Advertising for Traffickers

In 2008, one of my students in a global feminisms course I was teaching brought in a Google Ad for dating Indian women that kept popping up on her yahoo mail account. She pointed out how the ad capitalized on a generic image of Indian exoticism both in its images and text. She encouraged the class to consider what type of email they used outside of the university provided one because free email was being paid for through marginalization of women of color.

Bindi Girl Exhibit – Prema Murthy

(amazing feminist critique of exotic erotic images of Indian women)

We had just finished watching two separate documentaries on child sex workers in India at the time and one of the students asked if there was anyway to know whether or not the advertised “dating site” was involved in trafficking. My answer was to send them back to Google to do research. I told them to ask Google:

  1. how it screens its ads
  2. if there are any ethical standards related to safety (ie child safety, anti-trafficking, etc.)
  3. general questions about race and gender in its ads

The responses they received were fairly expected. Google does not screen its ads for trafficking nor check the background of the companies that place ads through Google. Their argument is that the volume of ads placed with them is too high to do the kind of individual human rights work implied by such a check. They also do not choose the ads you receive on your pages, so there is no standard form they could use to determine who sees what, ie boycotting yahoo would not stop those ad from showing up on other sites nor would everyone who used yahoo see those ads. Instead, Google uses a cookie system to track your internet usage that generates ads based on your supposed preferences. Since the program is based on a heterosexual white male model, that means if you spend a lot of time on sites about women, you are likely to receive dieting, shopping, and dating ads or if you spend a lot of time on sites about India or women of color in general, you will receive dating ads specializing in hooking men up with women of color. The assumption in both cases is that you are either a man, needing a heterosexual dating services, or a heterosexual woman needing a man, and therefore needing to meet beauty myth standards. To cover its basis it sends both kinds of pop ups to you.  As implied, these ads not only represent gender bias by centering both male needs and female insecurity but also implicate you in heterosexism and potentially racism, since the ads seldom include sites that are queer inclusive nor those that fail to peddle in exoticism assuming a white male audience looking for the “dark mysteries” of the “exotic erotic”.

Besides the invasion of privacy aspects, this makes Google seem fairly benign. Google does not make the ads nor determine who receives them based on any disregard for your politics or rights. However, the answer also reveals two key issue: (1) Google is primarily a search engine with both human and program-based web crawlers and (2) Google plants cookies to track usage. So why is checking basic information on the people who place ads too difficult a task? It seems that while people are not likely to be forthcoming about using the internet to traffic women, Google’s own search engines should be able to reasonably flag connections to known traffickers and subsequently deny advertising space. Given the volume of ads, it could not guarantee 100% success but it could be a step in the right direction.

The second set of questions has to do with general standards and modeling. There are a number of products whose dubious connection to human rights could easily be excluded from Google ads. While this leads to questions about market based freedoms and potentially freedom of expression that I think are equally important, exclusions have long been a part of advertising strategies for certain markets. A less sticky option, would be for Google to modify the programs that select ads to stop assuming a heterosexual white male norm. Thus when cookies reported you spent considerable time on pages related to women of color, it would trigger a subset of programs that would cross-reference that usage for things like “feminism”, “social justice”, etc. in the same way that it checks larger categories like “women”, “health”, “education”, etc. So that feminists and feminist web sites were not being supported by demeaning or potentially anti-woman advertising. By anti-woman advertising I mean, for example, ads that show large women as disgusting and then try to sell you dieting pills that we all know will likely be recalled the following year for causing all kinds of health problems and even death in users, or more benign ads that focus on a sexualizing gaze at various women’s bums in order to sell you shoes. Imagine these ads popping up on body positive websites.

Take for instance, this blog. I recently discovered that there are similar ads to the one my student brought into class on my blog! These ads show up on pages about women’s sexual freedom and global feminisms. At least one shows up on a post about rape as a war crime. So on the one hand, my text is discussing women’s rights, equality, and to respect women as subjects and on the other advertising is telling you to participate in international heterosexist digital dating which may or may not be implicated in larger trafficking issues. A simple modification to Google’s programming could prevent such things from happening. However, I suspect that these types of ads generate more revenue than an ad for Make/Shift would. (There are also ads for skin lightening cream and hair straightening gel on posts about black women and beauty …)

The discovery of these ads and their offensive and contradictory placement on certain blog posts on this blog brings me back to the larger question about the meaning of “free” raised by my student. I regularly ask my students to think about “free” and “freedom” in my classes. I teach unit on reproductive justice where I point out how reproductive freedoms in the Western world were/are based on reproductive injustices to women of color, incarcerated women, and women in purposefully underdeveloped nations. The speculum itself comes from a myriad of abuses perpetrated against the bodies of enslaved black women and girls. Many advances in certain medical procedures and medications for birth control have been gained through practice or testing on marginalized women with varying forms of questionable consent. My goal in this lesson is to move them past the discourse of reproductive “freedom” to a global sense of reproductive justice in which one woman’s freedom is not bought on the backs of another’s oppression. Yet, it never occurred to me to ask who pays for my free email account? Who pays for my free blog? Isn’t my free lunch free?

For those of you who do not know, unlike other blogs, wordpress places Google ads on free blogs without the knowledge or consent of the blog owners. They recently let this practice be known because of questions raised by bloggers. WordPress claims that these ads offset the cost of providing free services to its 300,000+free blog users. WordPress and Google share the profit from these ads, bloggers receive none. You can opt out of this system by paying $120/year for your blog. Even if you are not as concerned about issues of oppression as I am, umm skin bleaching cream on a black is beautiful post had better upset you, basic math should point out that bloggers are getting worked in this system. If each time an ad pops up Google and WordPress split $1.50 even if each blog only had one visitor a day, that means they are splitting a revenue of $450,000/dy based on our collective labor while we get $120/yr in the form of a “free” site.

So it seems whether you are concerned about women’s and human rights or the market, there is a major problem here with how Google Ads work and for whom they work. Discovering these offensively placed ads on my site has not only made me have to take a good look at my own decision-making but also at the sustainability of this blog.

