (usually female) bodies and decide what looks good or bad (I think of sexism, racism and classism FAIL right off the bat, but of course homophobia and transphobia rate quite high).

Sure enough, many comments following this post exhibited quite the buffet of harmful worldviews: mostly with regards to body shaming, a whiff of slut shaming, and socio-economic class insensitivity to put it mildly.  Essentially the reader is treated to many lectures on people who wear too tight jeans and too-small stretch fabrics which means they are basically Letting Us All Down by not looking good enough.

Wait, why am I writing “people”? The vast, vast majority of the eighty-three (so far) comments on this post concern women’s bodies, full stop.  The list went on: people (women) are in denial about their size; thus they wear ill-fitting clothes which are somehow a grievance committed against us, the viewer; people are gross for being fat but they’re really gross for not disguising this fat in some way according to the standards of the poor innocent bystander who has to see this body.   All women should consider body shapers or getting their bra fitted. People should make sure to have their pants properly hemmed because please – “spare a few bucks”, your dry-cleaner can do it for you. Shaming and dehumanizing language abounds: “embarrassing sausage-in-a-casing look”, “trashy”, “rubbish”, “gross”. Muffin-tops, camel-toes, and skeletal women are all disgusting. Anyone and everyone outside of the parlances of what fashion provides should either learn to sew or do whatever it takes to not look slovenly.

I won’t deny that, as a seamstress myself, fit analysis is a huge subject and once you get some chops you may notice poor fit all around you.  It’s where one crosses the line into the many types of dehumanizing language and assumptions, insensitivities, and unacknowledged privilege that things get gross.  Along with this nasty stuff comes the adjunct prescription that all women owe everyone, everywhere the duty to wear something flattering or becoming according to – well, I’m not sure who gets to decide that part (the “flattering” prescription for ladies is a feverish mantra in our society).3 In these four-score comments only one (Tasia’s) pointed out there might be financial and lifestyle considerations that might excuse someone for not making Looking Their Absolute Best a high priority.

There were glimmers of hope in the conversation.  Several commentors laid the issue of poor fit in part at the fashion industry’s ill-service to women in particular aspects.  But many comments were kind of muddy – like this one, which took me on a roller coaster of hope before quickly plummeting into more typical territory regarding fat people and compulsory-DIY4:

I also deplore baggy shoulders and shapeless side seams on plus size women, myself included. I don’t blame the women for this, they can’t help it because many manufacturers offer poorly executed plus size designs. And at certain income ranges that is all that is available to them. When I see this I want to grab the women and tell her, “Yes, you can buy a t-shirt for ten dollars, but if you make your own it will actually fit you and look good and you will feel better about yourself when you see how sleek you really can look!”

Oh dear good Lord.

Then there was: “there is nothing more tragic than a larger busted woman with a seam that SHOULD go under her bust…”

Nothing! More! Tragic!

Believe it or not dear reader, I could go on with more problematic content.  Wondering what might happen, I sent this email to Gertie:

I think it’s awesome you are starting to really SEE clothes and fit issues – and that you have the means, time, and privilege to explore a self-education in creating well-made, homesewn clothes. It’s also wonderful you are sharing your experiences with your readers! I have you in my feed reader and look forward to your writings.

But with your last post, I’m sure your intent was not to start a classist bunch of fashion-and-clothes policing. Where I live lots of people are just trying to pay the bills and feed their kids and have clothes on their backs and try not to freeze their asses while they wait an hour between buses (and of course, I’m a white American and surrounded by far more wealth and privilege than many global citizens have). I seriously cannot imagine looking at ANY fellow human being and picking on their “rubbish” or “trashy” or “cheap” sense of style.

I know there are ways to talk about fashion and the pursuant fun of achieving it that respect all human beings. I am sad to see your comment stream is not a respectful space in that manner.

I love your writings and I hope you take my comment knowing I come from that place.

