Monday, December 21, 2009

Negotiating Name-Calling

Warning: The contents of this post may be offensive. Or maybe not. Maybe it's just my political correctness. I may become 'old school': the kind of people who tried to fight consciously and unconsciously abusive labels and name-calling. But as the fight unfolded, so did a form of resistance that sought to reclaim the labels and to reinvest them with a new, empowering meaning.

The other day, I was looking for an unprotected wireless internet network that I could use for a mobile device. In the middle of a commercial area, the only unprotected network available was "niggerfaggot". I was taken aback: how should I read this? Could I read it in any other way than being utterly offensive? Did I even have the right to 'read' it in the first place, given that it most probably meant to be private? And what was I supposed to do about it? Report it? Connect to it? Ignore it?

I decided not to use the network. But my feelings didn't vanish: uncertainty, anger, wonder. Mostly uncertainty. What was the name's meaning? What was its role? We all name our technologies: my car's name is Sharky, mainly because it resembles a shark from the profile. Sometimes, the name is meant to be a joke. Which in itself doesn't mean the joke may not rest upon ethnic, racial or gender stereotypes.

We are meaning-making creatures: unless we make sense of things, we cannot move on. How am I to make sense of a network named "niggerfaggot"? What sets of criteria should I use to interpret it? Let's pretend for a moment that the name is reclaimed by someone who wants to challenge the mainstream hateful connotations of the words. Does this moment of personal empowerment matter in terms of the system? Would people sense the alleged irony or resistance?

The construction of difference is not something stable or unitary. It remains contextual: to understand, you need to know the context of the name. It also remains fluid over time: today's discrimination may be tomorrow's resistance. But most importantly, it remains historical: you need to understand the way in which the name was used throughout time to mark a particular type of difference.

Photo credits: Kelly Santos

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Everyday Inconspicuous Discrimination

At the lab were I usually get my blood tests done, there is a person of the same nationality as me. We have never been 'properly introduced'. The first time I went to the lab, this person overheard me speaking the language and immediately jumped into the conversation. Like when you travel abroad, and someone overhears you speaking the same language and they immediately feel an imaginary (yet hardly real...) connection. They feel you share something, although you are complete strangers. They want to establish rapport, although given the same situation in your own country, they'd never approach you.

But how can you tell such persons you are really not interested in establishing rapport just because you happen to speak the same language... After all, you so happen to speak this language with some other 29 million people but you do not have a relationship with each and every one of them. Frankly, you probably don't even want that.

Yet, when someone tries to be nice, regardless of the reason, it's hard to be rude. Hard to tell them: You know what, I don't know you and frankly, I'm not really interested in knowing you just because we speak the same language, have the same skin color or drive the same car. How can you tell them that in fact, what drives them to approach you is annoying and offending, because it discriminates? Because it identifies you a priori with something you may not be, feel, share or want? Because it categorizes people, and you don't support that?

Funny thing is, every time this person realizes we speak the same language, they try to be extra kind, to serve us first, to bypass the lineup. All just because we happen to speak the same language. I know this seems insignificant, but let me assure you it is not. It is at the root of many discriminatory practices; and with time, such practices became institutionalized networks of influence and distribution of resources. Their discriminatory core becomes obscured; all it's left is the result: discrimination.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Techie Complaints...

While women sang, acted in dramas, and played music on radio, there were few women announcers in the early days of broadcasting. This was partly because so many stations were one-man bands where the announcer was also the engineer and manager, and partly because station owners thought men's deeper voices lent more authority to broadcasting (Nash, 2001, p. 45)

Jane Gray became one of the first female broadcasters in Canada. She began by reading poetry in 1924, but was discouraged by her husband, her priest and the radio station owner "who told her that women belonged at home, not on the air" (Nash, 2001, p. 45). By the 1920s- 1930s, she became the most prominent female broadcaster in Canada.

I like these reminders of how women and technology became separated throughout history. It helps me understand why, in spite of the gender equality awareness today, women still feel a world apart from technological processes. I know many women who love using gadgets, but could not be bothered with their inns and outs. Fair
enough, they don't care. As long as the tool works, as long as it serves its ends, everything's fine.

But it's not. A tool works in particular ways, for particular purposes, with particular methods. On a general level, not being interested - and not understanding these inns and outs - also means buying into what is already pre-established as a your role vis-a-vis that technology. And, if you choose not to use them (partly because you cannot buy into their pre-established purposes, routines and impositions upon you), you're out of the (social) loop.

Often times, what bothers me most is not being able to do stuff with my computer. I mean, real stuff. Of course, I use it. And I probably know a bit more than just writing a text or putting up a powerpoint presentation. But that's not the stuff I want to do: for instance, I'd really like to be able to write an avatar-creation soft that would allow us to customize avatars beyond gender stereotypes.

But just like early female radio voices, relegated to the status of melodic entertainment but not allowed to enter the serious arena of authoritative broadcasting (read news, politics... serious stuff...), with digital technologies women are often relegated to the status of users. Maybe producers of 'soft content' - blogs, social networking sites, uploading photos, sharing what the kid had for lunch with the extended network, checking the latest health news.

But when I think of software or hardware producers, all I can see in the back of my mind is a male-dominated world. I may be wrong. It may all be just a stereotype. But, just as the radio station owner who told Jane Gray that women belong at home and not on air expressed the prevailing reasoning of his time, my stereotypes feed from a world of imagery constructed by the social norms at play within my social environment. There may be lots of female soft/hardware developers out there, but we often do not think of them as legitimate players in the field. More likely, they're exceptions...Like Sandra Bullock in "The Net"...

Nash, K. (2001) The Swashbucklers. The Story of Canada's Battling Broadcasters. McClelland and Stuart Ltd.

Photo Credits
The US National Archives

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Consuming Diversity

One of things I like when visiting a metropolis is its diversity: you can have lunch in Chinatown and dinner in Little Italy. Everywhere you walk, diversity surrounds you. I qualify as a 'diversity-seeker', a person who actively looks for diversity.

But what exactly do I do with this diversity? And how does this inclination of seeking diversity translate in terms of social engagement, social practices and social ties?

Well, according to a recent study published in the
Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, diversity-seeking may translate into ... well, consumption of diversity. But from consumption to engagement with difference it's a big step, one that involves challenging your own routines and values, re-adjusting your own expectations and practices, and striving to open yourself up instead of closing yourself down to difference.

Blokland and van Eijk (2009) have studied the residents of a small neighborhood in Rotterdam (the Netherlands), asking some pre-determined questions on their attitude to and engagement with diversity. The neighborhood in question is an ethnically diverse one, recently transitioning from being perceived as a 'bad' neighborhood to being perceived as a 'cool' one, with small shops and fancy restaurants.

Although the study itself remains limited by the pre-determined set of questions that were asked of people (we do not know how people themselves made sense of their own position in those neighborhoods and their own relation to diversity), it is interesting to see that what diversity-seeking often translates into is consumption:

Diversity-seekers frequented restaurants, bars and shops more intensely than other residents, but did not show more (or less) social or political engagement with local neighbourhood affairs than other residents.

The article itself is responding to Richard Florida's now famous discussion of the rise of a new middle-class, the creative class, roughly defined by its involvement in creative industries. The creative class, Florida contends, is more inclined to be tolerant and to seek diversity in their residential locations. But exactly what does 'seeking diversity' means remains an open question: just because one eats Chinese food and drinks Greek ouzo doesn't necessarily make that person more willing to question hi/er belief system and daily practices. Blokland and van Eijk (2009) echo this when they conclude that

a taste for diversity means little to social network diversity. As far as diversity is brought into the practice of daily life, using cmmercial neighborhood facilities is all that diversity -seekers do more... even for those who, whether middle-class or not, come into a mixed neighborhood with openness to diversity, this openness does not translate in more diverse networks (p. 327).

