Theory Teacher's Blog

bell hooks and the Question of Beyonce’s Feminism; or Ways to Be Awesome

Yesterday, the ubiquitous “Book of Faces” (FB) and other social media were all atwitter over something the well-known author and theorist bell hooks said at a three-day event about race, gender, and body-image hosted by The New School in New York — everyone’s favorite pop star diva Beyoncé a terrorist?… A terrorist?!?!… Bloggers from wannabe-hipster gossip sites such as Gawker to fashion magazines such as Elle to feminist sites such as Jezebel immediately jumped on the bandwagon, probably hoping that the provocative headline would gain for them that ever-so-ethereal cyber audience.

Before I had a chance to actually read the blog-o-story, when I first saw the headline, I wrongly assumed that bell hooks was giving Beyoncé a compliment, as I immediately thought of Beyoncé’s video: “Run the World (Girls)“:

One might think of other videos of hot feminist badaaasssery such as Beyoncé’s “Superpower” and M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls” which all present images of women kicking ass and taking names, Pam-Grier style. So, this is what I thought bell hooks was talking about, and I was all, like, “hellz yeah!!!”

But then I started to read the articles, and apparently that’s not at all what bell hooks meant (oops, my bad!) Rather, she was raising questions about Beyoncé’s style of feminism and her tactical deployment of a hyper-sexualized body as potentially damaging to the self-image of young girls (specifically in reference to Time Magazine’s featuring her in a bathing suit on the cover of their issue about the world’s 100 most influential people.)  In other words, what I think bell hooks was referring to is the very real “terror” that young girls feel when confronted with bullying  from their peers regarding the way they look. I did not finish reading any of the blog posts because they were all so shallow and mean-spirited, and they all reminded me of the SNL skit about the government Beygency that hunts down a poor schmuck for committing the party foul of admitting he didn’t love everything about Beyoncé:

Can I admit that I don’t love everything about her either? But I do think she’s pretty awesome. And I also think bell hooks is awesome. So, given that I think both women are awesome, instead of reading the blog-o-crap any further, I skipped ahead to the video of the actual conversation (the “actual” always being so often remarkably different from what bloggers and journalists say to get a rise out of their audiences), and my wife and I had a very enjoyable evening listening to four awesome women — bell hooks, Janet Mock, Shola Lynch, and Marci Blackman — discuss among themselves and with a very engaged and intelligent audience a variety of complex and personal perspectives about gender, sexuality, race, violence, body image, and “what a body can do” (as the philosopher Judith Butler famously put it, in contrast to the essentializing pigeon-holing approach of traditional philosophy that asked “what a body is.”) You can all watch it too by clicking [here] or below:

The conversation among themselves and with the audience was full of humor and mutual respect as well as serious critical thinking, concern for the well-being of others, and deep personal involvement as they worked toward imagininng an alternative to the sort of media imagery that objectifies black women’s bodies and presents impossible standards of beauty. They discussed the movie 12 Years a Slave, SNL comedy, and — most of importantly — the work of the panelists, such as the movie Free Angela and All the Political Prisoners by Shola Lynch, the memoir Redefining Realness by Janet Mock, and the novel Po’ Man’s Child by Marci Blackman as well as their personal experiences as politically active, queer, transgender, and black women. I was so impressed that I began to imagine my teaching an entire course syllabus around this one panel event. One woman in the audience was in tears sharing her own experience as well as her gratitude to the panel for the support and safe space fostered by the event. Noticeably, in contrast to the blog-o-sphere and social media, not a single person in the audience during the 50 minutes of Q&A seemed the least bit concerned by bell hooks’s comment about Beyoncé. So, considering how her image and her style of feminism was discussed and debated in complex, thoughtful ways among the four panelists and the audience, it is interesting how the safe, supportive space of the panel discussion was transformed into bitchy nonsense by social media.

But beyond the confines of that singular event and its commodification by the blog-o-sphere, the question of Beyoncé’s feminism interests me, in part because as a teacher I find her extremely useful in the classroom for drawing students into debates about feminism, challenging their stereotypes about feminists as man-hating ugly women, and pushing students to think about why they enjoy what they enjoy. For example, because this semester I was teaching the famous Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I played for my class Adichie’s lecture “We Should All Be Feminists” as well as Beyoncé’s song “Flawless” that samples a full minute from that lecture (practically one fourth of the song):

The conversation among my students last month was similar to the one brought up by bell hooks, Janet Mock, and one of the members of the audience: how do we negotiate the positive work we see Beyoncé doing for feminism and women’s empowerment and the negative commodification of her body and debilitatingly impossible standard of beauty it presents to young girls? The “Flawless” music video, it seems to me — rather than being naive or unaware of this dialectic of opposing ideas — very deliberately and self-consciously puts this dialectic in play for us to work out. The song and the video puts the question back on us, for us to imagine ways to be authentically awesome.

But what do you all think? Thoughts?


May 10, 2014 Posted by | feminism, media, music, race | 3 Comments


I got married a few weeks ago, and I feel compelled to blog about this because some students and colleagues have teased me a bit, saying something along the lines of, “Didn’t you once proclaim that you would never get married? Didn’t you teach a whole class that deconstructed that institution?” And yes, even on this very blog [here], [here], [here], [here], and [here], I have made arguments that not only suggest alternatives to marriage but also imply that getting married and buying a house might even be an unethical response to 21st century socio-economic conditions. So, I’ve decided to momentarily come out of my blog-o-sphere vacation to justify my ways to my students, colleagues, and friends. This blog post will take three steps. Step one will be to outline my problem with the institution of marriage. Step two will be to observe changing socio-economic conditions that put that institution in question and suggest other possible ways of living in the world. Step three will be a detour through some Christian theological discussions about marriage. And finally, I will come to my own philosophical conclusion.

Step One: Hegemony

In my view, the social pressure to get married actually prevents human beings from imagining a more ethical relationship with each other. Even more seriously, it prevents people from acting on their own imagination. Personally, I have for years felt pressured to get married, have children, and buy a house — a pressure that theorists call “hegemonic.” In this case, hegemonic means not merely that there are deep cultural pressures to do these things, but also the force of law, taxes, insurance, and various other privileges and rights, so that, in effect, when a colleague, family member, or friend teased me for not getting married, it was a teasing accompanied by some very sharp and very powerful teeth. In other words, it is not even possible to do a lot of things that, in my view, should be possible. The obvious example that the media talks about a lot is gay marriage, and in most of the world, a significant percentage of the population is barred from legal matrimony.  Actors Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have famously said they would not get married until everyone acquired that right, a right that some might consider to be a basic human right, and I have a lot of respect for their taking such a strong and clear ethical position. But, as the gay-activist, literary theorist, and scholar Michael Warner has argued in The Trouble with Normal, we should be looking beyond that rigidly simple binary of married/not married towards other alternative relationships. For instance, Jane Juffer’s book Single Mother points out that single mothers might want to form cooperative living arrangements with other women in order to manage the challenges of raising children without a husband.

