Not Much Has Changed

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I was reading Breeze Harper’s piece on racist and misogynist trolling of her website Sistah Vegan a few days ago and thinking how little has changed for black intellectuals in North America. Breeze mentions how she has advanced degrees from prestigious universities, honors, and awards that should make her word hold some weight. However, as a post-colonial reading of Merleau-Ponty quickly points out the imagined black Other supersedes that of any disconfirming information. So we are always ignorant until proven smart. Always race baiting haters until we allow racism to run rampant on our sites or bow down to the know it all white expert who is likely reading an uncited bastardization of our own text back to us incorrectly. And so on.

What struck me most reading Breeze’s article was not just the long list of educational credentials that amount to nothing in the face of whiteness, but also the fact that she has been harassed by so-called Buddhists for daring to participate in decolonizing wellness practices. Not only does this seem decidedly anti-Buddhist, but it touches very close to home. You see, I have a white male Buddhist in my life, through no fault of my own, who is consistently harassing me about my intersectional politics and my desire for equal treatment at the university. He denies that there is any sign of discrimination in the classrooms he oversees and yet there are multiple complaints about racism, sexism, and homophobia overheard in the halls, claimed to be written on the evals, and most importantly several students and one faculty member have threatened to sue over oppressive behavior or pedagogical choices. He calls me unstable when I advocate for myself or others, and has literally told people to stay away from me if they want to succeed in our profession. Once, he even maligned my family and allegedly physically threatened a gay male colleague. But when anyone who he cannot menace asks him about the rumors about his behavior, he laughs and falls back on his Buddhism as proof that he would never harass students and faculty of color, queer students and faculty, women, or differently-abled people. He talks about his spirituality and its call for authenticity that he takes seriously and even publishes about. When backed into a corner, he even beats his chest and talks about his own experiences of being bullied in school and all the poor black families he worked with when he was young.  He, like the Buddhist in Breeze’s post, is accessing whiteness through the lens of “good person”, i.e. the idea that because he practices benevolent spirituality he has already conquered oppression not only in his own mind but in any arena in which he enters or controls. As such, he has the right to silence and deny evidence of oppression and the need to heal from it coming from the people most likely to know what it looks like: the oppressed. Unlike the spectres in Breeze’s article however, he is not a pimple faced kid hiding at an internet cafe or in the back room of the Women’s Studies class he hopes will get him dates all the while resenting nothing else was open in this time slot. He is a tenured department chair. A real live, living breathing man, with the power to shape minds and marginalize and oppress those he does not see as fit to complain.

This is why I started with the image above. You see, it was not too long ago that schools were segregated and people had to fight to get access to good educations. It was not too long ago that students had to walk out to see themselves reflected in the curriculum. And in fact, despite these huge gains often met with unspeakable emotional and physical violence from the “good people” brigade, the reality is that very little has changed. Key historical figures in the history of social justice in this country are slowly being removed from history books. Important people of color, queer people, and women are being slowly erased and their contributions being usurped by the assumption that the men in the books did it first. Differently-abled and trans folks have very seldom if ever seen themselves in the textbooks and when they do, it is often with their identities completely washed away. The demographics of schools are also showing a rise in re-segregation and the middle and high school level which leads to even more “Real World encounters” at the university level. Just last year I had a student tell me that she had never had to be in a class with a black person before meeting me and another tell me that she lived in a neighborhood where the police would escort me out if I ever visited. But the Chair swears this is a safe place for students of color to learn and faculty of color to teach, all though there are no faculty of color to speak of in his department if you do not count us fellow cross-listing faculty, none.

So, what does it all mean? Ultimately, while Breeze’s piece resonated with me on so many levels from shared experience in and outside of the blogosphere to the myths I internalized about education and meritocracy without even realizing it, I have to disagree with the premise. I do not believe that trolls are the stuff of the internet. I work with trolls every day and in this climate they are empowered to troll me with the goal of making me break without any consequences. Like the girl pictured above, I sit in classrooms with students who literally point and say snide things about the way I smell, how I do my hair, the things I find important and meaningful, etc. and when I discuss it with other faculty, I often see folks who are lead by the likes of Dr. Crackhead or worse Mr. Buddhist-light, whose capacity for emotional sadism rivals any white supremacist in the history books or outside of it. (Material added 4/27/13) To be clear, the N word, “black bitch”, and the like have all been said to my face or the face of my colleagues at one time or another in our careers; one can only wonder what these “colleagues” and instructors call us behind closed doors or with the not-so-invisible veil of the internet. (End of added material)

Something has gone horribly wrong with us as a nation when we have already fought the battle of equal education and seen its toll, only to let it slip through our fingers. Something has gone horribly wrong with us as a people when we have looked on lynching images and read about how group think works, and we let our classrooms slip back into seethingly invalidating environments egged on by the person in the front of the room or their boss. I write this, with no answers, as one person trying to change it, speaking to all of you readers who I hope are doing the same. Let’s join our thoughts and our voices and our strength because otherwise it will be too late.

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Glee Fail?

I love Glee. I love Joss Whedon. And oh yes, I love Neil Patrick Harris as long as he is singing or typing out a late night journal entry after a hard day at the hospital or trying to take over the world … And who hasn’t rocked out to Aerosmith’s Dream on at least once, perhaps during a road trip?

