Haiti Still Rebuilding

I promised to write a post on the first of every month about Haiti until the crisis was over. I missed last month because I was just generally MIA the entire month anyway. That does not mean that rebuilding in Haiti is not still going on or that people in the U.S. have largely moved on to the next thing. In the face of the Gulf Crisis in particular, including flooding in the surrounding areas, it’s hard not to see why compassion fatigue has set in. But, as is my way, I would not doubt that fatigue would wipe Haiti off the immediacy map anyway.

So what is going on in Haiti?

1. Wycleff Jean for President …

limelight.org

First Wycleff Jean has made it known he is considering running for President. When Fernandez originally took office in the Dominican Republic there was some complaint that he was from New York not RD. His focus on transnational issues, “Americanized” sense of blackness and identity, and his progressive ideas were all things that his opponents attacked in his original campaign and to a lesser extent in his subsequent campaign that ousted Mejia. Some people have pointed to Fernandez’s success in uniting factions in RD and changing racial and socio-political discussions for the better, particular in terms of his ability to advocate for a more respectful place at the table of U.S. foreign affairs, as a reason why transmigrants might make more globally successful presidents for the Caribbean. Given that Haiti shares the island, comparisons between Jean’s potential bid and Fernandez’s presidency seem to make some sense as well. However, Jean is first and foremost an entertainer not someone deeply involved in politics and governance like Fernandez. His charity has come under scrutiny more than once over financial issues that range from general lack of knowledge about establishing proper status for the organization and pay structures for its employees to the more disconcerting accusations about the use of funds. His own involvement has been critiqued from multiple sides and should be evaluated in the context of his newly stated political aspirations. Regardless of whether you see him being politicized by his needed philanthropic work in Haiti or his charity work as a stepping stone to a political career, I think questions have to be asked about Yele in light of this announcement. And I don’t think asking those questions distracts from the work Yele or Jean himself did in Haiti during the earthquake crisis; work this blog helped to highlight. More than that, if you do interpret the bulk of questions surrounding Yele as lack of knowledge, then how does that reflect on Jean’s ability to run the much larger budget of a nation-state?

2. Women Rebuild

Women were amongst the hardest hit by the earthquake. Not only did they make up 50% of the heads of households in Haiti but they were early reports of sexual assault and child trafficking that spoke to the targeting of women in the aftermath by relief workers and opportunists alike. Women and children also outnumbered men in the relief camps but footage coming out of Haiti pointed to several young men bullying them out of food lines and food, water, medicine and sanitation shortages leading to the death of newborns, pregnant women, and small children, leaving surviving mothers with classic PTS and depression. These conditions have been documented around the world in refugee camps that do not provide enough security or gender related supported to women. However, both women and men involved in the relief effort in Haiti have pointed out basic ways that women can and should be supported:

The Merlet International Feminist Solidarity Camp, named after a famous Haitian feminist killed in the earthquake, also worked to combat some of these issues. It was organized by women’s groups in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, the LACs region, and the Global Fund for Women with the goal of ultimately being run exclusively by Haitian women. The camp helped coordinate women’s centered relief efforts coming through the Dominican at a time when relief was still sitting untouched at the Haitian airport. It also provided a holistic health center for women to deal with both physical and emotional issues related to the earthquake.

Both International women’s organizations and NGOs within Haiti and the Dominican Republic began helping women in Haiti from the beginning of the Earthquake. I mentioned these organizations in prior posts including links to their donation lines but here is a video of the work that was being done in February.

MUDHA’s work is particularly important because it is a well-established women’s organization focusing on women’s rights and equality in both RD and Haiti. Their work in the Dominican Republic in particular has been critical to ensuring both Haitian women and Haitian descended women receive services, funding, education, and health care that have largely been denied them in the Dominican Republic. Their partnership in the relief efforts with Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees also helped bring a needed transnational element to their work, including support of Haitian women fleeing the earthquake, Haitian transmigrants in the U.S. and RD, and women’s organizing in general. You can read more about the efforts women are engaging in on the border of the Dominican and Haiti from the perspective of the Director of the Women and Health Collective here (Spanish only). As you can see from the interview, the majority of the displaced are women and they face major antihaitianismo hurtles despite the relief efforts.

According to Dir. Galvan, 6 months later, Haitian women also continue to face problems with lighting and security in camps in Haiti despite the promise of money to fix these issues. They also do not have enough access to jobs, food, or milk for their children. Their complaints about sexual assault have not been taken seriously enough nor have changes to protect against further assault. Nor has enough money been spent on women’s specific mental health needs in the aftermath. Worse there is limited to no access to birth control or post-birth or post-abortion services in the camps. Yet women are banding together to demand representation, services, and inclusion in the rebuild including 7 demands presented specifically to the government and the relief workers in Haiti.

Revista Amauta/Roberto Guerra

While women centered NGOs and women’s organizations are small but strong in Haiti, many of them do not represent queer women, and women make up a very small percentage of the government itself. Since the government is re-establishing its ability to make decisions about funding and rebuilding efforts in the aftermath, female representation in the government is critical. Haitian women have begun to advocate for themselves in light of this situation, along with pre-existing women’s political organizations, Vital Voices has emerged as an organization by and for Haitian women that is helping fund the campaigns of over 70 women for office. They are also working on educating women about political participation and its import and getting women registered to vote. Vital Voices receives training and money from international sources but also provides training and leadership from within Haiti; meaning, that they are in charge of the organization and work on an exchange of skills model rather than allow international funders to dictate what happens.

The Centre National des Equipments, which is in charge of government sponsored infrastructure rebuilding, has also centered women in the rebuild efforts. The majority of their workers are women and in the aftermath of the earthquake leadership has extended job and training offers to women in the capital. According to the Seattle Times, 85 trainees/65 women were on site clearing rubble within hours of the earthquake. Their work, and CNE’s in general, is helping to challenge gender stereotypes about women’s work, leadership, and strength. With so many displaced women, it is also providing an opportunity to regain self-sufficiency and develop new and needed skills. CNE’s salaries also represent middle class incomes for women who may not have other entry points into similar economic status. Though it comes with the potential for engendered conflict between men and women, and even domestic violence, it also represents economic freedom and the chance to make new lives for women and their children at a time when those lives seem nearly impossible.

In the day to day existence of Haitian post-earthquake, women have also taken on many of the roles ensuring the nation’s survival. These women have provided food, education, and care in communities that were the last to receive international aid as well as those still depending on displaced camps. According to Bell, they are

Street vendors, factory workers, farmers, professionals, and unemployed, they compose a national force which has sustained hungry, wounded, and abandoned survivors. Though they may be on the razor-thin edge of survival themselves, though they may already be caring for many, women have been finding and cooking food for strangers, taking in children left orphaned and others left homeless, and seeking out medical assistance and health care or improvising their own. Some have taken it upon themselves to organize education or recreation sessions for children, who have little to do since Port-au-Prince’s schools have closed. ‘It’s just our social obligation,’ said one woman.

These women, and all of the women involved in organizing in Haiti, represent individual and collective efforts that speak to the power and resilience of Haitian women in the face of tragedy.

Here are the donation links I posted in the past for women’s organizations working in Haiti.

A Little Peace

Chris Clinton/Getty Images

Last night, I attended a dinner with at least 6 people with whom I do not get along. This situation was rare because it is still technically summer which mostly means I get to be more choosy about the company I keep and that in the waning days of Dr. Crackhead (she’s begun talking retirement), dysfunction in at least two of my Departmental homes is at an all time low. Put another way, for a surprisingly long time now, must of us at Pov U, have all gotten along quite well. Even the divas in our prospective departments have all been making an effort to hold up less meetings, growl at fewer Juniors, and stop yawning with menace at every tentative change in direction we discuss. It’s been a blessing that has formed many new and productive collaborations, funding deals, and exciting changes in the curriculum and type of students we have been able to retain.

