The Casual Language of Sexism and Homophobia

For the past week I was chaperoning a dizzying tour of colleges in PA. But instead of leaving with a flavor for each school, I left with the muddy taste sexism and homophobia crusting in my mouth.

I was a tour guide for my college, so I understand that when you’re giving a tour sometimes you’re coming up with your words on the spot. I do not think our tour guides meant to be offensive, but as a queer feminist, their language was hurtful and isolating, even while it was also mundane.

But when a female tour guide describes the all-female dorm on campus as “the quiet dorm because it’s all girls” what am I supposed to think?  First, these are women, not girls. They are adults. Second, women are not naturally more quiet or passive or reserved. These are harmful stereotypes of women being perpetuated on college campuses and repeated to high schoolers.

When the same female tour guide later says, “our school’s 60% female, but that’s not a problem” my first thought is, why would it be a problem? What makes a majority of female students on a college campus threatening or a dissuading factor for students to apply? Why aren’t we celebrating these women?

On a different college campus, a male tour guide (who expressly said he is a feminist, that he cares about anti-racist work and participates in community service) said, “I’m not gay, but I love that dean.”

I’m not gay, but…

And in an instant, a space which should be welcoming to all becomes hostile. Because I am a female. I am queer. And your college campus is suddenly a threat.

I spoke to both of these tour guides after the tour and let them know how their language was harmful. Please, speak up when you hear things that make you uncomfortable, whether it’s about an identity you hold or not. These small things, this casual language, must also be stopped if we are ever to address the larger issues of rape culture and more blatant homophobia.

Please, speak up so that public spaces can be our spaces too.

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Books By Women: The Terrorists of Irustan

The Terrorists of Irustan has literally everything I’m interested in. It’s feminist science fiction. It has Middle Eastern influences. The central conflict questions the difference between terrorism and activism.

It was difficult to accept how this novel disappointed at every turn.Written in 1999, the novel can, at best, be described, as a knock-off version of The Handmaid’s Tale, but set in space. And unfortunately,, the novel simplifies Islamic and Arab culture.

577258On the planet Irustan, due to pervasive religious structures women cover themselves from head to toe and have no power or presence in the public space. Men cannot speak to them and they cannot speak to men. Our hero, Zara, is a doctor (on this planet, the profession of women) who begins to use her medicinal knowledge to poison men who harm women, specifically women she knows and loves. I was expecting nuance and cultural critique from this premise. I was expecting a massive underground uprising of female resistance fighters who pledged their lives to activism (or terrorism) to demand their rights.

Though the novel draws on Islamic culture, the author, Louise Marley, becomes entangled in the singular narrative that women who cover themselves are oppressed, look at how this other culture (read Islam, but in space) oppresses their women! Female characters who claim the veil as a symbol of their power do not have a voice in this story. The singular reading of women who cover themselves for religious reasons alienated me from any feminist message. It did not offer a plurality of voices in the text. Furthermore, I felt the structure of those women over there lifted the blame off Western misogyny and gave Western culture a free pass on our own sexism. If we’re not as sexist as these other guys, then we’re doing alright, no problems here. The one character who’s background offered push back, is a Chinese person working on Irustan, who describes the plight of future women in China, which was a fascinating cultural comparison and pretty well explored.

Yet, I wish this book were stronger and lived up to my expectations because it’s one of the few books I can think of where there are no (or almost no) white characters. Everyone is a person of color and regardless of any issues I have with the narrative, I have to give Marley credit for her diversity in this regard.

It’s a shame that the characters are pretty one–dimensional and the narrative does not grip you emotionally. I appreciate what Marley tried to do with this novel, and I know she’s won awards for her science fiction before, but for me, this novel fell pretty flat. If I decide to give another of her novels a try, I will let you know.

So, You’re Jewish

download (3)I was riding the train home tonight and spoke with one of the passengers about his glasses. I told him that I needed new glasses. He nodded, paused the conversation, then asked, “Are you Jewish?”

“Yes.”

“I thought so.” he nodded again as if proud of his Jew-dar. He asked me, “Is she Jewish too?” He meant the woman sitting next to me, a woman I had never met before.

