Avast! Feminist Conspiracy!

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Language Is A Feminist Issue

In reading a recent feature article in the Washington Post on a Catholic priest who was himself the victim of sexual abuse by another Catholic priest, I found myself feeling both sympathetic to the story at hand and on some level unsettled by the article. It took me a while to figure out why, but eventually, the feminist light went on.

The sub-title of the article is "Catholic Priest Who Was Victim of Sex Abuse Draws Fire After Speaking Out." Not "alleged victim." Not "accuser." That is, the writer believes the priest's story, and the language she uses draws the reader towards belief of his story. She speaks mostly in declaratives, not in the carefully couched maybes and "allegeds" that writers on sexual assault stories usually take on, and the story focuses on the victim's ordeal, and his loneliness, and also his suffering. The story ends with the priest, defrocked and miserable, sitting in the back of someone else's mass.

There's one other difference between this and other narratives about rape, of course: in this case, the victim is a man.

Let's compare the language in this case with the language in the Duke rape case currently grabbing headlines. In the same newspaper, news articles about the case consistently call the victim an "accuser."

Eugene Robinson's opinion piece, which focuses on the racial tensions in the case, calls the assault an "alleged rape" and cautions "It will be some time before we know what really happened that night ...and it's quite possible we'll never have a truly satisfactory answer." He also asserts that "It's not blaming the victim to ask if she couldn't have made better choices."

And Dahlia Lithwick's procedural piece on the evidence of the case stops, in the middle of a paragraph criticizing the word choices of conservative pundits*, to call the victim "this nameless accuser," as if the poor woman is responsible, on top of all her other sins**, for the press's longstanding policy of not naming rape victims.

I wonder when the Post plans to do its credulous, admiring story of a woman who has bravely fought back against classism and misogyny to put her rapists behind bars. Oh, right, never. I suppose it's much more newsworthy when a Catholic priest comes forward as a rape victim -- the Post can legitimately argue this is the case. After all, women are raped -- and disbelieved -- all the time. Nothing to see there, folks. Move along.

*read: bebowtied nitwits and pill-popping bigots
**e.g., being poor, being black, getting drugged, getting raped, choosing the lucrative sex trade instead of a McJob to pay for college, and offending Mr. Robinson with her "poor choices"

Monday, April 17, 2006

What is Mary Harron's Problem?

The Feminist Director Always Casts A Superficial Spotlight onto the Darkness

The Notorious Bettie Page follows American Psycho and I Shot Andy Warhol

Director Mary Harron is drawn to dark personalities and behaviors but is too afraid to look straight-on at what she's exploring in her movies. Because of this her movies always wind up incredibly, disappointingly shallow. They are studies of the superficial when they could and should have been so much more. It makes me wish she wouldn't bother to "explore" these topics.

First Harron did it to radical feminist Valerie Solanas, author of the SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto who famously later shot Andy Warhol. In I Shot Andy Warhol, Solanas comes off as ... a dishrag-limp personality! We're talking about an early 1970s radical who's over-the-top SCUM Manifesto continues to rile those who read it today and who, yes, then became a fixture in the art world and shot Andy Warhol. Next Harron did her distorting to Bret Easton Ellis's dark, perverse, and downright terrifying imaginings of a true American Psycho. His work was so graphic and disturbing that the book was the subject of countless protests and behind-the-scenes maneuvering by publishers and reams of newspaper commentary. Yet Harron somehow managed to distort Bret Easton Ellis's depiction into a ... light-as-air unthreatening comedy. And now it's The Notorious Bettie Page, in which Harron turns the pinup and bondage model cum symbol of burgeoning 1960s sexual freedom into ... a vapid June Cleaver twit.

