manifesta: (Marauders)
2010-08-10 09:22 pm

The one with the unwritten paper (that should have been done last month)

So I realized today that for my presentation for SirensCon, I have to effectively create two different write-ups: an academically pristine version for the paper, and still very shiny but imperfect version for the actual presentation. This means swapping between my academic voice and my natural voice, which is full of "y'all"s that make my friends look at me askance because a) I don't have an accent and b) I'm not from the south but in fact both coasts (but half of my family is deeply southern, okay?) and plenty of sinful contractions. I'm also wrestling with the fact that I won't have any props--no poster, no PowerPoint, nada. Just me. Talking. With nothing to gesture frantically at.

The paper/presentation is currently just bits and bats, but I wanted to share a quote I read today and will be including. It's from Ellen Neuborn's essay “Imagine My Surprise” in Listen Up: Voices From the Next Generation.
“I don’t understand where the programming began. I had been taught that girls do could anything boys could do. Equality of the sexes was a unimpeachable truth. […] I’m a good feminist. I would never apologize for having a different opinion.
“But I did.
“Programming. It is the subtle work of an unequal world that even the best of feminist parenting couldn’t overcome. It is the force that sneaks up on us even as we think that we are getting ahead with the best of the guys. I would never have believed in its existence. But having heard it, amazingly, escape from my own mouth, I am starting to recognize its pattern.” (pg. 183)
Later, she asks:
"Do you think you would do better? Do you think you would recognize sexism at work immediately?
“Are you sure?” (pg. 184)
Sometimes it can be excruciating, trying to find the language to explain how something we see, do, or hear reflects societal norms and thus can be potentially very damaging. It becomes even harder when there's a chorus of voices shouting that you're wrong, you're imagining things, it's not as bad as it seems, you're just looking for a fight.

I feel like this quote eloquently describes just how difficult it can be to recognize, and put into words, not just the systemic, implicit norms that perpetuate inequality but how those same systemic, implicit norms can silence any discussion about inequality--thus perpetuating it even more so. The system is self-serving in its design to preserve the status quo. This quote also demonstrates that picking up on sexism, or even (especially?) internalized sexism, can be incredibly difficult, even for people who are educated or aware of the issues.

To echo Neuborn, do you think could recognize rape culture automatically? Do you think you could always identify victim-blaming, or make the distinction between a forced seduction and a rape? 

Are you sure?
manifesta: (Mischief Managed)
2010-08-02 05:31 pm

sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes the cigar is actually a cannon

A huge thank you to everyone for your thoughts on my last two posts. It was certainly an interesting weekend.

The idea of even having to compile this list makes my stomach turn, but I figure it will be useful in future conversations. These are variations of statements I've seen made in recent discussions that were used to dismiss someone's concerns or objections about the potential negative implications of a book's content and minimize their argument. In my response to each I've included reasons why I believe these statements were made and why they are not the best choices for a conversation, particularly one that involves discussion regarding inequality. I write this because all too often it's the people who bring up issues about power and privilege that are not given the benefit of the doubt in a discussion and are forced into defending their position instead of hosting a conversation about it.

(1) Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. AKA, you're reading too much into it. I think this one crops up so frequently because high school English classes in the States try very hard to emphasize the apparent symbolism in every single book they can get their hands on (truly, I love Elie Wiesel's Night, but I'm not convinced there's symbolism in the snow) and after being told over and over again to look for the deeper meanings that seem to exist solely because you wanted to find them, the whole concept becomes silly. Combine this with (a) the internalization or lack of awareness of systemic inequality and (b) the societal norms that perpetuate and disguise systemic inequality, and the idea that the text is more than just the text is rendered unfathomable.

This cut was brought to you by the Society for Shorter Reading Pages (SSRP). )
manifesta: (Battle Eyeliner)
2010-07-30 10:13 pm

backlash against feminism: the YA version (or, it's not just for stuffy politicians anymore!)

It seems the interwebs has suddenly decided to provide me with plenty of fodde-- I mean, food for thought.

Hannah Moskowitz discusses "the boy problem" in YA.

