Intersectionality, But Skip the Women

I’m standing in the copy room when a Social Studies/History teacher walks in. She is 12. Or 23, or whatever.  A newlywed; freshly pregnant. To distract her from the hundreds of copies I’m making before she can get a turn at the machine, I ask her what she’s teaching today.

“I’m teaching a lesson on oppression,” she says brightly. “I’m getting on my Oppression Soapbox. We’re going to look at all kinds of oppression — race and class. Economics too. How they all come together.”

“And women?” I ask. “Sex and gender?”

“Nooo,” she says, looking at me like I just started squirting ketchup from the copy room fridge directly into my mouth. “That’s not really…that’s not part of it. That’s not my thing.”

And then I died a little inside, because we live here. Female oppression IS her thing, she just doesn’t know it yet. She has no sense of history — no concept of the way things used to be for women and how they could be again if we just sort of don’t care until it’s too late.

Sometimes, you just can’t find it in yourself to argue. Sometimes, you know that only time will do the job.

 

Women Can’t Win: Rinse and Repeat

I see what they did here, and it’s well-meant…

…but ignorant.

“She thought skinnier people were happier?” No. The anorexic mindset has nothing to do with happiness. It has to do with with the high of self-mortification; the power of control; and the considerable social rewards that come with being the thinnest girl in the room.

So, an anorexic is going to linger over the photo on the left. That woman’s emaciation isn’t scary, it’s THINSPIRATIONAL. It’s the goal. It’s what she uses to muffle hunger pangs; to spur on her Sisyphean stairmaster trudge.

The photo on the right is what the anorexic fears. She doesn’t see strength, just bulk –nonessential flesh that needs to be burned away. These photos aren’t going to help her decide in favor of healthy eating and training; they’re going to trigger her illness further.

Also — and file this under Tiresome Irony — these photos serve as yet another way to judge women’s bodies against one another, without considering how cultural realities affect those bodies. Without sparing a thought to how women’s choices are skewed by race, class, and the ubiquitous Western media monster.

The only sort-of unusual thing is that these photos, currently making the rounds on Facebook weightlifting/CrossFit circles, depict the same woman. Otherwise, this is an old, tired routine in the guise of something edgy. Like burlesque, but with extra protein and judgement.

Umbrella Drinks on SlutWhore Island

We had a student presentation today — the kids were part of a local anti-sexual assault/relationship violence group — and they got shy when it came time to compare “words used to describe girls who have sex” and “words used to describe guys who have sex.” They made a whiteboard T-chart with “slut” and “whore” on one side; “stud” and “playa” on the other, then stalled out. Everyone looked confused.

I think it was because high school kids are just coming into an understanding of the power differential between men and women. They lack the necessary context to understand why female sexuality is judged and scrutinized so harshly. So I stood up and said, ” One of the most freeing moments in my life was when I realized that there’s no such thing as a slut — there’s only consensual and nonconsensual sexual activity. If I had a nickel for every time I heard the words “slut” and “whore” used to make girls and women feel small, I could send a private plane to pick you all up and take you to my well-appointed villa on SlutWhore Island.”

Then I sat back down, having made my own day.

Armchair activism with an ego massager

The average American doesn’t know much about Africa. That’s why this video has gotten 71 million views since it went herpes-viral last week, and why students are asking me to show it in class. I plan to — as a lesson in critical thinking and media literacy.

Invisible Children’s campaign is brilliant. I watched it Wednesday morning and got Pavlovian teacher-slobber all over my sensible shoes: Look! Young people care about events on the other side of the world that don’t affect them! The Facebook/Twitter babies are harnessing technology for activism; not just for texting throughout my carefully-planned lessons! As someone who’d give her left nad to see kids develop historical/cultural perspective and become citizens of the world, I was thrilled.