As I said, there are limitations to this study. In fairness, it sheds little light on how people actually relate to diversity, beyond statistically correlating their demographic data with their answers to some pre-determined questions that the authors take as measuring diversity in our lives. In my building, there are at least three or four recognizable ethnic groups. I do not socialize with my neighbors simply because the way I come to make friends involves an intellectual rapprochement, and it's hard to have that interaction with one's neighbors out of various reasons (including the Western attitude towards sharing an urban space). Yet, the study does bring forward an interesting observation: that consumption of diversity does not equal living with diversity.

Photo credits


Blokland, Talja and van Eijk, Gwen(2009) 'Do People Who Like Diversity Practice Diversity in Neighbourhood Life? Neighbourhood Use and the Social Networks of 'Diversity-Seekers' in a Mixed Neighbourhood in the Netherlands', Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 36: 2, 313 — 332

Friday, November 13, 2009

The need to classify

We classify. Maybe because we want to master the world around us, by putting order into it. Maybe because our brains work with a tree-like structure, placing things into categories and drawing branch like relations between them. We classify, and in this process we buy into the order of things*: we accommodate things within a pre-determined system of beliefs and interests that underlies every classificatory order.

No classification is innocent.

- I'm going to a concert tonight. There's a famous piano-player from Canada playing.
- What's her name?
- Sarah Cheung.
- Oh, she's Asian then.
- She's quite famous in Canada.
- Yes, of Asian origins. Cheung does not sound ... well, how shall i put it, Canadian.
- It may not sound Western.
- Yeah, that's what I meant.

Canadian, Asian, Western... we need to put people in categories. It's not enough to say what a person does or where a person now lives. To properly place that person in our nicely fitting systems of categories, we need to find out "where is s/he coming from". As if, by ticking the little box of birth-place and/ or ethnic group, all of a sudden there's order. And we can breath out, relax and hear the rest of the conversation.

*The Order of Things is the title of one of Michel Foucault's books, dealing with the relation between power and knowledge.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Personal Globalization

Warning: The following notes smell like middle-class, I-have-it-all, I-can-afford-to-be-cosmopolitan bragging... not my intention, but the smell persists...
The other day, a friend from Romania asked her network on Facebook to vote for a band in Germany. She's dating one of the members of the band, who's also from Turkey. Funny things is, me and this friend met in Turkey... the Westernized, touristic part of Turkey where people go to forget their frustrations and enjoy life by the sea, sipping on a margarita. That part of Turkey where's water in abundance and where everything is white and neat, just like the tourists... What stayed most with me however was the overwhelming feeling I had stepping into the Istanbul bazaar... Istanbul

There was this person I knew from Istanbul whom I actually met in the subway in Budapest. I was talking to a friend of mine who happened to be from Greece, and just like in a comedy of errors, this guy thought we were talking about him. The friendship between a person from Athens and one from Istanbul, as unlikely as it sounds to some ears, was actually a natural... Friendship

So was the friendship between this person from Athens and a person f
rom Skopje. Hey, who would have every thought... There's nothing more powerful in destroying ethnic stereotypes and nationalisms than friendships. The three of us formed a trio, always together - also known as "The Triplets"... Triplets

Having triplets is no easy job, but for my friends it looks like a piece of cake. You'd think having three kids at once would transform the mom into a perpetual slave to diapers and baby food. Not this mom... She's just amazing, travelling almost every month to Strasbourg and Bruxelles. Hey, the European Union itself is asking for her! So she goes to beautiful Bruxelles, to mingle with all of those politicians and bureaucrats we only get to see on TV... When we visited Bruxelles, my mom told me: "Look, we are now running around in the backyard of Europe". Not quite a 'backyard', but still a huge, white (here comes whiteness again...) meeting place. A place where my former colleague, who so happens to be from Bulgaria, shops for fine chocolates and gateau aux abricots... Bulgaria

: I owe a huge debt to a person from Bulgaria, who once had faith in me and told me "you can do it". So did a person from Hungary and two from Norway: they gave me courage and skillfully guided me through the jungle of social theory. Theory and morality. Just and unjust wars. Social responsibility and peace. Peace

: Peace is exactly what my friend from Kenya hopes and lives for. But when you work in a conflict area, thousands of miles away from your own family, peace seems like a rich-people privilege... My friend tells surreal stories about kidnappings, gun-attacks and violence. And I can only listen, a world away, hoping somehow nothing will touch my friend and the world will get a better place.... Cheers to bourgeois ignorance... I once had a roommate from that area. I remember she had never seen snow in her life before we were in Norway. But then again, neither did my friend from Athens - though it so happens that after we saw snow in Budapest, Athens all of a sudden started getting snow... Blame it on the climate change. Climate change

Climate change
: My friend from Costa Rica keeps a calendar of the days left til the Copenhagen Summit on Climate Change. It's a one-person fight: every day, he reminds all his friends of the summit and of climate change. Every day, he asks us to think about what each and every one of us could do to change things. It's like a daily mantra we came to expect: tell us something about climate change. And it works for us, his friends... Friends

: My friends are spread all over the world. And if I'm to add my acquiantances to my network of friends, I get to cover quite a lot... From Asia to Europe, from Australia to North America, from Africa to ... well, what's left? Hm, no friends from the two Poles, though I can still brag with some friends who live above the Polar Circle...

Monday, November 9, 2009

Be polite, or we'll know exactly which group you belong to...

I went to a see a play the other day. Though marketed as a comedy, the play was in fact quite heavy: troubled relationships, troubled lives and the past haunting the present, delivered to the audience in a funny wrapping. And the thirty-something people in the audience laughed here and there, whenever appropriate. Except one. One person laughed at the... er... wrong times?

You know the type: usually in the middle of the room, this person has obviously got it all wrong. They never laugh when everyone else is laughing; they laugh on their own, as loud as they can, enjoying themselves, oblivious to the annoyance they bring upon you...

What's wrong with them, why don't they get it?

But it's so easy to get annoyed with other people, to see the wrongs in them... If only they would follow the rules... the norms... the conventions...

Because, in the end, that's all it comes down to: rules, norms and conventions. Social rules around what is appropriate behavior during a play. Social cues to be read in the play, in the actors' behavior. Social conventions defining what counts as funny, appropriate, acceptable. And laughing on your own, finding your own relationship to a play and to its meaning, that's just not 'legitimate' with us: you have to laugh when the others are laughing, and you have to clap when the others are clapping...

Have you noticed that nobody - and I mean Nobody! - throws rotten tomatoes at actors anymore? Or that nobody shouts at them "You suck! Find another job!" (only Simon Cowell still has that privilege...)? Oh, that would be funny... I fantasized about that during quite a few performances... but I would never have the courage to break the social rules of legitimate behavior. I missed my chance with some hundred years... ah, the time when audiences chatted during a play (gosh, imagine the disorder!) or when they "hooted and jeered" (Gossett, p. 174).

The unwritten yet powerful rules of politeness and legitimate behavior. We can't do without them (really, don't start throwing rotten tomatoes at people you don't like, ok?). Yet they also hide away the real lines of separation under the veil of 'appropriate behavior'. Separation along class lines or majority/minority lines, when the you just 'know' from a person's reaction that s/he's not 'well-mannered' or 'from here'.

Norms, rules, conventions, symbols, words, ways of talking - all of these form for Pierre Bourdieu the 'symbolic capital' through which we communicate. The currency we use to obtain other people's endorsement, support or even love. They position us in the social hierarchy. Our use of them reveals us as 'insiders' or 'outsiders', as 'powerful' or 'power-hungry'.