"The problem we're talking about is fairly simple: boys don't read YA. This isn't an issue of "boys don't read"--we're not talking about these boys. We're talking about avid readers, boys who ate up middle grade but go to adult fiction and non-fiction instead of passing through YA, and nobody really knows why."
I agree with some of her bullet points, but she loses me about halfway through with this:

this cut has been brought to you by the Society for Shorter Reading Pages (SSRP) )
Tamora Pierce posted an eloquent reply on her own blog.

just kidding about that society thing )

With this, I think the "there is no YA for boys" myth has been adequately debunked. I also don't think I need to address the fact that why yes, Harry Potter is YA, or that pretending one of the best selling books in the world isn't YA is quite convenient when that series happens to be about a boy and the discussion is about boys in YA.  

Which allows me to move on to what the heart of the boys-in-YA debate is really about, and the underlining belief system of Moskowitz's post: That by writing about girls, by empowering girls, we have somehow managed to disempower boys through a lack of representation or quality of characterization. And in believing this, can we go back to the boys now, please? (Also known as Sarah Palin's so-called feminism.) 

There have been similar arguments recently made  in various arenas, including politics and academia. They say we achieved equality, we finally made it, but in doing so we also disempowered men.* The gender and women's studies programs are too exclusive, they say. We need to study men more! Men are four times more likely to commit suicide, they say, and more women than men are graduating college. Naturally, the people to blame are the women, what with all the time and money spent catching up from that problem with no name thing. Meanwhile the poor men have had their masculinity withered away.

This is called backlash. I tried to find a link that describes it in better detail than I can, but the posts I've read in the past have been lost in the nether. Backlash is when a movement toward equality for a marginalized group gains momentum and the privileged group(s) freak out. This usually takes the form of denying that there's a problem or firmly announcing that the problem has been taken care of, all while doing a little dance in the opposite corner of the room to refocus the attention on who's really suffering.

Yes, boys deserve to have books written about them as much as girls. But it seems to me that we aren't talking so much about whether there are books out there for boys as we are about whether we perceive there to be as many books for boys  in comparison to the surge of books for girls. It also reminds me of how minority groups are often perceived as the numeric majority in a room even when they only represent 30% of its composition. The current ratio of boy to girl books (if we must abide by gender roles here) is closer to being equal than that, but in comparison to all the books written for boys in the past? No. We've come a long way, but it's still an uphill battle. And if there are more girls than boys represented in YA right now, it's because they've never had this kind of significant representation before.

Moskowitz asked, " many books about girls do we need before we can consider that a job well done?"

Make no mistake: We're just getting started. Advocating for more books for boys is one thing, but shifting the blame onto girls and women undermines the tentative progress** we have made and neglects to take into account the intersection of social systems of power and the books that we read.

*Although I don't understand how we achieved equality AND disempowered men at the same time.

**And by tentative, I mean entirely relative. See my posts on YA and rape culture.

As an aside, I don't know if I agree 100% with the entirety of Tamora Pierce's post. I'm not up for trying to figure it out at the moment, however.
manifesta: (Dangerous)
2010-05-29 11:23 pm

Part 1: Romance Novels & The Legitimacy of Criticism

One of the reasons for my radio silence has been a historical analysis paper on white feminity and sexuality in early romance novels (1950s-70s). Have I mentioned that my women's studies/history professors are benevolent and wonderful and let me write about genre books?

I turned in that paper earlier this week, and now I have some time on my hands before finals to reflect on it. I think it was one of my better papers on romance novels; the process also introduced me to quite a bit of excellent research that I can use for other projects, including this journal.

I'm going to preface this by acknowledging that I can be very critical of romance novels. I'm also very critical of fantasy (I'm waiting to hear back on a presentation proposal regarding urban fantasy/paranormal romance) as well as young adult (re: YA & rape culture) but I tend to pick on romance in particular. I believe, and even more so now after writing my last paper, that romance novels have the potential to change how women think about ourselves and each other. They can be an outlet for dreams, desires, fears, and unexplored possibilities. Their influence as a pop culture phenomenon is frequently underestimated--something I'll delve into later on. Romance novels are written by women, for women, and are about women, a trend that's increasing in other genres but has strong roots in romance. There's power in that, and it's heady stuff. 

What I've noticed is that there is a certain stigma against criticism within the romance community. I see it as backlash against two things. A lot of feminist criticism has taken gleeful aim at romance novels, most often in an unflattering fashion that condemns romance novels as a whole without acknowleding their positive aspects or diversity. Likewise, the general media and American culture also tends to portay romance novels as fluffy fantasies and romance readers as bored, uneducated housewives with nothing better to do. There's a lot of rage in response to these accusations and dismissals, and a lot of hurt. Further, the rage and the hurt stems from the way women have been and continue to be treated as lesser--a socio-cultural norm that rears its misogynistic head whenever women or emotional content become the focus of the story.