Ultimately, there was no real resolution to my student’s question nor the research projects and activism that it inspired amongst my students that year. Google is ubiquitous on the internet and so it seemed incredibly daunting to try and fight them collectively. Instead, we engaged in individual choice making in the hopes of making larger change. One of those choices, is that I pass out a handout on how to make complaints about Google Ads. While the most effective way to complain requires a google account and a complicated process for locating the actual complaint area on the page, you can also send a generic complaint via this link. If you see an offensive or offensively placed ad on my blog, please complain about it to Google.

Maintaining this blog, on this site, is a choice and it is a choice that is becoming more antithetical to my support of decolonized feminism every day. If you have suggestions of other blog sites that you are using and happy with, please let me know.

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“From Text to Film”

blogging librarian flickr/ http://libraryofdigress.files.wordpress.com

One of the great perks about blogging is that you get to have conversations with a wide range of people about things you may not have thought about or about which you had not thought of in the ways you do as a result of those conversations. I’ve been joking around for a while now that I wanted to teach a class on novels adapted to film. While many people have done this before, and I get a lot of leeway in my department(s) with my cinema courses, novels to film is fairly clearly in the realm of the English Department, the one place at this uni I don’t teach. The other issue has always been that since my courses tend to meet both the gen ed and the specialization cores in several fields, there are certain expectations about the material my courses contain. In thinking about the novel to film genre, it means that I would likely have to expand to Made for Television movies to incorporate enough diversity into the curriculum and then the discussion becomes not only about shifts from one medium to the other but also the freedoms or lack there of granted television vs film. I did not want to get bogged down in discussions solely about the latter to the detriment of the overarching questions about identity. While I knew I could probably pull this course off if I modified the time-frame, ie set it in the historical period I teach, that would mean having to read novels that would ultimately get us bogged down in discussions about period and expectation around identity vs the movement from one form to the other. Ugh, does your head hurt yet? Mine certainly did. So I let it go.

Enter Scott Pilgrim and his bevy of fans + the book meme, in which I mocked the film “Bram Stroker’s Dracula” for not actually following the story and rewriting some key characters. Like an aha moment, I found these two blogging conversations combining to make me question the age old encoding/decoding debate in new ways. In other words, there is a metaconversation taking place about the meaning of movies that is radically changing the discourse of how see and understand film. This post is about those changes; if you want my movie review of Scott Pilgrim look here.

In talking about my experience of the film/reviewing it and  its racial and gender content, I have received multiple comments here and elsewhere that reference the graphic novels as counterpoint. In looking at commentary on the internet, I found the same thing. In other words, people reviewing the movie have largely talked about the movie itself: its content, the acting and directing, and the overall plot, and occasionally, its niche appeal. The people responding to their reviews have pretty much all gone back to the source material to contradict what people say is in the movie. Yet, what most have reacted to in the film: (1) the absence of female perspective, (2) the focus on a largely unlikeable character or characters, and (3) confusing or choppy plot, have all been fairly consistent. Are we to believe that because the original graphic novels make clear that Scott Pilgrim is meant to be unlikeable that the film does a good job of telling its uninformed audience this information when so many did not get it? Or are we meant to excuse the absence of female subjecthood in the film because the graphic novels apparently center them and their thoughts?

brian o’malley/oni press

As I said in my review, should Scott’s supposed growth, reduced to a few minutes in the film that I argue are undermined by the way he once again treats Knives at the end, negate racialized and/or racist depictions of API Americans in the movie? This is an issue that most reviewers and comment makers have yet to address precisely because one of the film’s more stereotypical scenes is taken directly from the pages of the graphic novel without any editing or changes; sadly, the reviewer from the Harold seems to explain it best when he says that as a white surbuban gaming male who fits the intended demographic he was easily able to overlook the bollywood scene until a comment on twitter about race in the film made him think through the movie with race in mind. Like it did for me, the meta-conversation surrounding this movie, ie between novel, film, and multiple internet and social network sites, is creating a radical rethink of meaning on all sides. And for everyone who has gone off the deep end over Dr. Laura’s comments, tell me, what is the difference between Dr. Laura  calling a black woman “oversensitive” because she does not like the racist jokes made by her white husband’s friends in her home and white fans of Scott Pilgrim saying “hater” to anyone who mentions the racial depictions of API Americans in this film?

Race issues aside, there seems to be a struggle going on between those who saw the film on its own and fans who saw the film and read the graphic novels or simply read the graphic novels but have not gone to the film. The latter have been quite vocal about the fact that people criticizing the film “don’t get it” despite the consistency of the reviews. This reaction varies considerably from earlier fans who willingly critiqued films for failing to represent the text upon which they were based. Films with huge fan bases in fact, have almost always had to address fan expectations in order to be successful at the box office. When fans say the film is not accurate enough, movies generally tank at the box office.

(note the Asian mom’s broken English)

Brian O’Malley/Oni Press

Scott Pilgrim is tanking at the box office. Yet fans are defending it and the studio is blaming it on Michael Cera. Apparently, several of Cera’s last few films did not do well, so he is an easy whipping boy. Yet I can think of no one better to play a 20 something year old slacker who quips about life, resents having to defend himself, and looks like the kind of guy you expect to see in the arcade and root for when attacked. I think he was a perfect choice and his comedic timing are spot on as always. Even if we factor in the people who have just had enough of his t-shirted, saggy chords, skinny boy schtick, there is still something more interesting going on here.

The cry from fans of “you don’t get it”, seems like a generational issue to me. In this context, the film becomes irrelevant. What is at stake is youth who identified with Scott Pilgrim as a graphic novel and see it as a depiction of their generational angst in the same way people thought of American Graffitti, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Breakfast Club, or even The Big Chill or Diner.  Their embrace of the graphic novels at a gut level combines with the total rejection of the movie by accredited film reviews who are all over the age of 30 (to riff on that old adage “don’t trust anyone over 30”). These “older” reviewers have combined their general dislike of the movie with comments about largely negative comments about the slacker generation and in some cases outright ageism. This stance makes them easy pickings for youth who already feel screwed over, ignored, or condescended to by the generations before them. The more these youth respond with “you don’t get it”, the more older people bristle. Yet the mode of this conflict is not one in which either side is openly talking about age and stage but rather cinema vs text, with one group pointing emphatically at the failings of the movie and the other willingly filling in the blanks or omitting those failings with the original text in order to maintain their stance.

I find this fascinating.