While some have criticized the show for its snarky take on queer identity (from gay predator stereotypes, to bitchy lesbians, to negative references to transgender identity), I would argue that the queer content on Glee is often about insider speak and satire. Unlike offensive material that claims satire status, Glee is actually written and portrayed by members of the queer community who are exaggerating long told insider jokes and outsider fears in order to both amuse and provoke. And while they often come very close to the line in this vein, particularly for a mixed audience, they have been largely successful at raising the bar of entertainment while giving people things to talk about and consider in ways they might never have otherwise.

Last night’s show promised to be a queer extravaganza with resident bad girl Sue fighting for her program budget while NPH belted out classic rock under the wise and wry direction of none other than Whedon himself. I was giddy with the idea of it since the previews last week! And Whedon delivered from minute one, when he brought us that mix of tender and treacherous love in the relationships between Glee members and between NPH and his microphone. The comic timing in some of those scenes was only matched by the musical timing of the two male leads.

So imagine how sad I was that they coupled this genius with ableist diatribes about how impossible dreams are if you are not able bodied.

There has been a lot of controversy from disability rights advocates over Glee’s decision to cast an able-bodied actor to play wheelchair bound Artie. In some ways, I think last night’s episode of Glee was a pathetic attempt to respond to those criticisms by having Artie get up out of his chair and do an entire dance sequence that would have been impossible for someone who actually had the character’s spinal injuries. Regardless of whether it was a response or not however, the message was clear: being able-bodied is great and being differently-abled sucks.

In an episode in which everyone featured is trying to fulfill their dreams, Artie is the only one who does not succeed. Rachel finds her mother. Rachel’s mother finally gets the chance to be with the child she has mourned losing her whole life. Rachel’s boyfriend, who was a suspected villain, realizes he loves her fulfilling his unspoken dream of finding love as well as Rachel’s desperate desire to be loved by someone other than her dads. Mr. Schuster gets his dream role in Les Mis. The Glee Club gets a huge budget increase and the subsequent chance for all of them to fulfill their musical aspirations. NPH’s character gets to go back to his love of music and shed his bitterness at not making it the first time around. But what does Artie get? Artie gets a dream sequence where he gets out of his wheelchair to dance while actually sitting alone in the mall waiting for his girlfriend to bring back pretzels from the second floor; apparently this is the only mall in N. America that does not have elevators.

Thus while everyone else is reaching for their dreams Artie’s gets thrown in the trash, literally and figuratively. At the beginning of the episode NPH takes the piece of paper that Artie has written his biggest dream on, crumbles it, and throws it out in front of everyone. While Tina, Artie’s girlfriend, initially tries to help him make his dreams come true by helping choreograph a tap sequence for them to do together, a particularly humiliating moment in Artie’s own internalized ableism leads her to adopt the ableist mantra of the show. By the episode’s end, Tina is handing Artie internet research on how to regain mobility and dancing with someone else while Artie sings Dream a Little Dream. As if this isn’t pathetic enough, Quinn, the blonde, blue-eyed, ex-cheer leader who lost her popularity and got shuffled to the background for getting pregnant, rubs Artie’s back with a consoling “poor, sad, sad, boy in wheelchair” look on her face mid-way through the song.

(I wish they had video showcasing all of Auti Angels moves with her music, but most are bad recordings)

Tina’s counterpoint, the guidance counselor, does not offer an alternative way for Artie to meet his dreams  either. While she could have pulled out a myriad of videos like the ones dotting the rest of this post, of successful dancers who do all of the styles Artie likes, she simply offers us her doe-eyed pity for the boy in the wheelchair. Worse, she tells him “you will never walk again” not as a wake up call to his own ableism but in commiseration with his supposed great loss. Thus the only “triumphant moment” left for Artie is to accept his “own limitations” and give up his dreams. In dialogue that clearly appeals to the way able-bodied people view differently-abled people’s lives, Artie smiles into the camera and says it is ok that he doesn’t get to dance because he can do other stuff “really well” …

Linking racial narratives and ableist ones, Artie’s story ends with him singing a solo while his girlfriend dances with the only other Asian in the cast (a boy who has been referred to as “other Asian guy” in a tongue-in-cheek reference to how racial casting happens in Hollywood). Every single song Artie sings this episode serves to reinforce the idea that he is broken and pathetic.

The layers of wrong here could fill an entire book. Instead I am going to simply say, that one of the most moving ballets I have ever seen was done by a mixed ability dance troupe. Their performance was visually stunning not because wheelchair dancers contradicted the ableist expectations of the audience but because they, and their fellow dancers, moved with such grace and emotion that it left the audience silently moved and wanting more. As a girl who spent far too much time in a pink tutu, I wish I could dance half as well.

While Glee cannot imagine a world in which able-bodied people are happy (remember last week’s Laryngitis episode which included the paralyzed football player in his dark, lonely, bedroom?), those of us with disabilities and people who have moved beyond ableism recognize that our lives are not just tragic morality tales for weeping women in the background. In fact,  whole competitions have sprung up around the world for differently-abled dancers:

While it is true that there are things that we cannot do based on our bodies’ abilities, this is true for everyone. What separates our experiences is the disabling expectations of able-bodied people that tells differently-abled people “your dreams will never come true” and “your highest aspirations are to be like us but you can’t.” Neither of these are true and perhaps if McHale had cast a differently-abled actor as Artie he would not have approved such a horrible fail in the midst of such an exciting episode. It’s sad to think that none of the genius represented on the writing staff or by the guest stars and directors for this episode led anyone to question the message(s) being sent about difference and success.

All the Promises We Made …

Post edited for clarity and grammar

Long time readers know that I hate commitments. I try not to make them on the blog because inevitably I fail to keep them. Perhaps I have a problem with authority … (yes, I hear you laughing & it’s ok, I am laughing with you). Nevertheless, I really, really, meant to do a Friday health post every Friday. Truly I did … but as per usual, life got in the way.