"To speak is to appropriate one or other of the expressive styles already constituted in and through usage, and objectively marked by their position in a hierarchy of styles which expresses the hierarchy of corresponding social groups" (Bourdieu, 1991, p. 54)

And it is not only speech - the choice of words, the way you construct a sentence, a.s.o - but also gestures, postures, proximities; we rely on them to communicate with others. They position us in particular nodes of power structures; and we use them as guides in interpreting other people, in positioning them within the social hierarchy.

In fairness, this time I actually enjoyed this lonely audience member's laughter. But most of the times, I resent it. It's hard to move beyond the resentment: it's way easier to study the social norms and their power dimensions than it is to actually live with them. But I suspect the hardship comes from the rather rigid boundary social groups have constructed around them. Any tresspassing of the boundary, of the 'common sense' and 'social expectations' is troubling and distressing. And it's always easier to point to the "Other" as an "Other", than to be suspicious of your own labelling of people.

Bourdieu, P. (1991) Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Polity Press
Gossett, P. (2006) Divas and Scholars: Perfoming Italian Opera. University of Chicago Press

Monday, November 2, 2009

Will you work for a chick?

I know someone who didn't get along with their boss. A female boss, I should add. So, when he was fired, he said "I will never work for a chick again". I have to confess this comment stayed with me; its derogatory labeling of women as 'chicks' kept bothering me. Women in power, that's even worse! Chicks in power sounds so much less threatening! Chicks are cute, chicks are innocent, chicks are brainless...

A recent TIME issue was devoted to the the state of women in America today. I didn't know there was no female FBI agent in the early 1970s, when TIME first covered this topic. From the 1970s up to now, there has been quite a change: a quantitative change, with more women taking on jobs as well as claiming decision-making positions, but also a qualitative change, with both men and women complexifying their definition of gender roles and expectations.

There is a gender-related change, no doubt about it. But there must also be a healthy dose of skepticism about the scope and depth of this change. There's little doubt in my mind that there's plenty of men out there, who consciously or not, truly believe there's no way they would 'work for a chick'. Yes, they do need a serious system upgrade; patches won't do. But they are also the fathers raising up the next generation of sons who 'won't work for chicks'. Of sons who won't read 'chick lit' or watch 'chick flicks'.

What on earth is a chick flick anyway? It turns out, the fathers and sons who won't work for 'chicks' also won't study the same 'chick' curriculum. I remember reading about this boys-only school where boys won't be made to read literature targeting girls (translation: anything that deals with nurturing, bonding, raising, problematizing, discussing). 'Cause boys cannot identify with that, they need to identify with trains and cars, with explosions and guns, with the real issues boys face in the real world (yeah, like trains and guns...). As the guy in charge of this school explained, most boys fails school because the curricula is 'girl-oriented'....

Chick flicks, chick lit, chick curricula, and, let's not forget, chicks-in-power. Some things do change, but exactly how deep is this change - and how the change itself is reinterpreted by some groups - remains open for debate. There should be enough reason to stay optimistic, but at the same time, there's plenty of reason to be very cautious.

One of the most important Marxist thinkers, Antonio Gramsci once argued that dominant ideologies - like patriarchy in our case - work through hegemonic processes: they seduce us into consenting to their worldviews as much as they force us. And, when change threatens the worldview that patriarchy proposes, there will always be an attempt to reincorporate that change back into the dominant ideology, by redefining its terms so that they are less threatening. Like calling women chicks. Like re-drawing strong gender lines, where real boys don't cry and definitely don't watch chick flicks. And where chicks themselves reclaim the label for themselves, rejoicing the (questionable and tricky) sexual power a chick has over a man, and calling only on their moms and girlfriends to go out and watch a chick movie (cause you know, my husband doesn't really like chick flicks...).

Photo credits: Dominic

Friday, October 2, 2009

DO NOT remove Ganesh

Although I'm finding less and less time to write here, the other today I thought of writing something on this rather disturbing news: apparently, a group of 'concerned Christians' wants a statue of the Hindu god Ganesh removed from the Calgary zoo on grounds that the 'good Christians' are finding it offensive.

As a non-concerned - and obviously not a very good - Christian, I'd like the statue to stay where it is. I can only hope the 'good Christians' are not as successful as they have been in getting an Oppenheim sculpture removed from Vancouver. The historical entitlement that such Christian groups have felt in deciding just what should count as art has been a powerful barrier to both aesthetic diversity and critical thinking. But that was during medieval times, the so-called 'dark ages', where darkness came - at least in part - from religious prohibitions to creativity and knowledge.

But when you see the trace of such controlling attempts today, you cannot help but wonder: who on earth are these people, these 'concerned Christians'? I bet you they look exactly like our next door neighbors: you have no idea what boils underneath their kind appearance... But how do they get so intolerant? What twisted interpretation of Christian doctrine makes them unable to move out of the dark ages? And, most importantly, what is it that they do for a living, since they seem to have a lot of free time on their hands to take up - pardon my French - rather stupid religious crusades...

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Reproduction, sex, pleasure: defining a woman

I once saw a birth depicted in a movie. As a child, the lengthy and painful process made a powerful impact on me: I could never understand why anyone in their right mind would subject themselves to this willingly. That memory stayed with me throughout my adolescence: if there was one thing to be avoided, that was pregnancy. There was always abortion, but that in itself was yet another invasive procedure at the time (plus the social stigma associated with it). Not to mention the whole anguish associated with a mere visit to a gynecologist: I always wondered why nobody would come up with less invasive methods for a checkup. I had a hard time believing that, with all the other non-invasive methods of investigation and even surgery, women's reproductive apparatus could only be properly tended to through invasive methods.

In time, I came to realize that I may be part of the problem too: why did I take it as invasive? What was the root of my horror, disgust and fear with gynecological checkups, pregnancy, abortion? Beyond the sheer fear of pain, a disempowering vision of women's sexuality was lurking behind my understanding of 'being a woman'. After all, it's still called the 'reproductive apparatus' - why not the sexual apparatus? Or the pleasure apparatus? And then again, maybe calling it a 'reproductive apparatus' focuses the medical profession only on its 'reproductive' function, stripping it of any other possible understandings.

What's wrong with reproduction, you'd wonder. Isn't it the most wonderful thing on earth, the possibility to bring someting into being? But 'wonderful' is not exactly the word I'd use: it's part of the cycle of life, I do agree with that. But it's as common as breathing: look around, everything gets to reproduce, then die. There's no transcendental mystery to it. It's intriguing how it happens, but it does happen a lot, on a daily basis, and no other species gets to fuss about it so much as humans do.

And then, maybe that's precisely the problem: that all other living creatures are doing it, but then nobody gets to tell them if they 'should' and how it 'must be done'. Nobody gets to define them as the 'reproductive pool' of the species (well, nobody except humans research them, of course).

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Better not read history anymore...

I hope I learned my lesson: never again buy pop-history books. I am sure there are plenty of interesting ones out there, but my last attempt has been - yet again - a complete failure. I am sure it's all my fault: I can no longer behave like a good reader, taking in what the author is giving me. I've increasingly become dissentious and recalcitrant. I pick on every single word and I'm not letting it go.

On the bright side of things, my little encounter with the heavy and colorful tome entitled "Modern History. From the European Age to the new Global Era" (J. M. Roberts) did remind me how important it is we keep on challenging both nationalism and Europeanism. You see, every now and then, immersed in the hundreds of academic books I have to read, I get bored and I loose perspective: who cares about this s...t anyway, I ask myself. Who gives a damn about nationalism or about colonialism or about technological determinism? We're living exciting times, Michael Jackson is dead, global warming has screwed up the weather this year, and the new Harry Potter is out.