As one of the more radical people on our faculty, you can imagine what went through my head when I looked around the room at last night’s dinner and saw people whose intellectual and political commitments include derailing the funding and mentoring of graduate students of color, the nearly successful attempt to return the “Great Books” to the core of the curriculum, and the intentional destruction of important global studies research and study abroad opportunities that were once envisioned as a cornerstone of our little U’s rebirth.

peter j wilson/2007

In sitting with people more radical than I, yes that’s what I said, those folks are the bada– that make giddy with the stupid when they get to telling stories of their “pre-ivory tower days”, I began to feel that familiar rumble. Like a volcano warning all life that had been living peacefully on its terrain, there was heat, electricity, and the promise of devastation lurking just beneath the surface of our pleasant little planning meeting. Soon Bambi would not know where to run to shed those big, big, “I’m innocent and their scary” tears. And the people in the middle would be seeking shelter in the no man’s land sprung up in the devastation.

But I just wanted to eat my veggie rolls in peace and get on with the 3.5 hours of boring presentations we had to sit through before we could vote.

And that is when it happened. I saw woman whose feminism means everyone but her can get out of the way or be called sexist who had single-handedly driven out an entire cohort of students of color from our department one year and instead of sucking my teeth from the tenure porch, I said hello.

I think I startled her.

I think I startled everyone.

In the hush that followed, I asked her how she had enjoyed the first several presentations on mundane drivel that keeps the uni running that we had been subjected to before “dinner.” Never one to think her opinion is not central to the inner-workings of the universe, she warily began to wax poetic about her thoughts on new heating coils for the gym. In the 20 minutes that ensued, we discussed both the mundane and the surreal that is part of life at Pov U with more than a few overlaps in opinion. To her credit, she only made one disparaging remark about non-gender specific identity studies and the scholars who engage in it and only one barbed comment about me personally. It was a record for her. And in exchange, I did not exploit her fears of women of color and sense of inadequacy around people who know more about certain subjects than she does. We both considered the conversation a fair exchange. When she left, she left smiling and nodding at me like she’d finally realized I was human. And I smiled back, hoping that this rare moment meant that maybe we could forge ahead with less conflict in the future.

At our conversations end, I noticed that others who had often been on the other side of major political battles at Pov U had drawn close to our conversation and were now jockeying for similar attention. More than that, I noticed the radical colleagues with whom I was eating had let the call of the thunder and lightening lull to a threatened of slight drizzle. It was odd and yet wonderful. Somehow, I thought we could keep the peace and the Golden Age of collaboration could continue.

But then I realized my naivete. The people crowding near our conversation did not want to discuss mundane Pov U business as a metaphor for working together and committing to decrease oppressive behavior on campus.  The woman who had tried to deny my tenure on the basis of … blackness… and who had made a career of encouraging students of color and queer students in her Department to quit school all together or “for the love of g-d, transfer!!!” stepped in front of me and painted a clearer picture with her broad smile and barbed opening, disparaging my intelligence and my outfit all in a single flick of her tongue. Her smile said she expected pleasantries and her demeanor said she’d beat them out of me if necessary because she too wanted a public chat in which everything seemed friendly and nice to observers.

Suddenly, I felt like an overwrought Priest during confessional.

Sorry lady, this chapel is closed.

Not every space has to be transformed into a war zone between the people clinging to power and the people exploiting their clinginess to wrench it from them. Sometimes, everyone is just grateful to keep eating. More than that, in a moment in which so much good is coming out of our ability to cooperate it would be a mistake to let people who tear things down have a forum in which to justify it. I understood this when I made the gesture to a woman I’d rather did not work here and she understood it when she took the offer from me, a woman she wished did not work at all.

And yet, even with this most fragile peace, there is always someone who wants to exploit the very well-defined boundaries to their own ends. If I had let her, the second woman who wanted to talk, who intentionally blocked my path to back to my table, would have torn the whole social treaty forged just 20 minutes earlier to pieces. And for what? She was not looking for a chance to chat with me anymore than I her. What she wanted was what all unrepentant guilty people want, a public absolution to go wreak havoc another day. In her arrogance and her sense of single issue victimization she believed such an absolution was her due and that my denial of it would be more proof that she was the radical and I the interloper.

Roger Corman/1962

This, by the way, is why people do not try. As long as the people with entitlement issues and privilege-evasive blinders think themselves the victims due apologies all the while oppressing everyone around them, their intended victims will always prefer attack or disdain over peace or learned alliance. After all, these are the colleagues who bring eggs and throw them, then complain about having to walk on eggshells whenever they are near us.

The impending conflict ended when two extremely Senior male colleagues got between us with the proverbial “Girls, you’re both pretty.” As she stalked away in a feminist huff, taking no responsibility for the problem but only marking the sexist way in which it was ended, she looked over her shoulder at me and said “Well, I guess we’ll have to talk later when you have time to be around the women of the college.” Score one for [single-issue] feminism or not.

The women back at my table simply laughed and asked if I enjoyed my turkey and pumpkin pie.

And so that little peace was shattered. Our Golden Age tarnished. Even now, my phone is ringing with colleagues wanting to gossip about the unmitigated gall of academics who see themselves as saviors because they occasionally mention race or class before reverting back to their navels. And I know exactly what was gained by the other side, because when we don’t work together then Pov U has little chance of moving into this century intellectually, economically, or with regards to diversity and that makes it easier to revert to conservative arguments about what needs to change and what does not. Score one for delusional bigotry.

Politics Quick Fix

You may have noticed that after all the intense writing I did about politics during the election season here at the blog, the focus of the blog has moved decidedly in different directions from DC and its outliers. Nevertheless, sometimes you cannot look away and this Super Primary Tuesday is one of those moments.

On the Left

AP Photo/unattributed

The big news today is that Blanche Lincoln managed to hold on to her seat despite not supporting the public option or the union bill that would allow workers to join and support unions in private instead of under the watchful eye of the bosses they were trying to keep in line. According to MSNBC pundit Ed Schulz and a report yesterday am on CNN, there may have been voter tampering involved in her win; both channels reported that districts that had been heavily in favor of her more progressive primary opponent received less voting areas than it has in the past and that promises to rectify this with a special Saturday am polling station for early voters were against the law in Arkansas and led to all kinds of voter confusion. Video of Arkansas’ voting in those districts included packed parking lots, long lines, and even a car accident.

Why is this important?

Blanche Lincoln is a Democrat. Democrats have long chaffed over supposed and proven voter tampering by Republicans over the last 8 years. Efforts by both Democrats and Progressives to ensure an end to voter tampering were so feared by their opponents in fact, that they launched smear campaigns to stop people from getting out the vote or challenging election results. We have documentaries and news specials full of cynical or shocked faces on the Left proclaiming the immorality of the Right with regards to voting dating back to the Florida scandal in the first Bush election. In other words, it is part of our voting knowledge and our democratic vocabulary that one thing that sets Democrats apart from Republicans is that the latter cheat, often, and using multiple tactics that including moving polling centers (OH and MI I am talking to you).

So if the polling stations were down to only 2 from roughly 50 in previous primaries in districts that were likely to come out against Blanche Lincoln then her win is actually a loss for Democrats everywhere. In one, highly publicized primary, we have lost the moral high ground on voting “irregularities” in favor of supporting a candidate who has failed to support many of the policies that the majority of the country was behind when she, and other Democrats, were overwhelmingly elected.