So here’s the harsh truth, I didn’t fulfill my commitment to walking 30 minutes a day every day this week with GirlTrek. As a person with disabilities that impact my mobility, any commitment to long term, sustained, movement is refracted through what my body is or is not capable of on any given day. This of course runs counter to the Reagan era slogan “anyone can walk 30 minutes a day” that has been repeated from the top down so often that no one even stops to consider the limits of ability; or worse, they assume those limits are a direct result of your lack of participation not that your participation depends on the lack of your limits. In this discourse of health, there is no room for modification. The belief that large women or inactive women are sloth-like and differently-abled people are whiners who have internalized their own victimhood are embedded at every level of the Western world’s obsession with “health.” In fact, the discourses of health currently circulated in the U.S. have far more in common with eugenicism than the people supporting them seem to understand. The emphasis on perfect bodies and “restraint” as a sign of “moral fortitude” coupled with societally accepted judgment and even threat of harm against those whose bodies, and even attitudes, fail to conform to an arbitrary ideal were the precursors to several genocides on our planet. While the conflict has often been shaped along the lines of fatphobia and “health”, the hidden targets have always been differently-abled people who fat or thin may not be able to meet these able-bodied norms.

Since I live in the land of the able-bodied, my abilities are hidden, and at least with regards to my mobility issues they are adult onset, I find myself often succumbing to the myth of universal ability. While I would never expect others to bend their bodies to an able-bodied norm, I still, occasionally, believe that I can. So on Monday morning of last week, despite all the warning signs, I laced up my tennis shoes, got our two endurance walker dogs leashed up, and began my trek. My thoughts were simple: The pain you feel in your leg is psychosomatic, if you just do it, it will go away. Raise your hands if you have ever been told that your not really differently-abled, it’s your diet or your lack of exercise that is in the way? When other people say it, I call ableist fail, when I said it to myself I just let that internalized lie take me straight into the mouth of pain.

10 blocks later, I could not walk at all. My knee buckled underneath me and sent me to the ground. Sitting there in a crumpled heap on the sidewalk, I remembered the day that I permanently damaged muscle, bone, spine … I remembered all the rehab and the way my colleagues treated me. In the first week they were sympathetic, in the second they began to wonder why I was not better since I was “not in a cast.” By the third week they began to act as though I was faking it and by month’s end I had been summarily dismissed from multiple curriculum, awards, and fellowship committees “due to non-attendance” as if my 5 days a week of physical therapy was optional and their decision to hold meetings during those hours was not. I could not even get into my office because the door into the building was made extra heavy to keep out the cold, so heavy that neither I nor anyone in a wheel chair could ever hope to get the door open on our own & the genius who designed the building put the buzzers on the inside doors but not the outside ones. Imagine for a moment being reprimanded for not holding office hours in a building where you have to literally wait for up to 30 minutes in the ice and the snow for some student or colleague to come by to open the door for you … Come to think of it, that was the year I decided to leave Snooty Poo U.

Luckily, I live on a fairly active street. Young kids run up and down it, several dog owners walk their dogs through it, and yes, the gang bangers down the street hold huge summits and drug runs through it as well. In fact, it was one of the latter who helped me up. He looked at me, sitting on someone’s lawn with my dogs, smiled, and asked if I could stand up. If I were just a little more bourgeois, I might have said yes and waited like a dumba** for someone else to come and help. (And to be clear, no able bodied middle class folk who passed me that morning offered to help before he came by.) Instead of internalizing race and class based fear, the way some of the gentrifying new neighbors did when they crossed the street to avoid walking by me, I told him the truth.  He in turn reached his large tatted arm out to me, so I could grab it and lift myself. The gesture, designed to allow me to have the most power possible in a situation in which I needed an aid to get to my feet, made me wonder if he had differently-abled relatives or had learned how to be helpful to differently-abled people without ablism in some class. Sad thing is, even when people are helping you, most of them do it in a way that infantalizes you and renders you dependent.

He walked me back to my house, while taking a phone call.

When we got there, he said “You know mami, you look good in sweats but maybe you should go to the gym or somethin’ where they have people to watch out for you.” Ya se fue his anti-ablism in sea of sexism meant to make me feel better about by abilities. It’s ok that I can’t walk because I am pretty …

Two days later, when I could feel my leg again, I laced up my shoes again. This time I was listening to my body and my body said, “walk for 30 minutes, ehh, let’s make it an hour.” I didn’t need people to watch out for me like an infant, I needed to watch out for myself.

And as I came around the large hill back down toward my neighborhood, the gang bangers car with the painted faces for every person they’ve “dealt with” drove by me. It slowed and then backed up right against the curb where I was. The boy who helped me two days before leaned out the window, and asked “You got this profesora or you need a ride” and his boys laughed at his double entendre.

I smiled back and said “If I get a ride, then how is the whole neighborhood gonna know how good I look in my sweats?!?”

As they drove away, my mind wandered back to the way our culture ties concepts of beauty to the myth of healthy bodies to able bodied norms. I thought about how my tumble days before had forced me to face my own internalized ableism, turned solely in on myself, and the way my two exchanges with the young man from my neighborhood both deconstructed and reinforced the connections between sexism, ableism, and “health” that underpin oppressions even as it undermined discourses of class and the engendering of fear. For a moment, I was embodied theory; my life, was the reminder that our discourses disable and only when we look past them can we really succeed. It is not about being a supercrip or the cool professor who can hang with the gangbangers, it is about moving past isms to listen to oneself and one’s own body to do what is right for not only your own survival but ultimately everyone else’s.