But the heavy and colorful tome about "Modern History" gave me back my so-much-needed perspective. Exciting times, indeed, but the way we understand them cannot be divorced from the ways we understand our past. An understanding that means forgetting that today's meaning of words is not the same as 100 years ago. An understanding that also means erasing people, ideas, values from the past, giving us a purified, santized version of a history meant to make us feel proud to be who we are.

Proud, and ignorant. In any case, I got stuck on the very first page - page 11 (of a total of 912 pages), when the author wrote about our age as the age of "truly world history... dominated by the astonishing success of one civilization among many, that of Europe". I crossed out "success" and replaced it with "imposition" and "oppression". All of a sudden, Europe didn't look that astonishing - or that saintly - anymore.

A couple of pages down the road, and my worst fear became true: this history I'm trying to read is a history of 'nations', understood as a priori groups of people, existing from immemorial times. Well, at least since the times of the Roman empire, when we learn that the "Italian under imperial Rome" had the same chances of surviving as an Indian peasant in the 1950s. An Italian under imperial Rome... this must be honey to the ears of nationalists in Italy, it only proves what they have always tried to tell us: that the Roman empire is really an Italian empire. After all, each and every true nationalist dreams about showing the rest of the world that hir nation was once an empire, a true, magnificent, powerful empire. Of course, this mere detail should be enough of a proof for a variety of claims, but we won't bother with this here.

The point is that in spite of giving us bits of uncontextualized and unconnected information - that peasants in medieval France didn't really consider themselves French, and that they were in fact extremely diverse populations - the book shamelessly continues to talk about the French, the English, the Germans.

Oh, how I miss the boring, dull and abstract discussion of modernity as a complex interplay between various economic, political and social processes (Stuart Hall and Bran Gieben, 1992, Formations of Modernity). But granted, it is easier to say that history of modernity is a history of nations than to give readers the blah-blah talk about how modernity should be conceptualized as processes, out of which the creation of nations was an important social engineering practice, equally engaging political will, economic processes, education systems and most importantly, the development of a particular symbolic universe out of which "the construction of a sense of belonging which draws people together into an 'imagined community' and the construction of symbolic boundaries which define who does not belong or is excluded from it" (Hall & Gieben, 1992, p. 6) emerged.

Hey, who got the last paragraph, raise your hand!

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Gendered Care of the Self

Foucault's discussion of the 'care of the self' has followed the same interesting path from a concern with how we are shaped and constrained by power to how we create our own spaces within the web of power. In his own words, from being 'acted upon' to becoming 'works of arts' of our own making... It's an interesting shift, which seems to me closely related to the whole post-modernist hype emphasizing our own power to act upon our identities, resisting prescribed values and recipes.

What I find really interesting however is the overlap between this scholastic attention to individual power and the neoliberal discourse presenting the individual as all powerful, able to do things and to make things only by virtue of being determined and committed. Think of all those Hollywood movies where the main character succeeds because of her/his determination.

The care of the self, the duty to take care of and to form yourself into a worthy individual becomes an act of will, of determination and of commitment. But it is so rare that we stop and reflect on exactly what are the ideals that we aim for, what are the values informing them, who gets to profit out of those values, and what are the sanctions applied to those who refuse or, for that matter are unable to conform to them.

Someone very close to me has this very nasty habit of reminding me of how I fail to take care of myself. I'm more and more reluctant to use nail polish or hair dye, mostly for health reasons. But in a world of appearances, my refusal to use certain products and do certain things to my body is seen as a failure to take care of myself. I'm no longer properly groomed, as if my colorless nails are not enough. Truth be told, you seldom have any reasons to reflect on the constraining tyranny of 'looking good' when you conform. The act of conforming isn't even perceived as such: you find those shinny, long, red nails so very attractive. As a child, you're fascinated by them; but as a teenager, you learn their sexual power. A power you may start craving for. And you conform. And your nail polish becomes your most pretious ally, helping you climb the social ladder. So what's the big deal?

Try giving it up. Try persuading yourself that your natural nails are just as sexy as your red ones. Try persuading the your partner of that. Just as you have come to terms with it, try facing the your close friends and family. Then, maybe, you'll recognize how powerless we are in the face of the mainstream recipes for taking care of yourself. Moments like this one remind me that Foucault's idea of the care of the self as an empowering act of creation needs more meat to make sense.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Beauty's in the Eyebrow

Beauty is no longer in the eye of the beholder, but in the shape of your eyebrow... But who decides what shape is to be beautiful? And even more, how do we know what shape is beautiful for women and what shape works for men?

- "My doctor", the cosmetician says, "has really really wild eyebrows. No really, like her eyebrows are twisted, so she needs to use gel on them".
- "Really?"
- "Yes. What about your eyebrows", she says, "they are so thin..."
- "Well, that's how they have always grown. " I feel the panic taking control over me... I always thought my eyebrows were perfect. After all, as the story goes, when I was born, the doctor told my mother 'This baby's gonna be an actress, she has perfect eyebrows. Thin and arched as if they were drawn by an artist'
- "Oh, I thought you plucked them," the cosmetician says trying to mend my broken heart.

But the damage is all done. How will I ever look at my eyebrows again without the fear that their thinness does not mean perfection, but in fact, a lack of it?

- "Yeah, my doctor's eyebrows are really twisted," she jumps back to her previous thought. "She inherited them from her dad. But they are not nice for a woman".

So, not too thin, but not too man-like either - and especially not twisted... What to do, what to do? And what makes some eyebrow shapes more manly? I remember reading somewhere an article about Brooke Shields' eyebrows and how she, against all odds, made thick eyebrows beautiful. Against all odds, since Barbie's eyebrows are thin and precise...

Photo credits: dreamglow

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Why is he back to Canada after being away for 34 years?

"Why is Michael Ignatieff back to Canada after being away for 34 years?"

The new conservative ad attacks the leader of the Liberals in Canada on the basis of his alleged unpatriotism: he has been away from Canada for 34 years! This means, he doesn't care about and he doesn't know 'Canada' anymore. He's a selfish traveler who has returned for opportunistic reasons, and not because he's a patriot.

In the context of Canada, a country where the official rhetoric is one of multiculturalism and welcoming of immigrants, being away from one's country shouldn't be much of a stigma, right?

Wrong, because the reliance on this trope equating 'being away from the nation-state' to 'not being a patriot' betrays more than the imagined worldviews of conservative constituencies. It betrays a pervasive nationalist trope that permeates, in spite of the official policy of multiculturalism, the particular understanding of what Canada is: a nation-state.

In a recent article about cosmopolitanism in Australia, Calcutt et al. argue:
The cosmopolitan willingness to accommodate otherness is perceived as a betrayal of Australian culture, yet continuing high levels of immigration from diverse sources demand cosmopolitan tolerance [...] It is argued that, from the cosmopolitan perspective, Australian cultural integrity remains the intact and dominant host of smaller, harmless or manageable cultural fragments.

Similarly, the various official discourses about multiculturalism, about respect for diversity and rejection of racism and xenophobia co-exist quite nicely with nationalism: the idea that there is a Canadian nation, characterized by noble values (hey, tolerance, diversity, multiculturalism, social welfare - beat this if you can!), to which the Canadian state belongs. Thus, being a Canadian and feeling proud of it becomes constructed as a positive thing, closing down the intellectual space in which the idea of 'Canadianness' and of a 'nation' can be critically engaged with and deconstructed in terms of both their homogenization (we're all defined by the same metaphysical Canadian essence) and in terms of their problematic ethics (we vs. them ethics).

It is in moments like the Tory ad that these problematic ethics of nationalism emerge: exactly what is wrong with living in several countries? Why is this even raised as an issue which will - allegedly - make people distrust, dislike and ultimately reject the person who has lived 'abroad'?

