I have been so overwhelmed by the politics surrounding gender issues in the United States in the last week. Not only are we fighting for marriage equality but, in what I believe is a related way, we are fighting for women to be seen in a more complete and accurate way. Mayhem broke out this week when Victoria's Secret CFO Chief Financial Officer Stuart Burgdoerfer claimed that girls as young as 15 want to be like older girls who, in the case of VS product, might wear underwear that has "Call Me" on the crotch. A quick look on the Victoria's Secret FB page - not sure if they've removed the comments of outrage since then - will show how many parents were upset that VS appeared to be sexualizing young teens. Now, a couple of days later, there are more and more articles trying to quell the anger and, in fact, expressing a different kind of outrage, this time toward parents who were making much ado about nothing, supposedly. Turns out, the line "Bright Young Things," that takes its cue from the fine apparel found on the former boardwalk of the Jersey Shore, was meant for college-aged girls all along. In fact, Amanda Marcotte, of Slate, thinks that anyone who was outraged at the issue to begin with is "righteous" and needs to give "teenagers a little freedom to do the growing up that they need to do." It's okay. Nothing to worry about. It's older women who will be wearing "Feeling Lucky?" on their asses instead.
True, such activity has a strong tradition in our country, especially during spring break which, not surprisingly, is when all of this hubbaloo has taken place. Perhaps getting upset at VS was wrong, or perhaps the reason behind our anger was wrong. Why are we upset at a company for marketing to our kids, when our kids are already fully aware of what that company sells and have already been sold on the product because every woman who they know uses the product? When Burgdoerfer claimed that 15 year old girls will copy their older siblings, or even older mothers, he wasn't wrong. That's Advertising 101. Perhaps we were only upset by the message because, for once, we could not sit in denial and pretend to be unaware of the reality of our daughters or younger siblings, nieces, students, or friends: advertising, song lyrics, and films are constantly encouraging them to put a suggestive message on their vaginas, one that will remain long after the cheap underwear falls apart.
Here is a photo still from the film "Spring Breakers":
Here is a photo still from Victoria's Secret's PINK line (which will carry the "Bright Young Things" segment):
There is not much difference between the colors, the focus, or the spirit of the photos, and that is no coincidence. Mom's were outraged by the suggestive wording of "Call Me" or "Feeling Lucky?" but the supposedly benign PINK line they are familiar with, which many of them might wear themselves, still encourages people to READ YOUR ASS...as if it were a billboard. Furthermore, the end result of this two-pronged advertising campaign for spring break - which is actually losing business by as much as 15% - is the same message: have decadent, brainless fun that ends up in meaningless sex. In reality, some students on spring break want to do more meaningful things with their time. In Indiana, college students got together during their break to help the less fortunate. It's as if VS and the film industry want to send a message to young women who actually want to use their time for something worthwhile: DON'T! Isn't THAT the real issue we have with VS? Weren't we ALREADY upset with VS when they started taking up prime time television space to air an even DUMBER version of the Miss Universe Pageant, one where the women don't even get to talk once? Don't tell me that your pre-teen or teenaged daughter hasn't seen the show - she has, and it has influenced her way more than some dumb underwear.
In order to continue the attack on your daughter's - and YOUR - mind, inane interviews in magazines and on websites support the messages in the films and ads. For example, Selena Gomez, one of the actors in "Spring Breakers," recently reminisced, in warm, dreamy-eyed fashion, in Harper's Bazaar, that her father would take her to Hooters when she was in pigtails and spend half the time with her and half the time with all the cute waitresses that came over. How sweet. Can I just thank my father right now for not ever screwing me up like that? Vanessa Hudgens takes it a step further by creating culture that links with the overall message to young women that they need not think much and should just use their bodies, or let their bodies be used. "Stop being so clever/You could do much better/You will be alone tonight," are lyrics that imply that using your brains will end up in blue balls, in her new song "$$$ex," which features a video with "Spring Breakers" clips. She thinks it's "a good date night song." I suppose that's true, if ear hemorrhaging over dinner is your bag. But hey, I don't want to knock S&M lovers.
Ford Motors doesn't want to knock S&M lovers, either, as long as the persons tied up are women. Recently, some ads that had yet to go through the approval stage were leaked and Ford had to apologize for them. This video news short, from NewsBreaker, describes the ads as "racy" and does not once mention the word "misogynist" or even "sexist."