Lately, numerous novels, movies, and television shows have begun to imagine such alternative, cooperative living arrangements, but such arrangements are discouraged by laws about taxes, benefits, and even home ownership. For instance, there is a long contentious legal history about the definition of “family” for neighborhoods zoned for “single family homes” as you can read about [here] and [here]. Cities, suburbs, and towns have passed zoning laws deliberately to promote traditional nuclear families, but complicating the implementation of those laws, the national Fair Housing Act prevents discrimination against non-traditional families. For instance, the courts have ruled that a state’s law can’t define “family” so narrowly that it excludes uncles, grandparents, and various sorts of dependents. Nevertheless, questions remain about whether the definition of family means biological, legal, or functional relationships. For instance, clearly two people who live together and raise children can be considered a “family” even if they aren’t legally married and even if the children aren’t their biological offspring. But what about five elderly women who want to live together and support each other? (This was a real case, Baer v. Town of Brookhaven, by the way.) Despite the obvious benefits, as we can see in the popular TV show The Golden Girls, this sort of living arrangement has been legally discouraged. In my view, it should be encouraged. (Notably, The Golden Girls show had four women living together, which is legal, and not five, which would put them over the legal limit asserted in the Baer v. Brookhaven case.) Moreover, home ownership is always tied to the market, and cultural assumptions about family affect the value of homes as does direct government policy that artificially manipulates the market. For instance, according to this article, so-called “multi-family homes” (e.g., a duplex) may be a more efficient and less expensive alternative to single-family homes, but they are also harder to sell. In addition, the recent “Hope for Homeowners” government program created to boost the housing market targets traditional single family homes.

And all this is what I mean when I say that the traditional nuclear family is a “hegemonic” institution, supported by all sorts of laws, including laws that manipulate market conditions. And given the power behind this hegemony, it sometimes felt to me a little bit cruel when people would make remarks implying that I had problems with committment, that I hated children, or that I secretly wished my life were like theirs.

Step Two: Living in a Post-Fordist World

Now that I’ve discussed the hegemony of the nuclear family — a “tradition” arguably created in the early twentieth century alongside the modern industrial “Fordist” economy, as historians have argued. See, for instance, [here]. The ideal for this economy was life-long employment at a single company such as Ford. I now turn to the twenty-first century socioeconomic conditions, which have been called “post-Fordist” because of the market demand that labor and capital be more flexible and mobile. An effect of this new economic world order was the demise of automobile manufacturing cities Detroit and Flint, Michigan, as documentary film maker Michael Moore famously narrated in his classic Roger and Me. Considering the destructive impact on families caused by such capital flight as well as the increased cost of living and the environmentally destructive effects of suburban sprawl, the old white-picket-fence image of the 1950s model for the nuclear family would seem at the very least out-of-step with the world we live in today, if not downright immoral. Such social conditions of our so-called post-Fordist world include heightened geographic mobility, civil rights for women and people of color, shocks to the labor market due to rapid capital flight, an increase in the cost of living, and the environmental effects of over-population and industrial capitalism.

A great essay about what all this post-Fordist stuff means for college educated women that wonderfully rips apart the hegemony I discuss above is The piece “All the Single Ladies,” but let me try to illustrate what it means for working class people through the following example. It  has become increasingly easy for large corporations and investment banks to move large amounts of capital very quickly. For instance, as in the case of Ford and GM, a company might move an entire factory or simply outsource production to another country. Such “shocks” to the local economy would seem to demand a more mobile and flexible labor force. However, at the same time that the government permits such capital flight and encourages easy financial speculation, it also encourages individuals to buy homes even if they can’t really afford them. The recent housing bubble and subsequent recession has alerted everyone to this problem. As one economist has recently explained [here], the artificially propped up housing market has a negative impact on the labor market because it discourages individuals from moving to where there is a better job. Another example is the environment, as land once populated with wild animals is now “exurbs” of McMansions, and people drive great distances from their single-family homes to their place of work. Thus, in response to the vicissitudes of the new economy and to the foreseen dangers of global warming that contradict the ideal of the nuclear family, more and more people are forced to look for practical solutions to life’s problems, and these include more flexible, cooperative living arrangements. And for me, these arrangements are already being practiced by many different kinds of people, despite the ways in which they are discouraged by the hegemonic system I described above.

In my view, it seems more praiseworthy to aspire to something greater than mere marriage. And this is why, before she became my wife, she was my grrrl-comrade, not my girl friend — the name alluding to the feminist “riot grrrl” punk movement during the mid-1990s. Its “Riot Grrrl Manifesto” aimed to foster a revolution of everyday life. This is what I believed in and tried to practice with my own grrrl-comrade, who was my political partner as well as my romantic partner. I have also discussed what this means with two of my colleagues who have made an even greater effort than I have to foster a broader sense of community and an expanded sense of what it meant to be responsible for the raising of children.

But now I’ve gotten married, so have I sold out? Have I succumbed to the incentives offered by insurance companies and the Internal Revenue Service? Have I given up the dream and settled for settling down? Are my friends and former students justified in making fun of me? What does it mean when my friends and family say things like “Finally!!!” as if I were merely a deluded fool for not getting married before. What does it mean when people now jokingly welcome me “to the club”?

Step Three: A Theology of Potential

Before I answer those questions, I want to step back a bit and address the Christian view of marriage. One of my students, a double theology and English major, recently pointed out to me that the Catholic church’s position on marriage has changed a lot over the course of history. I don’t know much about that, but since my wife and her family is Lutheran, I went to my bookshelf and took down a book I hadn’t read since I was a college student majoring in religious studies, around the same time the punk band Bikini Kill published its Riot Grrrl Manifesto. And that book is Martin Luther:  Selections from His Writings, edited by John Dillenberger. To my surprise, I discovered that Luther was quite the radical for his day and in many ways agreed with me. He argues that marriage and the need for humans to combine in various practical ways is a human mystery that historically predates church authority or any cultural instantiation of it, and thus, when the Catholic church (or any church)  claims that marriage is a sacrament and that therefore it has the authority to decide who can and can’t marry, it is in effect acting like a pimp selling the “male and female pudenda” and therefore is the Antichrist (p. 331). Yes, he really does say that. In other words, to put Luther’s argument in the terms of literary theory, the so-called traditional nuclear family is an ideological social construct, and the human energy and potential for social combination can express itself in a multitude of forms. In less hyperbolic language, John Calvin makes a similar argument in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, the first book to systematically outline the entire protestant Christian faith. Luther goes further than Calvin, even arguing that bigamy/adultery are preferable to divorce, so if the husband turns out to be sexually impotent, it’s preferable that the wife have sex with someone else than they divorce, because marriage is a spiritual bond and practical work, not a sexual definition. And the real point of course is that marriage is not about sex (contrary to the constant harping on that subject by people who claim to be Christians), but about building community.