Her joy and incredulity last night in accepting the nomination mask a potentially much darker turn in the party in which not only voting is in question but so is the power of support from the administration. Both President Obama and former President Clinton lobbied hard for Lincoln in the past few weeks. Clinton even stumped for her and was part of her ad campaign. As progressives continue to be disappointed in the middle road policies of this administration, we cannot help but note how they have rallied for a woman who was willing to fillibuster with Republicans to stop us from having decent health care. Their continued support of her in the face of these policy “contradictions” is only slightly less disconcerting than the fact that by doing so they too are implicated, however tangentially, in the voting poll controversy.

On the Right

The other big stories this morning are the wins of  former ebay CEO Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina in California. Like Lincoln, Whitman’s win casts a bright light on potentially questionable election practices by her Party while Fiorina’s win may simply show that when comes to politics the old boy network has room for a few [corporate] women.

While voting polls appear to have been at their standard number for each community in CA, Whitman’s raised huge flags with the amount of money she was willing to spend to get elected. According to Time, she spent $80 million on her primary campaign.  Many are claiming this morning that it is the clearest sign that she “bought the election” of any candidate in the nation’s history. Her actions, though questionable, were not illegal and ultimately people have to ask themselves why they are so swayed by the amount of time they see a candidate but not by the knowledge that candidate spent the GDP of some small nations to win a primary.

More intriguing to me is the way Whitman became a player in the Republican Party in the first place. If you think back to the Presidential primaries and start counting the number of times John McCain told anecdotal stories about “the CEO of Ebay” you’ll know what I mean. I, for one, had no idea who Whitman was before John McCain decided to wax poetic about her every chance he got during the last legs of his election bid. Many watching and commenting on his speeches, assumed that he was going off on random tangents or grasping at straws to include references to a woman in a campaign where he may have “chosen” a female running mate but ultimately continued to operate as if it was an old boys network. Did John McCain know something we didn’t? Was he asked/told to stump for her in advance or even paid to do so? We will probably never know, but again, her bid for CA Governor has to make you wonder why she was the woman McCain fixated on 9 times out of 10 during an election she had nothing to do with.

campaign photo/unattributed

Fiorina was also mentioned by McCain several times during the Presidential Primaries until she openly mocked Palin’s qualifications. However, Fiorina worked for the McCain campaign as the economic advisor and therefore her mentions at least makes some sense.

What is more important in her case is her incredibly negative business image vs. her crushing win yesterday. As CEO of HP, Fiorina was considered a disaster by many because of declining stock and shares of the computer market. Market Shares Blog reported that HP stock went up 7% after she was fired the day the news broke. Fiorina on the other hand has always maintained that she was forced out and that gender was a critical factor in the decision. If we believe the former assessment her win is just as suspect as all of the women in NY who were disqualified by the public as backdoor candidates whose runs were considered part of an unearned legacy rather than legitimacy on their own. Some of those candidates may not have had direct political experience but they did have tons of transferable philanthropic experience. Can Fiorina, as a potentially disastrous business woman, count her time as CEO to explain away similar unearned keys to the kingdom?

Two-Parties One System

On the one hand, this primary season has seen many women coming to the political foreground. The Republicans in particular have ushered in a large number of women as their candidates, proving for those who did not learn this lesson from the suffragettes that biological sex and political beliefs are not fused together once and for all. But except for those hold out biological determinists and wrongfully educated WS folk who think “any woman” winning is a win for “women”, these wins, regardless of the Party, do not bode well for the progressive movement in this country. While some of these women will support middle class feminist goals, stances against unions and health care mean that their feminism will not extend to the majority of women struggling in this country even if they call themselves feminists. So for me the presence of so many women in the primaries is noteworthy but not a real measure of any larger feminist advance.

For the majority of voters, the primaries should be a wake up call no matter what. While neither progressives nor Tea Party challengers fared well in this election, the reason for their defeats may have more to do with shady practices than with voters. When neither Democrats nor Republicans can successfully shake off their own dirt to point at the filth of the other party, this country is in trouble. When it happens at a point in our political sentiment as a nation that incumbents are failing us, traditional government is lying to us, and what We the People need most is ignored or denied, the very public failures of both parties to uphold democratic ideals in an election only serve to further entrench dissatisfaction. While some on the Left may believe that this dissatisfaction can only be interpreted as racism, and much of the expressed disdain right now is (see my anti-Obama poster page in the tabs @ the top of the blog for evidence if you need it), progressives and others are beginning to become seriously concerned about environmental issues, employment, health care, etc. that still have not been solved. And while those of us on the Left can see across history to note how many of these issues and problems stem from past administrations and economic and global policies from past ideologies, we are also smart enough to look at the choices made by this administration. When potential or perceived voter tampering on both sides gets added to that plate of complaints it seems like the table might break.

So readers, what do you think about yesterday’s primaries and about our two party system?

College and Homes are Only for Rich People

At least that is what the NY Times would have you believe if you read Ron Lieber’s piece “Placing the Blame as Students Fall Into Debt“. While the latter part of his article breaks down blame according to three parties:

  1. The student & the student’s family
  2. The Lender
  3. The University

The first half of the article draws parallels between seemingly clueless home buyers who the article implies may have lied about their incomes, “just like the mortgage lenders who didn’t ask borrowers to verify their incomes.”, and students who mortgaged their futures without anyway of predicting their actual incomes. In this version of the story, the borrowers are both ignorant and greedy.

  • Ignorant because they entered into loan agreements that they “should have known” were beyond their means.
  • Greedy because they were so focused on “keeping up with the Jones’ ” that they did not bother to think about the consequences of their choices.

The first supposition requires everyone to believe in the all knowing market in which actors, in this case students or home buyers, know exactly what the cost of their purchase will be and exactly how much work-salary they can command to pay for that purchase in the long term. Just like the outdated immigration model that argues that people move based on known economic and social opportunities abroad, the reality is much more complicated. In both cases, students and home buyers had no way of knowing that the United States would enter a recession to rival the Dust Bowl. They could not have predicted that job losses in the country would hover around the double digits nationally and be as high as 35-50% for specific ethnic groups + genders in certain parts of the country. And while home ownership is something that can come later in life, educational attainment is directly tied to employment and income potential in this country.

Both popular media and scientific research encouraged students to see college as a requirement. Every day for years advertisements ran on local channels and basic cable across the country telling high school students that they would be stuck working for minimum wage in dead end jobs without college degrees. While these ads are fewer now that the economic crisis has shifted the way we look at education, they still run today. These ads are backed up by data on:

  • income potential
  • average salaries for certain degrees and histories of placement in certain fields/ with certain companies by certain schools
  • barriers to success the longer one remains outside of school

All of this research over-determines the expectations of students about their economic success as college graduates rather than paints the bleak outlook that Lieber implies should be a given. In fact, Lieber went so far as to discount all of this research when he argued that “They [students] and their families made borrowing decisions based more on emotion than reason.” Again this quote assumes that complete information is available either as a given or by the assumption that the lack of complete information prevents “rational” people from engaging in market decisions. Worse, it’s underlining thesis that poor and working class people are emotional and ignorant results the erasure of all of the data underpinning their decisions and in doing so creates willful fools out of potential victims.