So, I didn’t walk for 30 minutes a day this past week. I walked when my body said it was ok and I swam when it did not. And some days I staid home. And while that may not fly with any program that assumes “everyone can walk for 30 minutes a day” (a statement put out by the government and physicians invested in the “get healthy” movement, not by GirlTrek itself), I’m done internalizing the ableism.

—–

Please note, that everyone’s abilities are different and that some people can and do walk every day without incident. As the images from the paralympics show, differently-abled athletes challenge the normative thinking that differently-abled people are handicapped by their abilities and therefore unable to do sports or to compete. The reality is, assuming anyone can or cannot do something on the basis of their ability is based on ableist assumptions. We know our bodies and we know how to listen to them. And like everyone else, we do have days where not wanting to do something manifests physically and has nothing to do with our ability to do that thing, and most of us can and do differentiate between those moments and actual physical limitations. The point of my story is that I chose not to listen to my body in order to fit into a discourse of health that blatantly ignores, erases, or punishes physical difference and what I learned about myself from it.

All images come from the Beijing Paralympics and are unattributed.

Another Racist-Sexist Comic About Obama? Say it Ain’t So …

Like many people in academe, the blogosphere, or simply interested in equality, I am keeping track of some of them more heinous examples of offensive-marginalizing thinking about the President of the U.S., the Obama Administration, and political figures in general. I am particularly interested in those images that combine racism and sexism or homophobia and what they tell us about the underlining anxieties of so-called “middle America.”

One of the common tropes in this vein has been “Obama as rapist” or misogynist, which rely on the myth of the black rapist. This discourse was most prevalent during the primaries and was mobilized by people on both the left and the right. In general, people on the Left tended to be more careful about the way they talked about Obama’s interactions with Clinton and their “suspicions” about his thoughts on women in general. Their assumptions about his seemingly-inherent misogyny and crafting of him as dismissive of domestic and sexual violence coupled with language used to describe his interactions with Clinton and other women was distinct from those who actively criticized specific policies or decisions Obama had actually been involved in. On the right, the black rapist image, ala Birth of a Nation, was much more common than any “subtle” attempts at link black political aspirations and white women’s safety. After Clinton was defeated, this discourse died down on the Left, but many of their tactics were then adopted/adapted by the Right to discuss Obama vs. Palin alongside the pre-existing racist paranoia about black male misogyny and sexualized violence. Now that he is President, political discourse has seemed to move on to much more nefarious and ubiquitous fears but the anti-Health Care protesters and anti-government protesters have continued to keep the threat alive with some of their signs and slogans.

I analyze many of the images in the slideshow below in the Anti-Obama Sign link at the top of the blog but wanted to give you some of the images here before launching into an a close reading of the latest racist-sexist cartoons from Darleen Click depicting Obama as rapist of N. America.  Because wordpress slideshow does not allow you to use more than one slideshow in a post, I am unable to just post the sexist posters here and keep the racist (sans sexism) posts until the end; pls note that the “black in white” image is actually a Russian ad and the Palin shoe ad was originally a completely different image used in England, all others come from the U.S. (it takes a while to load, but you can scroll down and read the post while waiting)

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The latest entry comes from Darleen Click, a conservative blogger and photographer/cartoonist who currently writes at the arch-conservative blog Protein Wisdom. (Frighteningly, that blog is run by an academic who teaches somewhere in Colorado after a fairly prestigious education.) Last week, Click made one of the most blatant racist-sexist cartoons to date:

The image made the rounds of conservative blogs, who mostly praised it, with little attention from mainstream media. It replaces a particular woman, Clinton or Palin, with Lady Liberty in an attempt to capitalize on both racialized sexism and ongoing unfounded fears about the state of N. America. Like the older white woman who cried out “I want my America back” at a rally late last year, this image speaks to the idea many people seem to hold that by nature of his blackness, President Obama is anti-American. Harkening back to Birth of a Nation, the image also equates black leadership with sexual threat as a metaphor to socio-political threat, ie the insatiable black man will not only rape white women but his appetites and lack of restraint, ie civility, will ultimately bring down the nation. This is classic projection given the founding of this country and the examples of colonial and slave rape in the Americas that is an integral part of U.S. nation-building or Manifest Destiny. It is also ironic in the wake of an endless number of scandals involving Conservative representatives cheating on their wives, implicated in the disappearances of female staffers, and/or under investigation for sexual harassment of both male and female, of and under age, staffers at this time. And while Democrats are certainly not immune to these scandals (notably Clinton and Edwards) they do not belong to a party that links sexual morality with political aptitude. While President Obama has been the happy family man hard at work, many white male Neo-Cons in the government have compromised their effectiveness in Office or lost positions, like Governor, and one time Presidential hopeful, Mark Sanders precisely because they cannot keep it in their pants.

Sexual scandals aside, this image mobilizes the black rapist. Note how the bubble above Obama’s head references “consent.” In a single image, Click captures the fears of many conservatives (and more than a few bigoted liberals) about Obama sullying the nation through unbridled and wanton desires. In reality those desires include Health Care, Immigration Reform, Reproductive Rights (and Wrongs), and Mediated Gay Rights. Rather than addressing the issues, which would require moving beyond political pundits’ talking points and critically engaging information about the nation’s needs, women’s bodies have once again become the political proving ground. The “innocent white woman” sits shamed by the “scary rapist black man” because the conflation of sexism and racism are images that ultimately undergird the founding of this nation. At it’s heart, not only does this discourse rely on the obvious racism of black male licentiousness, misogyny, and violence but also on the equally heinous sexism of women as property (ie one wins or loses by sullying “another man’s woman”) and sexist racism of white women as virtuous (which allows white men to justify any number of violent acts including lynching, burning down whole towns, or driving out whole communities).