The particular passage of the Bible that Luther and Calvin focus on is when St. Paul talks about marriage in his letter to the Ephesians. Luther and Calvin argue for a reading of Ephesians that today most Catholic theologians also agree with — that Christ is speaking metaphorically, not literally, about husband and wife becoming one flesh. In Paul’s letter, marriage is a metaphor for the open potential of human beings to end warfare and suffering and become Christ-like (i.e., becoming one flesh metaphorically means the political body of Christ, not holy matrimony.) Understood metaphorically in this way, marriage is an opening to grow beyond the limits of one’s individual self. Ironically, this Christ-like understanding of marriage as an opening up of human potential is the opposite of the narrow definition of marriage usually endorsed by people claiming to be Christians, whose literal and stupid understanding of the Bible actually enforces limits on our Being.


My detour through some old theological statements was meant to reconcile my earlier critique of marriage with my decision to get married. It might seem that Luther’s theology of marriage has a little bit more in common with the Riot Grrrl Manifesto than most Lutherans and Bikini Kill fans would admit. So, in conclusion, what I believe in is the opening or unfolding of human potential in the context of complex conditions. Those complex conditions place very material demands on us that we can’t simply ignore or dismiss. We make our way in the world as best we can and ethically aim for something better than what is. My wife is my partner in this endeavor, and our marriage is, I hope, an opening up of both our individual potentials as well as our potential relationship with others and with the world we aim to change.

November 27, 2011 Posted by | feminism, finance | 6 Comments

Easy A and the History of Sexuality

A couple years ago, I taught a class on postmodern revisions of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic The Scarlet Letter, and I also have used his novel as a prooftext for teaching my introduction to literary theory class. The list of literary and pop cultural revisions is really long, including three novels by John Updike, two plays by Suzan-Lori Parks, and episodes of TV shows The Simpsons and Popular, just to name a few. So, not surprisingly, when the movie Easy A came out a couple weeks ago, several of my former students asked me if I intended to see it. 

And of course I did. If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the trailer:

As you might guess, the movie (which, by the way, has been quite successful at the box office) is pretty typical of teen-drama adaptations of Hawthorne’s story. The good-hearted but delightfully cynical Olive is rumored to have lost her virginity even though she hasn’t. The rumor spreads with lightning speed via cell phone text messaging. Later, to protect her gay friend Brandon from constantly getting beat up at school for being gay, she decides to use the rumor to Brandon’s advantage and pretends to have sex with him. (And this turn of events should remind you of Hester Prynne protecting Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter.) In saving Brandon’s reputation, she loses control of her own, as the school erupts into a hysterical, puritanical rage, and soon everyone is using her as their scapegoat, blaming their own indiscretions on her. Just as in the “Caged!” episode of the show Popular (produced by the same person as the more successful show Glee), the high school students are reading the novel in their English class at the same time that events in their lives appear to mirror the novel’s main themes — in this case, the theme that religious conservatives are hypocritical jerks. Simple?

No, not so simple. Nevermind that Hawthorne’s novel is infinitely more complex than that — an obvious point and not very interesting; the movie also is infinitely more complex than that. So, let’s just talk about the movie on its own terms for a moment. The clever counterpoint to the puritanical hissy fit thrown by her classmates is the behavior of her parents and the parents of her friend Rhiannon. They belong to the 60s hippy generation, and the movie is set in the famously hippy-esque town of Ojai, California. Their own sexual permissiveness, devil-may-care worldview, and supportive expressions of love for their daughter no matter what she does is the antithesis to the rigidly judgemental behavior of her high school peers. So, what do we make of the dialectic between excessively oppressive judgement and the excessive lack of judgement in the movie? Is one good, the other bad?

To throw yet another monkey at the wrench (hahaha), one big difference between Hawthorne’s version and Easy A is that the geeky boys all claim to have had sex with Olive in order to upgrade their own reputations. So, in addition to the social pressure to remain virginal, there is at the same time the social pressure to score. In fact, some of the boys in the movie are almost on the verge of tears because of their reputations as unattractive virgins who will never get a girl. Is this merely a gender role double standard where boys are supposed to get as much action as they can and girls are supposed to remain virgins until marriage (or, at least, until true love)? No, it’s trickier than that. At the beginning of the movie, her friend Rhiannon is also pressuring Olive to lose her virginity, but then once Olive becomes the “sex star” of the school (instead of Rhiannon’s prominent and always-on-display boobs), then Rhiannon turns on Olive and joins the religious conservatives. How is Rhiannon so easily able to switch sides?

What the dialectic between extreme judgement and extreme permissiveness in the movie reveals is that they are not quite as opposite as we might think. Though Olive’s parents would appear to tolerate anything she does, she is unable to tell them the truth about what’s going on, and so she speaks through the scarlet A as a symbol of her inability to speak and her inability to successfully negotiate the contradictory expectations of her society. In so-called olden times, the patriarchal father is supposed to be the one to lay down the law, so we would hide our transgressions from him, but in our liberated postmodern world the lawlessness of the new-age father also traps us in his open-ended expectations. What do we say to “the law” when we aren’t sure what the law wants from us?

Now, let’s back up just a bit and think historically. The typical reaction of readers to The Scarlet Letter is “golly gee, them Puritans sure were tough; I’m glad we live in these here more progressive-like times.” So, what is a revision that sets an old story in our present context supposed to do? Does it show us how things are different now, or does it show us that things are basically the same? Or is the revision commenting on the older text, making an improvement, suggesting that the earlier version wasn’t quite right, that it was missing something, or that it just wasn’t fair to one of the characters? In any case, a common tendency is to read the older text with the assumption that our world has progressed and therefore is less repressed.

However, as two very different philosophers of culture Slavoj Zizek and Michel Foucault have argued, maybe something else is going on. For Zizek, what seems to be a liberal permissiveness is actually just a new demand — the demand that we must enjoy. The law of this seemingly new-age permissive father is actually the cultural logic of our age of consumer capitalism… the logic that says we absolutely must pursue happiness at all costs. For Foucault, especially in his classic book The History of Sexuality, volume 1, the apparent sexual revolution of the 1960s was nothing more than an intensification of the discourse about our sexuality. In other words, Foucault argues against what he calls the “repressive hypothesis”; this is the hypothesis that back in olden days before the liberatory work of Freudian psychoanalysis, things were more repressive. Instead, for Foucault, the cultural codes, institutions of morality, and modes of discourse — in other words, the way we talk about the sexual acts we’re not supposed to talk about — are not simply something repressive that we now pretend to liberate ourselves from. Rather, the repressive apparatus (e.g., the church, the school, doctors, etc.) actually invogorates and directs our desire. In other words, society is not just repressive of our desire; it is productive of our desire. In effect, the discourse of sexuality places us in the midst of paradoxical, conflicting demands that are perhaps even more intense now than they were before…

….and this is what I think the movie Easy A is about. In our supposedly liberated, post-60s world, things are not so “easy” after all.