Gertie wrote back almost immediately and asked if she could publish my email in an Op-Ed on the site. I agreed, although my stomach sank because You know? I’m not super-awesome about wanting to speak up about social justice a crowd of inter-netz anonymous who had committed such egregious class and size acceptance FAIL already. But hell, I know I’m okay with what I wrote so I said Sure.  The morning of May 31st the little “Op-Ed” was published with my email and a sparse introduction from Gertie.5

Since most my Underbellie readers are beyond 101, you can imagine what happened next.  A very small series of comments granted my points; many sent up defensive arguments and of course, ad hominen attacks on yours truly (one commenter described me as “insane”! Shoehorning in the ableist pejorative – w00t!). A handful of people said I was “unfair” and handing out “badges” of wrongdoing (so apparently, no matter how politic you point something like this out, you’re being – let’s face it – a pesky bitch to cite it at all). Notable too were the many who said there was “nothing wrong with Gertie’s original post” (although I’d made clear I was speaking about the reader comment stream specifically), a classic Derail that carried through the discussion over. & over. & over.6  I was accused of taking myself too seriously, told I should take on a “real” social issue, and that everyone should wear “sackcloth and ashes” to meet my standards of social justice.  I expected a few attacks, but I will admit I was surprised to hear how many people claimed style and clothing options have nothing to do with socioeconomic class.

Interestingly enough, those who defended my points said when it comes to commenting on other people’s clothing, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” (this happens to be another adage in the NWLS canon). Although I have often employed the “don’t say mean shit” strategy at specific instances in my life, what’s funny is of course, we absolutely can discuss fashion and fit and style – holding there are good and poor strategies and builds for clothing – whilst respecting other human beings who inhabit clothes we personally wouldn’t wear (and due to our various degrees of privilege may not have to).  Eschewing describing a woman as “trashy” is something I can commit to while discussing an erroneously-drafted or ill-fitting empire waist – this latter an interesting subject to me in terms of garment fitting as I don’t often wear this particular style myself. And yet again, discussions on this subject often devolve into that policing bit; that is, a woman who fully knows well where her empire seam is and doesn’t give a Good Goddamn is thrown under the wheels as Unsightly; so too is her sister who is busy thinking about things other than clothing like – oh I dunno for example, food, shelter, her job(s), her family, her passions, her aging father she’s providing round-the-clock care for in the home, her chronic pain issues, her looming layoff, etc. etc.

Most odd of all were the accusations I was this kind of lurky dark-sided outlander trying to make Gertie “feel bad” for her silly hobby (someone claimed I said “frivolous” and of course as you see – I didn’t).  As most my readers here know I share the same exact hobby (garment sewing). Sewing is a life-blood creative source of joy for me; incidentally, I also share some of the same types of privilege Gertie does. I don’t require her to feel bad about any of these things to make my points.

So you know, my whole speaking up thing just felt like oh, making-fart-noises-with-my-mouth. Fail.

But you know?  Amongst the comments following the “Op-Ed” were some diamonds in the rough:

purplesews wrote:

I grew up steeped in the idea that the best thing to do was go home and stay indoors until you’d lost blankity pounds and then buy clothing – and it’s taken me some time to unlearn that and learn to fit my own unique figure without jumping right to disliking myself – so yeah, that comment thread did make me sad in places. The idea that you owe it to other people to wear “the right” clothing for your age/size/coloring/whatever tends to annoy me – while the fact that the market can’t presently provide most of us with the right clothes for our bodies is one of my hobbyhorses. But then, I feel this way about a lot of kindly-meant fashion advice, right down to good old Stacy and Clinton: I feel like if you walked up to the average poorly-dressed person and handed them $1500 and walked away, they would – well, probably pay off part of their mortgage, but if they had to spend it on clothes, they would probably be better dressed immediately, advice or no advice. I also think it’s interesting that we as a culture look down on vanity – there’s definitely some puritanism to the everybody-in-t-shirts aesthetic – but are very gung-ho about having some duty to others to look nice. It’s a strange dynamic.

emadethis wrote:

This is well-said. I shudder to think of people stopping others on the street and pointing out the defects in their garments. I’m distressed when I see poorly made garments on the rack. The deeper you get into sewing, finding these defects becomes just an outgrowth of your learning. A lot of people cannot afford well-constructed items, myself included. I consider myself blessed that I can sew for myself, but many are not in that camp either, and we need to respect where people are on that continuum.