The ongoing willingness of journalists and pundits to blame the poor and the oppressed for their own poverty and oppression, even as all signs point to greed at the top, pales in comparison to Lieber’s assertion that poor parenting is to blame for the student debt crisis:

It is utterly depressing that there are so many people like her facing decades of payments, limited capacity to buy a home and a debt burden that can repel potential life partners. For starters, it’s a shared failure of parenting and loan underwriting. (emphasis mine)

This is where Lieber’s second supposition about “greedy people” comes into play. As he argues a few paragraphs later:

No one forces borrowers to take out these loans

While education maybe optional for some, I think we have already pointed to the reasons it is not for the majority of potential students in this country. Not only is employment and advancement somewhat based on educational attainment, but for some communities it represents needed social and economic capital denied through other avenues. Working class and subsistence level students who really are facing lives spent behind a food counter or department store without the leg up college promises them use education as their doorway out of poverty. The same can be said for people of color, and to a lesser extent rural white people, both of whom have been permanently cast as ignorant, shiftless, and criminal in this country. They use educational attainment to shift perception and gain moderate social capital in their own communities even as they remain shut out of economic capital in the nation as a whole. As the economy fell apart, these groups were at all the more risk for falling below the poverty line without education because they were the hardest hit by high risk lending practices proven to be racial in their application by banks as well as the hardest hit by downsizing. Even now, while the government talks of bounce back, unemployment amongst people of color, particularly African-American males, has reached catastrophic proportions. Rather than “bad parenting” then, the encouragement these groups receive from family to go to college is part of a cultural, gender, or locational struggle that has historically benefited the entire community.

While Lieber argues that lending agencies own some of the blame along with these supposedly bad parents, he writes:

Sallie Mae gets a pass here, in my view. A responsible grownup co-signed for its loans …

The nation’s largest private student loan company gets a pass. Let that sink in for a minute.

While Lieber is perfectly willing to vilify students and their families, he says that a loan agency that helped lock student borrowers into permanent debt even as they are paid by the Federal government for any defaults or costs they accrue is off the hook. Recent research into the student-loan industry shows seemingly unethical ties between certain loan companies and certain well-paid school officials to push specific lenders, loan terms, etc. Lenders have also been known to garnish social security and disability even when they know doing so will render the borrowers homeless or destitute rather than work on payment plans. These loans are binding even if borrowers have to leave school through no fault of their own because the goods and services cannot be returned even though the benefit from them cannot be reaped. Moreover, as I have argued elsewhere, these loans seem to violate basic laws governing contracts which requires the absence of coercion (in this case the threat that not taking out the loan means you cannot go to college and face all of the economic and social consequences of that option for the future) and the presence of complete information (ie a full disclosure of lending practices and consequences, which is impossible given that Congress can change rules governing student loans at any time and loan agencies can change policies governing your loan with a simple disclosure letter knowing there is no way for you to pay the entire outstanding amount to keep from having new policies kick in). One such policy Sallie Mae recently implemented erases the debt relief and on time payment bonuses for borrowers who have to take a deferment or forebearance unrelated to a return to school. THAT’S RIGHT – Sallie Mae is telling students in financial crisis during a massive recession that if they cannot pay their bill the only way to keep up their good credit history with the company is to go back to school, which will presumable result in the taking out of even more loans! Many of my returning students have also complained that none of the new legislation hoping to provide some kind of payment relief for students has been explained to them, or in some cases even provided to them, by their lender. In at least two cases this year, my former students reported losing their good credit status with Sallie Mae because when they called to ask about payment options while un or under employed, they were not told about the income based payment plan because that plan would result in losses for Sallie Mae unlike other plans in which extra money could be made off of each of them. But Lieber thinks Sallie Mae “gets a pass.”

To believe Lieber and others like him, you have to believe that students are ignorant and greedy while banks and the loan industry who set off the multiple economic crisis facing this nation are responsible, unbiased, free agents of an equal open and equal market system. For people who have succeeded through hard work + education + social capital + luck to remain afloat in the economic crisis, victim-blaming has become a mantra, often offset with “times are tough everywhere”, that allows them to sleep with less anxiety at night. It is however a mantra that does very little for the average N. American struggling to survive. While education and housing may seem like privileges to those who have them, they are not special rights afforded to the rich and have not been for 100+ years in this country (give or take). As long as this is how we look at the debt crisis and the people who are free falling as a result of it, we will never reform lending practices in this country let alone address critical inequalities built into that system. Rather than justifying one’s own success or ability to remain somewhat afloat by judging those who cannot, we need to be having ongoing conversations about the cost of college, the lending industry and banking system, and the ongoing decision to penalize mothers, youth, people of color, queer people, etc. for “market decisions” both in terms of lending decisions and blame when those backfire. Anything else is just a poor excuse for why people like Lieber have access to white male incomes at the New York Times while hardworking students wait on the welfare line.

Hey Hollywood How About Some Female Superhero Movies?

A recent post on The Grio about black superheros and their absence or underfunding in the Hollywood Blockbuster cycle prompted me to point out that not only does Hollywood fail to produce summer blockbusters with black female super hero leads, but the Grio list largely left women out as well. As a result, I sent out links to two of my older posts about female superheroes who might make great Summer Blockbusters on my twitter account. A day or so later, SciFi Wire featured a post about female “superheroes” they would like to see in film; the bulk of these women were white and many of them were actually anti-heroes or villains. Since I don’t have a SciFi Wire account in order to comment on their pages, I found myself chanting “But Some of Us are Brave”. Brave enough to write and then re-post my summer query about why women are relegated to RomComs in the summer when a bevy of female superheros await expense trilogy success. More than that, why are the only women Blockbuster loving audience see seldom full-fledged characters or sexualized, including electronically enhanced (ie they make everything bigger in post-production, pad the outfits, or the actresses cast have strategic enhancements already that are accentuated by the suits they wears)? And why are the most fleshed out of these ones whose story lines fulfill expected roles: wife, girlfriend, or love interest.

Hollywood would like to believe that if they put a few emasculating phrases in these scantily clad side characters mouths we won’t notice their irrelevance to the main plot or that their dimensions rival Barbie. They peddle in soft-core pseudo-feminism that many young audience have come to think of as empowering precisely because they are not given alternative visions of strong women nor taught about them in schools thanks to the Texas School Board. But honestly, if your biggest aspiration is to be the center of attention because of the size of your breasts or butt padding and your occasional snark at leading men, you are selling yourself so short it is a wonder we can even see you so far away from the feminist finish line. So here are some women who had brains, strength, beauty and took center stage, and yes, in some cases they also did it in very revealing clothing but that is because most of the artists drawing them were not women.

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Repost of “Hey Hollywood How About Some Women for the Summer?” May 16, 2009

The never ending discussion about the role of women in graphic novels and the depiction of women in adapted comics and novels for the summer blockbuster has begun. Rather than fight the good fight this summer, in which I remind people that ideas about women and the depiction of female characters can in fact be updated from the original without violating the basic plot I am just going to point to the myriad of female superheroes in classic comic books that could be staring  in movies this summer. In fact, a quick view of the films scheduled to be released this year has only one offering in which women have (as I recall) been seen as equal to their male counterparts: GI Joe. While Uhura in the new Star Trek isfemale-motorbike-transformer-arcee actually smarter than many of her male counterparts, she is completely undermined as I discuss in my Star Trek review, so she does not count. And the Director of Transformers II finally saw his way around putting women in, but the graphics show no update of the character; she is still an anorexic looking, neon pink thing, updated only slightly so she has actual headlights for breasts!!! I haven’t seen anything that sad since Tranzor Z’s Missile “Boobs”.