Some conservatives did criticize Click for going too far, as did some liberals. In response, Click made a second cartoon in which she removed the rape image while still calling it up in her cartoon title:

Title: Consent

In this version, Nancy Pelosi, who is equally vilified, replaces Lady Liberty in a venue calling up the decline of the Roman Empire. To the unaware, Click is seemingly mixing metaphors in which she conflates Obama’s presidency with a legitimated part of Euro-American civilization (ie the Romans) at the same time she hopes to criticize his leadership. Yet, she deconstructs the idea of Rome as civilized past through Judeo-Christian symbolism in which conservatives will recognize the Romans as people who oppressed not only Jews but also Christians and killed Jesus. Thus Clark gives us a Rome that we should recognize as not only in decline but on its way to ruin precisely because of its lack of “Godliness” another key trope of the right which equates blackness with demon/heathen and has mobilized this discourse both through anti-Muslim sentiment (calling Obama a Muslim while at the same time criticizing his Christian Pastor) and condemnation of his efforts in Haiti (remember Robertson and his “deal with the Devil” comments?).

The racialized sexist metaphors shift only slightly here. Pelosi still acts as sullied virtue in this image only this time she is sullied by her willingness to “be in bed” with a black man. Thus the narrative of racial purity replaces that of racial aggression in which white women still appear as arbiters of virtuous and as property. The virtuous woman in this cartoon is still Lady Liberty. Though not pictured, she acts as the absent woman who has been taken advantage of by the wanton woman who by aligning with the black man has clearly lost perspective on the nation and accomplice to its demise. This interpretation also relies on engendered classism, in which Lady Liberty is the working class every woman to Pelosi’s aristocratic decadence. She is the silent partner to the “beggar” who comes to Obama and Pelosi looking to save his livelihood. Once again the image tells the tale of a white nation under siege in which virtuous women suffer because of a despotic black man and the race traders at his side.

I’ve said this before, I often marvel at how certain, outspoken and/or activist, white women will sublimate their own gender equality in the face of white privilege. In each of Click’s images women are acted upon, not actors. They have no power and no leadership, they are simply symbols for the political jockeying of men (beggars or politicians doesn’t matter). Their sole contribution to the nation is depicted as one of sexual fidelity or lack thereof, in which their sexual purity (ie racial purity) is the measure of their commitment to the nation. For women like Click, who is clearly committed to an active role in her political future and in building the version of the nation she would like to see, how does this image gel with their own contributions? How can they depict themselves as perpetual victims and sexual objects when they so clearly do not live their lives this way? Like the history of class antagonism in this country, which was consistently quelled by mediated extension of white privilege, these women seem to believe that access to whiteness trumps access to engendered subjecthood.

Ultimately, it is not President Obama who will cost this nation its success but the multiple fears mobilized by Clark and others and the willingness to sacrifice one’s actual liberty for the promise of access to limited and often fleeting, at least for the working class and rural communities building the groundswell of the neo-con movement, to whiteness.

Link Luv Sunday

A lot went on in our world while I was sick and/or overworked (yes including all the late diss chapters I had to read during Spring Break, cue violins) so I thought some link love was in order to cover some of the issues I have not here at the blog and to honor some of the voices holding it down across the internet. Since it is still Women’s History Month and yours truly has failed so miserably in doing her own feminist spotlight posts, I have linked to several folks who did use their blogs to honor and highlight specific women throughout the month.

  • Swandiver – Michelle Alexander: The New Jim Crow highlights a talk by Alexander about her new book and the civil rights inequities that remain in the U.S. through the loopholes provided in the prison-industrial-complex
  • National Center for Transgender Equality – breaks down what the new Health Care Reform Bill means for trans communities trying to meet their health care needs
  • Guerilla Mama – “The Buddha, The Dharma, and the Sangha” – a painfully poetic discussion about the intersections of race, class, gender, nation, love, and family through the eyes of a black immigrant who survives an attempted rape (trigger warning)
  • Alexis – Happy Birthday Toni Cade Bambara – another informative and celebratory contribution from Alexis and her Black Feminist Mind Project
  • Vivir Latino – “19 years without justice” – 19 year old hate crime against a Dominican youth still not solved, yet his mother keeps the pressure on
  • Vegan About Town – Nacho Cheese Dip and Nacho Cheese Nachos because I was sick most of the week and unable to eat much, I got really enthralled by blogs about food (what the comic industry has referred to as food porn blogs b/c they make you drool) and I was particularly excited by how yummy Steph made this recipe sound since I am a picky eater & don’t eat anything with too much melted vegan cheese because of the melt quality (I like almond based cheeses for eating & soy based for melting but the latter only in small amounts)
  • Asian American Lit Fans – much like Feminist Review, this livejournal site offers accessible reviews of new and old fiction by API Americans and should just be a must read in general for anyone who loves books
  • Nezua – “Invisible: Thoughts on Immigration Rally in DC” – not only does Nezua look at the complexities of the reform in succinct text but he also has a powerful slideshow of photos from the event at the bottom of the post.
  • Viva La Feministe – “The Fly Girls are Finally Golden” – learn about the civilian women who helped win world war II but got little back for their service
  • The Green Belt Movement – “GBM Celebrates International Women’s Day” – truthfully I am just sending you to this blog to give you an example of what decolonized grassroots feminist environmentalism looks like.
  • Claire @ Hyphen Magazines – “Women’s History Month Profiles” – spotlights on Asian American feminists and women activists
  • Mark Anthony Neal  – “Women’s History Month Classic: Say My Name” – I happened to love this film and I teach it pretty regularly as a counterpoint to “the video ho” image of hip hop (of course I also like to trot out Tawny Kitaen for that purpose as well) so it was nice to see someone review this classic as part of women’s history month.
  • Annaham “Invisible Illness and Disability Bingo” – this post is old, but I just got sent there by vegans of color blog, and I have to tell you that as a person with “hidden” disabilities, not only have I experienced everything on that list but, like Damali Ayo’s rent-a-negro cards, I wish I had a stack of these to pass out to co-workers and family members whenever they made light of what it is like to be differently-abled