Calcutt, Woodward, Skrbis (2009) "Conceptualizing Otherness," Journal of Sociology 45(2), 169-186

Thursday, April 23, 2009

On Chick Lit, the Feminizing of Stupidity and Gendered Language

Most of the times, English is a gender-neutral language. Yes, it's true you can say 'chairman' or 'chairwoman', thus betraying your gendered-vision of the job market. But for most of the times, one cannot guess if the noun is feminine, masculine or neutral. Take French for instance: la femme ignorante/ l'homme ignorant. The epithet (adjective) changes with the gender of the noun - and in French, like in other Romance languages, the noun is always gendered.

So, when a man wrote the other day in one of these Romance languages: "I'm new here and I do not know the details of this problem, but I'm asking like a 'stupid' one", he used the feminine for the word stupid, and put it in between inverted commas, to emphasize the fact that it should be read in a connotative manner.

But what is the connotation here? That to ask stupid questions is always a female way of dealing with things? Most probably, yes...

The other day, someone else wrote to say he's reading "chick lit!" I was intrigued... what exactly makes literature 'chick'? Could it be because it is about poultry? Probably not... As I was pondering the 'depth of this comment' (*sarcastic tone*), I took out the newspapers and happened to come across an article about the 'feminization of the school curriculum', where 'poor boys' (*sarcasm, again*) are being forced to read those annoying Jane Austin books... Consequently, due to this 'outrageous discrimination' (*sarcasm, again), the boys' grades were going down the drain, so the professor replaced the 'chick lit' with books where the boys can read - in a manly fashion! - about the adventures of a young boy. Go, boys, go!

I wonder if people ever ponder the mangitude of such words, deeds and feelings. If they ever stop to ask themselves: why am I labeling this 'chick lit' or why is stupidity always bound to be a 'female' attribute?

Here's my biased two cents: in most cases, I suspect telling people that using such a language is derogatory, betraying a sexist and patriarchal vision of the world, will only bring a smile and maybe a polite acknowledgment: "Oh, but I didn't mean it in that way". Maybe you didn't, but then again, you did mean exactly in this way and maye not because you 'intended' it, but because that's the only language you're comfortable with, and you don't give it a second thought.
But you should.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Democracy and Ageism

The students are discontented with the election result. Most of the people who voted for communism are old people, but old people are dying and there are more young people voting now than before. So the result is definitely not true. It's not logical.

The story behind this comment can be found here. In a nutshell, the comment was made by a student in the Eastern European country of Moldova, where there is growing discontent among the youth against the results of elections. Sympathetic or not to the protesters, it is quite interesting to take a closer look at this argument:

  • Democracy: Exactly what is a democracy? Who should have a right to vote, and what happens in cases when there's a tie? The comment above is interesting in undermining the idea of democracy as the rule of the 'many' - when 'many' is no longer one group, but several, what constructs the difference between the voting groups and what legitimizes the rule of one over the others?

  • Ageism: just because a voter is older, so s/he may die soon, does this make hir less legitimate to vote? It is interesting how this comment frames the democratic argument within a discriminative discourse against age: those voters who voted for this party are old enough to die soon, but the country belongs to young people, and they would have voted for someone else. I am doubtful that indeed young people have (or would) all voted for one party. But it is interesting how age difference is framed here as an impediment to the realization of the democratic dream.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Gender and Blogging

The Gender and Technology blog with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society has posted an interesting note on Arab female bloggers:

And while there are certainly well-known female bloggers discussing issues unique to women, many female bloggers in the Arab world face a unique challenge: to speak out about women’s issues often means going against the grain of family and society.
Still, for those who do, blogging is a potentially liberating experience.

Yet, in spite of this, the post proposes that many Arab female bloggers are getting out of the bloggosphere, mainly because blogging is constructed as a 'masculine' (made me wonder what exactly is meant here by 'masculine' - is it a male practice, like in saying 'men are interested in politics'; or is it a practice shaped by particular values associated with masculinity, like in saying 'men are rational'?). A Libyan blogger adds a new layer of explanation: women who blogged were probably reprimanded by family and friends for doing this, so they either opted out of the bloggosphere or restricted their blogs 'by invitation only'.

There's one argument I often hear: that the bloggosphere - or the internet for that matter - is a safe space. As if the 'safety' is a feature of the space. But it is not. What makes a place safe is not its physical characteristics, but the people and social structures inhabiting it.

First, a blogger is never fully safe - the precise location of your averagely tech-skilled blogger is easy to pinpoint. Furthermore, should the blogger subscribe to the many various services that aggregate your digital traces, the blogger's identity may be inadvertently disclosed. Say you have a Facebook account to keep up with your friends. You list your blog there, thinking it's only them who have access to it. But you forgot to set your privacy settings - and a simple search by either name or blog may bring that info up. There are also things you cannot control: say a friend adds you to her blogroll, but instead of using your blog's name, she uses your real name.

But there's yet another way in which the blog is never fully safe: it has to do with the emotional involvement in building your digital life. In many cases, the comments people post may be supportive, pleasant and educational. Yet, in many other cases - and particularly in the case of posts about gender relations - the comments are stereotyped, destructive and even hateful. If you think you're safe from such comments just because nobody knows who you are, that they won't mean anything just because you're blogging from the comfort of your couch or bedroom, you've probably never blogged. The emotional toll such comments may take on you is almost never discussed by researchers. Maybe because it's deemed as a 'feminine' trait?

I think many of our biases in approaching blogging stem from the fact that we get blindsided by its so-called 'empowering potential'. We forget to ask ourselves exactly whom we want (or think of being) empowered and what are we missing because of this assumption. We also tend to think that blogs will collectively contribute to the advance of democratic, liberal and tolerant values. Again, we forget to question the assumption that if people have the means to express themselves, they will participate in the rational public sphere and reveal themselves as critical thinkers. This assumption is closely connected to that of 'understanding via information': let there be information, which will allegedly reveal the 'truth', and there will be mutual understanding, acceptance and ultimately a redress of oppression. Such assumptions are in great need of more deconstruction, particularly in the social construction of new communication technologies.

Photo credits: bohPhoto

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Those hairy feminists...

It seems that everything I'm getting angry about these days relates to gender issues.

The other day for instance, I got mad over a disgusting article in a newspaper in Eastern Europe talking about how feminists are stupid, have a mustache and grow chest hair?!? Do I need to say that the article in question was (allegedly) written by a woman?

Not that I buy into the 'sisterhood' thing, but I find it extremely dangerous that in a country where gender equality was an official state policy, things can change so dramatically against women once equality is no longer publicly heralded (there still are equality of opportunity policies, but nobody - politicians included - truly support it publicly). What does this say about the real mental pictures people hold about 'women'? What does this say about the real shared understandings of what a woman is and where she belongs?

If decades of equality didn't do much to actually change collective gender stereotypes and patriarchal worldviews, exactly what will? (OK, I'm exaggerating a bit: it was a public equality, but not necessarily equality in the private sphere, in the everyday life of households).

But hey, not everything bad happens outside the 'civilized' world (note sarcasm here). As a woman has been killed while jogging in BC, the RCMP representative commented something along these lines: "women have to ensure their safety when they go out jogging in a park"?!?! Excuse me?!?! Again, women have to do something to protect themselves: how about, for a change, society collectively makes an effort to de-legitimize violence against perceived members of a group - be they women, gay, immigrants and so on. How about we live in a society that takes collective responsibility for such gender-motivated (and for that matter, ethnic and race motivated) hate and violence, and ensures that punishment is adequate and that social discussion in the public sphere takes place?

I just finished reading a review of the new movie Polythechique, recreating the massacre of women in Montreal's higher education institution way back in 1989 (incidentally, the same year when communism fell in Eastern Europe, putting an end to the official communist policy of gender equality). I don't think there's anything that can be said here, but then maybe something should be said: what is it that makes some individuals hate the fact that other individuals are to be treated as equals? That they have rights, and that they have the right to say 'no'?