While I’d like to see the women below in more clothes, sans bum shots, if sent to the big screen, don’t tell me we don’t have options. This is what happens when Hollywood favors white heterosexual male producers, studio heads, and directors over the same diversity in Hollywood that we have in the country as a whole. All of these female characters, many of them poc and some differently-abled, fall out. And I don’t think there is anything wrong with having white, male, heterosexual directors (paging Bryan Singer) but I do think there is something wrong when year after year the plethora of big budget summer offerings can only offer me various plays on the same heteropatriarchal driven fantasy. (Not to mention racial narratives that perpetually imagine fantastical worlds without poc in them or poc who are so stereotypical they make me long for lines like “I ain’t birthin’ no babies”.)

the song in the background:

Isis, one of the first all-female rock bands signed in 1964 & homage to Mighty Isis

featured super heroes & villansIsis

  • Elektra Woman
  • Dyna Girl
  • Bionic Woman (the real one)
  • Wonder Woman
  • Wonder Girl
  • Princess Leia
  • Phoenix
  • She-Hulk
  • Misty Knight
  • The Huntress (Batman and Catwoman’s kid in an alternate universe, now there’s a blockbuster for you)
  • Miss Marvel
  • Red Sonja
  • Mighty Isis
  • Leiko Wu
  • mokf47-01

  • Vampirella (whose swimsuit I swear I saw at the shop last week while looking for my own)
  • Friday Foster (played in the film version by Pam Grier)
  • Thundra
  • Mary Marvel
  • Deadly Nightshade
  • The Black Canary
  • Tigra
  • Cat Woman
  • Rose and Thorn
  • Shanna
  • Big Barda
  • Storm

Other women, who might be great for blockbuster films are included in my other post on female super heroes/tv characters (which includes some Latinas from Latin American graphic novels sense the depiction of both Latinas and Asian American women is so poor here in the states).

Or how about a golden age come back like these women from the 1940s? Using 40s comics would open several genres that are popular right now like: Mysteries, Psychological Thrillers, Gangster Movies, etc. all with super heroes (see my explanation of this new combination in my Wolverine post)

Featured heroes & villans:

  • the domino ladlunamoth
  • fantoma
  • Red Tornado
  • Woman in Red (a detective who put hard boiled male detectives to shame)
  • Lady Luck
  • Miss Fury
  • Phantom Lady (not the anime ok)
  • Nelvana
  • Teen Wilcat
  • The Spider Queen
  • Silver Scorpion
  • Bullet Girl
  • Hawk Girl
  • Lady Fairplay
  • Americas Best  24 p14

  • Invisible Scarlet O’Neal
  • Miss America
  • Pat Patriot
  • Black Venus
  • International Girl Commandos
  • Bulletgirl
  • Hellcat/Patsy Walker
  • Miss Masque
  • Moon Girl
  • Miss Masque
  • Luna Moth (who one of my friends is named after)

What about gay representation? Wiccan and Hulking from the Young Avengers perhaps?

I suppose this might be a bit much?

rage

But I did really want to see what “Juice Pig” looks like in part 2. And in QAF land, they did make it into a major motion picture at the end.

It seems that Showtime will be offering its own animated regular series starring “the world’s first gay superhero” hopefully in the Fall. It is set to be penned by Stan Lee and based on a novel about a gay superhero entitled simply: Hero. If the small screen can do it, so can the big screen.

Or how about:dust

  • Echo (Native American/also once thought to be differently-abled)
  • Moondragon (bisexual)OracleBrainiacVirus
  • Jubilee (Asian-American, X-Men)
  • Misty Knight (differently-abled)
  • Nightengale (Haitian)
  • Dust (Afghani, Muslim, woman X-Men)
  • Ranma 1/2 (Asian, transgendered)
  • Dark Angel (Latina)
  • Sudra Jones (African American, drawn and written by Af-Ams)
  • Joto (black, and so totally gay even if he is too young to know)
  • Chandi Gupta (S. Asian)
  • Mantis (Vietnamese)
  • md2

  • Batwoman (lesbian)
  • Araña (Latina)
  • Oracle (differently-abled)?
  • The Black furies (environmental feminist werewolves; af-am)
  • Ghost (most popular female character at Dark Horse. ie $$$)
  • Random 5 (african american written by african americans)
  • The Menagerie II (Latina)
  • Arachne (a single mother)

silverhawk1

  • Silver Hawk (Asian; Michelle Yeoh rocked this part in low budge, let’s see it with big American studio backing)
  • the silencer (african american)
  • Darna (Asian)
  • Photon (African American)

Cecilia_Reyes_1

  • Cecilia Reyes (Afra-Latina X Men)
  • Karita (Afra-Latina)
  • Farscape women (various non-white aliens, including older woman)
  • Swift (Asian, bi-sexual)
  • Witchblade
  • Pathway (African American, autistic)
  • Dawnstar (Native American)
  • Heather Hudson (African American)
  • Willow (lesbian)
  • Sashiko (Asian American)
  • Hack/Slash (Lesbians, questioning, and taking back the night)

hack

  • Sister Superior (differently-abled)
  • Starlight (African American)
  • Firebird (Latina)
  • Rina Patel (S. Asian)echo1
  • Jonni Thunder (Genderqueer)
  • Vixen (African)

Obviously, some of these characters would need to be updated but the bottom line is that there are a number of strong women and poc that could be featured in the Summer Blockbuster cycle. Very few of them have been considered and still fewer have been centered. Several of the women on these lists actual appear in graphic novels about male heroes or in confederations containing male heroes, many of whom have already had multiple turns at the summer cinema. Despite this fact, most of these women are still absent. When they do appear, they are drained of much of their intellectual or physical powers, turned white when they were written as woc or bi-racial, or turned straight when they were originally bi-sexual or violently killed starlightwhen lesbian. While many graphic novels and comic books are riddled with misogyny, that is not an excuse to either omit women or fail to update them for modern audiences. Many of the women in this list would likely only need updated clothes and dialogue and very little else. Some of the more modern characters have already been written as feminist and most tackled issues regarding the oppression of women at one point or another. While still others, like Anesta Robins are hardboiled sci fi detectives that would appeal anyone who liked Blade Runner. Aaranas I’ve said before, Bryan Singer proved this when he did the X Men and Stan Lee has repeatedly said he wants to do better by women, people of color, and differently-abled characters.

While there are many male viewers and directors who like things just the way they are – men as super human and women as half-naked objects all tied together in a heterosexist bow – the reality is that women and men with a clue are alive and movie going in the summer months too. We don’t all want to watch quirky chick flicks (which do very little for the racial or ability integration of films either) or spend our parenting hours re-directing intentionally misdirected youth. We don’t want to fight with our significant others, less clear friends, and blog trolls about why black face, the absence of visible Latinos, the demonizing of the queer community, and women in spandex undies and stilletos is just not ok. I certainly do not enjoy being called “un-american” on wikipedia.

If basic decency cannot influence Hollywood, then let’s talk $$$. Sex and the City, which also had its woman hating real_power_batwomanmoments and saw the return of mammy, was female led and female centered. It was one of the major box office hits of the summer. And while part of its appeal was a successful tv run first, there were many shows with female superheroes and people of color who can say the same. If the attention the fictional comic book Rage got on QAF is any indication, the same could be said for gay superheroes if they’d actually be given a chance. And the re-release of Bat Woman, a lesbian, garnered so much buzz people were looking to buy copies before it even went to print. And seriously, do we really want to condone a film genre that seems to echo the wrongheaded warning of The Seduction of the Innocent?