Happy Reading!

Go Ask Alice Pt I (Burton’s Alice in Wonderland Review, Spoilers)

I’ve recently returned home from a disappointing Alice in Wonderland. Like many other people, I think my expectations were too high. When you hear Tim Burton and Johnny Depp in the same sentence it almost always means something magic, add to that a mythical world of upside down that is really right side up, and how can you go wrong? Well …

Alice in Wonderland/Burton

Plot

An adult Alice, age 19, returns to Wonderland to avoid a forced marriage proposal and finds herself a key figure in the counterrevolutionary plot to overthrow the Red Queen and reinstate the White one. Accompanying her on her journey are all of the familiar characters from the original novel and a few new ones.

Feminism


I was almost immediately taken out of the film by the trite mobilization of banal “feminist issues” in the beginning of the movie. Don’t give me a sad morality tale about a “poor girl” and a boorish aristocrat, “spice it” w/ a cheating husband, and expect me to be politically moved, especially if you intend to drop the whole thing for “the real story” later anyway. Let’s get clear, Burton’s re-imagined Alice is feminist enough without this transparent packaging. She is courageous, strong, clever, and loyal. She also single-handedly bests or subdues several beasts in this film and stays true to herself no matter what others want or expect of her. Though powerful in Wonderland, Alice is reduced to caricature by a script that has her rehashing a trite marriage plot at the beginning of the film, then simply dodging it at the end by telling off ever single person involved, one after the other, in a far too tidy ending.

Worse, Alice’s seeming empowerment when she rejects the marriage, fails to empower any of the other women present. She does not tell her sister about her husband’s infidelity, though she does warn him that she is watching him, nor does she stand up for her mother or her aunt. Instead, she tells her “crazy aunt” whose “crime” is not getting married, and being driven slightly crazy by the judgment she endures as a result, that she needs to get over her fantasy life because no one is coming to marry her. What could have been a moment of shared triumph between Alice and her Aunt as self-directed women with active fantasy lives, turns into an ugly and dismissive gesture that seems to utterly contradict the empowerment Alice is supposed to have gained through her own fantasy world.

Nor is Alice’s empowerment very meaningful in and of itself. Moments after claiming the right to go her own way, she proposes a plan to the man who has bought her father’s company to increase their profits. There is no attempt by Alice to get the company back, presumably bought because women cannot be left in charge. While this is at least historically accurate, in the next breath the new head of the company offers Alice an “apprenticeship” for her ideas. It’s her father’s company and her ideas, yet she is not offered anything like the inheritance she would have gotten were she a man nor that she has earned on her own. You can’t have it both ways. If we are going to stick to history, Alice could not have been an apprentice sailing off to China on her own and if we are going to offer fantasy with a feminist twist, then why not give her mother back the company or at least partnership in it?

Race


There are no people of color in Alice in Wonderland. There is however colonialism. Not only does Alice resolve the unwanted marriage proposal with an individualized rant at various people, but she also proposes that her father’s company expand to China. This seems harmless enough, but colonial and Asian historians will shutter at the image of young blond blue-eyed Alice helming a boat to “open the markets in China” at film’s end. What is sad is that this is the way many white women in Victorian England escaped marriage and found empowerment, ie boarding boats and participating in colonialism to increase their station in life.

I also found myself thinking for the very first time: are there ever people of color in Tim Burton’s films? The answer that came back was telling since it hits on the next issue, dis/ability … The only film I could think of was Big Fish in which two Asian American women play conjoined twins.

Dis/Ability and Physical Difference


One of the things I have always loved about Burton is the way he embraces the strange, unique, and different. His worlds have always offered us characters that live outside the norm and often invite scorn from normative characters who turn out to be the more flawed. In the magical worlds of Burton unique characters are central, movingly human, and illuminating. While Alice in Wonderland gives us some of that in Johnny Depp’s Hatter, there is very little elsewhere.

In fact, the story hinges on a conflict between two Queens, the good one is able bodied and all white (except for some black eyebrows and black nail polish) in an all white world, and the bad one is best known for her big head and even bigger temper. The Red Queen’s head is the source of endless speculation, mockery, and even an ablist comment from the White Queen about her mental health as evidenced by her physical appearance. As if the emphasis on the Red Queen’s physical difference were not bad enough, everyone in the Red Queen’s court has some kind of physical issue. There are women with huge noses, ears, and pointed breasts, and men with paunches and eye patches. No human in her court is without some visible physical difference and everyone in her court is in some way morally corrupt.