And where does the movie end up? Exactly where you might expect — not the politically radical ending of Hawthorne’s novel where Hester refuses to capitulate to the hypocritical social order and where she instead invents an alternative ethos. Rather, it ends with Olive confessing “the truth” in public and finding exactly the safe romance that everyone wanted for her in the first place…. Sigh. Oh well, it’s still a good movie, full of the surrealistic, postmodern pastiche that we all love.

Now, what I haven’t said anything about in this blog post is another bit of cleverness in the movie — its allusion to another American classic often taught in high school. While Olive expresses herself by alluding to The Scarlet Letter, her gay friend Brandon expresses his own sexuality by alluding to Huckleberry Finn as he runs away from town with a black man. There’s a lot more to say here, but I’ll leave that thread for someone else to unravel.

October 3, 2010 Posted by | feminism, movies | 4 Comments

Good Hair…

Last week, I assigned my first-year-seminar students the new documentary by Chris Rock, Good Hair, which explores the multi-billion dollar “black hair” industry. He begins the movie perfectly with an anecdote about his child asking him why she doesn’t have good hair, and the question that logically follows is “why would she (or any black woman) think that about herself?” His documentary is thorough, including interviews with scientists, hair-care professionals, actresses, and even people in India where a lot of the hair for weaves comes from. Chris Rock has done his homework, and he tells an entertaining story full of hilarious wit. The movie was actually recommended to me last fall by some students in my “race and ethnicity in U.S. literatures” class when we were reading Toni Morrison’s classic novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), which explores the double-standard of beauty that has historically been so psychologically damaging for black people’s self-image in America. So, upon my students’ advice, I watched the movie last spring, enjoyed it immensely, and decided to show it in my first-year-seminar class this fall.

However, watching the movie a second time, I’m not so sure this was a good decision, so this blog post will actually try to imagine something better than Good Hair (pun on “better” and “good” intended.) But before I explain the reasons for my doubts, check out the trailer for the movie:

The problem with Chris Rock’s documentary is that it focuses almost entirely on how wacky the hair industry is. Some might easily misinterpret the movie to be suggesting that black women are a little crazy for spending so much money on their hair and for subjecting themselves to potentially dangerous chemicals. The two typical reactions among white students are “oh, how weird” and “I wonder if my black friend’s hair is real.” This is not exactly the reaction I was looking for. If I were showing this movie alongside Morrison’s novel, then the students might have a better context for it, but this year I’m teaching Elizabeth Nunez’s Prospero’s Daughter (2006) instead, and it’s just not as good of a novel for all sorts of reasons I won’t go into today.

So, let me break down my two issues with Chris Rock’s movie. First, it gives very little information about the historical context and the possibility for an alternative. Only a few seconds are given to the “black is beautiful” movements of the 1970s that valued more naturally black hairstyles such as the Afro and dreadlocks. There was a time when black magazines such as Jet, Ebony, and Essence and other black-owned companies promoted a more positive image of black people, but most of those companies have been bought out by larger multinationals who no longer seem to care about positive cultural work for their communities.

Second is that it focuses on the symptoms of the situation rather than the underlying social structure that produces those symptoms. Now, don’t get me wrong, Chris Rock does talk about the underlying social structure (he’s a pretty smart guy, after all), but just for a few seconds, in contrast to the hour and some minutes that he devotes to the wacky-ness.

We might contrast Chris Rock’s movie with the Souls of Black Girls documentary that actually does focus on the underlying racist social structure that leads to “self-image disorder.” Check this clip out:

To give an example of the image of blowing hair and sex appeal that the Souls of Black Girls documentary is talking about, here is Beyonce and Jay-Z’s well-known “Crazy in Love” music video. It is not surprising that Beyonce’s videos (especially “Single Ladies“) have won so many awards. They are totally awesome and utterly mesmerizing. (Kanye West was right about Beyonce’s videos being the best — I mean, come on, let’s be honest here!!!) And it’s also not surprising that of all the members of Destiny’s Child the one whose facial features and skin color are most European is the one who became the superstar — I don’t think it wasn’t Beyonce’s voice.

However, though I appreciate what the Souls of Black Girls project is doing, I’m still not completely satisfied. For instance, they focus mostly on teenage anxieties about self-image, without thinking ahead to the realities adult women face after high school. For instance, the job market. Many black women believe that their chances of getting a good job improve if they have European-style hair. And unfortunately, in most cases they are probably right to think that. Similarly, we all know what would happen if Michelle Obama ever showed up to a public event with natural hair; the mainstream media would throw one of its ignorant hissy fits (which is just one reason among hundreds of other reasons why we shouldn’t pay any attention to the mainstream media.)

And so, I think we can see that often hair is not just a cultural issue. It’s policy. For example, click [here] to check out an MSNBC news story from last week (OK, sorry, so I guess sometimes we should pay attention to the mainstream media, but only if we do so critically) about a young man barred from his high school’s homecoming dance because he had dreadlocks. The school’s principal actually instituted a “no dreadlocks” policy, which is (in my opinion) simply racist because everyone knows that dreadlocks are actually healthy, and straightened hair isn’t. Apparently, America is still afraid of “black hair” (or perhaps just afraid of its political implications.)

But at the end of the day, I’m not satisfied with any of the things I’ve just talked about. Chris Rock’s movie is too mocking and lacks historical depth; the Souls of Black Girls focuses too intently on the negative; and the MSNBC story has (not surprisingly, since it’s MSNBC) nothing intelligent to say. And none of these stories acknowledge the good reasons why black women (or people in general) do what they do to their hair. Anyone will tell you that fake braids are not just stylish and cool looking, they are also healthy and make hair easier to manage. And Afro’s may be natural, totally dope, and mad sexy, but they can also be a pain in the ass to care for. And at the end of the day, what’s wrong with trying to make ourselves look cool, sexy, or just interesting? The point is not to simply contrast “natural” with “un-natural.” We’re talking about hairstyle, so “natural” has nothing to do with it. It’s not like we walk around naked, right?