Ford Apologizes For Racy Ad Showing Women Bound, Gagged | NewsBreaker | OraTV
In other words, the issue, according to NewsBreaker isn't that the ad depicts three women who are crying and bound and gagged in a trunk, driven by a former Prime Minister. The issue is that some might find the ad too "sexy." I never knew that kidnapping and torture were sexy. I certainly understand that some people like this or that, but the ad does not depict women who are approving of S&M play in any way - they look like they're being driven to warehouse in the middle of nowhere by a creepy murderer. Not funny, not sexy, not racy. Similarly, the way we have shaped the language around VS behavior is wrong. It is not that all of a sudden they endangered our young women. The real issue is that they have always promoted sex in an extremely passive, male-oriented way to ALL WOMEN. There is absolutely nothing feminist about the VS woman; I don't care how much money the models make. Should Gloria Steinem have remained a Playboy Bunny? Perhaps some men might have preferred her that way.
And that is the last issue I will try to tackle. We know that if a VS catalog comes to the house, if we have a partner at home, he/she might take a gander. Whatever, we're all human. That is what keeps us buying the sweatshop-made underwear, no? We want to be attractive, yes? I decided a long time ago that I had to be attractive in my own way. I'm not a superhuman that hasn't succumbed to the pressures of everything I have outlined here - advertising, music, and film - but I try on a regular basis to create my own idea of what is attractive. To heck with the rest of the world. In high school, I remember a former friend of mine asked me why I "didn't dress sexy" and my first thought was, "You are such an idiot," but my second thought and my reply was, "I do dress in my own attractive way." He wanted me to conform to some fantasy that is just so narrow-minded and overused and boring. He was a victim of Bell Biv Devoe. Why not grow the dendrites and create some new imagery, for heaven's sake? But no, as if to underscore the imagery and narrow imaginary that VS and films like "Spring Breakers" promote, the lyrics of our young men, within the appropriated hip hop industry, are so crude, so plain and dull and lifeless, they truly seal the box of that brain-deadening fantasy my high school acquaintance so desperately needed and was trapped in. Find some of the recent male-written lyrics and images created by people who have big, cold, empty holes in the center of their chests where their souls should reside, here and here and here.
Vincent and I heard the lyrics of "God Damn," found through the last link, when we sat next to a young man in the train station just yesterday. We laughed at the inane lyrics quite a bit and tried to mock them when we were far away from the fan, but as a woman, I truly wonder what will happen to such a man who listens to such alienating lyrics. Will he feel like it's okay to pull a Steubenville on someone? What will happen to women who buy underwear not for their own pleasure (or, God-forbid, necessity) but because they know they better be sexy for someone else because if they aren't, well, how could they possibly have a good life? You laugh at that sentence, but that message is all over the media - you know it. If it's out there, we've absorbed it, like it or not - it's how our brains work, by copying what is in our environments. Will women who have this message ingrained in their psyche ever allow other possibilities to take hold, other options, other much more exciting adventures OTHER than a spring break filled with alcohol poisoning and shallow "friendships" in the name of supposed freedom?
The Vanessa Hudgens video starts out with a clip of Selena Gomez's character saying, "This is our chance to see something different." I wish that it were. There is NOTHING different about spring break or the messages in the media I've highlighted here. Something different is a grandfather who sees his granny wife walking in the snow and looks at her with shining eyes because she has given him a lifetime of amazing memories - that is something I've seen my father do over and over and over. Something different is my dear friend Mario and his partner Bob, who have been together my entire lifetime and who I admire so much for their wit and grace. Something different is male and female friends creating arts organizations, or helping Sandy victims, or staging plays or writing songs about the Katrina tragedy, or just talking for hours, sharing their lives, no dating drama to be found because it's all about the friendship - which I witness every day with my friends. Something different is having a husband who will move across state lines in order for his wife to obtain the highest degree possible, no complaints, only support, which is what Vincent did for me (and which I have had the honor to do for him, as well). Something different is the relationship between Anel and Erika, two women and partners who I had the honor to meet when in San Antonio. Watch their story here:
I guess it seems like what I'm writing about isn't different because it is so common in my life, but I assure you, it IS different. I've worked extremely hard to surround myself with innovative people, with people who have vision and ambition, with people who can see and create a better world. And THAT is different. That is the most radical thing anyone can ever do and it is the only thing that ever saves a life bombarded by the common mediocrity of sexism and gender bias. THAT is what different is.