Who would you like to see next summer?  (PS. No, I am not looking forward to Beyonce as Wonder Woman or Rose McGowen as Barbarella, but I do want to see both of those characters return to the screen.)

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images

  • Transformers I, movie still. unattributed
  • Pink Transformer. unattributed
  • Mighty Isis. Steve Rude
  • Leiko Wu/Phantom Sand. unattributed
  • Luna Moth. unattributed
  • Phantom Lady. unattributed.
  • Dust. unattributed
  • Moon Dragon. Rubinstein
  • Cecilia Reyes. unattributed
  • Pathway. unattributed
  • Michelle Yeoh as Silver Hawk. unattributed.
  • Hack/Slash. unattributed
  • Echo. unattributed
  • Starlight. Milestone Comics part of DC Universe.
  • Arana. unattributed
  • Kathy Kane aka “Bat Woman.” unattributed

interested in more amazing images: see SwanShadow Blog

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Imagine what summer would look like if instead of waiting for jingoistic, self-absorbed, womanizing Tony Stark to play penis, penis, whose got the penis, with some aging roid rager in a metal suit, you could watch an updated version of any of these women.

Best Quote Ever

  • this made me laugh like the nerdy feminist I am:

Okay, I – I really want to draw Hulk reading bell hooks and nodding fervently.

Softest Bullet

If she does ever draw that I will have to post it.

….

  • For those who just got done grading, these images of comments on reportedly real graded assignments should amuse. Note I found the student comments/behaviors far more interesting.


BHM: Rutina Wesley and Her “True Blood”

I recently included Rutina Wesley on a list of potential up and comers in “young Hollywood” in response to the Vanity Fair “Young Hollywood” edition that includes no women of color. Wesley was born in a working class area of Las Vegas to a Vegas Show Girl mom and a tap dancer father; thus, dance was her first love. While Rutina’s most famous character to date is an under-educated young black woman whose bitterness defines most of her life and relationships,  Rutina herself is a classically trained actress/dancer with a degree from Julliard and a summer study at the Royal Academy for the Dramatic Arts in London. Anyone who has spent time in Las Vegas schools knows that both official and unofficial tracking occurs for youth of color, particularly young women of color, so Rutina’s success was no doubt guided by the myriad of Las Vegas teachers bucking a system, dedicated parents, and her own amazing intelligence and will.

Wesley  no doubt channeled her early educational experience into her role as Reyanne, the strong female lead in the 2007 film How She Move. Her character was an aspiring medical student who had lost one of her siblings and was forced to return to the neglected public school of her youth after her family fell on hard economic times. The story centered on her sense of duty to herself, her family, and increasingly the community she left behind in the hopes of a better life. And as she defends herself and her dreams, she also helps others discover their own potential and re-discovers her own. The film centered a black female experience that recognized the humanity, intelligence, and struggle of black women abandoned by districting/red lining. By including not only Reyanne’s story but that of her female friends who were left behind, and the hopes and dreams they struggled with supposedly in her shadow, How She move moved beyond a narrative of exceptionalism to a subtle critique of gendered life in low income urban centers that work to pit women and young girls against one another and reduce them to exploitable objects. Wesley also pointed out that the character has a strong mother who is constantly encouraging her dreams . Unlike other films about young black girls that often show emotional absent or drug addicted black mothers, How She Move made sure not to vilify black motherhood while keeping the realities of working class/subsistence level existence fully centered.

How She Move also attempted to update the urban dance film genre that had largely left black women behind for stories about black male dancers and/or interracial relationships between black men and white women or between Latin@s and Anglos. Unfortunately, the market for the dance movie had already reached its saturation point and so Wesley’s work failed to reach a wide audience. However, the film was a unique addition to black herstory precisely because it centered an African American woman dancing in a male dominated competition who struggled with the dual oppressions of gender within the scene and racialized class issues within society at large. The story was not just a dance vehicle that showed off Wesley’s considerable dancing talent and played off of some half true half-imagined version of the hood, but rather a critical look at the complex negotiations of talented young black girls trying to thrive in a world that is riddled with racism, sexism, and classism from within the community and outside of it. Wesley’s performance in particular helped elevate the low production value of the film out of the realm of typical MTV exploitation film.

Where Wesley’s proud African American girl character failed to resonate with audiences, her problematic turn as Tara Thornton in True Blood has captivated them. Like the women reviewed in the previous post on The Vampire Diaries, Rutina Wesley’s role on True Blood is important partially because it integrates a genre that is increasingly devoid of racial diversity. Unlike the women on the Vampire Diaries however, Tara and her family are much more stereotype than counter-stereotype. Despite this fact, however, it is interesting to note that Tara has far more sexual agency and overall power vis-a-vis the supernatural men she encounters than the far less stereotypical Bennett women.

The Story (Note I am told that the tv show varies widely from the books which many black readers have called openly racist, & so we are focusing on the story as told by the show)

The Thorntons and the Stackhouses are neighbors in Bon Temps, a small, somewhat backwood, Louisiana town. The young girls in both families are drawn together because they are both poor and outcasts. People in Bon Temps think Sookie Stackhouse is slow because they don’t know that when she gets that glazed look in her eyes it is because she can hear their thoughts not because her own have stopped working. Tara, on the other hand, is stigmatized by her quick temper and her alcoholic mother who make the townspeople both suck their teeth and avoid her. In a desperate attempt to find friendship and safety the two girls bond and are best friends. This friendship is meant to tie the Stackhouses and the Thorntons together throughout the show, but as we shall see, it seldom resonates after the first season.

During season one of True Blood, we are introduced to Tara through an internal dialogue in which she is raging at the ignorance of the people she has to serve in her working class job and the town itself. As her raging grows louder, she has an altercation with a white customer who asks her for help finding a rake. Instead of helping, Tara launches into a verbal tirade followed by her accusing the woman and her supervisor, who fires her over the incident, of being racist. This scene solidifies the point of view of the show, which is decidedly eurocentric. Not only is Tara the stereotypical angry black woman, her rage has no explanation in this scene. She’s just angry because she is angry. Worse, when she gets caught raging and refusing to do her job, she cries racism. Thus the scene follows a narrative of the white imaginary in which racism is a figure of the black imagination; we are in a perpetual inexplicable rage that causes conflict and confusion amongst the poor white people just trying to go about their day, and if we don’t get what we want we just pull out our huge deck of race cards. Not is this ridiculous but even its profound disservice to both the character and black people in general, the scene’s ultimate conclusion with Tara losing her job proves how very useless such a card would be if in fact we had them.

As if this is not bad enough, soon after Tara is fired from her job we are introduced to her mother, a stone cold, fall down, drunk who quotes the Bible at her daughter while beating her. Like Tara, Lettie Mae Thornton is a stereotype born straight out of the Moynihan report, which referred to the female headed households of black families as a “tangle of pathology” and “fundamental source of weakness” (Moynihan: 218-19). Where Sookie Stackhouse was raised with a doting grandmother who teaches her morality and kindness, Lettie Mae is a violent and angry woman who barely swims up from the bottle long enough to tear her own child down. And we are told that part of what binds Sookie to Tara is the desire of the Stackhouses to protect her from drunken beatings in the night.