Even though it is later revealed that most of the people in her court are faking it, the film fails to make the connection between their passing and their fear of the Red Queens judgment. While it would be easy to interpret the court as sycophants who exaggerated their features in order to suck up to the Red Queen, 1. this continues to center physical difference as a sign of corruption and failure and 2. Burton and the screenwriters do not do enough to depict the Red Queen’s court as three dimensional characters who both fear and loath her enough to act this way. Instead, the exaggerated body parts are played for comic effect and then torn off when needed to move the plot forward, much like Alice’s real world feminist dilemmas. Worse, the only two people punished at film’s end have actual physical differences while all of the able bodied characters on both sides remain free.

(It should be noted however, that characters with mental differences are actually on the side of the White Queen. While this does balance out the dis/ability issues on one level, mental health issues are no less positive in this film. Instead, we are given a hare who looks like someone chewed it up and spit it out, who mutters to himself and throws things at everyone’s head, while he is universally ignored and the Hatter whose bouts of PTS are often sharply corrected by Alice as if his abilities are a choice. Thus while their presence contradicts the differently-abled=bad, able-bodied=good paradigm, they do little to correct ablism in general nor the emphasis on physical difference as evil. Honestly, the ablism in this film is incredibly jarring given Burton’s classic, Edward Scissor Hands, and his wonder-inducing embrace of difference in all of his films.)

Character development in general is one of the major flaws of this film. Very few human creatures in this film are three dimensional. As a result, Burton’s attempts at visually deconstructing them is often lost. Like the ablist portrayal of sycophants in the Red Queen’s court, the White Queen’s constant pose with her hands “just so” like a fairy from Cinderella fails to resonate as a critique of her “overwhelming goodness” precisely because she herself never moves beyond the flat representation she embodies. Since the film ends with her win over the Red Queen, there is no structural critique of the “good queen” archetype either. Burton’s more subtle reference to the White Queen’s decision to study undead arts does a better job, but it is a fleeting glimpse at his genius that is otherwise sorely absent here.

The conflict between the two Queens and how it plays out also contradicts the trite nod to feminism at the beginning of the film. In Wonderland, we are given a world in which female leadership is reduced to “who is more loved.” Though the Red Queen makes references to the difference in the way she and her sister, the White Queen, were treated growing up, no real attention is paid to her complaints. Her desperation to be loved is played for comic relief and scorn rather than presented as a possible counternarrative to ablism linked to physical difference. And while Alice’s entrance into the conflict re-centers female power, both Queen’s wage their war with male champions, male spies, and male heroes prior.

Animals


On the positive side, most of the animals in Alice and Wonderland are far more complex than the 2-D humans. For the most part, their motivations and their desires are well thought out and their loyalties and actions convey a complexity that the original story relied upon. Alan Rickman’s caterpillar is appropriately condescending and wise. I think his casting was a stroke of genius even if his delivery of the famous line “who are you” was not slowed down enough for my liking. The Cheshire Cat’s comedic timing was also a highlight of the film.

The animation related to the animal characters is where the creative team shines. For the most part, I don’t think this film needed to be in 3 D as much of its wonder is no more spectacular than any 2D Burton film (which is both a compliment to Burton’s previous vision and a slight against the rush to 3 D film in Hollywood). While some of the animation for the dog was somewhat questionable at times, the animation for the Cheshire Cat made me fall in love with this character all over again.

Interestingly, despite their centrality, the Red Queen only keeps animals who can help her oppress others and like the humans of her court, she keeps them in line through cruelty. At least one of the animals in her court has its eye torn out and nothing is done to heal it. When Alice returns the creature’s eye, it in turn heals Alice’s wound. So there is some subtle comment on animal rights here as well, it is just too bad that it is still couched in the physical difference narrative of the film.

Conclusions

Ultimately Alice in Wonderland is another visually stunning film from team Burton. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter give two of the better performances in the film, though Depp’s in and out brogue is distracting. The newcomer playing Alice also does a good job, but the rest of the human actors are either wasted or phoning it in. The people in the real world are particularly two-dimensional and it is hard to separate the failures of the writing from those of the actors because their time on screen is so brief and insignificant.

The storyline is updated and yet retains much of the interesting lyricism and quirkiness of the original while losing the stark class critique. As long as the movie stayed in Wonderland it was compelling, but when it leaves that magical world it falls as flat as matzoh (unleavened bread). In the real world, the story is contrived and borderline offensive in its easy attempts to mobilize a throwaway feminism that never really comes to fruition.

With regards to diversity, there is very little, and what is there is sadly invested in oppressive narratives.

If you haven’t gone to the theater yet, I’d suggest renting Burton’s Alice in Wonderland or at least going during the matinee. Only pay for 2D unless you have a thing for 3D b/c it isn’t necessary for the majority of the movie and in my theater several people complained of eye problems or headaches during and after the showing, including my movie companion and myself. (This may have been a result of human error at the showing, but still, if you go to the 2 D version, you don’t have to worry poorly calibrated tech is going to cause you pain for no reason.)

And if you want my honest advice: skip this movie until it comes on cable and go rent Alice, a SyFy Channel import that was far more creative and interesting despite a much lower budget. (Review of Alice forthcoming, see: Go Ask Alice Pt II.)