First, I do think there is a generational issue in the reception of the film. I walked out of the moving clear that there were at least two cultural reasons why this film did not appeal to me and that they overlapped. I also know there were other people in my theater who felt the same way, because they kept looking over at me in confusion. And when I frowned at the racist parts, they were so attuned to my presence that they reacted as well. Nothing like being a zoo exhibit or a fossil at a movie screening …

Second, I’m wondering what it says about the nuances of marketing that they can graft a film so carefully onto an identity as to make those who identify with it ignore the disconnects present. In other words, when other movies have differed from the text people have complained. These films were marketed as stories or true adaptations not as cultural artifacts. This movie seems to be encoded and decoded by its core audience as the latter and therefore omissions and lapses are forgiven or ignored. Even the feminist viewers in this group have been largely silent about the absence of well-rounded female characters in the movie. Those fans who acknowledge it, only bring it up to once again point to the source material as a way of avoiding the critique of the film.

In some ways, it reminds me of the limited critique of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Despite including episodes in which Native Americans were evil genocidal ghosts on Thanksgiving, spreading syphilis and needing to be killed because “they were engaging in genocidal revenge”,  resurrecting “the primitive” in discussing Buffy’s origins, or including rape of beloved characters by other beloved characters, fans of Buffy refuse to address race and gender issues embedded in the show. Those who breach them are summarily dismissed as “not getting it”. And like Scott Pilgrim fans, when footage of these events or director’s script notes are actually shown to an audience as proof, as happened at two conferences I went to in the late 90s, fans simply make up elaborate excuses based on the overall storyline of the show. And of course there is always the a line or two that are included in these scenes to mask the overarching racism that they can glom onto.

So what is that spark needed to so thoroughly fuse audience with product? And why does it work so well at erasing or allowing for the justification of marginalization even for audiences who are quite savvy about how marginalization works? What makes something off limits? And why do these conflicts seem to take on generational significance whether it is between reviewers and fans or fans and older non-fan directors?

I’m going to be mulling this over for the rest of the term because, as I said, I find it fascinating but also because now I really am going to teach that course in a way that places it firmly in my disciplines and gets at some difficult questions about race, gender, sexuality, class and fandom. In Spring, the campus bookstore is going to be full up on graphic novels, required itunes passes for videos of tv shows, and classics on Race, Class, Gender and the Media. I can’t wait!

CFP: Hip Hop Feminism

Rosa Clemente/former VP Candidate for Green Party/unattributed

There have been strong women of color at the center of Hip Hop theorizing since its inception. Many of these women have never received the recognition they deserve for their artistry or their profound critical feminist eye focused clearly on the experience of women of color at the margins and intersections of multiple identities. These artists have struggled to have their voices heard in and outside of Hip Hop even as they inspire, mentor, and help provide strength to face any number of gendered oppressions. Many of them have worked just as diligently at empowering young women and providing critical analysis of engendered experiences as they have at being the best at their craft. Often these things are inseparable. And yet, these women’s work has been overshadowed by the racist and racialized sexist discourses that only want to focus on the “video ho” until recently. (see my posts on Hip Hop for AfAm herstory and LGBT history month for more thorough posts and links to Hip Hop feminism and Hip Hop feminists.)

kin4life/outhiphop.com

While this shift has been important, I think currently there is far too much mainstream attention to Hip Hop feminism as the *only* form of feminism(s) of color. On the one hand, the emphasis represents a needed intervention into mainstream discourse about the “video-ho” in which black men are seen as the most misogynist men in the world and women of color are internalized sexists needing rescue from their “culture of violence, sex, and drugs.” On the other, the slowly won recognition of feminists for whom Hip Hop and B Girls have been critical forms of expression, solidarity, and empowerment has come at the price of the recognition by mainstream of feminists of color outside of these stereotyped (tho not stereotypical) scenes. This is not the fault of Hip Hop feminists or people doing needed documenting work on their movements but rather the ongoing problem of tokenizing woc feminist contributions by mainstream academic theorists and educators. In the last few years, scholars like myself who work on race and gender have been introduced as or referred to verbally and in print as “hip hop feminists” or asked what we think or will we write an article about Hip Hop feminism in the same way we were referred to as Womanists when Alice Walker coined the term and still have to fight for the right to define ourselves and our affiliations. My concern then is that there are at least two camps here: (1) those who want to embrace, document, and explore the meaning, history, and empowerment behind Hip Hop feminism and (2) those who see it as just a new word for “black feminists over there”. One way to posit a counter-narrative to the latter is to keep writing, keep filming, keep talking about what Hip Hop feminism is and about all of the feminisms engaged in by women of color in which Hip Hop feminism is only one iteration.

La Bruja/unattributed

So I am publishing this call for papers on Hip Hop feminism to encourage the continued struggle to talk about feminisms by women of color in arena that often posits us as both singular (ie one kind of feminism) and perpetual victims (in this case the video-ho) in need of feminism. I do so out of solidarity with the project of naming, claiming, and documenting our feminisms and our activism but also with the caution to take on the task of clarity and specificity in your writing so that you lend to both the needed discussion of the specific feminism under discussion and to the larger discourse about the longstanding presence of women of color in activist, feminist, circles.

melange Lavonne/David Laffe Photography

Also I would encourage readers to consider some of the queer and/or differently-abled black and Latina Hip Hop artists highlighted on this blog or even in this post for your potential papers/presentations. Just as interventions need to be made in the way mainstream feminist academics are approaching Hip Hop feminism as the new Womanism, interventions need to be made into the ways scholars have often shied away from discussions of queer sexualities or assumed able-bodiedness or cis gender. There are sub-topics in the call specifically open to making this challenge, where you could take the advantage.

Please find the CFP below:

Black and Brown Feminisms in Hip Hop Media

University of Texas at San Antonio – March 4-5, 2011

Submission: 500 word abstract to Kinitra Brooks and/or Marco Cervantes blackandbrownfeminisms@gmail.com on or before November 15, 2010.

Description:

Black and Latina feminist scholars offer multiple ways of understanding feminist cultures that transcend ideological borders and patriarchal conventions. More recently, Black and Latina feminists have negotiated the positionality of the woman of color in the ever-changing world of Hip Hop since its inception.  The Black and Brown Feminisms in Hip Hop Media Conference situates Black and Latina feminist theory in the context of Hip Hop representation to discuss ways Hip Hop music, film, and club industries fetishize, exploit, celebrate, empower and/or disempower Black and Brown women.