I think what I like more than the mockery of Chris Rock’s documentary or the angst of the Souls of Black Girls project is this music video by India.Arie “I Am Not My Hair.” It beautifully deconstructs the racist social structure that affects black women’s self-image, but does so in a positive way that nurtures a different way to be — a way to be that’s “better” than “good.”

So, that’s all I have to say, but to conclude this blog post, I want to give a shout out to my friends M—, D—, H—, and N—– (you know who you are) for all the information that helped me write it.

September 26, 2010 Posted by | feminism, race | 6 Comments

Bronte Sisters Fight the Power

I’ll be taking a little vacation from my blog for the whole month of June, but before I go, I just want to leave you all with this hilarious YouTube video of The Brontë Sisters Power Dolls.

What’s not to love about this blending of Power Rangers, first-wave feminist politics, and 19th-century British novels? There’s a little something for everyone in this pastiche of genre and history: the feminine lace on the Brontësaurus, the pudding that’s not included. Oh television! Oh feminism! Oh Victorian England! Oh consumer culture! Silly gooses. If only I could actually buy such dolls for my kids (if I had kids), right? 

Something about it reminds me of a class I had about ten or twelve years ago with Mark Turner, who  uses cognitive linguistics to talk about “conceptual blending” — how concepts, ideas, and language itself are produced by metaphorically blending two objective realities together. For instance, we imagine time with metaphors of space. But so what?

As I said before, there seems to be something everyone can enjoy in this video. The humor of it goes in so many directions — the combination of various details so perfectly silly — that a feminist and an anti-feminist might both find themselves rolling on the floor laughing hysterically, though for different reasons. Imagine for a moment, if you will, Bill O’Reilly, Sarah Palin, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton all sitting in a room together, all watching the Brontë sisters power dolls… and all rolling around on the floor laughing hysterically. But so what?

May 31, 2010 Posted by | feminism | Leave a comment

Utah’s Miscarriage Bill: Discipline or Exception

Just a little bit ago, on March 9th, the governor of Utah signed into a law a bill that would criminalize women who intentionally induced a miscarriage to end a pregnancy. See [here] for the whole story. The bill was first written after a teenage girl hired someone to beat her up in order to induce a miscarriage. The original version of the bill included legally problematic language that “any reckless act of the woman” could be prosecuted. Many groups and organizations, such as the ACLU, pointed out [here] [here] and [here] that the phrase “reckless act” could include anything from drinking alcohol to not wearing a seatbelt to taking certain kinds of medication. Given that one in three pregnancies end in a miscarriage, many women complained that the bill seemed to be blaming women for a tragedy that they themselves would most often be mourning. In other words, the bill would criminalize a woman (possibly life in prison) for what in the vast majority of cases would be the result of an accident, the randomness of biology, an abusive relationship, or extreme poverty. The problematic language of “reckless act” was taken out before the governor signed the bill, but nevertheless many groups [here] [here] and [here] still see the new law not only as a sneaky way to undermine Roe v. Wade, but much worse — a way to control women’s bodies.

Although proponents of the bill admit their long term goal is a Pro-Life agenda of revoking Roe v. Wade, they claim that the aim of this particular law is merely to prosecute women who do extremely terrible things such as the case of the 17-year-old girl hiring someone to beat her up, mentioned above. Their response insists that the feminist criticism is a fear-mongering misrepresentation of the bill, and they have a point that in practice the police will not waste their time unless something looks like a real case. Feminist bloggers have responded by pointing out that in the case mentioned above, the real travesty is that young women who resort to such acts are more often than not in abusive relationships or other such extremely difficult circumstances. They ask why the Utah legislature’s solution to such circumstances is not to address the condition of abuse or poverty but rather to put the woman in jail. In a way, this bill illustrates Judith Butler’s point in her book Precarious Life: the Power of Mourning and Violence (2004) that analyzes different modes of grief in the midst of tragedy. For one kind of expression of grief, some people’s lives are considered worthy of mourning (i.e., the miscarried child or victims of 9/11) and others are condemned (i.e., the mother or millions of Palestinians.) Butler obviously advocates for a different mode of expressing grief that encourages dialogue and solidarity among victims worldwide instead of misplaced retribution that often lashes out at other victims instead of discovering productive commonalities with them. Some novels and movies such as the recent movie Precious have the power to enable the public to be more likely to understand such circumstances and foster solidarity among human beings, but other novels and movies likewise have the power stir the public into frensied hateful acts of misguided violence against the poor.

There is a lot to say about this issue, and the links I cite above have a lot more information, so I won’t spend time in this blog repeating it. The two theoretical question that I’d like to raise that I haven’t seen raised are these. First, why would anyone who knowingly caused the miscarriage report themselves to the police? Clearly it’s a bizarre notion to make a woman who has just suffered something as painful as a miscarriage to then tell the police she didn’t do it on purpose. In other words, the law produces a strange, paradoxical situation. Nobody who’d done it on purpose would report themselves, and if you’re innocent, it wouldn’t occur to you to report yourself, especially in the midst of your own grief. In effect, it seems to me, the responsibility of reporting such an event will lie with health care professionals and neighbors. As a result, we all become accomplices to criminal homocide if we don’t report the miscarriage to the authorities. The paradox here is that this law that might seem to aim to control women’s bodies would also make them more likely to avoid the already existing institutions of healthcare that control women’s bodies. Indeed, the real effect of this law will be to make women more afraid. Instead of open dialogue and real solutions to problems, women facing difficulty will be more likely to hide. Ironically, what is most likely the root of the problem is precisely the lack of access to organizations and institutions (e.g., Planned Parenthood, sexual education in schools, etc.) that could help a woman such as the 17-year girl mentioned above. I’ve blogged about questions of access previously [here], focusing on the issue of single parenthood.

And this leads to my second theoretical question about a critique made of Michel Foucault by Giorgio Agamben. In Foucault’s work written in the 1960s and 70s such as The Birth of the Clinic, Dicipline and Punish, and A History of Sexuality, he argues that our society has become increasingly disciplinary — noting that we voluntarily subject ourselves to regimes of disipline (e.g., going to the gym) and truth (e.g., discourse about health and fitness). He points out the historical, political, and economic connections between institutions of discipline such as prisons and schools and discourses of knowledge such as psychology. The goal of all such institutions is to make us more docile and productive workers, and we voluntarily subject ourselves to such regimes of power/knowledge not because they oppress us and we like to be oppressed but rather because they are productive for us personally at the same time that they make us more disciplined and productive for a capitalist economy.