Mary Harron is frustrating because she's drawn to material so rich for exploration -- this is exactly the stuff ripe for feminist discussion. Harron's impulse is to gravitate toward contemporary pop culture's most explosive personalities and behaviors and trends and patterns, but then she doesn't deliver. It's as though she's afraid of her material. She can't or won't go into the substance of what she wants to focus on, so she shoots her story in as contrived and untruthful a light as possible. She turns the terrifying and threatening and dark and perverse sides of human nature into little nothingnesses. There is nothing disturbing here to see or explore, is what she's finally saying.

That's not true, of course, and Harron's severely distorted interpretations aren't feminist filmmaking. In fact I'd argue that Harron's inability to look directly into the darkness and accurately represent what exists there is a quality endemic among a large share of the current U.S. feminist movement. And yet, like Harron, feminists also continue to do it -- to pretend to look into the darkness and describe and present what exists there when they aren't even scratching the superficial surface. It means nothing dark can really be explored or discussed truthfully in this movement and feminists, as well as Harron, apparently are happy to live with such emotionally and substantively lacking "explorations." It makes contempory U.S. feminism, and Harron's filmmaking, irrelevant to any deeper understanding of human nature or pop culture's influence on society.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Don't Let the Door Hit You On the Way Out

Katie Couric to Anchor CBS Evening News

Wave Goodbye As She Heads Off Into the Sunset

Tomorrow morning Katie Couric will announce that she'll become the first woman to anchor a major television network's evening news. This fall Couric will take over as the permanent, solo anchor of the CBS Evening News -- the nation's third-place evening newscast, which famously lost anchor Dan Rather in March 2005. It's a historic first for women. It also means Katie Couric is history.

Katherine Couric, as she called herself in her broadcast reporting until her first week as cohost of NBC's Today show, makes the move at a time when the evening network newscasts have lost almost half the audience they had 25 years ago to cable news and the Internet -- but network morning newscasts have gained viewers. The three major network morning news programs collectively generate more than $1 billion each year, which is more than twice what the evening newscasts pull in. What's more, profits generated by the morning newscasts now account for about three-quarters of the total profits earned by the networks' news divisions (and Today is the biggest money-maker and profit center of them all). Thus it shouldn't be surprising that last year Jeff Zucker, president of the NBC Universal Television Group, told the New Yorker that the morning news shows now "are driving network-television news divisions." In the same article David Westin, president of ABC News, said he envisions the morning shows as the future of network news. "I think morning television may be an early indication of where a good portion - not all - of television news is headed," he told reporter Ken Auletta. (See Auletta's "The Dawn Patrol: The curious rise of morning television, and the future of network news," The New Yorker, Aug. 8, 2005.)

Katie Couric's move can't rightly be considered a breakthrough for women when she's taking a swan dive from so lofty a power perch into the watery graveyard depths of network evening news anchors. And to top off this flamboyant and foolish decision reached out of her need to feed a gigantic ego rather than reasoned consideration, she's going to very publicly -- and very rapidly -- sink and drown.

Katie Couric's "Q ratings" have plummeted over the past five years. This is a real measurement and not some nebulous concept; for the past 40 years, a Long Island firm called Marketing Evaluations has computed what it calls "Q scores" that measure the familiarity and appeal of performers, characters, sports and sports personalities, broadcast and cable programs, and company and brand names among consumers. These scores are now an industry standard and are part of virtually all major marketing, advertising, and media efforts. From 2000 to 2004, Katie's negative Q ratings shot up 20 percent -- an unusually rapid increase in negative perception among consumers. And by 2005 her likeability score was lower than that of ... Dan Rather's.

The 25-year trend of viewers abandoning the network evening newscasts, yet flocking to the morning programs, spans a period of time 15 years longer than Couric's stint on the Today show. That pattern, combined with her precipitous drop in Q scores over the past five years (suggesting there is plenty reason Today has had to struggle so hard to stay on top), together mean Katie will soon be Yesterday's news.

Trading Sex for Housing?