You'd think that after so many years of discussion on gender equality, there will be less and less individuals prone to thinking that men and women are two separate biological entities, defined by their reproductive system and therefore pre-ordained to a given social hierarchy. But I'm looking around and many male friends cannot cope with the reality of an equal female partner. Rationally, they think they're all for equality. But the truth is that they cannot deal with equality. Emotionally, they are not ready for it. They are not ready to be told "no, I'm not gonna sacrifice my life to have a child now" or "no, I'm too busy working, and too tired in the end of the day, so I'm not gonna cook, wash or iron". They are not ready to be told "you have no right to tell me what to do, and if you continue imposing your views on me, I'll dump you".

That's the society we live in: an official policy can accomplish only that much in affecting the everyday life of people. And the irony of it all is that sometimes it's the mothers raising up the boy as the king of the family - and, guaranteed, that boy is gonna grow up emotionally unable to cope with gender equality.

It seems all I do is rant about gender lately. How can I not? I opened the newspaper today, and like everyday in the past week, there's an item there about Michelle Obama's sense of fashion. This one got on my nerves: a cartoon (click here to see it, I'm not sure I can reproduce it here because of damn copyright concerns...) summarizing the collective imaginary of the relation between men and women. I know that a cartoon intends to mock by exaggerating traits - and I think this one does a very good job of showing us what we actually think: clothes are for women, brains are for men... I beg to differ!

Photo credits: nyki_m

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

You've (Not) Got the Looks!

Two business men are sitting at the bar, checking two women. One man says to the other: "Women after 30... they look like the lights went down on them". The other replies: "What do you mean?". "Women are glowing before they reach 30, they loose the glow after that", and he smiles nodding at one of the women.

The scene is from Mad Men, the popular TV series about advertising world in 1960s New York. It's set in the 1960s, but it could well be set in the 2000s. After all, that's when a female friend of mine was interviewing for an advertising position but she didn't get it because... well, let's put it this way, she wasn't a Barbie doll. Of course, nobody in the top management would ever admit to that, but they whispered off-the-record that she doesn't have what it takes - the looks.

But I'm not at all surprised, really! You see, I went to school with some of the men now in advertising. I remember a conversation we had - a conversation which only mirrored avant la lettre the world of Mad Men. We were talking about women, and my male colleagues were quick to make the distinction between women you marry and women that are best to be your lovers (in other words, women you cheat your wife with). Just like Don Draper, who kept a lovely wife at home (here's his mistake, according to my colleagues, she was just too beautiful) and a lovely yet fiercely independent lover, my colleagues argued that you marry the not-too-beautiful woman who worships you and waits for you at home with the hot soup on the table. The other ones - whether you are attracted to beauty or wits or both - are best kept outside the home.

Why is that, we asked? It's because you don't want to worry too much about what is at home. You want to come home and be taken care of. If you want the thrill, the fight, that's what lovers are for.

You think this is the past? Think again! This is very much today. And this is going to be the future as well. There will always be lazy and insecure people who want the quick way out. It's always easier to buy into stereotypes and live accordingly. And, truth be told, the society in which we live favors your looks, your appearance, your compliance to mainstream standards of beauty. Yes, there's way more room for contestation - but there's a difference between being tolerated and being seen as part of the 'normal' definition of everyday life.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Home, Sweet Home

I must have been a Roman in a past life, cause for me, ubi bene ibi patria. Which of course makes me less suited for living in the modern world. For once, I always get annoyed when people assume that 'my place' or 'my home' has to be my place of birth.

Yes, I confess to the huge sin of moving out of my birthplace city and not missing it a bit. And why should I? The world is so big, filled with so many wonders, I couldn't resist it... I know that many people who leave their birthplace cannot escape it: they long for it constantly, romanticizing their life there and missing the trees, the birds, the air, the water - pretty much everything. Or, better said, their memory of this 'everything': the memory of a place that no longer exists, but only in their imagination.

The other day, a friend said "come back home". But I am home. Maybe I'm like a snail: I carry my home with me. Why do homes have to be rooted in a place? For David Morley (2000), the boundary constructing what is 'home' and what is 'elsewhere' is a shifting terrain, particularly in the context of global mobility and information flow. 'Home' came to be associated with a stable place, a stability derived not only from your position in the family structure, but also from the sharing of similar norms. At home, one simply knows. One doesn't have to 'learn' - it is easy to take things for granted, not to challenge the given 'order of things', to paraphrase Foucault's famous book. In my own experience of moving, I found out that the hardest thing to do is to remain open to change: to be willing to learn, to be willing to challenge yourself. One learns street names and meeting points quite quickly; but one has a very hard time getting used to the smells, the tastes and the rules of interaction.

Of course, no discourse loves 'homes' more than nationalism, linking 'nation', 'state' and 'home' in one unitary and powerful symbol, eliciting loyalty and uncritical adoration. The nation is not only a home and a family - it is a magnificent one. It is exceptional, which of course makes your own little pathetic life look more important than it is. In fact, nationalism is an ideology of 'geographical monogamy': you can only have one home in one national place. The promiscuous one is the one living in many places (Agnes Heller quoted in Morley, 2000, p. 41); s/he who has a home everywhere is not credible. How can s/he be loyal if s/he belongs to more than one family?

Yet, there was always someone who has inhabited that promiscuity, who has moved from one home to another. At least in patriarchal societies, that someone was the woman: born into a family, married into another, and sometimes creating a new family altogether. Medieval aristocracy knew this too well: the value of a woman was not only in her dowery, but in the bridges she could create across families. Anthropologists noted this pretty early in the study of non-Western, patriarchal societies: the woman is inahbiting that liminal space, being an "Other" to the family as well as a "Mother" of it. She's perpetuating the family, yet she's also merely a tool for this; it is not her lineage that counts, but that of the man. Like Dalilah, the woman brought into the family remains an "Other", a (needed) intruder who cannot be trusted because her home lies elsewhere.

Photo credits: suika*2009(ins&outs)
References: Morley, D. (2000) Home Territories: Media, Mobility and Identity. London and New York: Routledge.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

When a Woman Marries a Rich Guy...

A long, long time ago, when newspapers and TV shows were closed off to the comments of the public, we decried their lack of transparency and openness. Now, most online newspapers and television shows allow us, the mighty public, to critically engage with them. In theory, this is a process of democratizing the media, of coming closer to what Jurgen Habermas thought a free public sphere - where people engage each other in a critical, rational manner to discuss political decision-making - should be like.

But, up to now, the main thing I get from reading the comments posted on various news items is a feeling of narrow-mindedness. One may say this is because the access to the public sphere is not free, as Habermas requested. Not everyone participates; and not everyone participates in a critical manner (which I think is Habermas' main fault: assuming the human being is a rational being).

In most of the cases, those news items gathering hundreds and thousands of comments are those touching upon ideological issues: patriotism, women's role in society, politics and politicians, religious beliefs.
Today's perusal of online news was no different. The story harvesting most of the public's comments (being surpassed only by a couple of political news) is the one of a woman's conflict with her husband.

Behind the story is the question of a woman's social behavior vis-a-vis men and other women. And because the woman married a rich man, the story is also about class relations, intertwined with gender issues.
To summarize, this woman is a well-known pop culture star, an icon of beauty and a role-model for 'women who make it'. But the story is about her marriage to a rich man, with whom she lives for 10 years and has a child. The marriage breaks up, and the ensuing divorce is being carried out in the open: she alleges he wants to destroy her and that he has the means to do it.

No divorce is an easy story - and nowhere is truth harder to find than in such a context. Assigning blame is always complicated: what do we impute each person? Based on what values do we label their interactions as 'wrong', 'faulty' or 'immoral'? How do we think about marriage, what does it mean for us and why? All of these questions are means to probe into the underlying worldviews behind our evaluation of the situation.