Solitary Crafter writes:

Maybe I just have low expectations of people on the internet, but I avoided the comments on that post because I assumed that it would devolve into critiquing body size and that comments would be made about people shopping at walmart and all the rest.

As much as I enjoy sewing and crafting magazines and blogs, it’s always clear that people like me – poor, redneck, white trash – aren’t considered to be the ‘class’ of readers or commenters desired or expected and the issues faced by poor sewers and crafters, those of us who shop at walmart and thrift stores for fabric and patterns, tend to be either ignored or brushed away as unimportant.

No, I don’t expect everyone to cover the issues facing people like me, I have other resources for that, but neither do I expect understanding when the issue comes up.

Maybe I’m a coward and maybe I’m just pragmatic, but this is one subject that never can be resolved, even among people with the best of intentions.

A handful of comments like these in an otherwise rather dismal showing gives me hope that what I write and speak about is important (enough).  In particular Solitary Crafter’s comment tugs my heartstrings – I know exactly the exclusion and dismissal she speaks of and indeed was pointing it out.

Part of me aches for the person (woman) who is defensive and angry at my observations. I really do know what it’s like to suffer the pain of having my “niceness” bubble popped, especially in an exposed setting. I know what it’s like to be called out in public (which the inter-netz obviously is) and while many can shake it off, I have on occasion blanched and felt my heart race at such things.  In short, I really do have empathy for how upsetting this sort of thing can feel (and I was only calling comments out primarily with regards to classism; you want to see NWLS in full-blown danger mode, speak up when a white lady has said or done something racist - and yes I’m aware by even suggesting “white” has anything to do with these kinds of behavior I am inviting some indignant denial-screeches!).

An investment in being “nice” is/was a seductive condition.  There were so many perks (if I had good “intentions” my actions could not, I repeat not be called into question) even while it took away my ability to handle constructive criticism and listen to other worldviews. Additional “perks” came in the form of believing I was someone who Meant Well and was Part of the Solution and it was totally other people who were Part of the Problem. Since I had a black boyfriend or a few gay friends or since I came from a “poor” background I’d passed some kind of test where if someone ever brought up those issues with regard to my behavior I’d know I wasn’t in the wrong(, ever), so please do not ever point that out.

I won’t say learning differently wasn’t painful. It was (still is sometimes). In my case (personal story), I became active on a social networking site that had a significant proportion of women of color and queer women and unmarried women with children and I got schooled more than once. I was told when I had said something racist, or classist, or elitest, or using heteronormative language or being a garden-variety asshole. It hurt.

Funny thing is even after I left this community I kept seeking out those types of spaces online.  I kept wanting to learn more even if it meant being called out (sometimes in error, but often with a fair bit of accuracy), yes “publicly” and often not nearly as politic as I myself tried to intervene here.

In attempting to shed my biases and denials and sense of White Lady Sainthood (and I hasten to add I am still working through these things) I’ve become a much better listener and I have a broader perspective. I’ve experienced a greater diversity of friends online and IRL who value what I bring to the party.

But some, it seems, still prefer to stay “nice” – until they have to shout rudely over someone else. I wish them the best in their journey.

Do read the links below, especially the writings of Tasha and Natalie.

***

Thanks Arwen and Paige for your personal assistance in writing this post.