Though Agamben is writing in the same tradition as Foucault, so one should not understand them as antagonists, his book Homo Sacer (1998) notes that Foucault fails to account for how power operates also through states of exception. The law itself originates in an extra-legal state of exception. For example, the Revolutionary War was the exceptional illegal moment that created a new legal state, the United States.  The institutions of law could also position certain people outside the state of law. The most obvious example of this is the prisoners at Guantanamo who have never been charged with a crime but are simply there. The point is that while for Foucault the prison is the institution that metonymically symbolizes how government exerts power in the modern world, for Agamben it is the concentration camp (e.g., the Jewish Holocaust, but also Guantanomo and the hundreds of refugee camps that last year’s movie District 9 so brilliantly critiqued. In my view, if you want to understand Agamben, first watch District 9.)

What does this oh-so-slight theoretical difference between Foucault and Agamben have to do with Utah’s new miscarriage law? Well, a Foucaultian might understand the law to enact more control over women’s bodies by further subjecting women to criminal investigation, surveillance, psychological profiling, etc. Moreover, the law might inspire women to be ever more self-disciplined about their prenatal care, insisting on maternal perfection in the face of the vicissitudes of life. But an Agambenian might understand this law to enact a state of exception by subjecting them to a paradoxical demand, by figuring them as monstrous others, and by effectively isolating them from health care and other organizations that help women care for themselves. Hence, the powerful are exerting control over the rest of us by simply making us afraid not only of the government but of each other. Instead of fostering care for children as it pretends to do, the new Utah law really will foster fear of those we need to trust.  In other words, Utah’s miscarriage law won’t work because it’s effective; it will work precisely because it’s ineffective. And for me, in agreement with Agamben here, this is what makes the law so scary. Ironically, I wonder if it might even cause some women to hide from the very institution that the legislators claim they want to promote — the church.

March 21, 2010 Posted by | feminism | 4 Comments

Man’s Last Stand / Woman’s Last Stand

So, this advertisement for the Dodge Charger is one of the famous (or infamous) Super Bowl ads of this year. It basically depicts the malaise of the new-age, post-feminist male (whatever that is). The message seems to be that if you can’t be macho in your marriage, at least you can buy a macho car and cause traffic accidents by trying to drive like James Bond.

There is the usual whiney self-entitlement that has become unfortunately so typical of white men ever since the civil rights act in 1964 that made them merely equal before the law. (It’s such a drag being merely equal. So un-American.) And since the new Dodge Charger is basically a re-make of the old 1969 muscle car, not only the advertisement but also the very car itself suggests a nostalgia for the good ol’ days when men were men gosh dang it (i.e., when white men had privileges that women and non-whites didn’t.)

And if you think I’m being sarcastic, you’re right. Check out this this parody of the ad, which I really, really like — especially the last line that totally nails what’s so lame and pathetic about the Super Bowl commercial.

Is there more to say? I could do a more sophisticated analysis, pulling in lots of theory, but the theory’s already in there, so I think I’ll just let the YouTube parody do that work on its own.

February 12, 2010 Posted by | feminism, media | 4 Comments

1980s MTV, the meaning of style, and feminism

In my theory class we have just begun the unit on the relationship between representation and agency, and in my other class we just finished reading John Updike’s novel Roger’s Version, a novel that adapts the plot of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter to the postmodern condition of the 1980s. (See my blog post a couple weeks ago here for more about postmodern Scarlet Letters.) In it, one of the main characters — a teenage single mother named Verna — is a huge fan of Cyndi Lauper at the beginning of the novel, but by the novel’s end has switched her allegience to Madonna. Updike’s novel is set in the autumn of 1984 and spring of 1985 — the year Ronald Reagan was reelected on a platform of traditional family values and an end to government-run social programs… and also the year that Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and Madonna’s  “Like a Virgin” dominated the MTV and pop music charts. Music historians often consider both of these songs as together occupying the same moment of sexual liberation for women in popular culture, though arguably that moment of liberation began long before in the 1960s. At the very end of the novel by Updike, Verna decides she prefers Madonna over Lauper at the same time she decides to leave her child with her uncle Roger and find her own pathway to material success, like Madonna in “Material Girl,” which was released in January, 1985.

I’d like to compare and contrast these two music videos, because in contrast to Updike’s characterization of them in his novel, I think they have very divergent visions for sexual liberation. One seems to me to be an example of post-punk feminism and the other a co-optation of post-punk feminism. However, the fact that both appear in Updike’s novel as co-equals and that MTV and radio might very likely play them back-to-back illustrates how complicated the concepts “representation”  “ideology” “hegemony” and “feminism” actually are.

First, Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” which was first released at the end of the year 1983.

What is most blatant in this video is Lauper’s emphasis on her multicultural group of friends. In a sense, her song is similar to the mildly feminist lyrics in The Spice Girls 1996 hit “Wanna Be” that go, “If you want to be my lover, you have to get with my friends.” In my opinion, these lyrics are good advice for anyone, no matter what gender identity they claim to have. And likewise, in her video, Cyndi Lauper represents the ways personal agency comes from a positive community of friends. In addition, her post-punk  style of dress deconstructs traditional gender roles by mixing a ridiculously out-of-date prom dress with goofy sunglasses. For literary critics, this postmodern stylistic device of mixing and mashing is called pastiche, and theorist Dick Hebdige has famously analyzed the “meaning of style” in his book on punk rock, Subculture, to show how — through such pastiche — young people culturally subverted and resisted mainstream ideas about how they should behave.

Less than a year after Cyndi Lauper’s hit, in November of 1984, Madonna released “Like a Virgin,” which in my view co-opts a lot of the liberatory potential of Lauper’s hit in a way that rearticulates women’s identities as objects of sexual desire. For a YouTube clip of her MTV Awards performance in 1984 click here, and for the original music video, click here.

Many have argued that Madonna was one of the early pop stars to create an enduring and mainstream image of women enjoying sex. Indeed, during the MTV awards, she rolls on the floor, apparently with sexual abandon and pleasure. However, in my view, both her MTV performance and her original video are not feminist in the way that Lauper’s is. When compared to “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” noticeably isolates the woman from any community. Her entire feeling of self worth is derived from being the object of male desire — a rather creepy sensibility that is totally contrary to every brand of feminism I’ve ever encountered.  In addition, Madonna’s postpunk style of dress also performs a postmodern pastiche that scandalously blends Catholic and sexual iconography, but in contrast to Lauper’s deconstruction of what it means to be sexy, Madonna’s transgressive style of dress agressively asserts and intensifies her sex appeal.

Ultimately, it would be an oversimplication to call one of these songs progressively feminist and the other reactionary. Clearly, both artists consciously and deliberately represented sexuality in a way that had political implications for how men and women relate to each other — encouraging both men and women to be open about sexuality rather than repressed. And therefore one could argue that both songs had an effect on women’s agency. Both offer transgressive and subversive representations of women, but both also emphasize pleasure-seeking over any substantial community building. Therefore, some feminists would react negatively to both videos, but in my view, it would be a mistake for feminists to eschew the importance of fun and pleasure in our daily lives, and so at the end of the day, I think both Lauper and Madonna’s representations have something to offer to the on-going, open-ended project of feminism. And that is why Updike’s character Roger is simultaneously disturbed, threatened, and sexually aroused by them.