But as a citizen of the world, I smell something funny. I’m suspicious of spectacle; of swelling music and sweeping, simplistic statements like, “We ARE going to stop him.” My bullshit meter tingles when one person is named as the embodiment of evil in Uganda, where the government is neck-deep in corruption and complicity (when a monster like Kony is allowed to run riot, murdering and raping for years on end, shouldn’t you ask which other monsters are letting him get away with it? But the video leaves that out, along with other information:

  • Northern Uganda has been peaceful for years — Kony and the LRA were driven out of the Ugandan military. Since then, Kony has been most active in the Congo, and even that was 10 years ago.
  • Invisible Children spends 2/3 of its budget on advocacy and publicity in the United States, not in Africa — and most of that gets sunk into film production and road tours.
  • The video’s narrator, Jason Russell, asks us to lobby American politicians and celebrities to stop Kony — but doesn’t mention any African politicians, not even Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who came to power about the same time Kony did. PATERNALISTIC NEO-COLONIALIST MILITARY INTERVENTIONIST ALERT. More on that here, and it’s worth reading all the way through. Please note that all the Africans in the video are backgrounded by straw and mud huts. I call bullshit.
  • Speaking of which, can you hear the messianic lilt in Russell’s voice? I thought he was just gay, but it turns out he’s got fundamentalist ties. It must have worked well at Jerry Falwell-founded Liberty University, where he spoke in 2011 and said “We can have fun while ending genocide,” “We’re gonna have a blast doing it, hoo-hoo!”
  • Joseph Kony and the LRA are also known for supporting theocracy. THE IRONY, IT BURNS! MY EYES!

Also: Between 100-140 million girls and women around the world have undergone female genital mutilation, 92 million of them in Africa. Where’s their viral social-media campaign? Where’s the outrage? The slogans? Nowhere much outside of feminist media, because FGM is where white Westerners become moral relativists; where they say, “Well…it’s their culture. Who are we to try and change their culture?”

Why do liberal Westerners accept FGM as part of African culture, but get het up about LRA warlords? Why can they be moved to care about stopping one, but not the other Because, in terms of FGM, “their culture” really means “their women.” Who are we to tell another nation how to treat their women, even if they make a tradition out of slicing into female genitalia with a knife, razor, or scissors, without anaesthesia?

I spent two weeks in Africa in 2004, writing a news story about Somalian refugees. The low point of that trip was an argument with my photographer about FGM. He pulled the “Who are we to…” argument out of his ass, so I said, “Dude, what if it were baby boys? What if the Africans had a long cultural tradition of slicing open baby boys’ genitalia in such a way that they could never feel sexual pleasure? In such a way that they died of infection; lost bladder and bowel control; had to be cut open and resewn on a regular basis? Would you still say it isn’t anybody else’s business?”

“Well…yeah,” he said.

“Liar,” I said. He was.

Depend upon it, it is quite the thing.

Fiduciary concerns stemming from Kreacher’s dental surgery led me to accept a Weekend School teaching gig. Remember Kreacher?

I have bad teeth.

I got the job offer in a weak moment — I was looking at the $500 fang the vet took out of Kreacher’s jaw and thoughtfully preserved for me in a small plastic tube — and I thought, Hell, it’s only four weekends; I can do it.

But I can’t. Not well, anyway. Ostensibly, I’m covering an entire semester’s worth of material in four weekends, 12 hours per, but I don’t see how students can absorb so much so quickly. And oddly, there’s no set curriculum. The Weekend School denizens told me to “teach to (my) pedagogical strengths,” so I decided my strengths are (a) Sustained Silent Reading; (b) Outdoor Relay Races and Assorted Other Feats of Strength and Daring; and (c) Literature in Film. Happily, the other English teacher shares these strengths. Yesterday we combined forces; gathered the kids into one room with a projector, and watched 2.5 hours of glorious Sense and Sensibility (dutifully tied to a lesson involving Elements of Fiction and Drama.

Bonnets, tea, and the Byzantine intricacies of early 19th-century British landed gentry — quite amiable!

It’s my favorite movie. The kids HATED it, which made it doubly gratifying. Weekend School is supposed to be a bit punitive — students are there because they failed a semester of English — so there ought to be some intrinsic Guantanamo-ness. If you’re a 15-year-old who’s dying to be playing video games; skateboarding; or spray-tagging public property, two hours of Emma Thompson walking across the field in a bonnet will make you think twice about flunking Contemporary Lit ever again. Not to mention Kate Winslet in sausage curls, playing the pianoforte, followed by my 30-minute lecture on Beginning Feminist Critique. Yeah, have fun.