Reading the comments people left on this beautiful-woman-divorcing-rich-man story is a saga in itself - and requires a tremendous deconstructive effort to understand just what prescriptions of gender roles transpire out of them. I have a few quick favorites to share:

- the theme of retribution rooted in a class antagonism: she got what she deserved for marrying a rich guy, cause we all know those rich guys are all jerks. She should've known better, but she wanted to enjoy his richness, now she has to pay. He might be a jerk, but hey, that's what rich people are!

- the theme of religious kindness: a loner in the comments section, the religious devout cries out for forgivness and kindness. Yes, she made a mistake, but hey, we're all human, so we should help her out. We should not envy her material well-being and hate her for indulging in it, but we should forgive this to her because all human beings err.

- the theme of retribution rooted in a frustrated feminism: it's all her fault, because she didn't want to make it on her own in life. She relied on a rich man even if she knew being what being a trophy wife implies (namely, her degradation as a woman), so ultimately she gets what she deserves.

- the theme of the oppressed male: she probably married him for his money, because that's why beautiful women marry rich guys. But, with all this gender equality stuff, she's gonna take all his money in court, and the poor guy - a jerk, yeah, but still a guy - will pay the price of being rich and married.

- the theme of retribution rooted in the patriarchal thinking: she is to be blamed, because she married a younger man and because she is really a whore who married for money, not like a real woman who works hard by her man's side to sustain the family. She should protect the child, and not create a public scandal out of the divorce. Let her give up her fancy cars and pay for her child's upbringing instead.

Photo credits: Kevin Dooley

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Women and Doctoral Degrees

As a child, I used to ask my tutor: "Why is it that there are only men composers and writers, but no women?" My tutor was a single woman herself, so she always told me: "It's because women put their families and husbands above their own interests and dreams". For someone who came into being in a place and at a time where women were - at least rhetorically - proclaimed as equal, the depth of this answer was hard to grasp. It was only when I've started my own phd that I came to understand it. It was not only that women were sacrificing themselves for their husband's career, but that women were programmed to feel unfit, failed and potentially replaceable if the household space was not properly taken care of. And, let me tell you: if a phd does anything to you, then it blinds you to the material conditions in which you leave.

My friends have told me: I've never lived in such a messy place before going to grad studies. Or, my favorite: I've never cleaned and baked as much as when writing my thesis. The two might seem mutually exclusive to you, but believe me - they aren't! When you do your graduate studies, your entire life consists of reading, writing and thinking. And these are not activities to be taken lightly: you cannot read for 10 minutes and wash dishes for the next 10. You wake up, and you start the reading-writing-thinking process - before you know it, it's time to go to bed. At the same time, if you are a woman, what better way of procrastinating than fixing the mess - the mess that tortures you, that infiltrates upon you and demands to be considered as a mess - in the household? Hence, the vacuum cleaner comes out, the oven is heated and the little housewife in the female graduate student gets her patriarchal fix: as she contemplates the cleaned house and the proper meal, she feels better. She forgets this was a wasted day when it comes to what her purpose is here: to do her graduate studies.

And it's not only the household, it's her appearance too: "My supervisor prohibited me from doing my nails before I finish writing". The woman inside the graduate student catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror and suddenly feels deeply, irremediably depressed: she could use a facial, a haircut, a new dress...Hey, she could use a fitter body, since the reading-writing-thinking process has transformed her female body into something else, something no longer appealing to the patriarchal gaze. She needs to get rid of that ponytail, of the black bags underneath her eyes, of that sloppy pijamas she's wearing. The thesis calls upon her: no time to waste! But the shared social wisdom warns her of the losses she'll incur if she listens to her thesis calling: the loss of her beauty, the only mask that defines her in the social sphere. It's not the thesis and the wisdom that get one's attention, but the looks. Just like her household, her facade is in danger. And she's caught between the two, unhappy, depressed and unable to move on.

Yeah, I'm ranting. It's true that in the last three decades, the percentage of women getting a doctoral degree has increased considerably. There seems to be a parity between men and women when it comes to doctoral degrees. But the parity, I'd argue, is misleading: its toll on women is higher than its toll on men. And the parity is recent: in 1980, in one of the leading gender equality countries - Norway - there were only 19 women awarded a phd as compared to 168 men. Today, there are 560 women doctors as compared to 684 men. In the US, things look pretty similar: in 1990/1, women's doctoral degrees account for 37% of the total degrees awarded, but the percentage grew to 54% in 2005/6. I'd love to know how these numbers correlate with divorce, single moms, and single women, but I cannot do more research now cause my house is a mess and really, I have to do something about it...

Photo credits: spoon

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

How the media framed my world today...

“The whole world is passed through the filter of the culture industry". Thus spoke Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer way back in 1944.

And this is how one particular newspaper framed my world today:

- First, it told me that even if there's proof for being guilty, you can escape by blaming the system. After an inquiry report found that cancer tests in one province in Canada were ridden with failures at all levels, the provincial health minister declared that this is not a reason to point fingers, because there's little value in looking for culprits. Ah, thank God, I really feel relieved knowing responsibility is sooo outdated!

- But it's not as easy as it seems, as the system cannot be blamed under all circumstances. So, you'd better learn the exceptions to the rule: when it comes to 'normal' people under 'normal circumstances', the system can be comfortably blamed for any problems. But then there are those who are 'abnormal' - the mentally ill. In such cases, it's no longer the system, but the individual who's responsible, and needs to be removed from the body of society. This other story sharing the front page with the previous one, details the first day of trial for a gruelsome crime in which one person was beheaded for no apparent reason by another person, who - as it turned out - was schizophrenic. That it was a tragedy, there's no doubt about it. And let me be honest here, I'm talking from the distant position of the one not directly affected by the event. It is from this position that I'm pointing out at how we scapegoat and assign blame without looking for... well, the system!

- Last, but not least, the front-page of the newspaper also taught me that once an immigrant, always an immigrant. And once you have an accent, you'll always be identified first and foremost through it - hey, it just adds a bit of color to the picture. After all, who wants to read that the accused simply answered "Not guilty"? It is: " 'not guilty' with a trace of Chinese accent" that always catches our eye making our representation of the situation sooo much accurate...

Hey, now that I think about it, I learned a lot about the world today!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Bella: A beautiful movie with a strong message

I found this movie interesting, moving and different in so many ways. As I was browsing the movie's website, I came across this small quote which I think sums up the experience of the movie in a powerful way. Mind you, this is not a movie about inter-ethnic relations - but a movie about love, responsibility and life:

Several years ago, he (singer and actor Eduardo Verástegui) abandoned his career track determined to make films that do not exploit media stereotypes of Latino men as gangbangers, bandidos and Latin lovers. “My goal is to elevate and heal and respect the dignity of Latinos in the media,” the Antonio Banderas look-alike said in a recent phone interview. (from LA Times, December 4, 2007)

Monday, March 2, 2009

Multicultural and multinational groups

In a recent article, Caron and Laforest (2009) argue that in spite of multiculturalism being more and more on the public agenda, Stephen Harper's understanding of multicultural Canada seems to be molded on the monistic nation-state ideal. The authors introduce the distinction between multicultural and multinational states, where multicultural refers to acknowledging various (ethnic) cultures within the same state, while multinational refers to acknolwedging various national cultures within the same state. So what's the difference between ethnic groups and nations? Following Will Kymlicka's discussion, national cultures are:

associated with substate/minority nationalisms, that is "a regionally concentrated group that conceives of itself as a nation within a larger state (like Scotland in Great Britain or Catalonia in Spain) and mobilizes behind nationalist political parties to achieve recognition of its nationhood, either in the form of an indepdent state or through territorial autonomy within the larger state"." (p. 28).