Photo credit: clotho98 on Flickr

Mentioned/Further Reading:

“Body Image, mothers, classism, fashion, Karl Lagerfield, and social inclusion” at lisaschweitzer.com

“Nice White Lady to the Rescue!” at Alas, A Blog

stuff white people do, a blog

“Defensiveness as a Signpost of Privilege” at Shakesville

“Where My Sistas At? The Underrepresentation of Black Plus Size Models in Mainstream Fashion” at racialicious

“Are There Class Cultures?” at classmatters.org

Very brief primer on how classism functions within feminism or women who consider themselves pro-woman, at everything2.com

“Women and Class” (and the avoidance to discuss the latter) at classmatters.org

Tangentially and to sort of soul-destroy anyone still clicking through my links, while searching for a CC-licensed picture I found this charming series of comments under the photo titled “Fatties”. If yer so inclined you can sooth your eyeballs on the photo caption of this treasure: “My Neighbor Is A Big Fat Ugly Pig”. OK, I’ll stop now. Promise.  Just: it was rough finding a photo.

A little ray of sunshine – because there are many people out there working for the Good: definatalie is writing some of the best articles re: fashion snark. Besides her “skinny jeans” post you can read “Confessions of a Former Snarker” recently published on her blog.

  1. This is similar to nice guy vs “Nice Guy“, as explained here and many, many other places.
  2. You can find “Like ANTS Crawling on Your SKIN: Clothing Pet Peeves.” at BfBS.
  3. One of the  most amazing, wonderful rebuttals to this very common and socially-enforced meme is definatalie’s “You Can’t Bully Me Out Of My Skinny Jeans”
  4. Concomitant but not in response to Gertie’s post, blogger Tasha Fierce wrote beautifully on this subject the next day: “The Class Dynamics of DIY”
  5. Op/Ed Column: on Fashion Policing at blogforbettersewing
  6. Derailing for Dummies

the limitations of “color-blind and fancy-free”, an 80’s music video treatise

Get Out Of My Dreams, and Into My Car

So, Sophie, should you get into that guy's car outside the club? Absolutely! Wait! No. Uh... Do what you feel.

I love what my mom brings in assisting my husband and I in parenting our kids.  What she’s bringing mostly lately is Billy Ocean. In the last week whenever I go over to pick up my children after a playdate, she and the kids are singing to or watching the video of his hit single “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car”.

I’m a fan of several of Billy Ocean’s songs (okay, especially “Loverboy”, and although I love belting that one out I feel compelled to point out that is a bad 80’s video decision in an era of very bad videos).  “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car” makes me laugh a little, though, because it’s a perfect example of my now-and-then mixtapes containing deliciously and unintentionally creepy pop music*  – you know, a seemingly cheerful or romantic tune that, if you listen closely, actually features chillingly stalker-like lyrics.  Other songs of Mr. Ocean’s qualify, by the way (see below).  And tangentially: my current favorite and recently-discovered honoree in this fake genre is Dusty Springfield’s “I’ll Try Anything” (“I want you so much inside / I’m throwin’ away all my conscience and pride!“).**

Back to the aforementioned song: last night in my mother’s living room my seven year old daughter, after about the eighth consecutive listen to this catchy tune, approached my mother and asked, “Grandma? How come in this video there’s a white woman, and she gets into a black man’s car?”  My mom responded, “Well, why not?” and Sophie stalled.  Then I said, “Sophie, if I’m correct in what I hear you’ve observed, I will say it’s true that many people date within their race, but that doesn’t mean everyone does, or that you have to.” My daughter nodded, watching me. “Besides,” I added, “I don’t think that woman was a ‘white woman’, she looked like a light-skinned black woman to me.”  At this my daughter said, “Ooohhhh…” in that whole, I’m-getting-the-picture way she has.

And that was a window of opportunity, out of the blue, to talk a bit about the complexities of race in today’s America.  After our handful of sentences Sophie’s curiosity was sated while for a few additional moments my mind raced over several subjects: the differences in portrayals of light-skinned vs. dark-skinned black women in television and film, Paper Bag Parties, colorism, the Jezebel stereotype, and “brightening creams” among a handful of other less-formed thoughts. But it was 11:30 at night, we were coming off a party, and the kid had already ran into the kitchen to grab up a slice of pound cake.