Wednesday, March 27, 2013
Sunday, March 17, 2013
As artists, Vincent and I love to dress up in silly ways and find other artists to look at, chat with, and get inspired by. We don't have a lot of time because we both teach all week and always have plenty of papers to grade when we get home, so when we do get to go out and let our freak flags fly, we really want to make it count. Before we moved away from New York, so that I could earn my Ph.D., we had several areas of downtown Manhattan that we could go to to satisfy this need, in addition to areas of Jersey City and Brooklyn. Now that we live in NY proper, downtown Manhattan is usually our choice, but for some reason we simply couldn't see and admit what so many people had already written about, what was right before our eyes: there are no freaks in downtown Manhattan. There we were, all freaked out with no place to go. Oh sure, we hit Kim's and St. Mark's Bookstore, but what we really wanted was to see people, real live freaks.
Yeah, yeah, we know. Go into Brooklyn. I guess what may have kept us out was all the talk about hipsters, but then I thought, well, maybe the word "hipster" is just a derogatory term for artists. Vincent pointed out that the word "hippie" was used as an insult during the '60s. I thought to myself, "Who is making up this language and why have artists been kicked away to the outer-boroughs? Why has it become harder to reach each other now that we don't have a center point to meet in? Who planned that?"
I didn't think about the issue again until today, when I pulled up a video clip on Wall Street Journal Online, where Kay Hymowitz, of the Manhattan Institute, espouses the virtues of being married, but she only espouses this virtue to 20-somethings who are "uneducated." Here's the clip:
She literally says that if you only have a couple of years of college under your belt, are in your 20s, and are planning on having a kid, you should actually think of the consequences of your actions and try to be married. She also says that women who are educated and older don't have to worry about such things. All of her coded language translates to this: If you are poor and of color, your demographic hasn't been thinking about the real consequences of having kids, and you're a mess, while us educated women who - and she literally says this - may have "internships at Conde' Nast" can pretty much do as we will. Hymowitz doesn't question the wealthy folks who marry, have kids, divorce, marry again, have more kids, and divorce again. She goes on and on about the "less educated" women and how they are putting an unnecessary burden on their kids, raising them single, but she doesn't speak of the consequences of the educated and wealthy who raise kids in single-parent households. Oh, yeah, and I almost forgot, she states - this is a QUOTE - that, "Women in their 20s are, by their very nature, unstable." If you can even hear anything after that point, she goes on to claim that everyone - she says about 80% of people - want to be married and feel unstable if they aren't. Well, after hearing that backwards diatribe, I had to find out what this Manhattan Institute is.
The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research is a think tank that financially supports the work of a panel of experts who espouse incredibly conservative ideas. Here is a link to the experts whose work they promote. You'll notice that nearly everyone on the list is of a certain background and/or ethnicity. The two people of color on the panel are John H. McWhorter, who has written articles like, "Do We Really Need Black History Month?" and "How Hip Hop Holds Blacks Back" and "Why Blacks Don't Need Leaders"; and Avik Roy, who you've seen on "Real Time with Bill Maher" and who wrote the op-ed piece, "Marco Rubio's Impressive Response to Obama's State of the Union Address." The Manhattan Institute's honored guests have included Henry Kissinger, Dick Cheney, and Clarence Thomas, among many others you'll recognize. The agenda at the Manhattan Institute, in terms of what its scholars are supposed to write about and promote, is what you'd expect. This article, which was in The New York Times in 1997 (!) highlights a desire to "[savage] open admissions at the City University of New York, [push] hospital privatization, and aggressively [promote] school choice," which translates into promoting charter schools and the voucher system, i.e. privatization of schools. The article also chronicles the Institute's policy of questioning rent control, which has been all but abolished in NYC. I want to emphasize that this article, titled "Turning Intellect Into Influence: Promoting Its Ideas, the Manhattan Institute Has Nudged New York Rightward," was written 16 years ago and pretty much everything that the MI set out to do has happened. It is frightening in its precision.