This interdisciplinary conference will feature unpublished work on women in
Hip Hop to exchange ideas, share research, and initiate a sustained conversation by and about Black and Brown women in Hip Hop media.  Vital to this discussion is attention to the blurring lines between Black and Latina feminist studies and a dialogue that attempts to understand an interweaving history of objectification, struggle, and potential for agency. How do we read Black and Brown women in Hip Hop culture? What readings of Black and Brown women other than conventional black feminist readings and Latina feminist analyses are cogent? What theories enable those readings? Finally, what would an investigation into autobiographical stories of video models yield? How would those narratives differ from that of more conventional readings?

A select number of accepted papers will be included in a one-day, academic
conference at the University of Texas at San Antonio as a part of UTSA’s celebration of Women’s History Month on March 4, 2011 with a Hip Hop performance from local Texas as well as national hip hop artists on the evening of March 5, 2011.  This conference will be an opportunity for presenters to share views and concerns on the growing intersections between Black and Brown women in hip hop culture.  Possible Panel Topics Include:

  • Interdisciplinary Approaches to Gender and Race in Hip Hop
  • Colorism within Hip-Hop video culture
  • The New Female Entrepreneur
  • Negotiating Sexualities
  • Black and Latina Diasporas
  • Video Vixens or Video Models?
  • Female Rappers
  • Chicana/o Rap
  • Alternative Models of Black Femininity
  • Latinas in Video Model Culture
  • Intersections of Video Models with Youth Culture
  • Performing the Black Body/ Brown Body
  • Reggaeton
  • A Case Study of Karrine Steffans
  • Strip Club Culture
  • Confessions of Video Vixens
  • Eroticism vs. Pornography
  • Women as Exchange among a Male Economy


What a Difference Kindness Makes


I’ve been swamped with volunteer work in social justice organizations for the past few weeks since coming back from our seminar abroad. As my post have shown, the experience has not been the most positive one. Far too often I have seen young women taking advantage of other young women in the name of helping poor women, women of color, elder women, queer women, etc. As I said in a previous post, the idea is that “if you really care” you will foot the agency bill for an endless amount of labor and associated costs. And I have publicly questioned exactly who is served by this exploitation since neither the line staff nor the clients are able to function at their best under such demanding circumstances and scarcity models. Perhaps it is because it has been so much in my face lately, I have really begun to question the social service industry as an Industry or Institution rather than a helping agent for change. This, more than any other feminist conflict I have witnessed in the past 4 years of blogging has made me rethink what feminist activists involved in critical fields of women’s services are really contributing to the end of oppression of women, especially the most marginalized among us.

Then I read this post:

Hmmmm, I gave the cashier a $20. I looked in my rear view mirror and there were no more cars to pay for. So, $3.18 for my good deed of the day felt a little lack luster. …

When I make these gestures I rarely look back to see the reaction. … But this time? No such luck. I was stopped by two traffic lights in a row and she caught up with me by the second light. She rolled down her window. She searched my face for some recognition. She found none. “Thank you for this,” she said, “You don’t know what this means to me. I’m on my way to an interview. I lost my job a month ago and I HAVE to find work. I’d given these up,” and she raised her cup, “but I decided to splurge today for a little boost of confidence. Your kindness has done so much more.”

I could see that her eyes were brimming and she was fighting back tears. …

This woman’s act of kindness, done primarily out of guilt for not keeping a promise to herself to pay it forward regularly, profoundly changed one woman’s day for the cost of a cup of coffee. It may have helped change her life, by providing her the confidence in herself and in others that most of us lack these days in a world of selfishness and economic uncertainty. Who is to say?

The story reinforced my larger questions about social service agencies and their role in social justice and social change even as they dismantled them. On the one hand, this woman was able to do something I have not seen many line staff be able to do at some of the places I have been working with precisely because she was neither overworked nor underpaid to provide care to others. Her actions came from a desire to do good that was untainted by the fact doing good had become a job in which “there are only so many hours in a day” and a pittance of pay for them. And I do think that money and work are the major distinctions here because I hope that everyone that goes into social service work, especially feminists, are motivated by doing good (even when their definitions are not the best). But I think something happens when doing good is your job and not your calling; something ultimately switches off for you as you work and work and work some more for very little pay and even less institutionalized support. By creating a social service system that depends on your “commitment to the cause” and actively interprets your need for self-care, boundaries, and compensation for work done as a “lack of commitment” justice becomes part of an industrial complex in which funders get tax right offs and young, largely middle class and white, women get training and activist credibility.

At the same time, these agencies are not devoid of value to service seekers. Individual clients get an array of services that help them as individuals but do not actually challenge the system that made them seek out services in the first place. Thus, social service is self-perpetuating and it goes unquestioned in many ways because of the number of individuals whose lives have been profoundly changed (and even saved) through service. In this way, the woman who paid for the coffee and her amazing impact on the women who received it are still metaphors for the larger service industry. An individual woman did good with the limited resources she had available to her and an individual woman was moved in ways that may reverberate throughout the rest of her day or even her life. How do we quantify the impact? Should we? And if you answered we cannot and should not, then what does that mean for creating equitable work and value in social service for workers which as I argued before translates to better and more thorough service for service seekers?

I don’t have the answers. I wish I did. In an ideal world, each of us would operate from a place of radical love with one another, sharing our resources, knowledge, and strength in a way that honored our interconnectedness rather than demeaned. We would recognize that need is relative and that individuals with abundance in some areas have need in others just like everyone else. In that world, there would be no need for social service because we would see someone stumble and collectively help them up without blame or shame or stigma or even self-interest. But we do not live in that world. We live in this one, where banks steal from mom and pop accounts to give to jet-setting CEOs, medical providers quantify the value of lives because insurers care less about whether you are healthy than how much you will cost them, poor people and indigenous people are asked or simply told to foot the cost of businesses environmental degradation,  and people move jobs and industries out of a country hurting for employment because they cannot exploit the labor, children, or reproductive and sexual rights of their workers or pollute the land unchecked, and they care more about profit than they do about people. In this world, where tv hosts and so-called journalists extol the rights of the rich to go on vacations, buy million dollar garbage cans, and everyone gawks at the latest celebrity craze, very few people care or help anyone so whole industries have grown up to do what we as a people have failed to do. And those industries require money to run. And that money is stretched so thin that the workers at the bottom work 80+ hour weeks, paying for phone bills, food, printing costs, etc. for the agencies for whom they work out of pocket for less money than the people at the top who get paid 3xs as much, work just as hard, but move on to middle class lives after a while never once thinking about the line staff who do not. And so we are back at the beginning.