She told him she wasn’t and he said, “Oh well, I was right fifty percent. Fifty fifty odds.” He was smiling as we both got off the train.

I don’t know what to make of this conversation or this man. I don’t understand. I didn’t do anything that should have singled me out. Maybe I look Jewish. I don’t know. My Jewish education taught me to fear Antisemitism to a debilitating extreme. My great-aunt reminds me to be afraid but also proud of my heritage but also conceal that I’m Jewish because it’s dangerous. I don’t want her to be right. I live with enough repressed fear walking around as a woman with the audacity to travel alone. Living under rape culture is enough to be afraid of.

I didn’t feel threatened on the train, though maybe I should have. I don’t understand what happened. If anyone has any insight or advice, please let me know. I appreciate it.

Books By Women: Memnoch the Devil

I know I promised that my next book post would be We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but I just finished Memnoch the Devil and I have a lot of critique I need to express.

download (2)Memnoch is the fifth book in Anne Rice‘s Vampire Chronicles Series (Interview with the Vampire, The Vampire Lestat, etc). I read the first four books my first year in college, one after the other after the other after the other and fell into Anne Rice’s characters with devotion I couldn’t begin to explain. I talked about the series for hours to my mother and pulled out quotes and passages I found devastating or hysterical or blindingly real and human, despite the characters being undead. There are still passages in The Vampire Lestat and Queen of the Damned (book three of the series) I can still quote from memory, though I haven’t reread the books in nearly five years. Anne Rice’s characters are nearly all pan-romantic and homo-erotic overtones shape her narratives. The first three books are a dream.

Without going into too much detail, I found the fourth book, Tale of the Body Thief, bland and overall unpleasant in any number of ways. I stopped reading the series there because I had been told by friends and numerous internet reviews that Memnoch the Devil was the worst of the entire series (now ten books total).

The premise is that the vampire Lestat, the narrator and hero of the past three books in the series, gets called upon by Memnoch the Devil to serve as the Devil’s Lieutenant in Hell. Throughout the book, the Devil takes Lestat through Creation, Heaven and Hell as well as throughout time. Lestat needs to decide if he’ll serve God or the Devil by the end of this journey.

I wasn’t expecting much but was somehow still deeply disappointed. The flowing descriptions that characterized Anne Rice’s historical settings in Paris and New Orleans became purple prose and were spent describing three things:

  1. Lestat’s clothing and appearance (even for a self-identified dandy of a character, it’s an incredibly odd and jarring choice because Lestat is the narrator)
  2. Dora’s beauty (the one Human female character Lestat is obsessed with)
  3. Lestat’s tears (you could play an intense drinking game for all the times Lestat cries in this book–for a bonus round, take a drink every! time! there’s! an! exclamation! point!)

But her writing style aside, what upset me the most was her treatment of her female characters and the way women are woven into (and not woven into) this alternative creation narrative. And while Anne Rice published Memnoch in 1995 and just declared on Facebook that she quit Christianity, saying “I refuse to be anti-feminist” I still find it important to discuss the ways this narrative remains a harmful portrayal of women, rape culture, and the erasure of female narratives within religion. Regardless of whether she continues to hold the views or opinions I gathered from this book, it is still important to discuss the issues.

The narrative is told from Lestat’s perspective, but there is no pushback against his misogyny. We, as readers, are expected to agree with him and be sympathetic to his views. So when Lestat’s narration reads:

[Dora’s] voice was small and typically feminine, that is, the pitch was without mistake feminine, but she spoke with terrific self-confidence now, and so her words seemed to have authority, rather like those of a man.

are we supposed to agree with him?