What interests me in this discussion, as always, is how the nation is being defined, who defines it and on whose behalf.

1. How the nation is being defined: First, I always had this huge problem with the idea of a 'regionally concentrated group' - Exactly what does that mean? To take Quebec only, the population in this region includes various ethnic groups. How are we to think of these people, as eternally an 'Other' to the 'proper' inhabitants of the region? Or maybe it's just my vision: maybe the Quebec nation is not one premised on ethnic differences, but on something else - but then what legitimizes this claim for being a 'group'? What are those features that make people a group/ a nation, in this case? What are the reasons/ values/ features for drawing the line of inclusion in/ exclusion from the 'nation'?

2. Who defines the nation/ group? Is it academics? Is it politicians? Based on what do they draw the boundaries of inclusion/ exclusion? I find it interesting that it is this macro talk, this big-picture-big-labels type of discourse that effectively erases those who do not mobilize behind the national agenda, those who (although members of the ethnic group) might not necessarily care too much or bother with such things or- why not - oppose the whole nationalist apparatus. All of this diversity of opinions, of views disappears - we no longer see it. We see the 'group' mobilizing for 'national' recognition.

3. On whose behalf? I think the inclusion/ exclusion mechanism works to create the subjects of this nation: if you are not part of the 'nation', then you are probably not interpellated by it - and therefore you are not part of it. It is a very circular process within which we are being forced to recognize ourselves - to think of ourselves- as members of the group, and thus we feel compelled by its political agendas.

* * *

That people and leaders may find a powerful ally in nationalism to legitimize their claims, requests or simply their recognition is quite obvious. Yet, just because something is empowering, it doesn't mean that it is morally unproblematic. Or that it derives from some intrinsic features of the group (as opposed, say, to being constructed by political and economic interests). I'm finding I have the same resistance to the ideology of 'race' and 'gender': the more one strives for the recognition of her legitimacy on the basis of one's difference, the more one exposes herself to being objectified by that difference. And this increases the gap between 'Us' and "Them", between our ethics/ morality and theirs, between our interests/ values/ cultures and theirs.

I wonder how you, reader, see this?

Caron, J.F., Laforest, G. (2009) "Canada and Multinational Federalism: From the Spirit of 1982 to Stephen Harper's Open Federalism," Nationalism and Ethnic Politics 15(1): 27-55

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ageism, Nudity and Sexuality

The story goes like this: somewhere in this world, a 65 old woman declares on tv her wish to be a porn star. Everybody laughs at her, including people her age. There's just something 'unnatural' about a 65 old wanting to show her naked body to everyone, and even more troubling, while engaged in sexual intercourse. It's hilarious and yet sad, I'm being told, that such things make it on the public agenda.

But why is it so? What makes us see this woman's quest as illegitimate? What sends those shivers of disgust throughout our young bodies? Is it the fact that she's 65 and her body looks, well, old? Is it the fact that beauty means firm, cellulite-less and wrinkle-less? Is it the fact that at her age, women should be decent grandmas, where decency means 'no sexual allusions whatsoever'?

I was told I'm twisting everything. Do you think it's natural to see an old woman making sex on tv, I was asked. I'm puzzled as to why I shouldn't see it as 'natural'. I'm not a big fan of sex on tv or of any type of porn whatsoever. In fact, I'm quite against it. But this does not mean I cannot question the underlying assumptions and worldviews that make us mock the woman in this story. A while ago, the Globe and Mail ran a series of articles about elders and their life, including their sexual life. The articles did raise the issue of society's expectations and norms for 'proper old age behavior' - and those norms do not include either nudity or sex.

Andrews (2003), writing on the 'calendar ladies' phenomenon, argued that:

"the notion of middle-aged woman as sexless is a 20th century one; the origins of domestic, middle-class womanhood as a negation of sexuality can be traced to constructions of class in the emerging bourgeois culture (as opposed to a working-class or aristocratic culture) in the first half of the 19th century" (2003: 387)

This process consisted in creating a 'class' of 'proper women', differentiated from the 'improper ones', associated with sexuality and promiscuity. Needless to say, this bore heavy racist tones: white-decent women were the respectable mistresses of the house, of the domestic, while black-sexual women were the temptation of the flesh, of lust and of carnal sins. While many of the themes of this discourse of feminity and sexuality have been displaced, sexuality and nudity remain seen as the privilege of the young.

In her analysis, Andrews (2003) believes that the discourse of sexuality has been dislodged throughout the various public culture sites pushing the boundaries of our acceptability. While my theoretical self agrees with her macro view, my everyday life self, confronted with the story above, wonders about the long way from acceptance of (what may be perceived as) alternative art (think the calendar women, for instance) to everyday understanding and evaluation of our own subjectivities and of the others.

References: Andrews, M. (2003) "Calendar Ladies: Popular Culture, Sexuality and the Middle-Class, Middle-Aged Domestic Woman," Sexualities 6(3-4): 385-403
Photo credits
: Sukanto Debnath

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Feminism and Academic Thought Routine

In 1991, communication scholar H.M. Newcomb wrote:
Part of the problem here is that in the tradition of the humanities, in their contribution to the human sciences as opposed to the contributions of what we generally know as social sciences, one too often feels compelled to write 'as if' one's claims are stronger or larger than they actually can ever be. It would be wise for many of us to write more tentatively, but editors have a way of suggesting that those who hesitate are lost already, and unworthy of serious consideration (p. 44)

An interesting point, vastly popularized by post-modernism's insistence on the impossibility of definite knowledge or meta-theory. Yet, post-modernism itself needed to 'state' things to be heard out. It's almost as if we need to be determined, harsh and compelling if we are to be heard.

I find it almost impossible not to think of the feminist critique of reason: men state things, women apologize. Men think, women feel. Genevieve Lloyd writes:
The connotations of 'rationality' are of objectivity, abstraction, detachment (p. 165).

And if a statement is objective, detached and logical, then it has to be definite. There's on room for hesitation. And definitely no room for apologies.

In one of my early classes, my feminist professor stopped me abruptly and admonished me: "Stop apologizing", she said. "Stop being so deferential". And believe me, I'm really not a deferential person. If anything, I evaluate my colleagues through this lens: she's not there yet, I say to myself, because she's too deferential to authority.

But exactly what makes an academic authority? What makes good academic work? Back to square one: big guys state things. And, if you do not state them, you are told you should: this will show that your thought becomes valid, that you finally developed your 'own' argument. After all, a phd is all about bringing 'your original contribution' to the field. But how can you bring a contribution if you are hesitant?

Many female academics I know have often complained about the academic routine: it's all about stating things, about egos and authorities, about crucifying the arguments made by others. Never about cooperation and collaboration, always about proving wrong (hey, even constructive criticism may fall into this).

So I hesitate: I like to make statements. But I also see them as provisional. I like to point out the inconsistencies - and 'like' here comes from the fact that I have often moved forward in my thinking exactly by thinking through these inconsistencies. But I also remind myself there's no 'perfect argument' (and yes, it is painful when it comes to your own work...). I'm not sure I want an entirely apologetic academic culture, paralyzed by relativism. If anything, I think this relativism has got to Marxism and almost killed the only strand of critical thinking left in academia. But I am not sure I want an entirely proud academic culture, unable to question itself and to hesitate.

Could this be why I never seem to get published?

Lloyd, G. (2000) "Rationality" in Alison M. Jaggar and Iris Marion Young (Eds.) A Companion to Feminist Philosophy. Blackwell Publishing
Newcomb, H.M. (1991) "The Search for Media Meaning" in Communication Yearbook 14, ed. James A. Anderson. Sage Publications, pp. 40-4
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