BHM: Bonnie St. John

Bonnie St. John is best known for her Silver medal in at the 1984 paraolympics and her time on staff in the Clinton White House. St. John was the first differently-abled person (regardless of race or gender) to attend the Ski Racing Academy in Vermont. The school’s assumptions about able-bodiedness meant that Bonnie was often disabled by her environment (I am using political definition here, see fn 1); despite being a limber athlete, she fell down regularly trying to get to the cafeteria because many of the walkways were gravel & she could not feel the ground shifting beneath her temporary leg, then she broke her new artificial leg on a soccer field that was not evened out properly. Despite the ablism in her environment, Bonnie held her own with able-bodied competitors and faculty alike and went on to win a silver medal in the Winter paraolympics in 1984. Had she not slipped on a particular ice patch on the trail, a patch that many others also slipped on, she would have won gold. She often refers to the experience like this:

People fall down; winners get up. (paralympics.org)

Avoiding the “Super Crip” (fn 2) story, St. John’s many interviews about being a differently-abled (fn 3) athlete, highlighted the mindfulness required by people disabled by ablism rather than positing herself as an exception who overcame what others simply fail to do. She pointed out that she had to make a conscious decision to become an athlete and then actively woo coaches and opportunities to compete. Often she trained alongside able-bodied people in arenas designed exclusively for them; ie, facilities that were only minimally ADA compliant if at all. For her, watching able-bodied athletes be recruited and groomed for the Olympics, taught her to be her own best advocate, to think critically about her decisions, and to pursue her dreams with the passion of someone who understand that even the most basic things (like getting to lunch) could not be taken for granted.

Her drive did not stop with her athletic competitions. St. John also credits being involved in sport at the intersections of race, gender, and ability as teaching her the discipline and the drive she needed to graduate from Harvard and Oxford and become a Rhodes Scholar. Her academic and Olympic accomplishments caught the eye of then-President Bill Clinton. He appointed her to his cabinet as Director of the National Economic Council, making her one of the first differently-abled African Americans to hold a cabinet position in the White House.

St. John is also deeply committed to the success of women and girls. She credits her nurse at Shriner’s hospital for helping her to succeed

“She kept telling me, ‘you have to push harder, you have to push harder.’ … She taught me some really important lessons (ibid)

and wants to offer the same kind of help to other women and girls. Thus she became a motivational speaker who has published 4 books encouraging heterosexual women to build happy and productive relationships, and be successful at business and parenting at the same time. When she got divorced, she also sat down to write her own story of child hood sexual abuse and marital struggle to motivate other women to put their emotional and physical health first. That same book, How Strong Women Pray, included interviews with 25 other women who combined their spirituality with strength and healing in order to become successful. St. John wanted to highlight women’s voices from all areas of life to inspire other women, not just posit her own experience as a guide. She continues this desire for a chorus of diverse women and experiences as a guide and helpmate to other women and girls in her 2009 project with her 14 year old daughter. The two have teamed up to write a book about inspirational women leaders and are asking young women to nominate people to be included based on having been inspired by them. In working with her daughter, St. John also wanted her to be inspired by other women and the power of feminism. So far they have interviewed the current President of Liberia Ellen J. Serleaf, designer Eileen Fisher, and Noemi Vivas Ocana a Managua resident who, after putting herself through school only to be downsized at her job, became a small business owner and leader of her community’s lending circle which empowers women through shared wealth and small business loans.

St. John’s activism has also always included the empowerment of women and girls. In 2008, she was the guest speaker at the same Shriner’s Hospital where she had recovered from her amputation as a child. Afterward she talked about how the hospital is a place of both profound hope and despair because of the ways that disability is treated in our society and the fears embedded in not being able-bodied. For St. John these fears take on particular gendered aspects as young girls are taught both that their self-worth is tied up in attractiveness and that differently-abled bodies are not attractive nor should differently-abled women have or express sexuality.

“I worked so hard over the years, to feel strong and feel beautiful, to get away from the feeling of being an awkward disabled kid. I could smell the fear and discomfort. It was a battleground. And I thought, ‘I’m going in. And I’m not leaving any soldiers behind.’ (MLive.com)

As part of her talk, she reminded young differently-abled girls that they were beautiful, desirable, and had the right to dream of the same companionship as able-bodied girls and women.

Bonnie St. John’s powerful example, deep commitment to intersectional women’s issues, and her understanding about the importance of both global feminism and inspiring and caring for the next generation of young women, make her a quintessential figure in black herstory. As one of only a handful of prominent black differently-abled women she is also someone we should all know.

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footnotes

  1. I am using the term “disabled” politically here in the tradition of radical disability feminists to mean “The disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organization which takes no or little account of people who have physical [and/or cognitive/developmental/mental] impairments and thus excludes them from  mainstream society” (Oliver 1992 as quoted in Clare Exile & Pride Southend:1999, 6)
  2. “Super Crip” is a term used to describe people whose stories and images have been used to make temporarily able-bodied people feel good about themselves and the lives of differently-abled people rather than question the ableism that makes differently-abled people’s success seem like such an anomaly. In other words, the story focuses on individuals “over coming disability [a physical or mental impariment]” rather than on them succeeding in an ableist and therefore disabling world. (It should be note that Bonnie St. John does tell her story utilizing elements of the “super crip” and certainly reports do as well; however, the more secure she has gotten with herself and her herstory the more her narrative has let go of these elements for a more nuanced look at her life. She has always included discussion of ableism and its impact on her and society in her work.
  3. some people with disabilities have taken exception to my use of the term “differently-abled” as opposed to “disabled”. Differently-abled is the term I use to describe myself and it is the prevailing term used by disability rights activists in my region of the country; for us, the term recognizes that there are differences in our abilities that represent diversity within the community of people with disabilities and diversity amongst us and temporarily able-bodied people. It was also an effort to destabilize hierarchies between people who were born differently-abled and people who became differently-abled and between those with visible disabilities and those with hidden ones, while also recognizing that these differences meant that we experience disabling environments and ableism differently.