Dora is a saint, a televangelist saint, who is perfect in every way. She is not afraid of Lestat even he reveals that he killed her father or when she knows he’s a vampire. And at the end of the novel when Lestat returns from his journey with the Devil and is distraught and crazed, Dora kisses him and she’s on her period (which Lestat has noted every time they’re in the same scene together). Lestat’s response is:

I rolled her over gently […] and I pulled up her skirt and I lay my face against her hot naked thighs […] my tongue broke through the thin cotton of her panties, tearing the cloth back from the soft down of pubic hair, pushing aside the blood-stained pad she wore, and I lapped the at the blood just inside her young pink vaginal lips […] blood that brought no pain, no sacrifice, only her gentle forbearance with me, with my unspeakable act […] my tongue licking at the secret bloodstained place, taste and smell of her blood, her sweet blood, a place where blood flows free and no wound is made or ever needs to be made, the entrance to her blood open to me in her forgiveness.

um…well, it’s great to know the female body is there for a male character’s enjoyment and forgiveness. It’s even better to know that Dora’s response is to hold Lestat’s head as he cries, call him her darling and her angel, and then ask to sleep beside him when he goes to rest. Did I mention there are two other male vampires in the room and no one does anything to stop or question Lestat’s actions? I can’t remember the last time I was so angry or disgusted over the treatment of a female character.

The novel disregards women again through Anne Rice’s mythology of Angels and God. All the Angels are male. God is without a doubt male. This, despite the fact that Memnoch says Angels resemble females more than males yet Angels are without a doubt more male than female. And what angered me the most as a feminist was that rape culture and violence against women was explained as a natural part of humanity. When Memnoch goes to live among the humans, he chooses to become male. Lestat understands this decision, saying:

‘I would imagine you had seen enough of rape, childbirth, and helpless struggle to make the wiser choice. I know I would have.’

And right there, to be female is laid out as to be deficit and there is no challenge to this conversation. There is no alternative voice or speaker of authority to these two male character parading their superior maleness. There is no thought that women are not naturally victims of rape, that childbirth could be anything but horrific and painful, or that women do not naturally struggle.

Of course, I knew going into this book that not all female authors are feminists, but I was amazed by the breadth of the dismissal of the female sex. Although I’ve definitely read books since starting to read books by women I did not enjoy, this has been the first book I was angry about and would not recommend.

But, if nothing else, reading this book has made me more conscious of the fact that it’s not enough to be a female author writing speculative fiction. You have to consciously decide on feminism and equality.

Next up: We Have Always Lived in a Castle. Keep reading. Even the books you don’t like, just keep reading.

Are you married? and other loaded questions

I bus tables at a restaurant and a coworker today asked me if I was married. He’s older, in his thirties or forties and though I knew he wasn’t asking me out, I was deeply uncomfortable.

I told him no, I’m not married and he proceeds to tell me that he’s surprised because with my sweet personality he’s sure some nice guy will snatch me up soon. Bull shit.  He thinks this a compliment but I went from being uncomfortable to being offended. I don’t want to be snatched up! I’m not some dessert made for someone’s pleasure. Who I am cannot be broken down into ‘sweet’ and if I am sweet it is not for the benefit of anyone else, regardless of sex or gender.

The worst part was he was trying to be nice! But questions like this are heteronormative. He assumed I was straight, assumed I wanted (and needed) a man in my life and assumed that I had the privilege of being able to get married if I so choose. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong again. I have ace friend who worked at a restaurant and she pretended to be a lesbian because it was more convenient for her than having to explain being ace. I don’t want to pretend to be anything. I am asexual and I don’t want to hide this fact, but I don’t know how to bring it up. It’s not my place to explain my sexuality to my coworker and I am not comfortable having that conversation at work, especially with an older man I barely know.

I feel gross and objectified. I’m not a person in his eyes because all I am is a sweet girl ripe for marriage. Is it so much to ask to be treated as a human being?

I pulled him aside and told him his comment made me uncomfortable. He asked why and I said because it was a personal question. This is true; it is a personal question. But more than that, it’s a loaded question. Even with the best intentions, asking someone questions about romantic or sexual relationships can make the other person feel threatened. I am immediately on edge if someone asks me if I have a boyfriend. Even the non gender specific question of “Are you dating anyone?” holds assumptions about my sexuality and I will inevitably disappoint with my answer.

Does anyone have advice on answering or diverting loaded questions? Any advice on how to watch your language so you don’t make someone else feel unsafe? I would appreciate the feedback. Thank you.

Asexual Flag. Proud to be ace.

Asexual Flag. Proud to be ace.