So this me saying that I acknowledge the hurt and the rage, and the history behind it. And this is also me saying that when I criticize romance novels, it is not because I think romance novels are purely wish-fulfillment fantasies or lesser-than. It is also not because I believe women are stupid.*

I bring up the issue of criticism of romance novels precisely because there is a connection between how women are treated and how romance novels are perceived. It isn't a coincidence that women just so happen to be systemically and institutionally oppressed, it isn't a coincidence that romance writers and readers just so happen to consist predominantly of women, and it isn't a coincidence that romance novels take the heat from both sides when one side sees them as a threat to women's empowerment and the other sides sees them as a threat to male privilege and thus, in the interest of self-preservation, both sides choose to condemn them.

The unconditional feminist criticism of romance novels is backlash against what some feminists see as the perpetuation of heterosexual, monogamous, frequently white gender roles. The empowering aspects of romance novels are eclipsed in the rush to generalize. Is this quality of unconditional criticism justified? No. Is it understandable that feminist critics have reacted out of a similar hurt and rage as romance writers and readers when they feel that women--because that is who and what it boils down to--are being threatened, dismissed, or silenced? Yes. There are very real feelings on either side, feelings that can lead to blanket statements and end up pitting women against women. 

The media, on the other hand, dismisses romance novels as lacking in value because society dismisses women. American culture is riddled with double standards, and unless women conform to specific gender roles, they're either castigated or ignored, and if they do conform to specific gender roles, they might be acknowledged, but only in a context that subtly invalidates them in comparison to men. Because romance novels frequently do, in general, conform to the "feminine" gender role, it's easy for the media to dismiss them and thus by extension dismiss women.

The question of how the romance community can convince the rest of the world that romance novels aren't fluff has been bounced around for decades. The romance community wants respect; they want to be reviewed by major newspapers alongside the literary and crime novels; they want to be able to read their books on their lunch breaks at the office without being looked down upon or hiding the cover. They want respect for romance novels.* They want respect for women.

The feminist community views romance novels as tools used to perpetuate strict gender roles, heterosexuality, the virgin/whore dichotomy, and beyond. They want more egalitarian gender roles and more representation outside traditional identities. They want respect for women.

The two communities, at their core, want the same things. Both acknowledge that women are the bottom line and the ones being shafted by society. However, miscommunication and statements made out of fear and anger have resulted in creating the illusion that there's a boundary between the two, an utter incompatability. I don't subscribe to this illusion. Feminism and romance novels are not mutually exclusive.

Romance novels can be empowering for women.  Women authors writing about women to an almost exclusively female audience in a genre that consists of half the paperback sales in the country--that's strength. Women characters featured as heroines who have the potential to chase after love, money, sex, AND world domination (still waiting on this one, but I'm sure it's forthcoming)--that's power.

But romance novels can also be disempowering. When what women have created as a tool for enjoyment, empowerment, and to a certain extent fantasy is appropriated in the name of patriarchal goals and values or are imbued with qualities that silence, confine, and narrowly define women, that hurts women. And it's time to stop pretending that everything's fine by shutting out any hint of criticism regarding these elements of internalized sexism and take back what's ours.

In Part 2 I'll be taking a more in-depth approach in dissecting how romance novels can both empower and disempower women through either the breaking down or the perpetuation of patriarchal social norms. Stay tuned.

*I linked to two very different statements by Carolyn Jewel, a romance novelist nominated for two RITAs this year, to illustrate how powerful the stigma against criticism is. The second link, her essay on romance novels and respect, demonstrates a strong knowledge of romance and how it's perceived by society. The first link is a dismissal of a feminist critique as patronizing. The points she made in her essay and the points I made in my critique of forced seduction scenarios are both in support of women's empowerment, but because my critique was interpreted as (paraphrasing) "women are stupid," any potential for compromise was dismissed. Further, I think that the internalized sexism inherent in some romance tropes is frequently ignored because of the assumption that if women wrote it, then it can't support patriarchal ideals (or if it does, who cares?). I'll talk about this more in the next post.