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
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