I welcome your thoughts.

——

Images

  1. unattributed/2009
  2. clipart
  3. “China Blue”/unattributed/portable.tv
  4. “Women Gardening”/Deb Vest/2010

A Message to Non-Profit Social Change Organizations in 140 Characters

citation in frame

My 140: creative & exploitation are not synonymous; when they r used interchangeably there is no revolutionary change going on

——————————————————

I tweeted this in response to the idea that part-time and volunteer workers at non-profits are being asked to foot more and more of the bill for social service provision at a time when people need more services than ever. My problem is both with the idea that nonprofits cannot afford to hire full time grant writers because they are too expensive and that somehow the burden should be placed on the backs of the lowest paid workers instead.

While grant writer salaries are incredibly high, most grant writers can and do write grants to continually fund their positions while at the same time working on large and targeted funding for agencies as a whole. Though the money can and does dry up, they generally help ensure a much steadier flow of capital into the agency which in turn ensures better pay for and retention of workers. When you recruit workers with existing skills needed by service seekers and then are able to retain them over an extended period of time, your services improve, your clients are better served, and workers have more than their ideals to keep them going.

Underpaid workers have always been a cornerstone of social service. What galls me however is that many social service agencies have taken to humiliating or undermining workers who cannot and should not have to take on additional burdens to offset agency costs. For instance, at a late afternoon meeting today I overheard a young woman tear into her volunteers for not printing out needed materials on their home computers. She implied that their failure to make their own printouts and copies was tantamount to sending homeless women back out into the street with neither clothes nor food and water. When one of the volunteers pointed out that her printer was old and could not print multiple copies for the agency as well as print the papers for her classes, her supervisor insinuated that it was a matter of care and credibility. Either she cared about their clients and was committed to the work they were doing or she was selfish. There was never a thought that maybe asking volunteers to pay for an agency’s printing and copying was where the selfishness lay.

The situation reminded me of a conversation I had at the end of my own volunteer service for a women’s crisis drop in center as an undergraduate. I had a broken down two seater car inherited from my grandfather. It barely drove and broke down regularly. Yet I spent so many hours at the drop in center that most women seeking services and other agencies thought I was staff. My name was consistently at the top of the “rock star” list, a list that praised people for contributing more than the minimum hours. And many nights I had even gone in on 10 minutes notice to sub for other PAID workers and even trained a few.

Yet one particularly bad car week, I had had to cancel my shift 3 times because the car would not start and I was unable to get home in the wee hours of the night when my shift would end. Suddenly my 30-60 hour volunteer week had no meaning to the Coordinator who had to scramble to take my place or transfer crisis calls to my home. I was instantly transformed from a rock star to a loser who did not care about women in crisis.

In fact, the Coordinator said to me “Well maybe you should buy a new car already because this is pathetic.” 20 year old me was stunned. She was a lawyer, I was a student on financial aid driving her grandfather’s car. How could I possibly afford a new car? If she’d just been being inconsiderate out of frustration that would still have been rude and inconsiderate, but as the conversation went on it became clear she was serious. In fact she went so far as to say maybe “people like me” should not volunteer if we could not “meet the minimum standards of volunteerism.” Apparently those standards include being middle to upper class but not working more hours than most paid staff.

The idea that I might need to cut back hours at night in exchange for doing more hours in the day or early evening when alternative transportation was available was beyond the elitist framework in which the discussion was couched. When I suggested that maybe I should simply cut back my hours from 60 to the required 10 to make a point about how class expectations were clouding the issue, she suggested I consider quitting if “I wasn’t going to take volunteering seriously.”

Everyone at the agency was in agreement that the Coordinator, not I, was in the wrong here. Apologies were made and plans to switch shifts were floated. The immediacy with which they tried to make amends was heartening but also tinged with discussions of how they would make up for all those late evening hours “no one else wanted to do” and comments like “maybe they would have to just pay someone.” Despite their mostly positive efforts to fix the situation, in light of the original conversation and the side chatter, the damage was done. I no longer looked at the agency the same way nor felt my labor had value to them beyond their immediate gain. While this was likely only slightly true, I was now wary of the next time an emergency would take me away from scheduled hours, hours that it is the Coordinator’s job to schedule a backup volunteer for by the way, because I never wanted to be in a conversation again where my working class background was seen as tantamount to not caring about homeless women’s lives.

I quit that day. But as I watched the young woman tear up in front of her supervisor at my luncheon, I did not think she would. Worse the demands did not end there. Before we had finished eating, this same woman tore into another volunteer because she had shut off her cellphone. From what I could gather, the agency was running several of its intake services through the volunteers phone and was now in a supposed bind because the girl could no longer afford to pay her cellphone bill. The girl explained that she had lost her job several months earlier and let the agency know sooner or later she would likely have to switch phones but the supervisor did not care. She kept demanding the girl figure out a way to pay for extended coverage because the fate of all immigrant women everywhere hung in the balance. Never mind that the agency itself had to have phones and voicemail they could have and should have been using.

While I wanted to believe that this was another case of an overly self-involved middle class “doo gooder” clocking time for her resume and not an agency wide situation, I knew better. In these economic times the number of agencies serving the same population’s needs is diminishing while the need is growing. The number of paid jobs are also shrinking so that for some, the only way to get into the work that they love is to be volunteer staff. Its a dilemma that holds funders, volunteers, and especially service seekers hostage to a system that is no longer serving people’s needs to the best of our abilities.

Often agencies in economic binds are told to “get creative” about their funding issues. That creativity seems to translate not to looking for new funding sources or finding new, cheaper, ways of doing the same thing, but instead to exploiting workers. Every day I see job descriptions that are actually 4 or 5 jobs for the salary of less than one advertised in the service industry. Every day, I get emails and phone calls from students worried they cannot feed their kids, themselves, or pay their basic bills because they dared to go into helping fields. And as I watched this 20-something, upper class, recent grad berate the multicultural cast of working class and student volunteers and part timers, I could not help but wonder what kind of social justice can come out of exploitation masked as economic “creativity.” If one’s own workers and volunteers have no human value than what value do service seekers have in this model? And how exactly are we striving toward a world where everyone has value, equality, and justice when we are not even providing it for the people on whose labor we depend?