Explaining Sexism to the Oblivious

I knew it was going to be a long conversation when a male co-worker, upon learning I graduated from a women’s college, asked me, “So you hate men?” I told him that it has nothing to do with hating men but with believing in equality and valuing myself and others no matter their gender or sexuality.

I’m busing tables in a restaurant. I’m not part of the waitstaff. I didn’t think I would need to deal with this much blatant and oblivious sexism immediately, especially not two days into the job. How I was that naive, I don’t think I’ll ever know.

everyday sexism

The man who asked me this question told me he never had to think about sexism before. He said, “I can’t really say much because I’m not a woman but in my mind men and women are equal.” If you did, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. “Women might even be smarter than men. Men suck.” That’s an appeasement tactic. You’re throwing me a bone thinking that by praising women as greater I’ll believe you’re one of the nice men. The gentlemen who think holding the door for a woman means you’re not a misogynist. Try again, sir. Try again. “I just think that women only think men treat them differently. I think most men believe women are equal.” Tell that to the wage gap. 

“No.” let me say that again: NO. I told him that everything about our culture praises traditionally masculine qualities and devalues traditionally feminine qualities.

“Do you have an example to prove your point?”

The English language is inherently misogynistic. There are more ways to describe women than men and most of these terms are sexual and insults. The female equivalent to male terms always go the way of insults. For instance, a master is in command, but a mistress is a sexual being. Boys will be boys, but don’t hit like a girl/run like a girl/throw like a girl.

I laid out one or two examples as we stood in the back of the kitchen peeling potatoes. It was a moment of pressure because I was defending all women and all feminists. My answer would be the answer. I hated his smug white face as he nodded occasionally, but clearly didn’t believe me. He did not see sexism in the world because he never had to deal with it, only reap the benefits.

Just the fact that he needed proof is evidence enough that he valued my opinion less than a man’s. I had to defend myself. I had to explain sexism, knowing he wasn’t interested in anything more than being polite. I’d rather he wasn’t polite. I don’t want feminism to be tolerated and on the margins. Tolerance is far from acceptance.

I told him, “Feminism is more than just equal rights or thinking you treat women equally. You have to act on it. Feminism is active and you have to want it. You have to want to tear down the structure of male privilege.”

You have to seek out equality, not just ask about everyday examples of sexism too numerous to count. You have to want it more than anything else in the world.

and that I (gasp!) wanted to be there

That’s Problematic

I tend to move in left wing circles of friends. This is great because it means we very rarely need to tell one another to stop using homophobic language or to treat the female participants of the conversation as full individuals, it also means we tend agree on most issues. So, how is this a problem? Well, in order to become more knowledgeable about the issues we discuss (gender, sexuality, race, economics, government, politics, etc) having a cross flow of ideas is invaluable.

Think about cross ventilation in your home or apartment in the summer. Imagine how the room becomes unbearable with a lone fan sitting in the window blowing hot air into the hot room. What can initially seem as a joy in and of itself (at least you have a fan, or  a space for liberal discussion) that joy does not last.

I’ve noticed that when I’m in these groups, one of us will comment on how something is problematic. Disney’s Pocahontas, for example. I might say that I love that film, but I am well aware it is problematic. Another of my friends will agree with me and we move on. In short, we’ve identified a problem,  but failed to unpack what’s actually wrong. All it would take for us to have a discussion and not just throw around vague opinions we both agree on, is for my friend to ask me, “how do you see Pocahontas as problematic?”

Because maybe I’m thinking about the affront to Native American culture when the white men leave in peace at the end, denying hundreds of years of continued abuse, brutality and racism. Maybe my friend is thinking about the sexualization and exoticization of Pocahontas as a character. Maybe another friend jumps in and talks about two-spirit ideas of gender in Native American culture.

Pocahontas

 

Suddenly “problematic” has branched off into many veins and sparked a conversation where a cross flow of ideas can take place.

Unpack your ideas and don’t be afraid to be challenged or to challenge others. Ask questions to better understand another’s views. There is no need to sit with that same one fan blowing hot air. Open up another window, turn on the AC and let the ideas circulate. The conversation will be far more fascinating and your opinions far more developed.