In order for such an organization to be precise, and to have such complete access to all aspects of media (TV programming, newspapers, online sites) in order to disseminate its agenda, there has to be major funding. A simple Wiki search - the MI does not reveal its funding on its site - shows that major funding comes from the usual suspects: the Koch Family Foundations, Bristol-Myers Squibb, ExxonMobil, Chase Manhattan Bank, and Merrill Lynch. Paul Labarique, in his article "The Manhattan Institute, Neoconservatives' Lab," claims that the Institute has set forth to, "eliminate the counterculture of the 60’s and feminism, but above all, to destroy social services and get African-Americans and poor people out of the big cities." Which brings us back to that kooky lady, Kay Hymowitz, who is clearly just following orders. Do more women need to get married and not raise kids on their own? Hell yeah! Who should they marry? Men, of course! Does this count for women who are in the elite classes? No, of course not! It's interesting how all of her research fits so perfectly into the agenda of the MI. I suspect that even if it didn't, the oh-so-credible-scholar would find a way to make it fit the MI agenda.
The Labarique article also brings us back to why I started this blog entry: the freak. Where are my freaks at? They have been kicked to the curb, that's where. I know that this fact has been written about by so many people before me, but it is a scary thing to see exactly how it was done. Everything changed because articles were written in order to discredit artists and poor people. Just words on paper or words in cyberspace. People were kicked out because the elite promoted specific ideas in the media, ideas that even the poor who were being kicked out believed in. Counterculture ideas, words, people were eliminated, but in order to still feel as though not much had changed, the surface of what they left behind was kept and incorporated into mainstream culture. The surface parts were mashed up into elite culture - you can find a whole host of online fashion and culture sites that will tell you exactly how much counterculture you are allowed to display. Refinery, anyone? What if I don't want to be refined? What if I want the RAW and BROWN sugar, dig?
What is most frightening, however, is not that this happened in one of the cultural centers of our own country - a center that defines what we read about through its publishing industry, or what we see through its television network centers, or what we hear through its music industry, or what we look like through its fashion and textile industry, and ultimately what we think about through all those industries - yeah, that's hyper-sickening-scary, but what is even scarier is found in the opening line of Labarique's article. Antony Fisher, the founder of of the Manhattan Institute, founded 89 more institutes, just like the Manhattan Institute, AROUND THE WORLD. What is Paris like now? What is Istanbul like? Or Madrid? Or maybe even scarier than that is that Fisher isn't even from the United States - he is a "British multimillionaire." Did we ever become independent from Britain?? Or maybe even scarier is that the predecessor of the term "post-racial" was first published in an article in 1978 (!) by one of the MI scholars, George Gilder. Ideas, words that we use today, have been formulated by these think tanks that we are unaware even exist. The next time that you feel like you've done it all on your own, that you have a mind of your own, that you are certain that you came to where you are at because of decisions you made, maybe you should wonder what might have influenced you, what small seed may have been planted in your brain, in your spirit, when you were asleep.
Maybe I have been asleep. Maybe I finally just woke up and noticed that there are no freaks around me. Maybe I am totally alone. Maybe it is better to wear sensible clothing. Maybe I will have less and easier work as an educator if CUNY stops accepting the wide range of students that it has welcomed in the past. Maybe Cooper Union will have a better product if students start paying tuition. Maybe it's true that there is no need for counterculture anymore. Maybe the wars we are in are just. Maybe there is no racism anymore. Maybe there is no sexism anymore.
Or, maybe, sneaky suppression is just as bad as overt repression. Maybe I'm damn lucky to be living in the Bronx because the word "sensible" has no place in the Bronx and my surroundings keep me honest. Maybe there IS racism and sexism that continues to win screenwriting awards. Maybe we still occupy too many countries where we don't speak the language of the people we are supposedly trying to save. Maybe we are cutting the funding of too many humanities in schools, creating a class of people who have no empathy and have no idea how the arts grows dendrites and dreams that imagine solutions for the future. Maybe, just maybe, if I continue being a freak and continue sharing my own ideas, maybe the sensible wall of sensible ideas will start to crack, causing other sleeping freaks to notice and kick a brick.