It seems to me that a critically unexplored part of the non-profit-industrial-complex is the exploitation of labor and the subsequent exploitation or diminishing of useful services to clients. After all, nothing can change at cash-strapped agencies who have come to take their workers for granted without a critical paradigm shift in the thinking of social justice agencies. As long as money is tight and the answer is to shut down services and rely on underpaid or volunteer workers for everything from phones, to printing, to salary related donations, neither funders nor workers can escape the cycle by which we all poor money into dysfunction to ensure at least one place remains open for service seekers. Agencies know this and so do the supervisors who lament attrition rates in both clients and volunteers without ever asking themselves why.

So I put it to you again, in another way: what kind of social justice can you possibly be working for when you are providing no justice to your least paid workers?

Quickies: The Catch Up Addition

(updated) So a lot happened in the world of fluff while I was away and, if my stats are to be trusted, some of you are really desperate to hear what I think about certain media moments. Here is the long and the short of it in the following order:

  1. Dr. Who Season Finale
  2. Wonder Woman Revamp
  3. Lindsay Lohan’s Arrest
  4. Despicable Me Review
  5. The Real L Word a Retraction

Moffat/unattributed

  • Dr. Who Season Finale (Spoilers)- I admit that after much initial scepticisim, I decided I really liked the latest incarnation of the Doctor. As I said in my post “Dr. Who Super Quickie“, the writing, acting, and directing had finally seemed to gel, everyone was bringing their A game, and the storyline was finally distinctive and engaging. Unfortunately, Moffat could not just sail his own ship into Dr. Who history like the amazing writer, director, and fan he is capable of being. Instead, like a rejected child whose lost one too many fights with daddy, Moffat consistently veered the show back over Davies territory in order to rewrite, rehash, and re-envision what has come before instead of simply taking the show in the direction he would like to define it’s latest incarnation. As a consequence, many of the episodes and especially the first part of the finale played out more like “suck it dad” than creative expansion. I’ve never been one for Freudian dramas between men, but when the final episode pt 1 aired as a mirror of the first, full of pointless pontificating and the resurrection of doctors past dissolving into the underwhelming Matt Smith I’d had enough. When part II opened with all of the Dr. Who enemies past destroyed, I wanted to call about the BBC and demand an apology to loyal fans or at least get myself put on an important panel in Britain to give a scathing review up close. The ridiculousness of Moffat having to constantly remind fans that his Doctor is The Doctor and his Whoniverse was better than all the rest because ha, ha, he destroyed all the other ones, throughout the show ranged from the subtle changes that we could all get used to, to the drastic ones. He even stomped on Torchwood lore by making Rory somehow able to be human despite not having an ounce of human DNA left as a cyberman while Lisa, who was half human, could not pull it off. But the worst, was when his entire first season at the helm ended with “DO OVER.” Seriously? What kind of lazy writing does one have to engage in it that they offer up very little new material throughout an entire season and yet still can’t think themselves out of the one new piece of information they provided without just calling time, literally, and starting again? What is the point of a time traveling show if the solution to go forward and then backward in time to rectify one’s mistakes is not expressly prohibited? Where is the tension in the show, if at any time they don’t like the direction they can just yell “do over” and set the universe’s time clock back to the part they liked? And as for those of you wondering if Smith is coming back as the Doctor, he is. I’ve seen the early images from the second season filming and he is there in an even uglier tweed coat; but then this should have been obvious from both the ending of this season and the fact the man has a 5 year contract. The sharp distinction between Matt Smith as Doctor when the scripts really were new ideas devoid of Moffat’s posturing and Smith as puppet in Davies banishment is only slightly less striking than the caliber of the story lines, direction, and acting of the supporting cast in these same episodes. To see how great this show could be if Moffat would stop playing what one of my colleagues calls “penis, penis, whose got the penis” long enough to realize no one else is measuring makes me sad, at best, for how terribly mundane it will continue to be until Moffat let’s it go.  (I had a discussion about this on twitter with some filmmakers, fans, and DMs with a few former employees of Who, and everyone was in agreement that the show has potential but Moffat’s obsessions get in the way. We also agreed the finale was underwhelming for anyone who has been a long term fan of the show; people who are only 5 or so years in to their fandom may feel differently because they don’t recognize all of the elements that we do.) Here’s hoping that during the hiatus Moffat puts his issues to bed, realizes that he is the undisputed heir to an amazing fortune, and gives us the brilliance Dr. Who and Moffat’s own legacy deserve.

Terry Dodgen

  • Wonder Woman’s revamp. First, go read Gay Prof’s analysis because there really isn’t anything else to say about what is lost here. En breve: her proto-feminist legacy has been completely erased, no more matriarchy origins, no more island of powerful women aka Amazons, no more female defined moral code or ethics, and yes no more swimsuit. As I said, I could be analytical about it all, especially given the huge loss of feminism, proto-feminism, and even pseudo- or out-dated feminism that defined various incarnations of Wonder Woman, including her origin story, but Gay Prof has already done that so well. So Instead, I am going to tell you a story. A long time ago, in an isla far away, I used to run around in my front yard in my Wonder Woman underoos imagining I was a powerful Amazon who stopped bullets with my big, shiny, bracelets. Years later, I was a wee lass jumping over koi ponds and lassoing cacti with an actual golden lasso I found one day on a walk with my big sister, with the boy next door. He was Steve Austin and I was Diana and we were saving the world across the super hero-bionic divide. I credit these moments and all the ones in between them for my development as a femme. I was never insulted by the bathing suit, or the short skirt, I was empowered by it, because I understood that Wonder Woman was a powerhouse that even male superheroes and military generals respected and she did it in thigh high boots and those signature bangles I mentioned already. The only women who made me want to femme out more were probably the queens and female rulers on Star Trek who combined their minis w/ the most delicious fabrics and green, purple, and glittery eyeshadows. Like Diana, they could not be bested even by the likes of Captain Kirk. For me, the revamping of Wonder Woman into some watered down, feminist-history-absent, manga-esque (and I like manga), video game ready, no doubt wise-cracking ie makes fun of men to prove her superiority instead of just being superior b/c she is umm a superhero, teen girl with a bad hair cut and even worse fashion sense makes me want to go all Fembot on someone. So for all the feminists saying “at least she has pants”, your analysis of why she didn’t before was spot on with regards to gender inequity in the superhero universe, however, her pants come at the price of her actual feminism and feminist history. More than that it comes at the price young girls who are still bombarded with hypersexualized images of youth that never contained feminist messages while being robbed of the few cultural icons that did. Better to be a girl in the front yard in your swimsuit taking down bad guys than an equally young girl in the backyard wearing XW-inspired hoochie gear # 5 while practicing how to go down on them instead. Oh and one more thing, have you seen the drawings of Wonder Woman? Most, tho certainly not all, of the fan art shows her with powerful legs and biceps, looking strong enough to take on the world. Many of the women and men who emulate her at conventions, costume parties, and events do so with a sincere reverence, even when its campy, toward her strength, intelligence, and femme-fatale. And even music videos that do homage to her have all referenced her brains and her braun as well as her beauty. This stands in stark comparison to the re-imagining of other female heroes and side kicks found in graphic novels who have always been fully clothed; take good look at the fan art and you will see a pattern in which their drawings make Barbie look appropriately proportioned, I’m just sayin’ …