My family is full of colorful characters, so it's probably a safe bet that I'm going to refer to them once in a while. Today's Colorful Relative is Cindy, a woman who married my uncle when I was a teenager, and who is rumored to have been some kind of Madam. When I was applying to colleges, Cindy told my grandmother "I don't know why GC is bothering to go to college. She's such a pretty girl, I'm sure she could find some nice, older gentleman who'd love to pay her bills!" After the shock went away (she said that to my grandma, for pete's sake!), I brushed off her comment with a big dose of naivete and went on my merry way racking up huge amounts of student loans. In my little universe, which was otherwise populated with lots of worldly stuff like friends who did hard drugs, and teenage alcoholics, it never occured to me that women actually do stuff like that.

Now, nearly 15 years later, I just ran across an article that talks about postings on Craigslist, etc that offer housing in exchange for sex, and I'm torn.

In Atlanta, an online ad offers a room in exchange for "sex and light office duty." In Los Angeles, a one-bedroom pool house is free "to a girl that is skilled and willing." And in New York City, a $700-a-month room is available at a discount to a fit female willing to provide sex.

On the widely used Web site Craigslist.org, some landlords and apartment dwellers looking for roommates are offering to accept sex in lieu of rent.

There's one part of my brain that's saying "If you're an adult and want to do this, go for it."
And another part saying "But it's likely that a woman is not doing this on a lark, to show how "edgy" she is, but doing it because she's broke and has no other choice, can easily find herself in a bad situation. Not to mention my gut is telling me that 98% of the people proposing this situation are men, who are in effect looking to either "save" a poor woman, or get off on having the power to boot a woman out if she stops putting out.

What does your brain say?

Kuwaiti women go to the polls

In a local by-election today, women in Kuwait were able to vote for the first time today, having been granted the right to do so in 2005.* As the BBC reports, there were women standing for office as well, two of eight candidates running:
Kuwait's first women candidates are 32-year-old Jenan Boushehri, a chemical engineer at the Kuwait Municipality, and 48-year-old Khalida Khader, a US-educated physician and a mother of eight.
This has already been a landmark year for women in political life worldwide, and this is another excellent example.

This details bothers me, though:
...[W]omen were required to show their faces to judges supervising the elections for the purposes of identification.

There are reports of at least one woman refusing to remove her Islamic veil and leaving the polling station without voting.
I am not at all comfortable with religious observance, one that just happens to apply to women alone, being used to disenfranchise them.

Still, this is a proud day for the feminists from Kuwait and elsewhere who lobbied for the change in the law for so many years. The article linked above is slightly out of date, but take a look at the history here:
The suffrage movement in Kuwait has a long history. In 1971, following a conference on women’s issues in Kuwait, a bill was submitted to the National Assembly granting full political rights for women. The bill was only supported by 12 of the 60 member of the Assembly. Subsequent legislative initiatives for women’s suffrage were introduced in 1981, 1986, 1992, and 1996 but political support has never been strong enough. In 1994, the Women’s Issues Network (WIN), a coordinating committee for 22 non-governmental organizations, launched a Blue Ribbon Campaign in support of women’s rights to vote and to stand for elected office. The campaign aims to raise public awareness about the exclusion of women in Kuwait from political participation. On 28 October 2000, a public demonstration was held in front of the National Assembly at the commencement of its fourth session, calling for the amendment of the Election Law to give women the right to vote.
I've said it before in this forum and others, but I love to celebrate our feminist successes. It seems all the sweeter when years of diligent effort result in social changes like this. Perhaps I am an idealist, but I believe that victories like this are not only good for women, they are good for the countries in which they occur, not to mention the rest of the world.

Back at BBC News, Dr. Khader said it best:
"I am so pleased that I have become one of the first Kuwaiti women candidates to run in elections," Dr Khader said in an interview with AFP news agency.

"I have broken the ice and hope this will benefit the cause of women."
I hope so, too. Best of luck to both you and Ms. Boushehri, and congratulations.