In conclusion, I’d like to end this post with a more recent clip of what seems to me to be a strongly feminist song by singer Christina Aguilara and rapper Lil’ Kim — their 2003 hit, “Can’t Hold Us Down.”

March 25, 2009 Posted by | feminism, music | 6 Comments

“Hester’s Song” and postmodern Scarlet Letters

For the past couple of years, one of my side projects has been re-writes of Hawthorne’s  The Scarlet Letter — one of the most classic and often taught novels in American literary history. There are tons of re-writes, both high literary and pop cultural, and wikipedia has listed quite of few of them. Why so many re-writes of this one text? Perhaps the novel continues to have such resonance because young men and women continue to be subject to bizarre, contradictory peer pressures, and single mothers continue to be stigmatized. We don’t have to look far to find examples: the story that dominated the network news a month ago about a single woman having octuplets [here]… and then Anne Coulter’s recent book that accuses single mothers of being the source of all societal problems [here]…  and last year I blogged about recent movies about single mothers [here].

My favorite pop cultural version of The Scarlet Letter is the episode “Caged!” from the TV show Popular. On the more high-brow literary side, John Updike himself wrote not just one, but three novels that re-envision Hawthorne’s classic: Roger’s Version (as in Roger Chillingsworth’s version) is the best, but also S. and A Month of Sundays. And Susan-Lori Parks, the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer prize for drama, wrote two: In the Blood and Fucking A, published together as The Red Letter Plays. Then there are those that incorporate Hawthorne’s novel indirectly: Bharati Mukherjee’s Holder of the World and Maryse Condé’s I, Tituba are both terrific. One could, I suppose, call all of these “postmodern” texts (and Mukherjee and Condé “postcolonial” in addition) because of the way they take up a classic narrative and re-write it from a different perspective. (By the way, I’ve blogged about other postmodern re-writes here.)

Just a couple of days ago I read one such re-write for the first time, and it really hit me emotionally, so I want to talk about it in this blog: it’s called “Hester’s Song” by Toi Derricotte, and it comes from her book Natural Birth (1983) and was republished in Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology. Toi Derricotte was an unwed mother, and that is one of the main themes of her book. Here is the poem:

Hester’s Song
My seventeen year old son asks me if I’ve read The Scarlet Letter

              i rode you piggyback
          through groundless sky,
          the stars white foam in my face.
          they wanted to drive you
          back to namelessness,
          were jealous of the thought of you
          convulsed wide open
          and made a cave.
          i prayed
          you, miracle,
          to root through my fingers,
          grow in the spot,
          be with me.
          at night i curled over you
          guarding my rage,
          i thought you might escape
          through the crown of my head
          like a chimney.

          i lay without husband
          and drank at the stream of light.
          (how wide god is, my child,
          a pillar, he wrenched me…
          now you are with me
          like prayer.)

          clot in the night,
          thick swimming,
          hold, i say, hold:
          you are the one gold
          ever to come of alchemy.

I love how this poem begins, with the image of the pregnant woman riding her unborn child piggyback into the heavens. The image is a reversal of the normal image — the rather standard image in popular culture of a child on the father’s shoulders, riding him piggyback. In addition, Derricotte’s image creates a sense of how the mother is oddly dependent on the child rather than the other way around.

Why does she begin this way? The answer to that question may be that she is writing this poem to her son. Derricotte has provided us with an imagined situation — her son, in high school, reading The Scarlet Letter, about an unwed single mother branded with a social stigma. Naturally, Derricotte and her son are tempted to make the analogy between their situation and the situation described in the novel. Derricotte thinks about the situation as a mother would. She cares less about the social stigma that Hawthorne focused on in his novel, and instead she worries that her son will feel bad about himself… will ask her, “Mom, did you regret getting pregnant with me?” It’s a scary question, and as Jane Juffer points out in her book Single Mother, it’s a question that countless images in popular culture provoke millions of unwed mothers and their children to ask… or to feel afraid to ask. And in answer to that question, she concludes “you are the one gold ever to come of alchemy.” The poem affirms the relationship between mother and child.

But it does not do so simply or vapidly. Like the plot of Hawthorne’s novel, the poem recognizes the hostile environment in which the mother and child find themselves, and it transforms the difficulties and challenges Hester faces into a source of strength — transforms the negative  into a positive. The poem evokes a negative, uncertain void with words such as groundless, namelessness, wide open, night, ocean. But Derricotte uses these words in order to remind her son that they are rooted together. Here again, a line like the first that reverses a standard image. Normally, we think of fingers rooting or searching through something, but in her line, “i prayed you, miracle, to root through my fingers,” she says the opposite. What we would expect the subject of the sentence to be (fingers), she makes the object, and in doing so, she flips our sense of experience and perception.

The effect, I think, of her poem on the reader is one of simultaneous intimacy and alienation.

March 13, 2009 Posted by | feminism, poetry | 1 Comment

what are you?

Many times over the past few years, I’ve had conversations with colleagues, students, friends, and family about why young people today shy away from labeling themselves “feminists.” Honestly, I can’t judge my students too harshly; I suspect that I was the same way when I was 19 years old, and consequently, for pedagogical reasons, I have gradually become more emphatic in labeling myself a feminist in the classroom. In other words, I label myself this way precisely because I know that many of my students are used to thinking of feminists in terms of TV stereotypes — e.g., the somewhat mousy woman with Tevas on her feet and an androgynous hairstyle on her head. Being myself a boyish looking man in jeans, oxford shirts, and brown leather shoes, I obviously don’t fit that stereotype.

When my colleagues and I discuss our students, as we so often are wont to do during lunch, we inevitably note what we believe to be a basic irony: most of the students agree with the fundamental positions of feminism, but hardly any of them want to be labeled a feminist. For instance, “liberal” feminism typically argues for equal rights and equal access to economic and political power — what Thomas Jefferson in 1776 and later Cady Stanton in 1848 referred to as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Who would disagree with that? Not even most “conservatives” today would assert that women shouldn’t be allowed to vote, hold public office, pursue the career of their choice, or own property, even though women weren’t allowed to do any of those things not too long ago. And of course, beyond liberalism’s emphasis on “rights” — an emphasis in many ways connected to the right to own property that Stanton fought for — most of our students would also agree with modernist (e.g., the theorist Simone de Beauvoir) and postmodernist (e.g., the theorist Judith Butler) forms of feminism that question essentialist definitions of what it means to be a woman. In other words, if I say “men are from Mars and women are from Venus” in class, quoting the title of a well-known book, students are more likely to laugh than they are to nod their head. And some students would even go beyond the question of essentialism; they will go so far as to actively criticize the very structure of our society that encourages competition and mastery over cooperation and interdependency. And they would agree with all of this that I’ve just summarized and yet still shy away from the label. And as my collagues and I notice all of this apparent contradiction, we say to ourselves, “isn’t it ironic?”