you thought I was going to miss the opportunity to do two Wonder Woman pics; silly

rjonesdesign/2010

  • Lilo’s arrest – am I the only one who thinks a critical piece of the puzzle is being ignored in the hate on Lindsay bus? While many child actors end up addicted and burned out, and Lohan made no friends with her pre-teen diva act, it seems to me that hating on her in the absence of similar critique for the industry that supplied her and every other kid on the block is not only wrong but incredibly short-sighted. Part of the reason the industry gets away with taking talented children and turning them into drug addled teens with one foot in the grave is that our culture engages in collective cognitive dissonance as a society; we know who gives them drugs, how and why, and yet we just keep on staring at the spectacle and blaming the victims. More than that somewhat predictable answer to the Lilo situation, I want to add a queer eye. At least publicly, Lindsay’s drug habit seemed to spiral at the exact moment she was considering her sexual identity. Her first reported major drug bouts came around the same time that the photos of her engaging in knife play with another actress surfaced. Both women denied the lesbian content of the images and the media was happy to spotlight the “freakery” and call it attention getting. Shortly after those images emerged however, Lilo was moving forward with Samantha Ronsen. And while she seemed to be occasionally better while with her, Lindsay’s addiction continued to flare up. Those moments when she seemed to cross the line from spoiled party-girl to addict seemed to always coincide with public humiliation surrounding her sexuality or with dwindling film options that everyone assumes are related to the drugs, and are to some extent. But no one considered how quickly the doors shut on her options while similar young women in Hollywood with far less talent and just as public drug use continued to find work; those girls were all straight. Young queer people self-medicate every day in this world especially in response to imagined and real rejection. They fall down the looking glass never to resurface. So I ask you, is it so much to think that maybe a young woman just discovering her sexuality, who still does not even use the word “lesbian” to describe herself, who has her sexuality discussed in public across the world as if her feelings mean nothing or worse are humorous or a publicity stunts, and who already works in an industry in which drugs come easy and fast to people in her position, is in fact partially medicating her way through a major identity change? And even if she wasn’t, knowing what we know about the coming out process in the U.S. do you think someone who is already using drugs wouldn’t consider turning to them for comfort when the whole world is taking opinion polls about her sexuality and mocking her sometimes heart wrenching break ups with comments like “even women don’t want you fire c—-h” and “ha ha, guess that lesbian thing really wasn’t the way to boost your career”? So I am not saying there isn’t a complex picture here in which Lindsay must take some responsibility, including for her own actions, but instead pointing out that there are both recognizable circumstances devoid of sexuality and very clearly documented issues with regards to them that everyone seems to want to ignore so that we can all point and laugh of the fallen child star. I for one think she deserves more than that.

disney/2010

  • Despicable Me – the first hour is a snoozefest facilitated by the major jokes having all been included in the trailer. The last 1/2 an hour however is endearing and entertaining. Despite being billed as a supervillian movie, it is really a modern Orphan Annie in which the main character falls in love with three Orphan girls while trying to steal the moon. In finding his inner-parent with them, he also resolves his issues with his own judgmental mother and makes peace with the ways she tore down his dreams of going to the moon that led to his criminality, and plot to steal the moon, in the first place. There are 5 main women and girls in this movie, all of  whom are white. Some of them are stereotypical, like the overweight Southern Belle-turned-B–ch who runs the orphanage and the overbearing, uncaring, mother. The girls, on the other hand, represented a range of female identities none of which are disparaged despite the fact that one or two of them are extremely different. One girl wears glasses but there are no other disabilities present in the film. There are also minor female roles in which the women are also stereotypes, including the overbearing and over-indulgent N. American tourist mother and the overweight black mom. Minor male characters with lines are more varied: there is an overweight, clueless, N. American father, and over-indulged obnoxious N. American tourist son, and the annoying-but-meant-to-be-slightly-creepy, scientist, who is not emasculated but instead used as the source of jokes about age and aging; there is also a black male tourist with no lines and two Egyptian guards who are so dumb they don’t know the pyramid has been stolen, there roles as really minor. The major action takes place between the male supervillians and the bank, also run by a man, and most of the comedy involves yellow aliens who speak a mixture of Spanish and gobbledy-gook, which of course is insulting.