Of course, discussions on race, sex, gender, homophobia, and social justice take place regularly in my household (as well as discussions on cooking, cleaning, eating, trees, fish, polygons, scotch-tape under a microscope, iPod holders built out of Legos, you get the idea); but the “big issues” discussions are mostly conversations between my husband and I.  The kids overhear most of this, if they decide to listen in, and partake when they feel they have a point to make. They sometimes look over my shoulder at what I’m reading (or writing), and not a movie viewing goes by (we don’t own a television) that Ralph and I aren’t either off-handedly or seriously discussing, say, the White Savior elements in a storyline, or the mansplaining Arrogant Scientist in our beloved old B-movies, or the tropes of mincing silly gay man and the menacing lesbian (no really, these things are still alive and well in so many films!)

So it’s not that I’m saying social subjects only come up this handful of precious times, like last night.  What I will say is, it’s a rare and lovely opportunity when the kid herself discovers something about the world – something seemingly understated and normative to our peer group even – and asks about it.  Her mind is open in that moment and she is ready for a piece of the puzzle; such a gift, considering how much else she absorbs without being fully conscious of it (and some of these socially atmospheric messages are decidedly not-so-great).  My mother’s response (“Why shouldn’t white and black people date one another?”) was a correct one; however, what I know my daughter had perceived was that the world is often not a Sesame Street-esque mix of people all getting along and mixing their crayon sets together; so I think, in that light, my response was a correct one as well – especially given previous and pending family choices deliberately seeking anti-racist goals.

I’m impressed by my seven year old daughter, who notices all sorts of things about the behavior of people in the world.  As any reader of my blog or personal friend of the family will know, she is very intuitive and perceives subtleties, which will serve her well in her life.  Because maybe a thing I fear greatly is to accidentally pass on a “colorblind” ideology – like that espoused by so many others I know and, to some extent, my own family of origin (Oh my gosh! I could talk about the liberal and “colorblind” white family so much! Like how they will repeatedly say the same little things like, “You know, these are called ‘Brazil nuts’ – people USED to call them n**-toes, but we don’t do that any more” and “So-and-so, our black friend“, with that special way they’d say the phrase that is eerily like that special way they say “homosexual”.  As in, “I am pointing out the race/sexuality of this person in a way that tells you I’m such a Special Progressive Person for being okay with their race/sexuality”).  So anyway, the “colorblind” upbringing, you know, “the world is full of people of all colors of the rainbow, and we all live together happily, wheeee!”  I find this sort of thing profoundly lacking (although well-intentioned and partially valid, blah blah), especially when raising a child who has a mind and a heart, and can see deeply – but not always interpret what she sees.

As someone she seeks for guidelines – sometimes quite directly – I don’t want to mess up, but neither do I want to worry too much about being the Perfect Parent in any of these surprise child-initiated conversations – because I have to believe I influence her every day, even when we’re not directly discussing a social issue. But if she asks, I’m not going to piss on her leg and tell her it’s raining, either.

I owe her better than that.

- KH

Mentioned / Further Reading:

“Stalkin’ Rockin'”, a compilation

Billy Ocean: “Caribbean Queencheck out the perfect descending-stairs snap/pelvic-trust at 0:58! I emulate this on a regular basis!, “Loverboy”

I’ll Try Anything” by Dusty Springfield

Paper Bag Parties, from Wikipedia

“Love Isn’t Enough”, a site for the parent considering an anti-racist household

From the above site, a nine minute film interviewing children about race and racism; the brief discussion in the L.I.E. post is also good

Not all discussions on race are productive (from Racialicious)

Tim Wise has a handful of essays on the “color-blind” mentality, if you’re up for some dry (but great!) reading

“Know Your LGBT History” at Holy Bullies and Headless Monsters (good film reviews)

The Jim Crow Museum’s essay on “The Jezebel Sterotype” – and most all of Dr. Pilgrim’s writings – are fabulous

Everywhere I look I seem to see skin “brighteners” (whiteners), here’s one example of an ad campaign that lacked subtlety

Mansplaining scientists and the Hogaboom viewing audience, at my blog