This vision of black female pathology is mediated only once in the first season, when Lettie Mae is seen to ask Adele Stackhouse to care for Tara because she cannot. In these scenes we are introduced to a mother who actually does care about her child’s emotional well-being but recognizes that her own disappointments turned to addiction prevent her from meeting those needs. It is a story, when divorced from racism, with which we can empathize. On the one hand. Lettie Mae is an addict who recognizes that in her addiction she cannot parent but her child still needs love and care. On the other, Lettie Mae is one of two main characters who is black and female and one of two who is completely dysfunctional in stereotypically racist ways. For most viewers, the brief scene that allows us to see the former is forever eclipsed by the hegemonic nature of the latter coupled with the writers utter failure to provide any back story for Lettie Mae’s behavior or any counter narrative of black female normalcy in the show. Worse, the writers have Tara Thornton telling Sookie how much she wished she was a Stackhouse and lived with them. The Blue-eyed doll of Morrison has been replaced with the blue-eyed live action figure of True Blood.

Tara is also enthralled with white men in season one; and while interracial dating is normal, unless your John Mayer, Tara’s obsession seems more about the character’s racialized self-hate brimming just below the surface than her desires. Thus she has a long time crush on Jason Stackhouse, the town slut, that is intimately mixed up with her feelings about her mother and the Stackhouses as refuge. Unfortunately for Tara, while Jason will sleep with anything that moves in Bon Temps, he apparently is another one of those guys with a “David Duke penis”, because no matter how much Tara throws herself at him, he does not even notice she is alive. While this could easily play out as an issue of desire in which Jason thinks of her as an official sibling, Jason’s entire character hinges on the fact that he doesn’t care who he sleeps with as long as he does not go to bed alone. This should make Tara easy pickings and yet it does not.

When Tara is given the opportunity to build real love near the end of the first season, it is with one Sookie’s cast offs, Sam Merlotte. In the early days of their relationship, Sam makes it very clear that his true desires lie with Sookie and Tara’s self-esteem is so low she is willing to be the Jezebel in waiting. But Sam is not a bad man, and soon he actually develops real feelings for her that her anger management issues promptly punish and try to destroy. The message, Tara is unlovable. Like the myth of the angry black woman who works men to death with her constant criticism and mood swings, Tara oscillates between rage and judgment with Sam, refusing to let him in. Their interactions are scripted to highlight her dysfunction vis-a-vis his attempts at understanding rather than give us a complex portrait of a young woman broken by abuse re-learning to love. Again the racial overtones of this relationship never allow it the depth it deserves in which come to understand the particularly brokenness both Tara and Sam seem to share.

As if to reinforce the idea of black female pathology in True Blood, the season also includes a backwoods swindler, also played by a black woman, who tells both Tara and her mother that they have demons inside them. It isn’t racism and classism in a small southern town that is making them angry and broken, it is the evil inside them. Worse, in season two, that evil will be externalized in such a way that the entire town is at risk. And part of what makes Tara and her mother at risk for both being swindled and actually possessed by a real demon, is their ignorance. That ignorance is  seemingly embodied by their belief in syncretic African inspired religion in these scenes which the show about supernatural beings depicts as sham.

Lest we miss the non-verbal cues that black people are ignorant, Tara is also a school drop out. Early in the show, Tara actually explains:

School is just for white people looking for other white people to read to them. I figure I’ll save my money and read to myself.

I don’t think there is any black person in the world who thinks this way about education. In fact, since slavery black people in the United States have struggled to get equal access to education, first risking their lives to teach each other to read and write on plantations and then risking them again to start or attend freedom schools, forcibly integrated schools, and panther schools. North American history is littered with broken, bruised, bombed, and even lynched bodies of black educators and their white allies. However, Tara’s belief that education was for white folks resonates with victim-blaming school of thought that argues black people are responsible for their own lower test scores and educational attainment because they do not put enough stock in the importance of education.

Season Two

The hope that the Thortons might get better in season two is quickly dashed by the slavery-reminiscent opening scenes with Tara’s cousin Lafayette which set the tone for the entire season.The backwoods scam, aka the mock African syncretic religious service,  Tara and her mother participated in leads to the rise of an ancient evil creature that feeds on people’s excess. Maryann Forrester, aka the Maenad, introduces violence and sexual abandon that threatens to tear the town apart.

While the whole town is under Maryanne’s spell, Tara and her mother bear the brunt of her abuse and like everything else it is tinged with racialization. Though Lettie Mae has found Jesus and subsequently sobered, she begins the season by telling Tara that she is unlovable and must move out. Like the audience, Tara is incredulous at her mother’s lack of maternal care and unrelenting judgment in the face of all the care Tara has given her in life. And though Lettie Mae tries to make up for it, even being the first to notice that Tara needs help and to seek it out for her, Maryann is there as a constant reminder that Lettie Mae is a failed mother. Several episodes are filled with Maryann, played by white actress Michelle Forbes, viciously tearing into Lettie Mae for being a bad mother, a pathological abuser, and a failed human being. The vehemence with which these scenes are written and acted was hard to watch as they dripped with unchecked racialized self-righteousness that we as the audience are supposed to overlook precisely because of how bad a mother Lettie Mae has actually been. Yet, these scenes do not mirror those of a woman defending an abused young women but rather smack of race hatred in which Maryann’s innocence and authority are assumed for no visible or explained reason. Her anger and constant derrogation far exceed her knowledge of the events or her actual support of Tara. Nor does her behavior enable Tara to find her own voice, define her own abuse, and confront it. Instead it silence and entraps her. Yet Tara drools on at her surrogate mother in the same way she once did with the elder Stackhouse. Again, the opportunity to actually explore abuse survivor narratives and resolution or conflict within abusive natal families is lost to uphold the overarching narrative of black pathology. Sadly, this is only slightly tempered by the fact Maryann is completely pathological herself since this is revealed long after she tears into Lettie Mae unchecked.

On the postive side, Tara’s sexual agency is a critical part of the show. In True Blood, in general, much of the story lines and the characters identities are tied up in who they have sex with, when, where, and how. Tara’s character is no different. That very fact is somewhat revolutionary since black women are often depicted asexual in movies and television in which they are not the main characters, and some times when they are the main characters. While the show has been extremely timid in its depiction of black gay male sexual relationships on the show, Tara’s character ensures that there is some equity in the depiction of heterosexual relationships on the show. (I discuss the good and the bad of homosexual relationships on the show in a different post.)

Until Maryann begins messing with her, Tara’s sexual agency shows real progress from her first introduction in Season One as the only unrequited Jason Stackhouse groupie to an adult relationship with series newcomer Eggs. Tara chooses who she likes and with whom she sleeps. And once she gets over Jason, she also ensures that her sexual needs are met even as she tries to figure out her emotional ones. Where she is played as purely unlovable in her relationship with Sam, she develops the ability to discuss her feelings and her needs and work on needed compromises in her relationship with Eggs. Eggs willingness to do the same, makes the relationship between them one of the most mature of the entire season and the show in general. It also a pleasant counter narrative to the stereotypical depiction of black couples as non-existent or violent, but only for a while.

Unfortunately, Tara’s relationship with Eggs is also marred by Maryann’s racialized interference. While she manipulates all of the townspeople into having sex against their will and in perverse ways (someone actually has sex with a tree at one point), she takes perverse pleasure out of making the black characters in town mix their sex with violence. Thus the same woman who dares to position herself above Tara’s mother because Lettie Mae beat her, has Eggs beat Tara while she watches. Worse, she uses magic to make Tara laps it up and beg for more. They are the only couple to whom Maryann makes this happen. In other words, the director and writers subject the audience to drawn out domestic and sexual violence scenes between Eggs and Tara in which Tara plays objectification loving black female to Eggs violent black male. Also, while all of the couples engage in sex acts forced upon them by Maryann’s presence, no other couple is depicted in increasingly bestial rape scenes in which the female partner has expressly said no before hand.