showtime/2010

  • The Real L Word – I know I said it was like bad dyke drama that you cannot turn away from in my original post, but seriously now it’s just bad. Since that first episode, I have not been able to sit through an entire episode of the show and I stopped watching all together when Rose, one of two Latinas and the only one who is light but not white appearing, through a party at the home she shares with her girlfriend and then spent the entire night demeaning her and acting like a loud mouth. When her girlfriend Natalie tries to confront her sexist and belittling behavior, Rose simple tells her to move out if she doesn’t like it and seems completely unfazed when Naatalie says she might and started to cry. In fact, Rose went downstairs and continued her boorish behavior with her guests. It was the kind of moment that makes you question whether a reality show should be a “true” reflection of the diversity of the lesbian experience, which includes boorish, self-absorbed, women who really don’t care about anyone but themselves or if it should make an effort to show lesbians in as positive a light, without losing sight of reality, as possible because it is only one of two reality shows to be centered completely on us. And these questions are colored, pun intended, by the fact that the only person acting this way is the only visible woman of color on the show; though, admittedly, she is not the only one who plays with women’s emotions and puts her needs first. I fall somewhere in the middle on the issue, in that I believe that a diversity of experiences need to be shown but that when you are among the first to represent a community to a wide audience you need to engage in point and counterpoint, ie that there needs to be a balance of identities and that race needs to be a factor in making the decisions about who you cast. In this case, if you have a loud mouth sexist Latina lesbian than you need to have a loving non-sexist Latina lesbian alternative precisely because the former plays into the stereotype of sexist hotheaded brown folk. Technically the L Word has provided this alternative in soft-spoken Tracy, the problem is Tracy is a white Latina (white appearing in the language of the U.S., blanca, ie white, in the language of Latin America) and therefore is not a visible counterpoint to Rose at all. And while we are talking race, there continues to be the ongoing issue of an utter absence of people of color in the “Real” L Word’s version of LA. If we removed Rose and Tracy LA could pass for a really sunny Sweden; when you film somewhere as diverse as LA, you should be able to get some people of color in the background shots just because they are there. This lack of reality has been a bone of contention amongst culturally conscious lesbians since the fictional L Word but there is also the issue of unreality in general in reality shows and what it means for the stories we see rather than the ones that were told/filmed. For more insight into that from a couple on the show we participated in order to help people struggling with self-acceptance or figure out how to fit into a sexual identity that has become synonymous with a lifestyle they may not lead see here. The women of Velvet Park also discussed in detail the way the show seems to want to exploit every negative thing about every member of the cast and turn this show into a sort of “Real Housewives of Lesbian County” which seems inappropriate in general and especially in the context of groundbreaking television. And so, I have to remove my endorsement of the show as something painful and yet compelling to watch. I’m not watching and from what I can tell neither is anyone else who is media savvy.

On Humiliation

Jan Coztás/2006

An interesting multi-blog conversation is unfolding in the academic blogosphere about the role of humiliation in academic relationships. While the conversation is quite complex overall, I find myself fixated on a single supposition: academics seek out humiliation. From my limited vantage point in the conversation, I have not read the book they are discussing nor been an active participant in the conversation, it seems the idea is based on a discussion about a “fictitious” academic from a working class background writing about a series of humiliating events in her early career. Part of that writing includes the fear of being outed as a poor girl in a field in which everyone is assumed to be rich and talking class is often the surest way to get shoved to the margins.

Long time readers, no doubt, can see why I might fixate on such a point. Perhaps it is because I am a poor girl who was given endless “tea cup tests” (does your pinky stick out or not) at my first appointment at Snooty Poo U. Perhaps it is because I chose to work at an extremely poor university that serves even poorer students and spend a ridiculous amount of my career saying to those who assume we are all elite surrounded by over-privileged students that not only is their reality not mine but there is nothing wrong with me, my scholarship, or my cognition because I chose to leave New England. Or Perhaps, it is just because I read, research, and work with and for people who have all at some point suffered serious humiliation at the hands of elitests who shrug off their cruelty like a stray cat hair on their sweater. I don’t think any of us seek out humiliation and if some do,  in this context, I would argue that it is about internalized shame taught to us outsiders to keep us from ever reaching for things we are allowed to dream about but never call our own.

More than that, I wonder about those who delight in shame. Is the delight in recognizing behaviors you have once engaged in but now have the privilege to forget the desperation that motivated them? By which I mean, when one seeks out counsel from Super Star X as a junior scholar, isn’t the motivation primarily to learn what Super Star X knows? Or if you are more self-interested, then perhaps the goal is to be taken under Super Star X’s wing so as to sail through tenure (which seldom happens by the way)? And in that instance does the humiliation stem from the system that marks out Super Star X as untouchable and therefore able to publicly humiliate others or even destroy their careers? Are you really a self-hating fool for talking to Super Star X if this is the only system in which you can engage him and he you?

Let me put it another way. Hegemony is based on naturalizing inequality to the point where we no longer recognize it and/or engage in it without the intent to do so. As students and junior scholars your success in academe is often based on networking with Senior scholars who have the power to radically impact your funding, advancement, tenure, and overall career. As you pass through each stage of academe the power they have over you diminishes. However, in order to pass through those stages you will likely have to swallow your pride, dilute your morals, and except things that in any other field of work you would be empowered to change. Those little compromises make you more and more immune to the vast array of inequalities and oppressions that fester in the academic world. This happens to everyone regardless of identity but is exacerbated by membership in a marginalized group and multiplied outward by the number of groups to which one belongs. This is something that we all know, that is written about in anthologies, and the subject of endless panels, and yet it is something that most would deny when reading it so starkly written out on a page as I have done here.

When you cross the line from un-ternured to tenured, the game changes immensely in some ways and not nearly as much in others. However, tenure provides a certain kind of safety that when coupled with years of minimizing and intentionally forgetting, ultimately translates to forgetting what it is like to dependent on good evaluations, Senior scholars liking you or at least not being annoyed with you because you wore purple on a Tuesday, and people perceiving of you as smart but not a threat to any of the status quo ideas that predate you. People forget what it is like to be the girl in the corner with one wool sweater, sleeves rolled up to hide the hole, in a room of girls with closets full of cashmere (to reference Pat Hill Collins essay on class antagonism in academe).

And while I am making critical feminist references to class analysis and academe why not trot out some tried and true readings on the subject; each of the books below contain essays on the subject:

  1. Alsion Trash
  2. Anzaldúa & Moraga This Bridge Called My Back
  3. Collins Fighting Words
  4. Kadi Thinking Class
  5. Langhout et. al “Assessing Classism in Academic Settings”
  6. “Classless and Clueless at NWSA” (haven’t read this but have had it on my to read shelf for a while)

So I put it to you dear readers, those of you who are working class academics or simply people whose identities have been the source of others attempting to humiliate you in the workplace:

  1. do you seek out humiliation?
  2. If so, why?
  3. what do you think the purpose of humiliation really is regardless of your own relationship to it?

As I always, it would be great to discuss it here for the people who don’t use twitter, but if you want to talk real time you know I’ll always answer your tweets.