But maybe we teachers are the ones missing the real irony. As I said before, I call myself a feminist in class more to make a pedagogical point than to label myself. When it comes to other labels, I too am wary of them. For instance, I run away from the word “liberal” as if it were a curse from the devil himself. I refuse to check “very liberal” on my FaceBook page or on any of the many surveys I get in the mail because it irritates me that the categories “socialist” or “communist” are not even on the list. In the surveys, I alway cross out “very liberal” and handwrite “socialist” even though I couldn’t tell you what — exactly — that means. If someone asks me, “what are you?” I am always tempted to waive the question aside or make some flippant joke. Sometimes, when I do call myself a socialist in public it is in part just to startle people out of their complacent assumption that nobody in America is one. Again, I do it to make a pedagogical point, and am not sure whether I would commit to that identity.

The label I am most willing to wear around my neck, and have worn around my neck even sometimes in the classroom, is pinko — an originally derogatory term invented in 1926 by Time Magazine to attack Americans sympathetic to communism and later used rhetorically to attack anyone in congress who might suggest we increase spending on public welfare, public education, public health care, or environmental protection. What I love about being a pinko is precisely the word’s inherent indeterminacy and irony. I can be both a liberal and a communist at the same time if I’m a pinko. It evokes an ambiguity and a sense of humor about my social position that for me are basic to my political position. (In other words, my political point of view DOES and DOES NOT — both at the same time — reflect my socio-economic circumstances and upbringing. As the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan wrote, “I think where I am not, therefore I am where I do not think.” And that’s funny, not just because it subverts Descartes’ famous “I think therefore I am,” but also because it succinctly points to the strangeness of identity and thought.)

For me, the word “pinko” expresses an important distinction made by the author James Baldwin in an interview with Terry Gross. Because he felt debilitated by the many labels attatched to him — “young negro writer” or “gay activist” — he observed that the media made him feel more concerned with what he was instead of with who he was.

I also like labeling myself a pinko because of what it suggests about my feelings about my gender. I once remarked to my girlfriend that if I walked into a bar with one friend who was straight and one friend who was gay, everyone in the bar could guess the orientations of my friends, but nobody would guess mine.

Just as many “gay” people perform some kind of “gayness” either consciously or unconsciously by adopting certain styles and mannerisms (and we’ve all seen such performances exaggerated on television), so do almost all “straight” people perform their “straightness.” The vast majority of straight people are completely unaware that they are acting just as much as any stage actor is acting when he or she performs the role of Romeo or Juliet, but they are. But although I’ve never once questioned my sexual orientation, I’ve also never felt comfortable with performing the mannerisms — what Hamlet calls the “suits and trappings” — of my sexual orientation. Many of my straight friends often seem to me to be overacting their parts, and so I’ve always felt more comfortable acting ambiguously. I do it intentionally, though not always consciously — and perhaps this is why I get hit on by gay men in bars. I confuse their “gaydar” just as much as I confuse others’ “straigh-dar.” And here in this blog, I will confess something I’ve never confessed before (except to my girlfriend): I’m proud of that. And I’m proud of the fact that gay and lesbian students have felt comfortable enough to be “out” in my classroom.

So, I too am suspicious of labels. I like being a pinko, the label that isn’t a label. And maybe for all of our students who are both feminist and not-feminist at the same time, we theorists, teachers, and bloggers ought to allow them to invent a new word — something that they can enjoy being.

And yet, what would they invent? Maybe I’m being a bit too hopeful here. After all, it’s not as if people can just invent things out of thin air, is it? As the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss (and later philosopher Jacques Derrida) wrote, people are bricoleurs — they invent new things out of the stuff that’s available to them. Maybe we still have a lot to learn from the past two hundred years of feminist theory (starting with Mary Wollstonecraft “Vindication of the Rights of Woman” published in 1792.) To illustrate my point here, let’s look at the recent presidential campaign. One could argue that Hilary Clinton’s success with millions of voters proves that we live in a post-feminist age even if she doesn’t win the primary. (On the other hand, India and Pakistan have had women presidents already, so why are we so slow?)

But something strange happened in my First-Year-Seminar this past spring that caused me to think again about feminism and identity. I had asked all my students to choose a current issue (e.g., immigration, health care, global trade policy, environmental regulation, etc.) and compare and contrast each political candidate’s position. This was before any of the voting had taken place, and my students wanted to learn this because the mainstream news generally had little say about actual issues. And so, the goal of the assignment was to focus on the issues and to get past the mainstream media’s emphasis on the candidates’ personalities and identities. For the most part, my students did a great job focusing on the details of policy rather than the rhetoric, but something happened during one of the presentations that was very interesting. For this presentation, the group used PowerPoint to insert images of each candidate’s face above a summary of each candidate’s position on the issue. When Hilary Clinton’s image appeared on the screen, a nervous giggle spread throughout the room.

     “What’s so funny?” I asked . . . . More giggles . . . pause . . . .
     Finally one student answered, “she’s funny looking.”
     Other students nodded.
     I thought for a second. “Really? Any more funny looking than the other candidates?”

For me, their giggle was a symptom of something — something deeply ingrained in our culture, but what? In class, I didn’t know what to say. She didn’t seem especially funny looking to me, and I wondered why my students thought so. And then I wondered, even if she were funny looking, what would that mean? What are women supposed to look like when they become leaders of corporations or governments? Since we know that no leader has the luxury of simply “being herself,” what kind of person did our society expect her to be, and how much did Clinton feel the weight of those paradoxical expectations? (And doesn’t this remind you of Michel Foucault’s analysis of subjectivity and Stanley Fish’s concept of “interpretive communities”?) Despite the intention of the assignment to focus on the issues rather than on personalities, the problem of “identity” had remained oddly unavoidable.

When I came home and reflected on this incident further, I was reminded that the long feminist tradition is not just an identity or a label. Instead, we can think of it as an ethical commitment to be circumspective about one’s own assumptions, to face up to one’s own repressed anxieties, to attend to the effects that collective behavior (i.e., culture) can have on individuals, and most importantly, to question the justice of disparities (whether the disparities are blatant or subtle.) After all, what was it that produced such a strange, nervous giggle in my classroom?

June 2, 2008 Posted by | feminism | 2 Comments