Maryann also uses this same magic to have Eggs kill people for her. Despite being able to manipulate anyone she wants and having the entire police department at her disposal, as well as being superhuman herself, Eggs is the only person she manipulates into committing murder. The number Eggs has killed under her sway is never revealed but several scenes imply there are many victims. When he discovers this, he goes to confess and is murdered by Jason Stackhouse who, of course, thinks he is a violent criminal. Like the underlining narrative of the show itself that perpetually connects black characters with violence, Jason’s white normativity makes him assume that Eggs is violent and so he shoots him. The tragedy actualized far too many times in real life in North America is played out in close up for True Blood viewers’ entertainment, just like Tara’s rape and brutal beatings.

Sisterhood?

And where is Tara’s best friend when all of this is unfolding? In season One, Sookie Stackhouse actually steals Tara’s boyfriend, not because she wants him but because of a sense of entitlement. Even though Sookie is dating Bill and has no desires for Sam, when she finds out about Tara and Sam she has the nerve to ask him if the relationship is real. For some unexplained reason, she just can’t wrap her mind around why Same would date Tara instead of pine for her. And though she has never actually dated Sam, and does not think the relationship he has with Tara means anything, she actually gives Tara permission to continue dating him. Again, some how she seems to have the right to decide what is real and what isn’t and who her black best friend can and cannot date, even though she was already doing it at the time.

Why does Sookie have the right to judge their relationship, let alone give permission for it? And if she has given permission than why does she ultimately take Sam back like a pair of borrowed socks she sees on the floor of Tara’s room? Asking these questions requires a racialized lens that subverts the centrality of the main female character of the show in order to see how identification with her excuses both patriarchy-serving gendered competition between heterosexual women and gendered racism that erases black women’s desires in order to not only privilege white women’s desires.

When Bill leaves town, Sam not only comes a runnin’ but Sookie takes Sam back first as an interested friend and then as a lover without ever asking about the impact on Tara. Like the friendship that Stefan Salvatore has with Bonnie Bennett, black women’s agency only matters to these sympathetic main characters in as much as it does not get in the way of what they want or feel they are entitled to. And like so many other shows where black people simply fade into the background when included at all, Tara disappears for several episodes while Sam and Sookie hook up. When she re-enters, there are no recriminations for Sookie’s behavior nor judgment for Sam. Tara simply agrees with Sam that they had nothing going on anyway. Tara’s decision serves two purposes, to reinforce the idea of her character as unlovable, which is underpinned by her low self-esteem and subsequent inability to fight for her relationship, and to re-establish racial hierarchies that permeate the narrative of the first season. (It should be noted that this narrative is not only present between black and white people in Bon Temps but also in the subtle differences in which white and Creole characters are developed, so that racial hierarchies in the show follow distinctly colonial gradations that place upperclass European whiteness at the top even as the narrative centers a working class white female character.)

Now ask yourself, why does Sookie think she has the right to give Tara permission to date Sam but no one thinks Sookie should ask Tara before she sleeps with her boyfriend?

Sookie is also absent in Season Two when Tara is seduced by Maryann. While this is due largely to her trip out of town with Bill and a completely separate story line that unfolds as a result, Sookie is in town when Maryann arrives and Tara is Sookie’s roommate when she leaves town. Before Sookie leaves town she registers several red flags about Maryann and does attempt to get Tara away from her influence. However, just like how Elena’s obsession with Stefan causes her to put him first at a critical moment for the Bennet women in Vampire Diaries, Sookie’s obsession with Bill ensures she does not follow up with Tara before it is too late.  She does not ask Tara what is going on and does not call to check on Tara prior to when Sookie gets kidnapped and has her own showdown to deal with. At least Elena Gilbert actually does look out for Bonnie Bennett most of the time. Even when her self-absorption costs Bonnie’s grandmother her life, Elena eventually goes over to check on Bonnie and will likely lend her comfort when the season returns. Sookie shows no similar compassion for Tara until it is far too late. And if the promos for the third season are any indication, her lack of compassion based on the centering of her own desires and the negation of Tara’s only deepens as the series continues.

When Sookie finally does return to Bon Temps and is alerted, by Tara’s relatives, to the Tara’s demise, Sookie is positioned as the Angel on high vis-a-vis Tara’s demon possession. Like a bad Beneton ad, Sookie pours out the light while Tara growls black eyed. Sookie manages to save Tara through some untapped magical goodness inside only to stand in judgment of Tara’s commitment to save Eggs. She seems horrified that Tara wants to go back for Eggs as if the life of her black boyfriend is some how less relevant than the life of either Bill, who Sookie has risked her life for on more than one occasion, or Sam, who Sookie will risk her life for before the end of the season.

Ask yourself how many times Sookie has put her life on the line for Bill or Eric, neither of whom were under the spell of a woman forcing them to beat, rape, and kill people. Why is Eggs life less important?

Like Maryann, Sookie also has harsh words for Tara’s mother, who, in recognizing the equal humanity of black characters to white ones, is swayed by tara’s argument that somebody must save Eggs. She judges Lettie Mae’s need to bond with Tara after so much abuse with complete disregard for both the underlining repositioning of black subjecthood, ie black lives matter, and the reality that while Sookie was off making sure Bill’s friends were helped, Lettie Mae was the only one who was trying to save Tara from Maryann. The irony is lost on her and is written in such a way as to ensure it is also lost on the audience. Just in case, they also have Lafayette tear into Lettie Mae with complete disregard for Eggs’ life or Tara’s love.

It takes a profound level of cognitive dissonance to watch these scenes and imagine Sookie as Tara’s savior both in terms of the action of the season and in contrast to Tara’s caretaking of Sookie when her grandmother dies in the previous season. Like Bonnie in the Vampire Diaries, Tara takes the friendship to heart in ways that Sookie fails to do. While some of this is about the intoxication of new love Sookie feels, much of it is inexplicable when you add up the amount of abuse and abandonment Tara has been left to deal with in the wake of limited to no support from her best friend.

Conclusion

The depictions of black womanhood on this show are offensive at best and at worse they underscore much of the negative stereotypes about black women in N. American society. If you couple the depiction of black women with the stereotypical images of both black straight and gay men in this show, it isn’t hard to understand why the producers chose to include historical footage of a Klan rally in the opening credits despite no characters in the Klan on True Blood. The juxtaposition of depraved and abusive black women with magical white women caretakers whose sexual agency is always to their benefit, plays out like a bad John Mayer interview. Gone from the adult world of vampires is a real commitment to sisterhood in action, though still present in word. And while the black family in True Blood has survived two seasons while the black family in Vampire Diaries is hanging on a thread, it is clear that to truly enjoy True Blood one has to divorce it from any critical race and racialized gender analysis.

At the same time, Rutina Wesley and Adina Porter, who plays Lettie Mae, turn in powerful performances as mother and daughter. Both infuse the characters with as much critical gaze and irony as they can. In less capable hands, both of these characters would be even more offensive. Instead Wesley and Porter constantly raise the bar and attempt to re-center the gaze while working with material which I would argue is decidedly anti-black female personhood. I don’t know if that is a good thing or not, but I do know that Rutina Wesley has consistently shown the acting chops to do much better things in the future and the popularity of True Blood can only help to make that happen.

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images

  • How She Move/MTV/ 2007
  • True Blood/HBO/2008
  • True Blood/HBO/2008
  • Fan Pic/hyrulebranch
  • True Blood/HBO/2009
  • True Blood/HBO/2009
  • True Blood/HBO/2008
  • True Blood/HBO/2008
  • True Blood/HBO/2009